Five bishops visited the southern border of the U.S. in early July to meet with U.S. government officials, members of the Catholic community, and immigrant families who are seeking refuge on American soil.
Grotto had an opportunity to talk with one of the delegates, Bishop Joseph Bambera of the Diocese of Scranton.
He spoke with us about the volunteers, especially members of our generation, who are working tirelessly on behalf of the children and families — and what we can do to support their efforts.
Sarah Yaklic, Director of Grotto Network: We’re here with Bishop Bambera of the Diocese of Scranton. We wanted to take an opportunity to talk with Bishop as he was one of several bishops who went down to the border to have a firsthand experience of life for the refugees and what the Catholic Church is doing in response to the border crisis. Thank you, Bishop, for your time.
Bishop Bambera: Thanks, Sarah. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to talk to you.
Sarah: We know that the Catholic Church, we have a duty to care for the spiritual and material needs of migrants seeking refuge. Can you tell us based on your time at the border how the church is responding to the needs of the people that are coming and seeking refuge?
Bishop Bambera: Well, I certainly think as a result of the bishops’ visit that there was a lot of attention that was brought to the fact that a representative group of bishops from the US conference went to the borders. That was recommended at our most recent plenary meeting. I certainly was very privileged and humble to be invited to join with Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop Gomez, Bishop Flores, and Bishop Brennan.
But perhaps more than our presence at the border, the impact of countless numbers of volunteers, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, really giving of their time and their energy and their love and their devotion to help these individuals is just so, so evident.
That was one of the best takeaways that I had from this trip. I mean, there were many and they were varied and they were profound. But to know that what we were heralding in our presence there as bishops and leaders of the Church in the United States — to know that there was a very, very significant grassroots response of people of all ages but particularly young people was extremely encouraging.
Sarah: We’re seeing that. We’ve seen images on social media, Sister Norma with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. We actually just shared an article on Grotto Network’s website and in the article, a border patrol agent actually was quoted saying, “The work that they are doing would be extremely difficult without the help of all the volunteers and Sister Norma.” I’m grateful that you got to see that firsthand.
Bishop Bambera: Well, I mean, you just described, in a nutshell, what we experienced. Sister Norma is an incredible woman. She would probably run away from this title, but she would be our Mother Teresa. She is just an incredible woman. I think you may have had the opportunity over the years to meet her. She works tirelessly.
From what I was told by volunteers at the respite center that she runs in conjunction with Catholic Social Services is that sometimes she is there as late as 11 o’clock at night, and sometimes she is there as early as 3 in the morning. She is phenomenal. But she would also be the first person to tell you that she can lead, but she needs the support of countless numbers of individuals who are really following after her.
You made reference about one of the border patrol agents who said without Sister Norma, their work would be extremely challenging. He or she is absolutely correct.
The individuals that I suspect you were talking to or referencing probably are the individuals who we met or at least are representative of individuals that we met at the processing center that we experienced. That’s the infamous center that we are familiar with from news footage with the chain link fence and the young people under Mylar blankets.
That’s where individuals who are just coming across the border after literally dragging themselves across with weeks in the sun, and hopping on trains, and fighting against gangs, and worrying about their well-being and their life, they come there and as unsettling as that picture is, there is a relief on the part of those individuals.
Certainly not that they want to stay there for any length of time, but suddenly they are in a cool space, an air-conditioned space, as opposed to the blistering sun and heat; they are provided food that may not be the best but they’re provided with it; they’re given medical treatment; and at least the security of knowing that they’re safe for the moment.
But they’re so overwhelmed at these centers that somebody like Sister Norma is absolutely vital to how the next step takes place.
When people leave the processing center, many of them are given the opportunity then to connect with family members or friends in this country as they await the whole juridic process that would determine their long-range status in the country.
So often, as much as there’s a great effort made at the processing centers, they’re overwhelmed.
Bishop Bambera: Somebody like Sister Norma and her volunteers, they actually pick up many times what’s dropped at the processing centers.
They will arrange for connections with refugees’ family or friends who are in the United States. They will be the ones who will secure the bus tickets or the plane tickets to get these folks to where they’re going.
They are just a welcomed, welcomed presence in their lives. It’s really a vital ministry that Sister Norma fulfills and that she does with the help of so many.
Sarah: Yeah. To me, I think of what it means to be a young Catholic in the world. This is what Jesus called us to do, to go out and to serve our brothers and sisters in need. Just to hear that this is the Church in action, despite all the darkness, despite the difficulty that there the church is alive and living out our call.
I just think it’s such a beautiful thing and a good reminder for us that we are called in all of our communities to serve others and take care of the people that are within our little communities.
Bishop Bambera: Absolutely. When we spent the afternoon at the respite center that’s run by Sister Norma, I can go down a list of individuals that I met, volunteers. One young man — I can’t remember his name; I remember his story. He had just finished his master’s degree. He is planning on the next stage of what he is going to do with his life. He took a week off to travel from the northern part of our country down to the border to work with Sister.
There were a group of young women from all over the world who were part of another organization who landed there as well to do the same thing.
It is extremely gratifying to see, as you say, the Church in action. We are well blessed.
I oftentimes will use this image: when I became Bishop eight years ago, one time at a gathering of young people said that young people are the future of the Church.
A young woman said, “Bishop, I disagreed with something you said.”
I said, “What’s that?”
She said, “You said that we’re the future.”
I said, “Well, you are.”
She said, “But to say we’re the future is to somehow imply that we’re not the Church today.”
I will never forget that. We have a very vibrant church today in the young people who are a part of it.
Sarah: Well, Bishop, one closing remark. If you could keep inspiring us as young people who really do have a desire to make our world a better place.
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, they do have a GoFundMe page where people could contribute to the development of the humanitarian respite center and really support the work of Sister Norma and all those volunteers.
But is there anything else that we could do as young people to really walk with the immigrants or do something to make this world and the darkness that we’re in maybe perhaps a little bit brighter, a little bit more hope-filled?
Bishop Bambera: Sure. When I think of that, there are always those individuals who will be willing to go the extra mile, literally, and travel to the borders to work with Sister Norma or others like her. That’s a good thing. If individuals are looking to do something like that, then go at it, and be that presence of Jesus in our world and on the peripheries, as Pope Francis says.
If you can’t do that, there’s a lot of things that we can do where we are.
First of all, we are so blessed with the presence of a new wave of immigrants in our country who are contributing to the richness and beauty of the United States, just like my grandparents did a hundred years ago.
I would encourage young people to participate in opportunities to volunteer with new immigrants who are coming into the regions where they live. There are all sorts of opportunities to do that, whether it be through agencies like Catholic Social Services or other community sponsored organizations.
Certainly, we need immigration reform. Write your members of congress. Let your voice be heard. We have the right to do that, thank God, in this country. I would encourage young people to do that.
Above all, simply recognize the richness of our world, our church, and our society with new immigrants in our midst and treat them with the respect that we all deserve as children of God. That goes a long way in making a difference in our world for good.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, thank you for talking with us, Bishop Bambera. We loved hearing your story, and we promise all the Grotto Network followers, our team here at Grotto Network, to do what we can to keeping that voice and that witness in having a deep impact on the world. Thank you so much for your time.
Bishop Bambera: Thanks. It was a real pleasure to talk to you, Sarah. God bless.
Sarah: Thank you, Bishop.