Jesus Was a Migrant

October 10, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is a slightly  revised version of a review that appeared in the current issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the U.S.A.

 

Jesus Was a Migrant. By Deirdre Cornell Orbis Books, 2014. 144 pp. $20.  Available at http://www.orbisbooks.com/jesus-was-a- migrant.html

 Grail member Deirdre Cornell’s new book, Jesus was a Migrant, could hardly be more timely. Even as nearly seventy thousand unaccompanied minors have poured across the southern borders of this ostensibly Christian nation in the past year, too many of our fellow-citizens still oppose providing them with shelter. And in the face of this crisis, our president has allowed a mere four thousand refugee visas to be designated for these young people while failing to increase the total number of refugee visas at all.

In her very first chapter, Cornell articulates the argument that all of these Christians need to hear “Surely a God who migrated from heaven to be born to a refugee family—to be born to a people painfully and intimately versed in Exodus and exile journeys—surely this God would ask us to look for his presence among migrants. Jesus was a migrant. How can migrants not matter?”

Cornell expands this message in fifteen subsequent narratives, each of which brings the experiences of migrants into detailed and memorable focus. In Part I, we walk with the migrants of Israel, from Genesis to Exodus to Babylon and back, and then meet Cornell’s own immigrant ancestors fleeing to the U.S. during the Great Irish Hunger of the 1840s. In Part II, we celebrate with Rosa, a Central American migrant who had made her way to the U.S. at great cost only to be forced to return home a month after her quinceañera; then we bury with Deirdre the stillborn twins of Susana and Pedro even as other Christians are celebrating the birth of Jesus. In further chapters we mourn with the Latino community as they raise the money to ship the body of a young migrant back to Mexico and share the visit of Deirdre and her family to their compadres and godchildren in a trailer park in Florida. Jesus and other migrants become ever more real to us as we proceed.

In some respects, Jesus was a Migrant is a continuation of Cornell’s two previous books. She continues writing in the first person, for example, weaving her own (now twenty) years of migrant ministry into the stories of the men and women she and her husband Kenney serve. Jesus was a Migrant also continues the references to and elaboration on the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets that enriched her first book, Priceless View. Indeed, the integration of absorbing and accessible study of the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels in Cornell’s’s stories of migrant experience is one of the outstanding features of this new collection. And migration itself was already a subtext in American Madonna, Cornell’s second book, about the Virgin Mary crossing Mexican and U.S. borders.

But Jesus was a Migrant differs from these previous books in some respects. First of all, it’s a collection of shorter pieces, revisions of articles written for The Catholic Worker and other publications or given as talks. And presumably because they were created for different audiences, the articles exhibit less of the scholarly nuance that I, for one, valued in the two previous books.

Indeed, during my first reading of Jesus was a Migrant, I found it almost pious. For example, Cornell uses Marina Warner’s feminist critique of the cult of the Virgin Mary to leaven her study of Latino/a Marian devotion in American Madonna. But in Jesus was a Migrant, she draws (briefly) on the work of Ann Catherine Emmerich, a German mystic whose writing inspired Mel Gibson’s violent, antisemitic film, “The Passion of the Christ.” And while Patricia Miller begins Good Catholics, her study of the Catholic struggle over abortion rights, with a denunciation of the misogyny embedded in the doors of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cornell begins a chapter on the lives of Catholic saints who were migrants with a reflection on the body of Pierre Toussaint in the crypt beneath those doors. Indeed, in this chapter, Cornell includes the life of one of the figures on the doors Miller find so sexist, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini.

As I reread American Madonna however, I had to admit that Deirdre Cornell had warned readers of this shift well before the publication of Jesus was a Migrant. Speaking of her years working with Catholics in Mexico as a Maryknoll lay missioner that led her to a new devotion to the Mother of God, Cornell wrote, “Immersed in a community that I loved and that loved her, I began to speak less and to listen more…I learned to tread on holy ground where I had to take the proverbial sandals off my feet.”

The articles in Jesus was a Migrant are testimonies to this transformation. We all move toward holy ground in different ways. Some of us do so by critiquing the sexism sculptured on cathedral doors. Others cry out to the Mother of God to aid us when our children are deported or our partner gets cancer from pesticides. Jesus was a Migrant helps us hear that second set of voices.

 

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