This month I would like to begin with a story. A pregnant mother walks into a clinic seeking an abortion. She is undocumented, originally from Guatemala. She receives counseling and instead of an abortion chooses to give birth to her son, Mateo. The mother moves in with Mateo’s father, finds work off and on, is a victim of domestic abuse and eventually moves out. She and Mateo couch surf and live in shelters for most of the boy’s youth.
By the time he is 16, Mateo has been in four different schools and is performing so poorly that he drops out. His mother kicks him out of the apartment that the two of them were sharing with the man she is dating. Mateo stays with friends for a while and then ends up living on the streets or in shelters. By the time he is 41, he has struggled to hold a job, battled alcohol addiction, and is living in a tent in a park downtown. Since the time he was eight months old, he has never lived in one place for more than a year and he has spent the majority of his life homeless.
This imagined character of Mateo represents the struggles, conflicts and deep pain of those who are in need of our Catholic charity. He is the unborn baby, the son of an undocumented immigrant, the child trapped in poverty and the homeless man on our corners. If asked to consider Mateo at any point in that journey — in the womb, as an undocumented adolescent, living on the streets — is his life ever worth more? If so, when is it worth less?
At the recent March for Life held in Washington, D.C., Vice President Mike Pence announced to the crowd, “Life is winning in America again!” Those words of support for the unborn are cause for hope, but they cannot justify preferential treatment to this single issue when the threats to humanity and to the dignity of human life is ever present in our modern age. If we are to celebrate “life winning”, we must care with equal vehemence for the policies that effect all people including immigrants, refugees and our homeless. This does not mean advocating for breaking laws, but it does mean having the ability to see the larger issue and reject simple solutions in favor of the difficult work that has always been a part of serving those who are vulnerable in our midst, regardless of what borders they crossed to get there.
No single issue is more important than the other; yet, there is a tendency for some to look at these issues as a la carte. I experienced this recently when a well-intentioned acquaintance explained to me that, as a Catholic, she has no trouble supporting undocumented immigrants because they work hard but disagrees with helping our homeless because they do not work at all. It is, of course, an inaccurate generalization, but it is also not the point. The point is that we cannot put limits on the human lives that we support; we are pro-life, not pro-some-lives. These conversations are about laws but they are foremost about human life, though that reality is all too often rejected for the sake of justifying political ideology. The right to live, to draw breath and be in possession of a beating heart is not the full extent of our obligation. Life has to be protected from beginning to end and not simply around the poles of birth and death. We do not presume to fight for a birth and then turn our backs on the lives that those children will live.
Maintaining the integrity of this support is challenging in part because popular opinion manufactures opposition. Support for the unborn child is not opposition to women’s rights: supporting immigrants and refugees is not advocacy against national security and legal process for entry. Our faith gives us a way to be “for” both sides and work to find solutions that are as complex as the issues they attempt to resolve. The struggle in taking this stand is one of the most profound ways we can understand the life of Jesus’ apostles. Like them, we are not called to have all the answers but neither are we assured to be comfortable in wrestling with the questions.
This month, we know that three different mothers will walk through the doors of our Church, whether at a parish or at Catholic Charities. One will be single, wrestling with an unexpected pregnancy. The second will be from Central America, seeking security for her young children. The third will come in from sleeping in a car with her children, looking for a help navigating housing, work and childcare. These three mothers and all the other men, women and children we will see in the months to come — whether they are unborn, undocumented, unsheltered or unclean — are first and foremost our brothers and sisters in Christ.