" These are our brothers and sisters, not freeloaders.

" Sr. Donna Markham Executive director of Catholic Charities USA, on refugees and migrants
Sr. Donna Markham, executive director of Catholic Charities USA, told a Portland crowd May 4: "The gospel calls us to care for the most vulnerable. We are not about to stop now.”
Sr. Donna Markham, executive director of Catholic Charities USA, told a Portland crowd May 4: "The gospel calls us to care for the most vulnerable. We are not about to stop now.”
The head of Catholic Charities in the United States is saddened that many Catholics have “become acclimated” to national resentment over migrants.

They have sidestepped the lessons of Jesus, who said “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me,” Dominican Sister Donna Markham told an audience May 4 in All Saints Church in Portland.

Sister Donna was delivering the annual Tobin Lecture, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace.

Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample supported Sister Donna’s point, reporting that he receives angry letters after speaking up for immigrants.

“We live in an age that treats migrants as if they were a disease,” the archbishop said, calling it “deplorable” that the country would turn its back on refugees and immigrants. “These are real people with real lives.”

The United Nations estimates that there are 60 million refugees and 200 million migrants on the planet. In the United States alone, Catholic Charities accompanies and aids 600,000 refugees and migrants.

Catholic Charities expects more federal limits on immigration and refugees. In Portland, the archdiocesan Catholic Charities has seen the number of people it has resettled fall in recent years. Since the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1, the agency has resettled 105 people. In fiscal year 2016, 600 people were resettled while and 400 people were resettled in 2017.

“Sometimes we find ourselves terribly demoralized,” said Sister Donna, a clinical psychologist and former prioress of the Adrian Dominican Congregation. “But the gospel calls us to care for the most vulnerable. We are not about to stop now.”

Pope Francis and the U.S. Catholic bishops have made strong statements in support of the dignity of migrants. “They have responded to xenophobia with compassion, mercy and welcome,” Sister Donna said. “That makes me proud to be Catholic.”

She told stories of refugees, like the concert pianist who fled Romania after her hands were broken by officials and the Iraqi woman who escaped ISIS after death threats, tearfully leaving her family behind.

Sister Donna admitted that she once thought of refugees and migrants as people looking for a handout. She is now ashamed of the view, having learned thousands of stories.

“They had no alternative,” she told the Portland crowd. “They had to run for their lives. These are our brothers and sisters, not freeloaders.”

She related the tale of a girl in the United States who came home from school only to find that her father had been detained by immigration officials.

“As Catholics, we think it is reprehensible to have families torn apart,” Sister Donna said. “This is totally against who we are as a church.”

Sister Donna said Catholic Charities of Oregon has been a leader in refugee and migrant work.

Matt Cato, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Portland, said he hopes listeners act on what they heard.

Sister Donna suggested that Catholics plan small group potlucks and invite refugees and migrants to tell their stories. Erin Weisensee, a member of Holy Redeemer Parish in Portland, explained how she and husband Matt have befriended refugee families, taking them on trips and having them over for events like carving pumpkins.

Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, St. Peter Parish in Portland and other churches work with Catholic Charities to welcome refugee families.

Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, said the agency has six attorneys who work with refugees and migrants to achieve legal status.