What does it mean to make room for Jesus’ words in our lives today? In a recent visit to the Diocese of Brownsville, on the Texas-Mexico border, I saw firsthand the importance of this question. Brownsville is the most densely Catholic diocese in the United States, but it is also one of the poorest. The parishes I visited have regular streams of baptisms, confirmations, and weddings—one pastor estimated he’d done about 50 baptisms each month in recent months. But they also have regular streams of recent migrants looking for help, and it is in their response to these newcomers that I saw the most profound examples of making room for Jesus’ words.
The writers of the New Testament describe the way that people responded to Jesus by either making room for his words, or shaking their heads and turning away. The Greek verb is choreo, meaning “to accept,” “to receive,” or “to have room.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus notes that “not all can accept this word” (Matthew 19:11). What he implies is that “accepting” God’s word means fundamentally re-orienting your life—rejecting the easy solutions offered by society and trusting in the Lord’s often difficult path.
Similarly, in John’s gospel, Jesus accuses some of his peers of resting too easily in their assumption that being descendants of Abraham was proof of their being children of God. He says, “You are trying to kill me, because my word has no room among you” (John 8:37). Jesus’ word “has no room” because they believe that their lives are fine just as they are, needing no reorientation (the Biblical word is “repentance” or, literally, a “change of heart”) to more fully embrace God’s call to love and service.
What I saw in Brownsville were many who make room for Jesus’ words by taking the phrase “making room” rather literally. One example is the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, where up to 100 men, women, and children per day spend time as they await their asylum hearings. The parish donated the use of their hall to Missionary of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel and her staff at Catholic Charities, because of the overwhelming need to make room for people fleeing violence further south.
Catholic Extension was there with its chancellor, Cardinal Cupich of Chicago, who raised funds at his consistory to help build a permanent new center a few blocks away.
Another example is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in Pharr, Texas, located 3.6 miles away from the border with Reynosa, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. A grant from Extension will help them to expand the kitchen they use to offer food to migrants who travel across the border in search of a safer life. Like so many of their peers, those who cross have often done so at great personal and family sacrifice. One father I spoke to described simply wanting his 16-year-old daughter to have access to decent schools; another was a woman who pointed to basic desires, like access to good work and safety for her family.
I visited several places that similarly made room for the new migrants in their midst. At a lunch held at Sacred Heart Church in Hidalgo, Texas, only a mile from the border, I sat down with parishioners and officials—including the mayor and the chief of border security—and talked about the way that the Church serves populations impacted by the realities of migration. Those of us who live far from the border may be influenced by the treatment of the issue in local news cycles, brief as they are, but many in the Brownsville diocese understand it in far more complex, human terms. They see the mothers hoping their children can live free of violence; they work with the fathers who have been hunted by drug cartels and the sons who flee from gangs that threaten their lives if they do not join.
In perhaps his most well-known parable, Jesus described as “neighbor” the good Samaritan who went out of his way to help a man bruised and beaten on the side of the road. The good Samaritan made room in his life for the reality of sin and violence, understanding that to be too concerned with his own affairs amounted to neglect of God’s word.
Theologian James Keenan has argued, in a related vein, that sin is a “failure to bother.” In the face of migration—one of the most pressing global moral issues today—we do well to ask ourselves how we avoid such failure, and engage in the kingdom-building work of “making room” for the strangers in our midst.
Please keep in prayer the people of Brownsville and all those in south Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Dr. Tim Muldoon is Catholic Extension's Director of Mission Education.