Supporting Immigrants Right From Baptism

A Catholic priest serving a culturally mixed parish, with both native-born and immigrant members, found a way to strengthen support for newborn immigrants in his charge.  The key:  linking that support to the rite of baptism.

Father Dajean served six rural Mississippi parishes—four Hispanic and two Anglo that were both geographically and socially distant. The Hispanic congregants were recent Mexican emigrants, most of them in their twenties and working class. With four or five years of schooling at most, many were not fully literate in Spanish. Father Dejean offered a ministry of accompaniment, providing help with driver’s license, job searches, and transportation to hospitals or child care.

Meanwhile, Dejean’s two Anglo congregations, filled with older, middle class, English speaking families, had little in common with their Hispanic parishes. Though sharing a common faith, culture proved an unbridgeable gulf, except in cases when Father Dajean served as the bridge.

Then he had an idea: why not bring the congregations together around the common rite of baptism? In Catholic tradition, godparents, which are adults who promise support for the newly baptized, serve a prominent role. (In many Protestant denominations, baptismal sponsors are allowed though not required.)

Father Dajean approached leaders of the two Anglo congregations. Are there Anglo parents willing to serve as godparents (baptismal sponsors) for young Mexican migrants, and at the same time provide financial support until the children become U.S. citizens?

U.S. immigration law requires financial sponsorship for immigrants seeking to become naturalized. The sponsor (possibly a family member) signs an Affidavit of Support with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) promising support in case of financial difficulty. This serves the USCIS’s interest in seeing to it that the new citizen will not rely on public assistance such as food stamps or Medicaid. The new citizen is expected to work, of course, but if an emergency arises, the financial sponsor promises to intervene.

The relationship has both spiritual and material dimensions as sponsors provide spiritual encouragement but also money. “People sign on behalf of the dependents,” said Father Dajean. “That has done miracles.” The commitment requires faith but also “quite a bit of money. . .Some of the Anglos have it, and they are willing to sign.”[1]

The typical sponsor is a well-educated Anglo woman who has experienced some sort of hardship in her life, the families most likely to be sponsored are ones in which “she’s American, he’s Hispanic, and there is a baby or two already.”

In this way, baptism formed a bridge between socially distant congregations. This ancient practice called godparenting or sponsoring served as a form of accompaniment, both for the journey of faith and the path to citizenship.

[1] John Bartkowski and Helen Regis, Charitable Choices: Religion, Race and Poverty in the Post-Welfare Era (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 123.

Photo:  Katie Wilson. 12.8.15.  Flickr Creative Commons.

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