By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – Last year on May 9, the town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa was devastated when an ICE raid ripped apart dozens of migrant families. One year later, residents say they’ve recovered “some sense of hope” – thanks in large part to the efforts of Catholics and Protestants working together to aid grieving families.
One week after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers descended on the small community – population 8,751 – and arrested 32 undocumented workers last spring, Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, Iowa, headed to Mount Pleasant to celebrate Mass for a Church in need.
On Sunday night he returned, this time to help lead an ecumenical prayer service, followed by a shared meal to pray for healing for the community, to share together in the community’s suffering and to raise awareness of the ongoing plight of migrants.
“We are called to welcome our neighbors and to welcome the newcomer,” Bishop Zinkula told The Tablet on Monday, following the prayer service. “That’s who we are as Catholics.”
Bishop Zinkula, who was made a bishop by Pope Francis in 2017, has served as a priest in Iowa since the 1990s, and he said that the Catholic Church in the state was originally made up mostly of individuals of French, German, and Irish descent.
“Now, we have a lot of Hispanics, Asians, and Africans, and they help us see that we’re one human family,” he said.
“It’s so easy to dehumanize people who we perceive as different or other than us, but it makes all the difference in the world to start to get to know them,” Bishop Zinkula continued.
For that reason, he said that he’s been happy to dedicate the limited resources, both in terms of time and finances, of his small diocese to help the community in Mount Pleasant as they’ve dealt with families that are suffering from having a family member now in prison.
Of the 32 who were arrested in the ICE raid, seven have been deported to their countries of origin and the rest are still awaiting trial. Meanwhile, families are behind on rent and struggling to provide food for their families.
Bishop Zinkula said that the diocese, along with other faith leaders, have helped raise over $300,000 for these families.
Following the prayer service, Bishop Zinkula said that it was evident that the families “really appreciated that others care” about their situation.
Tammy Shull of Iowa WINs (Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors), a program of the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant, told The Tablet that she was particularly moved to see people of various faith traditions coming together to sing and pray at the Sunday prayer service.
“There was so much fear that night after the raid. Now, a year later, we have some sense of hope to walk forward,” she said.
She described the “crucial role” of the faith community of walking alongside migrants as they face a time of upheaval and uncertainty in the country and said she’s been personally heartened by the friendship and work that Iowa WINs has been able to accomplish by working with the parish of St Alphonsus and the diocese of Davenport.
Over bowls of pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, she mixed alongside fellow Presbyterians, Catholic neighbors, and members of the immigrant community that are still processing the events of the last year.
One such member, Julieta who came to the United States from Mexico in 2003 when she was 19 years old, told The Tablet that despite the challenges, “our hearts have been touched,” by the local church groups.
“We may look different, we may speak a different language, and people may not always understand us, but we feel loved here,” said Julieta, who asked not to give her last name.
While Iowa may be different from her native Mexico – “it can be hard at times, it’s really quiet, but really beautiful,” she reflected – she said that she has come to love her new homeland and that she, along with her fellow migrants, are only looking to better their families and seek to continue to be a part of their adopted community.
Reflecting on the last year, she told The Tablet that one of the unexpected blessings has been the ways it’s managed to strengthen both the faith community and the immigrant community both independently and collectively.
Shull concurred, adding that the last year has been an example of faith in action.
“We need to recognize that we’re all God’s children,” she concluded, “especially in such a time as this.”