It was a single photograph that finally convinced me there was something very different about Pope Francis.
Thinking about it, I could claim his openness to the LGBT community is what maybe won me over.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” he said in response to a question about ordaining gay priests. It was a strikingly different tone than his predecessor, who once called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil.”
I could claim that what I love most about Pope Francis was the moment when he — the spiritual leader of over one billion followers — stopped his Vatican City motorcade to embrace and kiss a disfigured man in a simple moment of humanity.
But what it really is, what really draws me and millions of other Latinos to him, is his message of compassion, dignity, and justice for immigrants, migrants, and refugees.
I knew something was very different when I saw the image of Pope Francis throwing a wreath into sea off the small Italian island of Lampedusa, in memory of the thousands of desperate African refugees and migrants who had drowned — and continue to drown — trying to reach the safety of Europe.
“Who cried for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?” he asked the world. “We have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business.”
In blasting “the globalization of indifference,” Pope Francis lifts up our immigrant families when it feels like they’ve been all but discarded and forgotten by our legislators. It’s why next week, I’ll be one of the estimated 50,000 Latinos trekking to Washington, DC, for his historic visit and speech before a joint session of Congress.
Many of us are making this journey because the pope’s message is one we desperately long and need to hear right now.
When the leading Republican candidate for president disgraces our political conversation with racist accusations that our immigrant family members are criminals and “rapists” — and other GOP candidates who claim to be friends to the immigrant community join in — the pope’s words are, as Rep. Luis Gutierrez recently said, an “antidote” to the poison.
I’m looking forward to meeting the people who make up our American immigrant community.
As I write, 100 women are walking 100 miles — a pilgrimage from Pennsylvania to DC that is spanning the course of seven days — to greet Pope Francis with messages of dignity and compassion for immigrants and refugees.
One of the pilgrims, Esmeralda, is walking for her husband, who is an undocumented immigrant. Esmeralda is also a cancer survivor, and up until a month ago, couldn’t even move without the aid of a walker. But when she heard that a group of women would be making this journey, she just knew she had to be a part of it.
Last week, wearing a bandana on her bald head and tearfully holding a picture of her husband and son, she was part of a video marking the completion of the 28-mile mark of their journey. And, she proudly announced, she was going to finish the walk, too.
Shortly after his Washington visit, Pope Francis is also expected to meet with and bless a small group of undocumented immigrants and refugees in New York City — many of whom fled violence in Central America — and will hold a Mass at Madison Square Garden on a chair built by the hands of three immigrant day laborers.
According to the New York Times, the three men etched their names onto the back of the chair. It perfectly symbolizes the special connection between Latinos, immigrants and this pontiff.
But, most of all, I hope the pope’s message reaches those whose hearts have closed to the immigrant. I hope it reaches those who have forgotten this country was built on the backs of and by the hands of immigrants. I hope it reaches those who use the Bible to oppress their fellow American, yet forget the Bible also preaches to welcome the stranger, because we were once strangers, too.
One of the pilgrims from the 100-mile walk, in an interview with columnist Maribel Hastings, put it best:
“As the highest authority he can change the mindset of those who are anti-immigrant, because he will touch their hearts as he has done with each one of us.”