Responding to refugees in radical love

With so many opposing voices regarding the Syrian refugee crisis in America, it’s hard to know how to react.

On one end of the spectrum, people such as President Barack Obama are vehemently defending America’s role in housing and providing for Syrian refugees, stating that we “must do more to accommodate refugees,” whereas others, such as Presidential candidate Donald Trump, are starkly against allowing any Syrian refugees to enter the U.S., for fear of threats to national security.

Of course, Syrian refugees aren’t the only refugees entering our borders. People from all over the world, including Africa, Asia and other parts of the Middle East are seeking refuge in the U.S., trying to escape the terrible circumstances they find themselves living in.

It’s easy to fall into either side of these camps, but how are Catholics supposed to respond to refugees? Several local churches are providing practical examples of what Catholics can do to assist refugees in compassionate and realistic ways.

St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy

Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Church in Lakewood, is a man on a mission. Born and raised in Lebanon, the refugee crisis, and particularly the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, hits very close to home for him.

“The Christian presence is being cut off in the lands of the Middle East at the very regions where Christianity first began,” Father Mahanna said in a St. Rafka press release.

Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Church, speaks about persecuted Christians in the Middle East at the Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast on May 15. Father Mahanna has created the Mission of Hope and Mercy in an effort to help refugees and others who have been affected by the violence in the Middle East. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

Many refugees from Iraq and Syria are fleeing to Father Mahanna’s homeland of Lebanon to escape the terrible violence wrought by the Islamic State. In response to this, he founded St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy in May of this year, whose mission is to act “as a prophet who warns and educates, a soldier who protects and saves, a good samaritan who ministers and restores, and an apostle of Christ who is a peacemaker and herald of the Good News.”

St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy provides food, medicine, clothing and hygiene supplies to refugees seeking aid in Lebanon. Father Mahanna has a team of people on the ground in Lebanon who are in constant communication with him, reporting back what is going on and informing him about the situation in the Middle East.

Father Mahanna believes it is better to help refugees where they reside, rather than bringing them to foreign lands where they could be alienated and cast into an environment where they can’t live comfortably.

“Helping them in their place is a sign of greater love,” he said.

Sometimes, though, it’s just not feasible to leave refugees where they are. Father Mahanna understands this, and he has provided care and shelter for refugees here in Denver. He recently brought a young Iraqi woman to Denver, where she is currently in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. She wants to become a doctor so she can help her family and friends in Iraq, she said.

Father Mahanna asked that her name be redacted for the safety of her and her family.

This woman’s story is a hard one to hear, but one that’s unfortunately common among many Christian Iraqi and Syrian refugees. She fled her home on Aug. 6, 2014, to escape from ISIS forces. She recalled standing on a rooftop, counting the bombs passing over her head. She and other refugees walked for a day in 115 degree Farenheit temperature on what she called a “road of death.” They became hopeful when they were approached by an ambulance, only to discover the vehicle had been confiscated by Islamic State forces. There was a massacre, she said.

St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy seeks to provide help to refugees such as this woman and other like her. Through inter-faith and ecumenical cooperation, Father Mahanna hopes to be united front in assisting refugees in the Middle East and protecting them from the horrors of ISIS.

“We are more than a charity mission; we are the Body of Christ in action,” he said.

For more information about St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy and to find ways to get involved, visit savechristianmiddleeast.org.

Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs

Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Wheat Ridge helps refugees from Myanmar every year by holding a winter coat and clothing drive. A deadly civil war between at least 15 different factions has been raging for decades in Myanmar, making for very dangerous living conditions and forcing citizens to flee to other countries in order to escape the violence.

Thu Cao, a leader of the AGAPE youth group at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs, first got involved in helping Myanmar refugees in 2009. She met a seminarian at St. John Vianney Seminary who was studying to become a priest in Myanmar, and he would help refugee families from Myanmar by interpreting for them, since none of them spoke English, Cao said.

“Most of them were from rural areas in the country so they were very poor,” she said. “Civil wars made the country unsafe. They came to the United States seeking a better life. The winter of 2009 was the first time we met the families and many of them saw snow for the first time.”

A member of the AGAPE youth group at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish carries a box full of winter clothing during their winter clothing drive. They donate the clothes to refugees from Myanmar living in Denver as a result of the violence occurring in their homeland. (Photo provided by Lily Dam)

She said there were about 25 families in Denver at the time and a lot of children. They held a coat drive that year to provide winter clothing for the families, and the following summer, they donated school supplies to the children, both of which they continue to do to this day.

This year, their coat drive provided for over 150 families.

“I was blown away when I heard that number,” Cao said.

Cao has a personal connection to helping Myanmar refugees because she, too, was a refugee over 40 years ago, she said. She was born in Vietnam one month before the fall of Saigon, when the communist party took over the country in 1975. Her family fled the country and eventually ended up in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Families from a Methodist church in Denver sponsored her family, and she’s been here ever since.

Cao has walked in the same shoes as the people she’s helping, and said that Christians, need to fight reservations with helping other and just do it.

“As Christians, we are taught to love one another without reservations,” she said. “We need God’s constant help to remind us that we are all the same, no matter where we come from. We all need to help one way or another.”

For more information and to get involved, visit projectworthmore.org.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”