Pushed from home, and into darkness

U.S. bishops highlight plight of migrants

This story is the first in a series related to National Migration Week Jan. 5-11, an initiative of the U.S. bishops that calls Catholics to help ease the struggles of vulnerable immigrant populations.

Efraín and Angélica lived on a small ranch in Chihuahua, in northern Mexico. Their situation was precarious. They had a baby to care for, and neither of them had steady work. Efraín soon made the decision so many men and women in his situation make—he left for the United States.

He wasn’t seeking out the “American dream.” All he wanted was to make a little money so he could return to his ranch, his family and his hometown, and start a business. It was a good plan.

“Six months after he left, I received a call from a hospital. My husband was gravely ill and they asked me to come immediately as he had nobody there to help him,” Angélica recounted in an interview with El Pueblo Católico.

Efraín was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Acosta-Hernández family, faced with a life-threatening diagnosis, was stuck.

“I felt I couldn’t leave my husband alone, but I couldn’t take him to Mexico either,” Angélica recalled.“We didn’t have anything, and he needed expensive and extensive medical treatments. In a sense, we had to establish ourselves here.”

Push and pull

When considering the 40 million people that make up the immigrant population in the United States—including 494,760 individuals in Colorado—it’s important to remember the “push and pull” that brought them here in the first place, explained Cheryl Martinez-Gloria, Esq., director of Immigration Services for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver.

“People flee their homelands due to poverty, persecution, civil war or simply looking for a better life with greater freedoms—the ‘push factors,’” she said. “The ‘pull factors’ are U.S. demand for cheap labor, and our economic and political interests abroad, which can cause worsening conditions in other countries.”

Immigrants make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. While they represent a wide range of ethnic groups, religions and education levels, the one thing almost all of them have in common is they have left behind their home. It is a struggle for many, even if that home consisted of very little.“

Rarely does someone want to pick up and leave their family, leave their friends, and leave their communities for a new country,” said Todd Scribner, Ph.D., education outreach coordinator for the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services in Washington, D.C. “Most people don’t want to do that, but they feel forced to.”

Living in the shadows

National Migration Week, launched by the bishops more than a quarter century ago, will be observed in dioceses around the country, including the Archdiocese of Denver, Jan. 5-11.

Themed “Out of the Darkness,” the initiative aims to raise awareness about populations living in figurative darkness—undocumented immigrants, children, refugees and victims of human trafficking—when the ability to live their lives is severely restricted.“

When people are living in the shadows, they’re functioning on the margins of society,” Scribner said. “So they can’t fully participate in the life of the community, which destabilizes communities. We want to make sure communities are as strong as they can be.”

In Colorado, the immigrant population increased about 34 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to the Migration Policy Institute. That number equates to nearly 10 percent of the overall population of 5.1 million. The largest share of Colorado’s immigrants, nearly 56 percent, came from Latin America, followed by Asia at 22 percent. The remainder are from: Europe 14 percent; Africa, 6 percent; Northern America (including Canada, Bermuda and Greenland), 2 percent; and less than 1 percent from the Pacific islands of Oceania.“

The majority of immigrants in the area are Spanish-speaking,” Martinez-Gloria said, mostly from Mexico but some from Central and South America. “In accordance with Catholic social teaching, recognizing that we are all made in God’s image … those who are suffering must be received, welcomed and supported.”

Catholic Charities

A large part of what Catholic Charities’ immigration services does in Colorado is family visa processing, according to Martinez-Gloria. This helps keep families together by obtaining a visa for a spouse, parent or child.“

It is not necessarily an easy process,” she added.

Efraín and Angélica Acosta Hernández can attest to that.“The police stopped my husband because his headlight was broken, and when they realized he didn’t have papers, they arrested him,” Angélica said.

While in jail, he was offered several options for legal services. “When we saw among the options the help of Catholic Charities, we knew immediately that’s where we had to go. It was a great relief and joy for us, as we are Catholics. For me, it was a sign,” said Efraín.

Angélica added: “Knowing that the Church had a service in this area gave me so much confidence. After our first appointment, we left very happy and knew that we were in the right place, and that our case was in good hands with Catholic Charities.”

Catholic Charities has been able to ramp up the services it provides to immigrants through a two-year grant the agency received in early 2013 from the SC Ministry Foundation created by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati in 1996.

Dignity and immigration reform

Advocating for meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform legislation, currently pending in Congress, is another example of how the Church works for migrants and their families.

Other areas where Migration and Refugee Services is involved include: educating people “in the pews” on immigration reform, coordinating a grassroots’ Justice for Immigrants campaign, protecting and reuniting unaccompanied migrant children separated from their families, liberating victims of human trafficking forced into hard labor or sexual slavery, and resettling refugees.“

We’re the largest non-governmental refugee resettlement agency in the United States, and really, the world.” Scribner said. “It’s a very important aspect of our work.”

Locally, 1,464 refugees were resettled in Denver in 2012 from countries including Bhutan (Nepal), Burma, Iraq, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo.

The work of the bishops’ conference couldn’t happen without the coordination of many agencies, Scribner said, including the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. and Catholic Charities, both national and local agencies. Northern Colorado’s immigrants are also served by Centro San Juan Diego, the Hispanic Institute for Family and Pastoral Care for the archdiocese.

“We recognize the multidimensional aspects of what it is a person needs and address them in their entirety,” Scribner said, which can include material, pastoral, legal, psychological, community, or spiritual needs. “Everything we do is rooted in the notion of human dignity, which is rooted in the idea that we’re made in the image of God.”

National Migration Week Jan. 5-11 | How to get involved
  • Contact your representatives and urge them to pass just and compassionate immigration reform. For Colorado information, visit www.cocatholicconference.org or call the Colorado Catholic Conference at 303-894-8808.
  • Consider becoming a foster parent to help a migrant child in need. To learn more, call the USCCB at 202-541-3347 or Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver at 303-742-0828.

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.”