Yohan Garcia still remembers when, at 16 years old, he migrated from Mexico in search of a better life. His faith in God, he said, sustained him through his harrowing journey.
“If I had not been thinking about [how] the Lord was my companion, I’m not sure whether I would have survived,” the 36-year-old in Arlington, Virginia, said of his trip 20 years ago that spanned hundreds of miles and included a treacherous hike through the Arizona desert.
He knew God accompanied him every step of the way, he said, even when, at one point, he found himself facing death, with a gun pointed to his head.
Garcia shared his story with Our Sunday Visitor after writing a blog post about his migrant journey for the National Eucharistic Revival — an ongoing initiative by the U.S. Catholic bishops to renew the Church by enkindling a living relationship with Christ in the holy Eucharist.
A journey that began with the Eucharist
His journey to the U.S., Garcia revealed, began with the Eucharist.
“Before leaving our hometown, most of us, who are members of the Catholic faith, will go to the chapel, just bringing flowers to Our Lady of Guadalupe and asking for her blessing to guide us,” he explained, “but also really spending some time in front of the Blessed Sacrament.”
He prayed, knowing that he would face challenges ahead.
“We knew that it is not guaranteed that you’re actually going to be able to make it, so you do have to put your trust in the Lord,” he said. “For me, that was sort of the case, wanting to have God’s blessing.”
Today, Garcia works at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he serves as the Catholic social teaching education manager of the Office of Education and Outreach for the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. He also serves as an adjunct instructor at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago, where he teaches a course on Catholic social ethics and migration.
His life, he said, still centers on the Eucharist.
“The reason why I say the Eucharist is really my refuge and the source of my ministry is because I feel that, if I don’t go to Mass on Sunday or if I don’t have that relationship with the Lord, I feel like I’m lost,” he emphasized. “I feel like there’s no sense of purpose in my life.”
A dance with death
In 2003, Garcia migrated to the U.S.
“Many of us, we were migrating out of necessity, not so much out of choice,” he said. “I think that is the case of today’s migrants and refugees.”
He nearly lost his life — several times. In particular, Garcia remembered a perilous walk through the desert. That’s when, he said, armed men robbed and assaulted his group.
In his blog, he reveals the conversation he had with their leader, who approached Garcia and pointed a gun to his head. This man, Garcia writes, asked him if he was afraid to die.
“At that moment I cried out to God in my heart, ‘Lord, will this be my last day?'” he recalls. “I decided to migrate in search of a better life, but is this how it will end?”
“I was afraid,” he describes in the blog, “but somehow I managed to say, ‘You have no authority over me. It is not for you to decide whether I live or die.’ I knew in my heart, just as I had known a few days before in the chapel, that I was not alone.”
The leader left him untouched.
“I knew that the Lord was there,” Garcia told Our Sunday Visitor of his journey.
He remembered another time when his group suffered from freezing temperatures that dipped into the teens. As they walked to the border, their guide or smuggler disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving them stranded.
The people that knew each other huddled together for warmth. Garcia knew no one.
Again, he said, “I knew that God was there.”
Through his journey, Garcia reflected on why he and other migrants risked their lives in search of a new life.
“I began to realize that the reason why we leave our lands or our countries, places of origin, is because God has a plan for us,” he said, pointing to the story of God calling Abraham to a new land in search of a promise.
A culture of encounter
Garcia shared how the Catholic faith serves as a bridge when it comes to the issue of migration.
“I think we should look into what unites us as members of the human family,” he said. “And I think the parish, especially the Eucharist and the Mass, offer that to us as faithful.”
At his parish, Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington, he shared that many cultures come together to worship God.
“In doing the line for Communion, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, what is your social status, your immigration status, whether you are a man, a woman, coming from another neighboring community, the most important thing [is] that you are there,” he said. “And there’s unity in that, but that unity is complete only when we receive the body and blood of Christ.”
To understand the migrant crisis, Garcia recommended living a culture of encounter, a phrase used by Pope Francis.
“I think the most important thing is to have personal encounters with migrants and refugees,” Garcia said.
He encouraged Catholics to get to know migrants rather than relying solely on the news or social media.
“I think it also makes you more human by being able to see yourself in that person, by being able to see Christ in the face of that person, but also even going into a very mystical or theological experience, being able to see them as the body of Christ,” he said.
Garcia also recommended studying what the Church says about the topic.
A home away from home
Parishes, Garcia said, play a key role in welcoming people.
“When you are a Catholic, even before you find a place to live, you oftentimes look for the parish,” he said.
This was, he said, his experience as he lived in various cities. While in Chicago, he remembered entering his parish there for the first time.
“As I opened the door and I went in, the priest that was about to celebrate Mass just grabbed me and hugged me and he said, ‘Welcome, I was waiting for you,'” he remembered.
The encounter surprised him.
“I was like, ‘Father, this is the first time I’m here at your parish. You don’t know me,'” he said.
The priest’s response changed Garcia’s perspective: “He was like, ‘No, you’re meant to be here and you’re welcome.'”
Garcia called accompaniment crucial. He stressed that his success today is the result of other people — family, friends, bosses, professors, classmates — accompanying him.
“I think it is through them that God has acted and has been there for me,” he said.
A special message
Garcia shared his message for migrants who may be entering the country feeling worried, scared, or unsure of the future.
“I think one of the things that I always share with people, [is] to look at their migration journey as part of God’s plan, that there’s a reason why they are here,” he said.
He also wanted them to know that migration is not only a part of their identity as human beings but also as children of God.
“We are always on a journey in search of the promised land,” he said. “Today it might be the United States. Tomorrow, it’s being united with God in heaven.”
He urged that people care about them, from people in their communities to the U.S. Catholic bishops and Pope Francis, and that they should hold on to hope.
“There’s hope despite the darkness, and there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I’m a living testament of that.”