Sisters at forefront of ministry to immigrants
Providing light of Christ to newcomers
By Rhonda Miska
HAMPTON — “The Church is mother, and her motherly attention is expressed with special tenderness and closeness to those who are obliged to flee their own country and exist between rootlessness and integration,” Pope Francis declared in a 2013 address on Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. “May our Christian communities really be places of hospitality, listening, and communion!”
Throughout the three years of his papacy – from his first trip to the island of Lampedusa where countless migrants have lost their lives to his recent trip where he celebrated Mass near the U.S.-Mexico border – Pope Francis reiterated this strong message of compassionate concern for immigrants and refugees, calling for a “culture of encounter,” not a “culture of fragmentation.” This vision of hospitality and encounter is put into practice by women religious throughout the world. Sisters from Dubuque-area congregations have long been active in both assisting newly arrived immigrants as well as working for comprehensive immigration reform through legislative advocacy. In 2013, the Sinsinawa Dominicans approved a corporate witness statement calling for “just and compassionate immigration reform” that reunites families and recognizes the root causes of migration, as well as recognizing that their founder, Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, was an immigrant to the United States. Dubuque Franciscan Sisters, along with other women religious and lay people, are involved with Dubuque for Refugee Children which offers support to children between the ages of 10 and 21 who have fled violence in their home countries in Central America.
La Luz Hispana
La Luz Hispana (“the Hispanic light” in English) in Hampton seeks to “provide hospitality and welcome immigrants,” according to the center’s director, Carmen Hernandez, PBVM. The majority of immigrants La Luz Hispana serves are from the Mexican state of Veracruz. They take English classes, access information about health and legal services, and receive transportation to and interpretation at medical appointments. While services are free, in order to encourage mutuality, clients are encouraged to give back by offering classes or assisting with children’s programming, including music and dance groups. “We hope that our center will create a spirit of hospitality where they can celebrate their cultural and personal gifts and build up their strengths. A sense of possibility is stimulated here,” said Sister Carmen. Sister Carmen also spoke of how she is challenged and inspired by immigrants who have “shared stories of crossing the border and being robbed or raped and yet still making it here to have a better life for their family.” What those who serve at La Luz Hispana receive “in return is a deep, deep understanding of their own faith” through mutually transforming relationships with immigrants.
Presentation Lantern Center
Another ministry of hospitality supported by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Presentation Lantern Center in the Millwork District in Dubuque. “Our mission is to offer hospitality, educational opportunity and advocacy to adult immigrants, especially women, who are striving to better their lives,” said Sister Corine Murray, the center’s director. Over the last fourteen years, the center has served people from 56 different countries. “We currently have some Syrians. There’s a lot more diversity than meets the eye…it’s not just Spanish-speaking people,” Sister Corine said. “Many come with highly developed skills, there are doctors, engineers, and teachers.” In addition to offering one-on-one English lessons and citizenship test preparation classes, the Center also helps immigrants connect to community events and services, since newcomers can often feel isolated. The Center strives to help new immigrants “to overcome that isolation, meet friends, and develop skills.” Ministry at Presentation Lantern Center has given Sister Corine deeper empathy for the challenges that immigrants face. “Imagine if you went to China tomorrow and went to the grocery store. You wouldn’t know what to do. This is hard. People are dealing with new language, new food, new legal system, new educational system, new everything,” she observed. “That’s why hospitality is the starting point and most important thing we do.” Sister Carmen echoed Sister Corine’s experience of the relationships formed through ministries of hospitality: “One wonderful thing that happens here is friendship between tutors and students. They are life-giving.”
In addition to providing charity, Sisters also advocate and organize for reforming immigration laws. Sister Mary McCauley, BVM has long been a voice for legislative reform through involvement with Crossing Borders, an advocacy group which grew out of McCauley sharing the testimony of her Postville experience with a JustFaith group. In 2008, a massive raid was carried out by Immigrations Customs and Enforcement (ICE) at Agriprocessors in Postville. At the time, Sister Mary worked at St. Bridget’s Parish, which became a safe haven for immigrants impacted by the raid. Since then, Sister Mary has spoken and written widely on the Postville experience, seeking to “turn the tragedy of Postville into a victory for justice,” inspired by Isaiah 1:17 which states, “make justice your aim.” Along with other members of Crossing Borders — including sisters from several communities, priests, and lay Catholics — she seeks to “raise consciences and consciousness of people,” believing that “we need transformed hearts open to the poor if we are going to change the law.” “We have worked on the unaccompanied children issue, issues related to Syrian refugees, and access to drivers’ licenses in Iowa,” as well as helping the Marshallese community access legal counsel and medical attention, said McCauley. All the Sisters agreed that they have been blessed and enriched through their ministries of hospitality and welcome. “There’s that human dignity that each person holds, regardless of race, culture, age, or language. In the building of that relationship we get to see someone like you and me,” said Hernandez of those she accompanies at La Luz Hispana. “Immigrants make our world bigger. We understand things in new ways when we meet someone from another culture. It’s an opportunity to discover our common humanity,” said Murray. Reflecting on an immigrant man and his family impacted by the Postville raid, McCauley said, “their faith life certainly touches me. That spirit of gratitude – gracias is always on their lips.”
Photo: Grupo de Danza Folklorica formed through La Luz Hispana of Hampton, presented traditional dances from Mexico for Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration in Hampton, IA December 12, 2015. (l to r) (front row) Kevin Flores, Fernando Mota Rojas, Victor Vela. (Second row) Edwin Flores, Luis Daniel Mota Rojas, Cristian Castillo Brian Alaniz, America Dominguez Rincon, Joselyn Castillo, Ayleen Rodriguez. (Third row) Soiree Lara, Daisy Martinez, Maria Ramirez, Yesenia Monserrat Valenzuela, Aliha Francisco Mateo, Valery Salinas Solano, Shakira Vela (Fourth row) Marilu Vondra, Yeraldy Cortes, Jennifer Valenzuela, Jazmin Aragon, Monica Vela, Monica Vondra, Ernesto Flores, Patricia Solano, Jimena Salinas Solano, Candy Maza (Photo by Sister Carmen Hernandez, PBVM)