By Rhonda Miska
DUBUQUE — “I was a stranger refugee and you welcomed me.” This statement, drawn from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35, is featured on billboards in Dubuque (at the intersection of JFK Road and Pennsylvania Avenue), Cedar Rapids; Omaha, Nebraska; Des Moines; Madison, Wisconsin; Kieler, Wisconsin; Davenport, Iowa; and Clinton, Iowa.
There are plans for prayer services to be held near some of the billboards. The public awareness campaign on behalf of refugees is organized by the Sisters of the Upper Mississippi River Valley in advance of National Refugee Sunday on June 26. The collaborating communities are: Dominican Sisters, Sinsinawa, Wisconsin; Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dubuque; Sisters of the Presentation, Dubuque; Sisters of St. Francis, Dubuque; Sisters of the Visitation, Dubuque; Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Davenport; Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton; Sisters of St. Benedict, Rock Island, Illinois; Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, La Crosse, Wisconsin; Sisters of Mercy, West Midwest Community, Omaha, Nebraska.
“We declare ourselves welcoming communities in affirmation of our Catholic tradition that holds sacred the dignity of each person,” said Sister Joy Peterson, PBVM, who serves as the promoter of peace and justice for the Sinsinawa Dominicans. “We invite other communities and people of faith to join us in becoming refugee welcoming communities through prayer, reflection, education and action. Failure on the part of the federal government to welcome refugees has resulted in states passing legislation that is punitive and harmful to human rights.”
The communities have worked directly with refugees, so the sisters’ concern is rooted not only in Gospel values and Catholic Social Teaching but also ministerial experience.
“Imagine if you went to China tomorrow and went to the grocery store. You wouldn’t know what to do. People are dealing with new language, new food, new legal system, new educational system, new everything,” said Sister Corine Murray, PBVM, who directs the Presentation Lantern Center in Dubuque which offers hospitality, English language and U.S. citizenship tutoring.
The Sisters of St Francis of Clinton sponsored Polish refugees from 1949-1980. For the last year, they have partnered with World Relief Moline to host an Iraqi family. The Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids, a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy, offers English language classes to immigrants and refugees. Sister Diane Rapozo, BVM, worked with Hmong refugees from Vietnam while serving as a pastoral minister and religion teacher in Wausau, Wisconsin, in the 1980s.
“The Hmong people found a home at St. Anne’s Parish,” Sister Diane said. “Being their representative was a very rich experience for me.”
In addition to the billboards, the sisters are sponsoring a postcard campaign for people of faith to tell U.S. representatives and senators that they “oppose any legislation that would block the resettlement of refugees of any nationality or religion in the United States of America.”
Moreover, the postcards call for legislators to “speak out against fear-mongering and inflammatory rhetoric against refugees.” A refugee has “fled their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group and/or political opinion.”
Refugees are rigorously screened by several U.S. governmental bodies before being resettled. There are currently 60 million people displaced from their homes around the world, more than at any time since World War II. Of the global refugee crisis, Pope Francis has called for Catholics to “see a ray of hope … in the eyes and hearts of refugees” and has said that “their condition cannot leave us indifferent.”
Photo: Billboards like the one above have been put at major intersections in four states by Catholic Sisters of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)