Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem.
This being the year dedicated to religious life and a Holy Year of Mercy, both initiated by Pope Francis, we need to look at religious at the cutting edge of human misery serving the marginalized, the periphery, that Pope Francis speaks of in “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Religious life enables people to take risks and witness the Gospel in freedom of convictions, from the depth of faith. They make real, and concrete what we read daily in the Scriptures.
“When I was in prison you visited me… When I was homeless you took me in… When I was naked you clothed me…” These paraphrases from Matthew 25 are actively changing people’s lives and healing families, and restoring hope, right now, today.
Two Sisters of Mercy, JoAnn Persch and Pat Murphy, like many other religious, inspired by the reforms of Vatican II, saw a need crying for help right under their noses in Chicago. They began the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants.
They formed this interfaith committee after going to the Immigration Processing Center in nearby Broadview, Ill., in 2007. Each Friday morning buses filled with shackled detainees leave for Chicago’s airport to be deported.
Their story is reported in the Global Sisters Report sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter. It states that according to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse, a data research group at Syracuse University, immigration judges issued nearly 79,000 removal orders last year. Only 23,000 people were granted relief to stay.
“We felt a strong call to do something about what we see,” said Sister Persh, executive director. “Families with men and women ripped from their arms.”
Here is what sets religious apart from lay social workers. They are grounded in a spiritual relationship with God, through community, directing them to meet human needs. Often people like them, who respond to a call, may have no professional training other than their religious formation and reading the signs of the times.
Sister JoAnn and Sister Pat began a weekly prayer vigil with those in detention, praying with them and even praying with the deportees on the bus. This witness alone was powerful both for the immigrants and the authorities. It was powerful because it was prayer, not criticism or judgment, but compassion and mercy. As their story unfolds they even got support from the court, Immigration and Customs Control, local sheriffs, the Chicago Archdiocese, the Catholic Theological Union, and those who advocate for human rights and immigrant justice.
They enlisted the help of Viatorian Brother Michael Gosch, who now oversees their two houses of hospitality. The one for men is in a former convent in Cicero Ill., a near western suburb, and the one for families takes over an empty floor in a former residence hall at the Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s Southside lakefront. The building, a former hotel, has bathrooms in every room. It has cooking facilities, a common room, etc.
The impact on the immigrants was profound. The sisters have volunteers helping the residents adjust to a country they can’t even fathom, simple things like how to buy a gallon of milk, social customs, etc. One man spoke five languages, was a former banker in Syria, now he’s in no man’s land. His situation could change any day.
Their story reports just how they got cooperation from the court, and government agencies. They are applying a temporary relief effort, to people whose status can change abruptly. At this point, compassion and mercy was needed.
They have two locations, more than 200 volunteers, a budget of more than a million dollars. They say they could use many more facilities like these, but, Sister JoAnn says, “It’s in the hands of God. Pat is 86 and I’m 80, who are we to do any of this? But God keeps sending us the right people.”
This is the religious life that energizes me. This is what Pope Francis wrote so well in the Joy of the Gospel. Throughout the country, throughout the world there are men and women religious, priests, brothers, sisters and deacons, bringing the Gospel in the form of genuine mercy and compassion, affirming the dignity and human rights of all they meet. They believe that love not hate is the hope for our future.
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)