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Educating Catholics About Immigration

By Paula Minaert

published in Woodstock Report No. 92, January 2009

Rev. Daniel Groody of the University of Notre Dame, speaking at the August 2008 conference of Woodstock's Theology of Migration project (More videos...)

“There’s a lot of opposition to the Church’s teaching on immigration,” Elena Segura said. That theme came up many times at the meeting where she spoke: a group of Catholic educators and immigration advocates who gathered in Washington, D.C. August 26th for a day of reflection on migration. It was sponsored jointly by the Woodstock Theological Center, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., and Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life.

Church organizations and dioceses are reaching out to U.S. Catholics to help them understand the Church’s position and teaching on migration. Ms. Segura directs the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“Fear inspires anti-immigrant sentiment,” Ms. Segura continued. “But faith can change this, and can create new behavior. This is a matter of conversion and transformation, so the learning must be experiential.” Their office focuses on education, advocacy, and service.

The Church has advocated for immigrants for a long time. In 2005, the U.S. bishops saw the need for comprehensive immigration law reform and formed the Justice for Immigrants (JFI) campaign, which was described by Tony Cube, its National Campaign Manager. He spoke about the role of the media in polarizing anti-immigrant feeling—another theme of the day. “Since the defeat of the reform measure, JFI wants to reach out to more Catholics in the pews, and move those in the middle of the issue—about 60%—closer to the bishops’ views.” Mr. Cube said JFI wants more bishops’ statements on migration, and also wants to create short messages, what he called one-liners, to counteract opposing statements.

Elena Segura of the Archdiocese of Chicago (More videos...)

José Gutierrez heads JFI in Los Angeles. They do public education and advocacy. “Parishes vary in their openness to our message. My strategy is to observe and listen. What we need is a prophetic voice—soft, not speaking truth to power.” He also said they need more resources and more church commitment.

JustFaith is a 30-week parish program that empowers participants to develop a passion for justice. Its founder, Jack Jezreel, described its current activities, which include an ecumenical program and a shorter program focused on specific issues. An upcoming one will focus on migration.

Education for Justice is a web-based service that sends out print-ready resource materials to subscribers. “We take Catholic social teaching themes and develop programs about them,” explained Bill Griffin of the Center of Concern, which produces Education for Justice. “We have 60 resources on migration. What do we need? Teachers need materials that transform them as they use them. We need to collaborate with the justice education network so we get up-to-date resources. And we need funding.”

“Our goal is to promote Catholic social teaching to the public—especially to the media, which often does things in a cartoonish way,” said John Gehring of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “We work with others groups to help them with their message. I write op end pieces, letters to the editor, and so on.” The Alliance doesn’t focus specifically on immigration as such, he added, but offers perhaps the best news on faith and justice issues. And it needs solidarity and alliance with other groups.

Fr. Daniel Groody, CSC directs the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at Notre Dame University, where he focuses on the spirituality and theology of migration. “We try to form the heart, inform the mind, and transform society, through the written word and multimedia projects.” His work includes many books, articles, and videos, including the award-winning video Dying to Live. One big obstacle, he said, is how to respond to hate mail.

Father Gasper Lo Biondo, S.J., Director of the Woodstock Theological Center (More videos...)

Fr. Peter Neeley, SJ works with the Kino Border Initiative, which is a ministry to people along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, from which hundreds of immigrants are deported daily. Everyone there is affected by migration, he explained. “I speak in middle-class parishes. But it’s hard. The people are either blasé or angry.” On the Mexican side of the border, the need is for shelters and services for deportees. On the U.S. side, the Initiative would like to have a scholar in residence to study and publicize the stories of the border community.

At the end of the day, the group had pointed to several issues on which to focus:

  • The need for education; how to foster learning that is more than a letter from a bishop.
  • The need to involve youth.
  • The need to help migrants tell their stories to others in the Church.
  • The need for a strategy to match anti-immigration efforts, letter for letter.
  • The need to work with other faiths on migration issues, especially since some of them hold opposing stands.