By Barb Arland-Fye
Billboards bearing a message of compassion for immigrants in the style of the popular Messages from God promotions are on display in Iowa in preparation for the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Borrowing from a verse in Matthew’s Gospel (25: 35), the billboards read: “I was a stranger an immigrant and you welcomed me.” Sisters from 10 religious communities in the Upper Mississippi River Valley paid to have the billboards erected Dec. 12 — the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On that date five years ago, federal immigration agents investigating identity theft raided Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Marshalltown, Iowa; Cactus, Texas; Grand Island, Neb.; Greeley, Colo.; Hyrum, Utah; and Worthington, Minn.
The billboard campaign provides an opportunity to make reparations for the abuses of civil and human rights that occurred during the feast day raid and a later raid in Postville, Iowa, said Sister Johanna Rickl, vice president of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in Davenport. Her community supports the campaign, which includes prayer services and a statement from Sisters of the 10 religious communities. Billboards have been placed in the Quad Cities, Des Moines, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City and Clinton, and will remain in place through early January.
“We declare ourselves ‘Welcoming Communities’ in affirmation of our Catholic tradition that holds sacred the dignity of each person,” the Sisters said in their statement, “and we invite other communities and people of faith to join us in becoming ‘Immigrant Welcoming Communities’ through prayer, reflection, education and action.”
Welcoming Communities draws attention to the need for comprehensive immigration reform and responds to the government’s “Secure Communities” program that the Department of Homeland Security established in 2008 as part of its overall enforcement strategy.
The Secure Communities program “has transformed local police officers into a primary gateway for deportation,” said Sister Janice Cebula, president of the Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton. “The results in many parts of the country have been hundreds of thousands of detentions and deportations, serious civil and human rights concerns, due process violations and damaged trust between immigrant communities and local police,” added Sr. Cebula. Her community supports the campaign and she contributed to writing the statement.
Sisters conducted a billboard campaign nearly a decade ago with the slogan “Remember the Immigrant You Once Were.” Its success inspired the Sisters’ communities to develop another campaign using a concept similar to the popular God billboards, explained Lisa Martin, communications director for the Humility Sisters. She’s also a member of Sisters United News (SUN) which organized the Sisters’ campaign.
“The situation is much more critical today,” said Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, a vice president of the Dubuque Franciscans. In addition to more restrictive laws being implemented in a number of states, “the economic situation in the world is more critical and the urgency of people needing to come here is more acute than it was before,” Sr. Farrell said.
While the billboard campaign is a regional effort, the issue of comprehensive immigration reform is equally important for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), of which Sr. Farrell is president. “It certainly coincides with LCWR’s consistent stand over a period of many years to promote comprehensive immigration reform in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,” she said. “The Catholic Church has always had a strong position in support of the right to life.” That’s what immigration reform is all about, she added: the right to basic human rights and having basic needs met.
“We’re not making legal distinctions a requirement for offering a welcome. We’re saying that for someone who has needs, who is arriving in our community, our first Christian call is hospitality,” Sr. Rickl said. Enforcement of the law is a legitimate aspect of immigration policy, but some aspects of the existing policy abuse some human rights. That abuse should be of concern to all Americans, she added. “It’s not just about immigration, but what are our rights as citizens, how are our constitutional rights being upheld?
Both Sisters have served in Central America and witnessed the suffering of people who struggle to exist in their homelands. Sr. Farrell hopes the billboard campaign gives the public a clear idea of where the Catholic Sisters stand on the immigration issue and that “we have given a great deal of thoughtful consideration to this.
“I think our voice has the credibility of people who have spent years of their lives, in many cases, working on both sides of the border at the grassroots level with people who pick crops and work at meatpacking plants and in restaurants. We can give personal testimony from personal relationships with people suffering because of these immigration laws. We believe that true security lies in building relationships and respecting human rights.”
Ten congregations coordinating campaign
The 10 congregations of Catholic Sisters coordinating a public awareness billboard campaign: Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Davenport, Iowa, the Dominican Sisters, Sinsinawa, Wis.; Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dubuque, Iowa; Sisters of the Presentation, Dubuque, Iowa; Sisters of St. Francis, Dubuque, Iowa; Sisters of the Visitation, Dubuque, Iowa; Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton, Iowa; Sisters of St. Benedict, Rock Island, Ill.; Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, La Crosse, Wis.; Sisters of Mercy, West Midwest Community, Omaha, Neb. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/catholicsisters.