By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
On the first day of Catholics In Action (CIA), 15 youths and seven adult leaders visited Catholic Worker House in Iowa City where they heard the firsthand stories of several immigrants and refugees.
Participants listened to a woman from Honduras share her story of seeking asylum in the United States after her husband was killed by gang members. Other speakers included a Mexican native who cofounded the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, and a man from Congo who won the diversity visa lottery.
Hearing the stories, especially that of the Honduran refugee, made a powerful impact on the youths. “They were shocked, sad. It was pretty emotional,” observed high school leader Skyla Phillips of St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa at the conclusion of CIA last week. “I don’t think they realized that this happens to real people.”
“We got to hear the stories (directly) rather than hearing about them from other people, said Lucas Phillips of the Oskaloosa parish. “You can learn more from that than from the news or media.”
Youths and adult leaders had gathered in the Iowa City area for CIA, the Diocese of Davenport’s annual service learning program.
Participants served at various locations June 25-27 while reflecting on and applying the concepts presented in Matthew 25:35: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Traditionally, the service experience involves high school youths and adult leaders but this year’s event followed a new format. For the first time, junior high school students were invited to participate. High school students participated as youth leaders.
During the first day’s visit to Catholic Worker House, CIA youths and adults also participated in a prayer vigil and celebrated a bilingual Mass. Catholic Worker House provides transitional housing and serves free meals for people struggling with food insecurity.
Youths and adult leaders formed three groups to perform volunteer work during CIA. Jobs included performing household tasks at Catholic Worker House, preparing plots for Global Food Project. They spent time with cancer patients and families at Hope Lodge and Ronald McDonald House (where they also cleaned and baked cookies, volunteered at United Way and sorted through donations at Crowded Closet thrift store.
St. Mary Parish in Solon served as home base. On Monday and Tuesday night, participants watched a movie about Dorothy Day’s life. “She was amazing,” said Monica Gruman from St. Mary Parish in Grinnell. “She opened up to the homeless,” giving herself fully to them without conditions.
On Tuesday night, youths heard from two Catholic adults in southeast Iowa who had experienced cross-state moves. The talk and discussion that followed helped youths relate to immigrants on a smaller scale. Most youths have experienced the stress of moving in some way, whether changing schools or moving to another town or state, said adult leader Crystal DeNeve of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell.
DeNeve, who has been involved with CIA for more than 20 years, thought this year’s CIA group was perfect for piloting the new format. There was a good adult to youth ratio, and the youths were cooperative and enthusiastic, she said. The group included a youth with developmental disabilities, and DeNeve was pleased to see how the other youths went out of their way to make sure this person felt included.
On the final day of Catholics In Action, youths from Oskaloosa finished preparing soil for crop planting at Global Food Project of Johnson County. “I can’t believe this is the last day,” Sarafina Gituma said as she dug into the dirt with a hoe. “It’s gone by fast,” Sarah Phillips replied, noting that she wouldn’t have minded staying a few more days. The plots they prepared will be used by refugees, immigrants and anyone else in the area that needs to stretch their dollars by growing their own crops; the plots and plants are provided by Global Farm Project at no charge.
For Makenna Kopf of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine, the whole experience helped her feel more sympathetic toward the people whose stories she heard and the people she served. “I could never imagine being in that spot in my life… It made me realize how lucky I am.”
She said the CIA experience, and the stories shared during that experience, will motivate her to show kindness and compassion to everyone she meets.