By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — Ninoska Campos welcomes visitors to the newest addition of the Iowa City Catholic Worker, a second house of hospitality to provide immigrant and refugee families with safe and stable housing while they work to rebuild their lives in Iowa.
The supporters of the Catholic Worker House (CWH) were eager for a tour of the former Burford House Inn, a 4,800-square-foot, six-bedroom, seven-bathroom Victorian home in the heart of downtown Iowa City. “Cleaning,” Campos says cheerfully to the visitors as a dozen volunteers sweep, wash dishes, sort cupboards or do other chores Dec. 30 to prepare for new tenants.
Many of the volunteers are refugees from Central America who live in the first Iowa City Catholic Worker house, less than two miles away. They want to help others like themselves to experience the reassuring welcome they received after arriving in Iowa from difficult, often perilous situations in their homeland.
Campos, a Honduran who works at a hotel and lives in her own home with her two teenage children, volunteers with the Catholic Worker “to help families seeking asylum,” she says through an interpreter. She wants them to have a place to stay as they wait. She arrived in May of 2019 and is still waiting for her asylum case to move forward.
In the kitchen, Esther Gonzales Hererra, a refugee from Nicaragua, scrubs a garbage can and smiles when someone interrupts her work to snap a photo. She fled Nicaragua five months ago to escape an abusive husband and walked to the U.S. border with her 13-year-old daughter, Esmy Nahamy, she says through her interpreter, Emily Sinnwell, a co-founder of the Iowa City Catholic Worker. The journey was difficult. Tears form in Hererra’s eyes as she reflects on it. She and her daughter will live in this Catholic Worker House, and they are grateful. She excuses herself, wanting to get back to her cleaning.
Donations from Iowa City Catholic Worker supporters made purchase of the $869,000 house possible. “We’re fundraising every day to sustain the works of mercy we do,” said co-founder David Goodner. “We focus on refugees for our overnight hospitality.” Altogether, 22 people are living in the two houses. All of them seek asylum in the U.S.
Sinnwell and Goodner opened the first Iowa City Catholic Worker House at 1414 Sycamore St. in 2016. They said their vision was born in the rectory of St.
Patrick Parish in Iowa City and inspired by the address of Pope Francis to a joint session of Congress in 2015.
The Holy Father lauded Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Dorothy Day as one of four Americans to emulate. The first live-in guests at the Iowa City Catholic Worker were two released convicts and a homeless single mother with children. A weekend meal program began in February 2017. In December of 2018, the Iowa City Catholic Worker sponsored its first refugee family out of border detention and has continued to focus on refugees and immigrants.
After paying off the 30-year, $210,000 mortgage on the Sycamore Street house in 2020, Catholic Worker supporters pursued a dream to purchase a second house. Needs lists, meals and in-kind donations continue to be delivered to or served at the Sycamore Street house.
All Catholic workers are volunteers, including Sinnwell and Goodner. She is a nurse practitioner and he is an organizer. They are also parents of three children. This past fall, the couple received the Iowa City Human Rights International Award for “significant contributions to human rights in the global community for their efforts to provide assistance to immigrant families through their leadership at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House.”
“As Catholic Workers, Emily and David know that social change doesn’t come from individuals, but from organized communities serving and acting collectively together, in accordance with their faith and values,” Iowa City Catholic Worker advisory board members said. “They have asked us to remember that it is not because of them, but because of all of you — because of all of us — that the Catholic Worker House is able to serve and organize the refugee poor to rebuild their lives here in Iowa.”
Preferential option for the poor
Sinnwell and Goodner gave a heartfelt and challenging acceptance speech at the Oct. 27 event. “The aim of the Catholic Worker movement is to live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ,” Sinnwell said. Serving as living witnesses to God’s unchanging love “requires us to begin living in a different way. We recall the words of our founders, Dorothy Day, who said, ‘God meant things to be much easier than we have made them,’ and Peter Maurin who wanted to build a society ‘where it is easier for people to be good.’”
Sinnwell said the Iowa City Catholic Worker in 2021 helped more than 60 refugee families cross the U.S.-Mexico border to rebuild their lives in Iowa and across the U.S. Now efforts are underway to work with several Afghan families arriving in Iowa.
Word of mouth, social media and news reports draw desperate refugees to the Iowa City Catholic Worker House. A man from Nicaragua seeking shelter for his family sought guidance from Father Joseph Sia, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City. Then the Nicaraguan saw a TV news report about the Mass and open house on Dec. 28 to celebrate the purchase of the second Catholic Worker House.
“I just received an email from the man from Nicaragua, and he told me that through the help of Emily, they have found a house for him and his family (who are coming sometime this month). The owner of the house will allow them to stay rent-free for six months! This is an example of what Emily (and David) and the Catholic Worker House (CSW) do to help people, especially those who are new to the country and are lacking in resources,” Father Sia said.
“I find the dedication of the leadership and the volunteers at the CWH inspiring. Their passion for their work is a testimony to our Church’s call for a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ In other words, they remind me, in the first place, to think about and recognize the poor in my midst, whom many times I may not ‘see’ or may forget about. They also move me to action, which, as a pastor, includes praying for the poor and vulnerable, promoting our Church’s teachings on social justice, being involved with our Social Action Committee here in St. Patrick, and giving moral and financial support to CWH.”
Jane Noble Davis, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville who serves on the Iowa City Catholic Worker Advisory Board, describes Sinnwell and Goodner as inspiring, generous and humble with excellent leadership skills and vision. “They are Christ in action through and through.”
“Emily and David have created and continue to lead a unique organization in the Iowa City area where guests are welcomed first with hospitality. Then, Catholic Workers get to work to help find solutions to the infinite types of challenges experienced by those in need.”
Catholic Worker co-founders advocate for excluded workers
While accepting a humanitarian award from the Iowa Human Rights Commission, Iowa City Catholic Worker co-founders Emily Sinnwell and David Goodner expressed a criticism of city and county elected officials.
“Excluded immigrant workers are the ones who truly deserve this award,” Goodner said during the Oct. 27 ceremony. “If Iowa City and Johnson County can’t pass an Excluded Workers Fund without barriers or restrictions, then this award is just a piece of plastic and not worth all the pomp and ceremony.” Since that speech, Johnson County has appropriated $2 million to an Excluded Workers Fund, Goodner said. “We are still waiting to hear if Iowa City will honor its commitment to contribute an additional $1.5 million.”
Goodner has been instrumental in organizing the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition, which seeks money from COVID-19 relief funds for immigrant and refugee workers and other workers of color who were excluded from relief funds because of immigration status or other factors.
“Handing out awards is easy, actually making the investments necessary to improve the human rights situation for our most marginalized community members is much harder — but it shouldn’t have to be,” Sinnwell said.