Monday, January 23, 2017

Nazareth CSJs Well-Represented at Women’s Marches

This blog was written by Olga Bonfiglio, an Associate with the Congregation of St Joseph

Several Nazareth sisters and associates attended Women’s Marches, including the march in Washington, D.C. where 120 CSJs were present from across the Federation as well as in Lansing, Kalamazoo and Albuquerque, NM.

Sisters Rita Ann Teichman and Sarah Simmons went to DC
from Kalamazoo by bus which left on Friday at 8 p.m. and arrived in Washington at 7:30 a.m.

“It was a mixed group of women: young, middle aged, older—a few even in their 80s!” said Sister Rita Ann. “One librarian from Notre Dame gathered a group to ride with us, and there were three husbands, too.”

Sister Rita Ann said she could feel the energy of the march the minute she stepped off the bus at JFK Stadium, 2.5 miles from the gathering point in front of the Capitol.

“Immediately, I realized we were involved and participating in something so much bigger than ourselves,” said Sister Rita Ann, who with Sarah donned a pink hat that her sister-in-law had crocheted for them both.

Part of the walk was through a residential neighborhood where homeowners placed signs on their front lawns that displayed quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
People were selling pink hats and t-shirts and march participants carried signs as they made their way to the Capitol.

“You were immersed in an environment of justice, relationship and love,” said Sister Rita Ann who added that the negative and vulgar signs were very few—and Madonna’s inflammatory speech rare.

For security reasons, participants were allowed to carry only a purse no bigger than a fanny pack, so the sisters stuffed peanut butter sandwiches in their coat pockets, brought their cell phones and a little money.

Once they reached their destination at the Capitol, Sister Rita Ann said that she felt swept up in a mass of humanity where people were converging from all four directions.

“We tried to find the CSJ Federation, but couldn’t,” she said.

Although 200,000 people were expected for the march, about one million people showed up. As a result, it was sometimes even difficult for the Nazareth duo to stick together in the crowd.

The speeches were likewise incredible as they addressed the issues of women, health care, the Earth, equality and others, said Sister Rita Ann. She especially appreciated Michael Moore, Gloria Steinem and singer, songwriter, pianist and actress Alicia Keys.

“They were all about justice, peace, women, men, unity, immigration—what America is supposed to be about and what we were about that day.”

The bus ride back home was more subdued since people were exhausted. Sister Sarah recorded 23,000 steps on her Fitbit. The driver congratulated the women and said they “did a great job today.”

Upon their return to Nazareth, the elderly sisters greeted Sisters Rita Ann and Sarah with wishes of solidarity, prayer and curiosity about their experiences.

In reflecting on the experience, Sister Rita Ann said that she now realizes in a more expansive way that the participants were standing up, standing for, standing with those who this administration and Congress might stand against. 

“The march was a moment and now we must continue to choose and act on ways to move forward together,” said Sister Rita Ann Teichman. “I think that’s why the people were there on all these marches not only in Washington, DC, but the various sister marches.”

According to the Women’s March on Washington website ( there were about 700 sister marches across the USA and in 81 countries totaling nearly 5 million participants.

“The new president’s inaugural speech focused on ‘America first’ agenda
for our economy, prosperity, borders, etc.,” said Sister Rita Ann. “But that’s not the America that I know. What we’re about is solving the problems of poverty, unemployment, immigration together. What this means for our congregation is that we’ll be called upon to speak to the new president and the Congress and we must continue to be there for others whenever there is a need for our voice to be heard.”

In Lansing, 8,000 participants (according to the Lansing State Journal) showed up and the mood was reportedly similar to the DC march. People wore the march’s signature pink hats and they carried signs that promoted women’s rights, health care rights, ending racism and care for the Earth. Participants were orderly, smiling and without anger. There were a lot of children there, too. One of the speakers was former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, who is running for governor of Michigan in 2018 along with a music group also played for the crowd.

At the end of the demonstration, a group of 300-400 Michigan State University students walked around the Capitol building three or four times.

“There was a lot of positive energy,” said Sister Marie Hogan. “People were there for the issues that mattered to them and as different speakers spoke, people cheered.”

Sister Marie was inspired to see so many marches going on during the day.

“Being with so many people who wanted people to be taken care of gave me hope that people will stand up for these rights should the current administration try to take them away,” she said.

Sister Mary Ellen Gondeck also attended the Lansing march and served on the Peace Team, a group of 40 volunteers who wore yellow shirts to identify themselves as peacekeepers during the demonstration.

There were only two incidents that were quickly quelled by police without further trouble, said Sister Mary Ellen. They were white men waving anti-Trump signs.

“To be on the Peace Team was inspiring,” she said. “We received training and knew what to do. We were confident being out among the crowd. Participants knew who we were and seemed to feel safe seeing us there, too.”

On the night of the Inauguration, Sister Mary Ellen attended the Candlelight Vigil sponsored by Peace House, a local intentional community based on the Catholic worker house model. Between 400-500 people attended the vigil, which was 60 minutes long where people stood together in Bronson Park, the city’s central public space, with lighted candles. They talked quietly together and stood with signs.

Sister Kit Kaiser attended and carried the sign that said: “Stand for Love.” Other signs read: “Be peace.”

“This was not an anti-Trump rally,” said Sister Mary Ellen. “It was all about solidarity for peace and love.

“It was really encouraging for me to know that there were so many other people who attended the vigil and not just Peace House people and friends that you’d expect to be there,” she said. “We also talked about how we could go forward and what we could do to build a positive environment.”

While Sister Mary Ellen was disappointed that there were not more African Americans and Hispanics at the Kalamazoo vigil or the Lansing women’s march, such was not the case in Albuquerque, NM, where Sister Brigetta Slinger attended a march of 10,000 people and white people were a minority.

“There were all genders, all races, all religions, all sexual orientations present,” said Sister Brigetta. “It was a first time for me where I was a minority.”

Native Americans performed dances and Hispanics offered prayers in Spanish.

Hispanics in that region are especially vulnerable because of the immigration issue and the city’s proximity to the US-Mexico border.

“We all came from different places,” she said, “and we do not want to close our doors or build walls.”

In truth, Albuquerque is filled with illegal residents. Sister Brigetta found this an issue when she worked with the schools. Children were afraid to go home and find their parents missing because of deportation. The Dreamers, now, are especially vulnerable since they are identified.

“The issue of the march was that we, the people, will not tolerate inequality, or prejudice,” she said. “No one can come into office and take our freedoms away. This is what we as Americans stand for as a democracy.”

Sister Brigetta said the Albuquerque march was very peaceful as was the march in Santa Fe and several little cities in the state. There were no arrests or incidents of violence.

“What I took away from this march was the wonderful feeling of powerfulness in the sense that we are strong when we stand together,” said Sister Brigetta. “We can do this so that all humanity can be free if only we stand up and use our voices to say ‘we the people, are all important and accepting of all.”

In fact, many signs reflected that sentiment with “Estamos juntos” (we are all one together) and “Sí, se puede” (yes we can make a difference).

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Felipe Stole My Heart

During my short stay of two weeks in El Paso, literally hundreds of migrants came to Casa Nazareth for hospitality. Nazareth is one of four sites in the area where Immigration and Border Patrol personnel drop off migrants for 24 to 48 hours while arrangements are made for them to travel to their family or friends who have agreed to receive them. Only adults with children are released there. They come tired, hungry, timid and fearful with babes in arms or toddlers clinging to a mother or father. They usually have their belongings stuffed in a flimsy garbage bag or a worn-out tote bag. They left their homeland weeks ago fleeing danger, drugs, and dire poverty. They desperately hope for a better future here.
Migrant mothers and children pray at the nativity
 scene at the Casa Nazareth shelter in El Paso

Casa Nazareth is scheduled to receive migrants on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but both weeks I was there they came on Thursday as well, numbering anywhere from 80 to 120 persons. When the migrants arrive, we gather them in a common area and give them a warm welcome. We assure them we are not connected with immigration, and they are safe with us and will be treated with respect and dignity as our guests. We provide them with a bed, clean sheets and blankets, a set of clean, although used, clothing, toiletries, a shower and nutritious meals. We phone their families and help them arrange for their travel in the states. We get them to the airport or bus station with a care package that contains food for the journey, which sometimes lasts two or three days on the Greyhound. In times of abundant donations, we might have a fleece travel blanket to give them and perhaps a stuffed animal for the child.

Families fleeing violence and poverty pray that they
 will find safety and welcome in the United States
It is unlikely we can remember their names after we send them on their way since there are so many of them and their stay is so short. However, I got to know Mauricio and his 7-year old son, Felipe, quite well since they were with us from Wednesday until Monday morning. During those days, Felipe, smiling all the while, trailed me wherever I went in the building, asking me if he could help and delighting in any little bit of attention. At times he was a nuisance and when he noticed I was preoccupied, he would dart away with an impish grin and slide gleefully down the long corridor. Felipe stole my heart those days.

I left El Paso for home on Monday and who did I see in the airport security line across from me but Mauricio and Felipe, all cleaned up and ready for their reunion with a relative in Chicago. Even with Mauricio’s ankle bracelet monitoring his every location and their complicated immigration papers, they got through security before I did. Felipe had noticed me two lanes over and kept waving and giving me that impish grin. After the final wave and grin, off they went to a different gate while I still waited in line for security to check my back pack. I wonder what will happen to them. I know that Mauricio is due in Immigration Court in Chicago in a few weeks. I understand that a high percentage of those we serve at the shelters in El Paso will eventually be deported. I am grateful for having encountered Mauricio and Felipe. I want their memory to stay alive for a long time and remind me of all migrants as children of God seeking a safe place to be.