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Sister Ministers to Immigrants through Newcomer Network

posted in: Ministry, United States
Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, CSC, immigration ministries and DACA

Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, CSC, ministers to immigrants through Newcomer Network.

Early in the morning of April 13, 2022, I received a phone call from the chief of staff at Catholic Charities of Washington, D.C., where I am executive director of the Newcomer Network, a program that ministers to immigrants. A bus of migrants, sent by the governor of Texas, would be arriving near Union Station at 6 a.m. Could I help assemble a team to meet them?

Accompanying the stranger

When we arrived at Union Station early that morning, we found about 15 somewhat bewildered-looking men, plus one woman with an infant, standing on a streetcorner. They were clutching manilla envelopes in their hands. We introduced ourselves and invited them to accompany us to Union Station. There, we took them to the food court, purchased breakfast, and talked with them. We quickly learned the basics. The manilla envelopes contained their immigration documents showing they were in the country legally. They all were journeying to other destinations in the U.S. Also, they had been traveling for months, most with no resources other than the clothes on their backs.  

We developed an action plan. Some staff made a quick run to Walmart to purchase diapers and clothing, while others began working on bus tickets. By the end of the day, we had provided clean clothes and helped all of the travelers board buses to their final destinations.

[Migrants’] stories share common themes ... flight from violence, traumas suffered on the journey, hope and extreme courage.

Kindness extended

This was the start of many months of humanitarian work that continues to this day. As the weeks passed, I was touched anew by the generosity and commitment of our Catholic Charities staff and others welcoming the newcomers. They arrived at Union Station in the dark, between 4 and 5:30 a.m., and spent long days greeting weary travelers. They listened compassionately to the newcomers’ stories, provided food, water and clean clothes, and then helped them on their way. When I consider the many volunteers’ response to need, I hear Jesus’ words. “I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The number of arrivals grew as Texas sent more buses and Arizona joined in. Demographics shifted as more families with young children began arriving. Soon other nonprofits started meeting the immediate needs of new arrivals. Catholic Charities transitioned to providing support to the 10–15% who choose to remain in the area. Our bilingual caseworkers meet with the newcomers, assess needs, help clients set goals, and work with them to find housing, enroll children in school, and learn to thrive in their new environment.

Courage for the journey

The migrants’ stories are individual and varied, but they share common themes, including flight from violence and hopelessness, traumas suffered on the journey, hope and extreme courage. These common themes run through the immigrant story, whether recent arrivals or those who journeyed in previous centuries. As I listened to their stories, I was reminded that Sisters of the Holy Cross have ministered to immigrants since our inception. And I realized that the stories I was hearing were similar to the stories previous generations of Holy Cross sisters had listened to as they ministered to Irish and Polish, Italian and German immigrants and refugees.

Bearers of hope

As I look back on our weeks of meeting buses, the faces tend to blend together for me. But a few stand out. A particularly vivid memory is of the group of six young men I escorted to Union Station to catch their bus to New York. They reminded me of my 20-something nephews. They were so young and so hope-filled and earnest. As we walked, they told me a little about their stories, of the threats in their own country, of the long walk north and the dangers along the way. They talked about their eagerness to work and to build a new future.

When we reached our destination and I said goodbye, each hugged me. They thanked me for welcoming them and asked God’s blessings on me and all who had helped them. I silently prayed for those young people as I walked out of Union Station. I prayed that their dreams for a new life would be realized. I prayed that the hope I saw in their eyes would not die. I prayed that they would meet with kindness on their way.

Prayers for Migrating Peoples

As of this publication, the statuses of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the American Dream and Promise Act of 2023 are still tentative.

DACA provides temporary protection to young people who were brought to the United States as children. It was created through executive action and can be withdrawn at any time, leaving these “dreamers” in a precarious situation.

The American Dream and Promise Act, a bipartisan bill, would provide these young people with a permanent solution, giving them protection from deportation and an opportunity to eventually gain permanent residence. Applicants will need to show that they are in school or have graduated, present no security risk, and have not been convicted of certain crimes.

The Act would offer the same protections to those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). These individuals have lived lawfully in the United States for many years, in some cases for decades. But they remain under the constant threat of TPS being withdrawn, leading to the loss of all they have built for themselves and their families in the U.S.

In our Corporate Stand on Migration, the Sisters of the Holy Cross declare our solidarity with all humankind. And in affirming the right to migrate, we uphold our commitment “to protect the dignity and human rights of all people.” In gratitude and hope, we invite you to offer your prayers with ours, as we bring before God the well-being and future of those seeking safety and prosperity for themselves and their families.

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This story also appears in the latest issue of inSpirit magazine. To receive the magazine or the Annual Giving Report, use the button below and fill out our online request form. You can also sign up to receive the online newsletter from the Congregation’s Development Office.