Sisters Without Borders

Finding Faith – by Christy McKerney – washingtonpost.com

Sisters Without Borders 

SALINAS, Calif. — The way to Steinbeck Country winds down the Pacific Coast past fishing villages, past fat sea lions lounging on weathered docks, past brightly painted shacks promising the local delicacy, deep-fried artichokes.

A sharp turn inland reveals the vast furrowed earth that gives birth in the California sun to rows of lettuce, artichokes, strawberries, cauliflower and other crops that come to rest on America’s dinner tables. It is not uncommon to see men and women dressed in sweatshirts, hats and other work clothes, advancing down field in waves as they pick crops. Large tractors weave in and out of traffic on residential and commercial streets. Outside local stores, objects depict the Virgin Mary as well as the revolutionary Che Guevara. Signs for Castroville, the next town over, proclaim it to be the artichoke capitol of the world.

This valley where novelist John Steinbeck lived, the land he wrote about, has been home to Sister Lydia Schneider for 40 years. She belongs to the order Sisters of Charity of the Infant Mary. Gray-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned, Sister Lydia tends to the needs of a mobile and ever changing Hispanic community.

“If we recognize one another as having God present in each other, why should it matter where this other person’s come from?” she said. “We share a very basic bond of belonging to the human race.”

In a world in which immigrants of all nationalities struggle with clashing cultures, language barriers, paperwork, housing and jobs, people of faith like Sister Lydia, the director of Hispanic ministries for the Monterey Catholic Diocese, provide everything from spiritual guidance to help with practical life.Some 80 percent of the people her ministry serves are immigrants, mostly from Mexico and other points south of the border. They work in the fields or in local shops or businesses. Some support families back home or try to get ahead by working hard during the day and sleeping in an apartment, garage or house with 10 or 15 other people. Some have brought their families with them. They live in apartments or migrant camps, their children attending local schools.

Sister Lydia isn’t entirely sure how many of the families she serves have the required documentation necessary to be in this country legally. She doesn’t always ask.

“Whenever we’re reaching out to the people, especially if the person’s hungry, or is looking for work or a place to live, or trying to serve their family, the first question I never ask is show me your papers. I already know they’re a human being,” she said over Mexican coffee, served at a friend’s house in a subdivision carved out of the hills. “They’re standing in front of me.”

Most farm workers are immigrants and the majority are undocumented immigrants, said Virginia Nesmith, Director of the National Farm Workers Ministry, an interfaith organization that supports farm workers.

In a country steeped in the American Dream and founded by immigrants who came seeking better economic opportunities for themselves and their families or shelter from religious or political persecution, the issues surrounding today’s immigrants are complex and often contentious.

How should the nation address its literal and figurative borderlands – the physical boundaries between countries, the cultural boundaries between peoples, the religious boundaries between denominations, and the societal boundaries between classes? What would happen if everyone was allowed into the country? Who, if anyone, should be kept out? Who should provide health care, schools, and other basic services for those who cannot pay? If all immigrants are deported or prevented from coming into this country, will others step up to do the intense physical work necessary to support food production? And what rights should people have as human beings, regardless of laws or boundaries?

For the most part, people of faith tend to support the rights of immigrants in this country, said Nesmith. “Denominationally, I don’t see any church rejecting the rights of immigrants.”

That doesn’t mean all churches have the same view toward immigration. Some remain silent on the issue, she said. And individuals who consider themselves people of faith also oppose immigration.

But for many Christians there is a moral imperative to help the stranger, to help those in need, she said.

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