Sisters Without Borders

Finding Faith – by Christy McKerney –

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.


Faith and Interfaith in New Orleans

Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel


Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation. His blog, The Faith Divide, explores what drives faiths apart and what brings them together. He is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. An American Muslim of Indian heritage, Eboo has a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. He is on the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation and the Advisory Board of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. Eboo is an Ashoka Fellow, part of a select network of social entrepreneurs with ideas that could change the world. Close.

Eboo Patel


Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation. His blog, The Faith Divide, explores what drives faiths apart and what brings them together. more »

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Faith and Interfaith in New Orleans

When Nancy Murray and Erik Schwarz (a couple I know personally and admire a great deal) came back to New Orleans after the storm, what they were most impressed by was the faith-based groups doing the heavy lifting of rebuilding. Their organization, Interfaith Works, started connecting funders and writers across the country to these grassroots-level efforts.

One of the people they introduced me to on my recent trip to New Orleans was Dr. Kyshun Webster, CEO of Operation REACH, Inc. Kyshun grew up in one of the toughest housing projects in New Orleans. He saw his uncle killed when he was in first grade. That was the year that one of his teachers said he was “slow”, and held him back.

By the time he was eleven, Kyshun realized that other kids in his situation were being told the same thing. Too many people viewed the trauma they were experiencing growing up in the ghetto as synonymous with being stupid. But Kyshun knew better, and started tutoring kids in his garage over the summer. When those kids returned to school in the fall having advanced several grade levels in their reading, teachers started inquiring why. Soon, Kyshun’s garage-tutoring outfit was getting referrals from teachers and parents.

That was the beginnings of Operation REACH. Kyshun added a few more programs when he was in college in New Orleans, went off to get his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, where he dreamed up additional programs. Operation REACH is now a sophisticated, multi-dimensional agency and is starting to export its model to other cities in the South.

Like many people who rise out of tough circumstances into success, Kyshun credits a faith community with being both a physical and spiritual lifeline for him – in his case, the Baptist Church. He told me, “My work with youth and dedication to the mission of Operation REACH is simply evidence of one yielding to a spiritual vocational calling, one that orders my steps and fuels my passion.”

And while Operation REACH is not a faith-based organization in the narrow sense, Kyshun recognizes the powerful and inspiring role that faith plays in the lives of many young people, and the huge amounts of social capital that religious communities have.

In addition to his remarkable personal story, I was struck by Kyshun’s sophisticated understanding of why and how religious communities should work together, particularly African American Christians and Muslims and Jews. In part, this is based on the historic alliance between those African Americans and Jews during the Civil Rights Movement. One of my favorite images in American history is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching next to the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Alabama. And in part, it is based on how the Jewish community has cultivated the ethos of philanthropy within its institutions, including its youth programs. Kyshun wants to do the same within the African-American community, and understands both the faith-based and interfaith dimensions of this.

Operation REACH has begun a youth-to-youth foundation with a board of middle-school through high-schoolers. They raise and manage funds, currently amounting to some $100,000, and then award and track grants to other young people running social action projects. REACH has worked closely with Interfaith Works to bring together young leaders from Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Hindu and other backgrounds. They are now exploring a highly creative project with the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana (which already had a youth philanthropy program called B’nai Maimonides): a task force of young people to do social-venture capital investing in youth-driven interfaith service projects.

My organization, the Interfaith Youth Core, did a training for some of these youth and the adults who work with them, to make sure that the connection between faith and philanthropy was made explicit in their conversations, and that the idea of philanthropy was viewed as a universal value that different faith communities “speak to” in their own unique voices.

It’s one of the most innovative interfaith youth efforts I know of in the country, and I’m eager to see where it goes.

Later that evening, another staff member of Interfaith Works, Alycia, drove me around the lower 9th ward. (See my piece from Monday for a fuller description of my experience). We stopped to talk to a group of young women journaling outside of a Methodist Church. They were on an Alternative Spring Break trip (I LOVE the ASB program – it’s another example of the pragmatic idealism of this generation) from the University of North Carolina.

While the trip wasn’t organized by any specific religious organization, it was this particular Methodist Church in the lower 9th ward that was hosting this group (there were thirty-one students in all from UNC, and as that group was shipping back to school, a group of Princeton students were on their way in). Alycia told me that that was a pattern repeated across New Orleans – faith communities providing much of the infrastructure for volunteer and reconstruction efforts.

And the young women, all Christian, were eager to talk about the role that their faith played in this work.

One said, “As someone who professes to want to be like Christ, to love people like him, it’s not enough to just say it. It’s about action. Just words leave me feeling empty. But after a week of working here, I feel full.”

Another said, “We all worship something. In our society, there is a danger in worshipping ourselves. We worship God better when we serve others.”

The 31 UNC students had broken up into about five groups and gone out to different sites in the lower 9th ward to clean and rebuild. Several of the groups did hard physical labor most of the time, putting up brand new homes for families. But the story that struck me most was the story of the connection between a group of UNC students and a woman they called “Ms. Virginia”.

Ms. Virginia had a physical disability, and her daughter had a mental disability. The students were charged with cleaning her house from top to bottom. The relations were awkward at first, but gradually became warm and affectionate. Soon, the students and Ms. Virginia were talking and laughing regularly (this is one of the most important parts about volunteering – the relationships built across traditional divides of race, class, faith, geography, language, whatever).

Towards the end of the week, as Ms. Virginia was admiring the grooming her house was getting, she wondered aloud if somebody could help her with the same. She hadn’t had a hair cut or had her nails cleaned and clipped for months.

And so a group of young college women did exactly that for a lonely, elderly woman from New Orleans who had a hard time moving around and a daughter without the ability to fully care for her. They showed me some of the pictures of them cutting Ms. Virginia’s hair. The smile on Ms. Virginia’s face … she looked, well, like she was enjoying being loved.

“What was it like to clip her toenails?” I asked, a thin layer of disgust creeping into my voice. It was a juvenile reaction on my part.

But the response from one of the UNC students was deeply spiritual: that this is what Jesus had done for his disciples.

Think about this: A group of young college women who could have been worshipping themselves in Cancun or Daytona Beach during this Spring Break season, instead choosing to worship God by cleaning the feet of an elderly woman from New Orleans.

On this Holy Thursday, the day in the Christian tradition that Jesus did the same, I leave you with the image of a bit of his spirit on Earth.