WASHINGTON (CNS) — If immigration, the environment, at-risk youth and the marginalized are your public policy priorities, why not elicit personal testimonies from those for whom the issue is central to their life and ministry?
That’s precisely what the Jesuit Conference and the Ignatian Solidarity Network did March 2 in Washington at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center during a congressional briefing.
Take the case of Jose Ozuna. Born to unauthorized immigrants in Los Angeles — his mother was pregnant with him when she crossed the Mexico-U.S. border — he joined a gang at age 9, not because he had visions of being in some great criminal enterprise, but because “I wanted to hang out with my other 9- and 10-year-old friends,” he said.
He did two prison stints, one of five years and another of eight. After serving his sentences, Ozuna landed legitimate jobs in legitimate professions, including the oil industry. But it wasn’t until his own 17-year-son became a victim of gang violence that he went to Homebody Industries, run by Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, looking to get his life back on track.
“Even gang members see a future without gangs,” he said. Now, Homeboy Industries touches the lives of 10,000 current and former gang members a year.
Or, take the case of Mayra Martinez, a junior at Jesuit-run Loyola University Chicago. Martinez was 5 months old when she came across the Mexican border with her family. She didn’t even know she was an unauthorized immigrant, she said, until her parents showed apprehension over what high school she might choose.
Wearing a T-shirt that read “Support Undocumented Students,” Martinez said, “My parents missed my childhood” because they spent all their time providing for their family; she was under the near-exclusive care of a baby sitter until she was 10 years old.
“We take any work we can get” to support the family, she added, noting that she and other undocumented students in her high school raised college tuition money by selling snacks to their fellow students; federal law prohibits the use of federal funds such as Pell grants for tuition for students in the country without legal permission.
Tashina Rama, an American Indian from New Mexico who works at the Jesuit-administered Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, spoke with pride about her nieces, age 12 and 9, who spent the better part of six months at the protest camp at the Dakota Access Pipeline, leaving not after President Donald Trump reversed an Obama administration order to halt construction at the site, but only after a late-February directive from the governor of North Dakota to raze the camp.
Referring to the protesters as “water protectors,” Rama disclosed she was a “sun dancer,” which entails going into a sweat lodge at the start of a four-day summer ritual of dancing on the open plain and fasting from food and drink, with temperatures by her estimation reaching 110 and 115 degrees. After tasting that first sip of water to break the fast, she said, “you know what we mean when we say, ‘Water is life.'”
Jesuit Father Timothy McCabe, who grew up in Detroit, ministers in his hometown as executive director of the Pope Francis Center — renamed a few years ago for the pontiff, who himself is a Jesuit. The center has for a generation served the city’s homeless by providing food, shelter, showers, and medical, dental and legal services.
The needs of the poor are many and complex, Father McCabe said, and the contemplated cuts in the federal budget would be “devastating” to the center’s clientele, a small but growing fraction of the city’s 16,000 homeless and 2,100 chronically homeless. Detroit in 2013 became the largest U.S. city to seek bankruptcy protection. In mid-2015, according to Father McCabe, 60-80 people a day would seek help at the Pope Francis Center. In recent months, though, he said, the numbers have spiked to 170-200 daily.
Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference, which covers the United States and Canada, noted in introducing the forum that the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Man is, by nature, a political animal” — and that the Jesuits are “not partisan, but political.”
While the forum was intended for members of Congress and their staffs, the turnout was sparse, with wall clocks sending time signals for Senate floor votes. However, one member of Congress did turn out: Rep. James McGovern, D-Massachusetts.
McGovern said he never went to a Jesuit school — “all the Jesuit schools I applied to rejected me,” he joked — but got his “Jesuit education” instead as an aide to the late Rep. Joseph Moakley, D-Massachusetts, who dispatched McGovern to investigate the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter at the Jesuit-run University of Central America in the El Salvadoran capital of San Salvador.
Calling the murders a “massacre,” McGovern said he must have visited El Salvador 25-30 times, often staying at the university compound. Prior to the assassinations, both Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress “wouldn’t even consider conditions” on military aid to El Salvador. Afterward, though, Congress authorized a cut in aid.
“At least we made a little dent,” he recalled.