Catholic “dreamers” fly “prayer kites” and pray for mercy


Reprinted from the Twin-City News, Batesburg-Leesville, SC, 11/14/13.   Photos are of Ismael Gerardo and Jennifer Zuniga.


“Unity in Diversity” is the motto of our church, St. John of the Cross in Batesburg.    As I helped our youth group make and fly “prayer kites” recently, I witnessed their dedication to making this dream a reality.


“They’re good kids,” said religious education director Janet Hayden, who has helped many of the undocumented immigrant youth with their applications for DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.    DACA was a memo signed by President Obama on June 15, 2012.   It allows deferred action for certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have pursued education or military service here.   “Dreamers” began application for the program  on August 15, 2012.  


“Dreamers” was the name first given to those who would have qualified for the DREAM Act (acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), a legislative proposal first introduced in the Senate on August 1, 2001.   If passed into law, the bill would have provided conditional permanent residency to certain immigrants of good moral character who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the U.S. as minors and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment.   Components of the DREAM act have been included in recent legislative proposals for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR).   A bill for CIR with a pathway to citizenship has passed the US Senate, and advocates are hoping for a similar bill to be passed in the House of Representatives this year.


St. John of the Cross “dreamers” want immigration reform not only for themselves but for their friends and family.  


I interviewed them as they were constructing their prayer kites, simple creations of paper, straws and tape, decorated with prayers and  transformed into artistic expressions of their visions for a better world.    “I’d like to stay in my church and become an electrical engineer and live the American dream… be in the country without fearing,”  said 15-year-old Jose.   He was brought to this country from Mexico when he was 4-years-old and is now in his first year of ROTC.  “I want to give my parents a better life in their old age,” he said.


15-year-old Irma was brought to Lexington County from Mexico when she was an infant.  She dreams of graduating from high school and going into the criminal justice field.  “I want to help people in the same situation as me,” she said.


Wanting the American public to understand immigrants’ situation, 13-year-old Francisco said “My dream is to help other people understand that we’re not different.   In the constitution, everyone’s equal.”   Francisco said he wants to be a lawyer or a social worker.


Most of the youth I interviewed said they were born in this country and are citizens.   Nevertheless, they have family and friends who are undocumented.   “I feel very lucky to have the papers,” said 15-year-old Wendy.  “I wish my family could get papers.”   13-year-old Ismael, who was born in Lexington County and wants to be an engineer, said “It’s really sad they (friends and family) don’t have the kind of freedom we have.”   14-year-old Jennifer said she is “so worried” about her family.   She dreams of going into the Army to become a nurse and ultimately a pediatrician.  15-year-old Sanjuana, who was born in Texas, said she wants to be a successful  RN and for her parents to be proud of her.   She is worried about her stepfather, who is “not from here.”   “I wish I could do something to help him,” she said.   16-year-old Rachel said she tries to comfort her family:   “Jesus is going to be with them.   Leave everything with Him.”


On the kites, prayers of thanksgiving and trust were interspersed with appeals for mercy and justice.   “It made them think,” said Janet Hayden about the project.     At a recent church picnic, they were given the cue to fly their kites across the parish lawn.    A cry of excitement arose as they took off across the field.   Some of the kites broke in the process and will have to be repaired, but they will continue to fly them as an outward expression of their prayers and their dreams. 


I’m a volunteer for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Justice for Immigrants” (JFI) campaign.   Like many denominations, we support comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship and that preserves family unity.    Please consider learning about your own denominational campaigns for CIR.    There are websites for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church,  the Evangelical Immigration Table, “Bibles, Badges and Businesses” and many others.


This is a truly interfaith and bipartisan effort, and it’s beautiful to see the “unity in diversity” present among advocates.


After all, many of us can relate to the scripture from Leviticus 19:33-34:   “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.   The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.   Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.   I am the Lord your God.”


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Sara Damewood is the Parish Ecumenical Representative for St. John of the Cross Catholic Church in Batesburg.   She is employed as a psychiatric social worker and volunteers for various local and national organizations that support immigration reform.


“Raise your hands!  Raise your voice!” entreats Sr. Simone Campbell with the other nuns “on the bus” as they make their way across America rallying faith-filled advocates, immigrants and Catholic sisters who serve immigrant communities.   This 6,500-mile bus trip over 15 states is about commonsense immigration reform “now,” about legislation that preserves family unity and provides a path to citizenship for America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. 


In addition to their face-to-face contacts on the road, the nuns are also doing something remarkably innovative; they are using social media to supplement their messaging.   You can find them on Facebook, Twitter and your cell phone.


I’m going to tell you how to text and tweet the nuns, but first let me explain why this is important.


First, we need to persuade our fellow Americans to support the pending legislation on immigration reform.   We need to be calling our legislators and participating in the process of amendments.   NETWORK’s “Nuns on the Bus” offers tools for those purposes.


Also, as Sr. Simone expressed it at our rally in Greenville, SC, these contacts across America are like a “string of Christmas lights.”    The nuns are helping us build a network of advocates as the bus winds it’s way across the continent.    Look at the route map of the bus trip at to see what I mean.   Now we have the amazing capability of connecting across those many miles through the magic of social media.


So, text NUNS to 877877, and you will be magically connected with the nuns.   You’ll get action alerts and have the opportunity to “raise your hands and raise your voice” digitally.


Then, tweet the nuns collectively at @NETWORKlobby or discover them individually by exploring the hashtag #nunsonthebus.    As their trip draws to a close, consider following news of a documentary about their travels at @NunsOnTheBusMovie.


All this fun for a critically important issue.   Let’s raise our collective voices for comprehensive immigration reform NOW!Image

Democracy and “Turning the Other Cheek”

We advocates for compassionate immigration reform eagerly await a bill to be introduced in the U.S. Senate as early as this week.    We’ve memorized the talking points, imploring people of faith to “welcome the stranger” among us.   Now we’ll see the results of a national dialogue that has informed the work of the Senate’s “gang of 8.”   That, of course, is not the end of the story.


Now comes the arduous process of committee work and consensus building.  Legislators’ constituents continue to have a say along the way.   It’s the democratic process.


I think it’s easy to take that process for granted.  Democracy, as defined by American Heritage Dictionary is (1) government by the people, exercised either directly or through  elected representatives, (2) a political or social unit that has such a government, (3) the common people, considered as the primary source of political power, (4) majority rule, (5) the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.”   Respect for the individual.  Social equality.


As we collaborate in our various groups about immigration reform, I pray that we  remember to be civil, to simply ask ourselves these questions before we speak or write:   (1) Is it kind?   (2)  Is it true?  (3)  Is it necessary?


As a Christian, I fail miserably sometimes at being kind, especially if I feel someone is being unkind to me.   It takes a lot of emotional energy to both listen and speak up with those with whom I disagree.   The Christian teaching of “turn the other cheek” edifies me:


“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”   Matthew 5:  38-42.


In Jesus’ time, “Do not resist” meant to not retaliate violently.   Being struck on the right cheek, backhanded, was considered a form of dominance.  By turning the left cheek, one is neither fighting back nor accepting the abuse; he or she is asking for more.    This calls attention to the bullying behavior and the system that allows it.


Politics can be brutal.   There are times when I want to turn my attention to less difficult projects.    Then, I see the hopeful faces of our undocumented brothers and sisters and ask myself the trite (but important) question “What would Jesus do?”


You Can Stop Modern Slavery

Slavery still exists, not only in remote areas of the world but in every one of our United States. Called “human trafficking,” this modern-day slavery is the illegal trade of human beings for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. One can imagine how undocumented, financially-struggling immigrants could be vulnerable. However, it may surprise you that trafficking victimizes people of every race, sex, age and national origin. For example, middle-class run-away teenagers in America are at risk. Trafficking goes against every value the U.S. stands for. We can’t allow it to happen here, but it is.

No matter who you are and what you do, you can help: (1) learn about human trafficking, (2) spot it and report it and (3) educate and advocate.

First, you can learn about the scope of human trafficking. There are many good articles, audio and video presentations on the web as well as documentaries and movies. Worldwide, the most prevalent forms of trafficking are in agriculture, mining and forced prostitution. Some are enslaved through debt bondage, having to work to pay off an illegal “debt.” With changing economic conditions, many poor people have moved from rural areas to cities in search of work. Not finding work, they are vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers. The feminization of poverty puts women and children at particular risk.

Some victims have migrated to the United States, only to be exploited by traffickers who take advantage of the migration process and migrants’ fears of being deported. The slaveholders use legal or forged documents, often making use of various kinds of visas to ultimately coerce women and girls for prostitution and women and men for forced labor. Often confused with smuggling, human trafficking is a distinct issue. Smugglers simply charge a fee in helping migrants to illegally cross a national border. In trafficking, a smuggler sometimes sells the migrants to a slaveholder or becomes a slaveholder himself or herself. Increasingly, traffickers are organized into crime syndicates.

Enslavement may be gradual for some victims. For example, a Cinquera (Spanglish term for a girl or young woman who charges a man $5 to dance with her) could eventually find herself involved in a prostitution ring.

Second, you can learn to spot human trafficking and to stop it. Teachers, health care workers, police, transportation workers and social workers may be more likely to encounter trafficked individuals. However, you may hear stories of trafficking in your community, through your fellow church members or simply sitting in your doctor’s waiting room. Pay attention to the signs and be ready to help.

What are the signs? Every situation is unique as you will see by researching the problem. However, notice evidence of persons being controlled, inability to move or leave a job, bruises or other signs of physical abuse, fear or depression. Ask questions such as “what type of work do you do?” “Are you being paid?” “Can you leave your job if you want to?” “Have you or your family been threatened?” Even if there’s a language barrier, be friendly and understanding. When people are in crisis, they are more likely to trust and accept help.

How can you help? Keep in your wallet or planner the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline: 1-888-373-7888. Specialists are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to take reports from anywhere in the country related to potential trafficking victims, suspicious behaviors and/or locations where trafficking is suspected to occur. All reports are confidential, and interpreters are available.

Specialists can link victims to resources in your community. Victims may need immediate assistance such as housing, food, medical care, safety and security. They may also need mental health counseling, connection with supportive family members and legal assistance.

Third, consider educating others about human trafficking. Perhaps, you work in a setting where you could incorporate this into employee training. Additionally, churches, civic groups and informal gatherings of friends are all places where you can inform and inspire others to act. January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a good time to plan a presentation and discussion.

Notice that systemic problems perpetuate trafficking, particularly restrictive immigration policies that lead to an underclass of undocumented families. Tell your congressperson to act on critical anti-trafficking legislation.

We are all responsible for ensuring that no person falls prey to modern slavery.

Get to Know Your Hispanic Neighbors

Wonder why National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 – Oct. 15? Learn the answer as you discover things about your Hispanic neighbors, which will surprise and delight you.

When I saw the bilingual sign in front of the little church which was to become my home parish, I was curious. It is the closest Catholic church to my home, but I hesitated to visit out of fear of an awkward encounter with people who seemed very different from me. The sign reads “Unidad en la Diversidad; Unity in Diversity,” and most of the members are Hispanic.

The first encounter was certainly awkward, mainly because I didn’t know a soul there. Plus, my high school Spanish was rusty. A year later, they were my friends.

Only a friend gets to help with the festivities for the December Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an amazing celebration of the story of the Mexican Juan Diego’s encounter with La Virgen de Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas. My fellow parishioners worked tirelessly for hours creating decorations and costumes, practicing dances and music and preparing food. Every year the audience grows as the local community has discovered this colorful event.

At first I thought they were all Mexican. Then, my pastor pointed out that he was from Columbia. In fact, there would be two separate celebrations of Las Posadas, the Mexican and Colombian versions. “Posada” means lodging or shelter. Also in December, Las Posada reenacts Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter. Songs express the story of their journey: “In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter.” “I cannot open up; you might be a rogue.” Then, we celebrate with food, song and fellowship as Joseph, Mary and the child she carries are finally welcomed.

It’s that kind of hospitality that we Americans express when we call our country “a nation of immigrants.”

National Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans to the United States, and it’s also a celebration of heritage and culture. It was approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson and expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period.

Hispanic or Latino Americans are those with origins in Latin America, Spain, Portugal or anyone in the United States who identifies themselves as Hispanic or Latino. “Hispanic” refers to those with Spanish-speaking ancestry or origin, while “Latino” encompasses all those with Latin-American ancestry or origin, including Brazilians. However, the terms are often used interchangeably.

Why Sept. 15-Oct. 15 for National Hispanic Heritage Month? September 15 is the anniversary of independence of 5 Latin-American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras and Nicaragua. All declared their independence in 1821. Plus, Mexico, Chile and Belize celebrate independence on September 16, 18 and 21 respectively. Learn more at

Better yet, attend a Hispanic event or make a pilgrimage to a historical place or exhibit. Links from the website above will aid your discovery. Also, consider watching award-winning Hispanic films:

For those living in the Columbia, SC area, considering viewing an exhibition of the art of Alejandro Garcia-Lemos at Columbia College, Columbia, SC. It will be in the Goodall Gallery through October:

Consider checking out the Palmetto and Luna website,

“fostering Latino arts and culture.” View the art of the Colores children’s contest:

On Sunday, Oct. 7, Charleston’s Wannamaker County Park will host a Latin American Festival:

Please don’t let your discovery of Hispanic culture end with National Historic Heritage Month. Look for Las Posadas or the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations in your community this holiday season. Get to know your Hispanic neighbors. You’ll be glad you did.

The Immorality of Delaying Immigration Reform

My Op Ed piece appeared in the Columbia Star today:

If you’re local, please consider sharing from their website.

Important Information for Dreamers

Please find attached two very helpful Fact Sheets on Friday’s announcement regarding the availability of immigration relief for undocumented youth.

These were prepared by Catholic Charities for general distribution.

Flyer – English

Flyer – Spanish

Racial Profiling Tears at our Social Fabric

I just learned that my Op Ed piece on racial profiling was published in an Orangeburg, SC newspaper, the T & D.   It’s a bit dated now, but I hope you find Fr. Sandy’s reflections useful as talking points in your advocacy:

Here’s a photo of Fr. Sandy:

Cardinal Dolan on Immigration

How encouraging that Cardinal Dolan  and the American Bishops are advocating for immigrants.   It reinforces my belief that we Catholics, backed by our Church, should work together for comprehensive immigration reform.

Cardinal Dolan on Immigration

Roberto Belen gives practical advice about immigration to church members. Estemos listos caso de que la ley SB1070 sea aprobada por SCOTUS.

Advocate and court reporter, Roberto Belen, spoke on 4/28/12  at St. John of the Cross Catholic Church in Batesburg, SC.     Addressing both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking audiences, he gave practical advice to both groups in light of the news about immigration recently.   Of special concern is the Arizona law SB 1070 being challenged in federal court.    Please consider sharing these videos in your networks by e-mail and social media.