The Leadership Conference of Women Religious originally considered a grand party — such as a boat ride down the Hudson River — to note the organization’s 50th anniversary, Sister Jane Schur recalled.
Instead, "We said, ‘Look, that’s not what it’s all about. Jubilee justice is what it’s about,’" said Sister Schur, vice-president of the Sisters of Mercy of Rochester.
Thus, the festive angle gave way to the conference’s true identity — embracing social-justice issues. That priority resonates with Sister Kathy Weider, SSJ, who said she’s "very, very excited" that LCWR leaders opted to "commit themselves to prayer, fasting, education and action" for the jubilee.
As it turned out, the specific cause chosen — justice for immigrants — was serendipitous. Many of the activities planned by LCWR have dovetailed with a flurry of recent public and political debate on the issue.
"It is wonderful timing and very providential," Sister Weider said. "God is good, you know?"
Sisters Schur and Weider serve as the Rochester diocesan coordinators for LCWR, a coalition of leadership teams from women’s congregations across the country. Founded in 1956, the conference represents more than 70,000 sisters in 450 religious orders, and advocacy is among its primary functions. In addition to immigration, LCWR has tackled such issues as the war in Iraq; presidential elections; ecological sustainability; and nuclear weapons.
"We’ve been for peace throughout this (50-year) time frame. It unites the women religious in a way that gives us a stronger voice for the voiceless. That’s basically what we’re all about," Sister Schur said. "We need to be in where we can make a difference for them."
These days, the voiceless people LCWR represents are undocumented laborers and their families. The conference vehemently opposes an immigration bill sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This legislation is a revised version of a bill passed in December 2005 by the House of Representatives. That bill, known as H.R. 4437, would make residing in the United States illegally a federal crime while also levying a felony against anyone who assists undocumented people.
Sister Schur refers to H.R. 4437 as "that terrible bill passed in the House, which was so punitive. ‘Throw ’em out’ — that was the whole thrust of it." She added that she knows a number of people who have been, or would be, affected by legislation limiting the rights of workers, often creating situations in which working and living conditions are substandard and families are separated.
LCWR is lobbying Congress to instead adopt a comprehensive immigration-reform bill proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Among other provisions, this bill would provide a path toward lawful residence and citizenship for undocumented laborers and their families, as well as a guest-worker program.
Rochester LCWR members sponsored an educational session on immigration March 15 at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse. In the ensuing days they delivered letters to legislators in support of the McCain-Kennedy Bill, and participated in a local April 10 rally linked to a nationwide demonstration against H.R. 4437.
LCWR’s Region II — comprising congregations throughout New York state — also gathered at Stella Maris Retreat Center in Skaneateles April 24-26. As part of the retreat they convened for a peaceful demonstration outside the Federal Building in Syracuse April 25, before processing to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for Mass.
Sister Weider said strides for immigrants can best be made through such grassroots advocacy as that practiced by LCWR.
"Once people have the information and they see exactly how repressive that first bill (H.R. 4437) is, it’s not hard for people to see this is outrageous," she said.
Other campaign components also are helping raise the decibel level of LCWR’s voice. Sister Schur noted that Sister Gaye Moorehead, president of her congregation, is a former immigration lawyer. Immigration has also become a top priority for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and on April 14 the bishops of New York state issued their own statement, opposing the "criminalizing of immigrants."
"All these threads are coming together," Sister Schur said.