By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Team members from the Davenport Diocese’s Social Action Office were among 1,000 participants from 120 dioceses participating in a virtual conference to address domestic and global challenges affecting the most vulnerable people at home and abroad.
During the three-day Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (Feb. 6-9), the participants listened to leading voices in the Catholic Church and society, attended workshops with policy experts and grassroots community leaders, shared best practices and tapped into Catholic social ministry resources. After honing their skills in workshops and lectures, the participants engaged in virtual advocacy visits with their members of Congress or their staffs.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, organized the gathering and focused on three priorities for the advocacy effort: COVID-19 relief that meets the needs of the poor and vulnerable, poverty-reducing international assistance, and immigration reform. “We will pray, learn and advocate together on the disparities revealed by COVID-19 and new models for justice and solidarity,” the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering website stated.
“Though attending a virtual conference is different than one in person, it has afforded folks an opportunity to attend who might not otherwise be able to,” said Kent Ferris, diocesan Social Action Office director. He and other members of his team — Esmeralda Guerrero, Loxi Hopkins, Glenn Leach, Amy Kersten and Catholic Campaign for Human Development intern Dallas Feuerbach — participated in the virtual conference. Sister Nancy Miller, a Dubuque Franciscan, joined them.
“I’ve heard very positive things about the conference sessions and the opportunity to connect with the United States senators and representatives for our diocese through legislative visits,” said Kersten, a Social Action Office volunteer. Racial justice and food and housing insecurity were areas of particular interest to her. “These are areas I focus on personally and in my volunteer work for the Social Action Office.” Her take-away from the conference: “We must personally be ready to hear some hard truths in order to work toward equity. Many organizations supported by the Catholic Church, walking the walk.”
Guerrero, the Social Action Office’s administrative assistant, said the conference inspired her. She especially appreciated being able to share her insights during the legislative visits.
Hopkins, a longtime volunteer in the Social Action Office, has participated in the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in person, but travel costs kept her away in recent years. The virtual conference re-energized her because of insights she gained from speakers on police reform, juvenile justice reform and immigration reform.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s talk during the opening session set the tone. “He had this look on his face that was pure joy. You could feel the presence of God in him,” Hopkins said. “His message was about having a concern for people who have less than we do, people all over the world. Most of the conference concentrated on looking at the whole world and looking at everyone in the world as our concern.”
During the legislative visits, she and Catholics from the four dioceses in Iowa spoke with staffers for U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Senators Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst. The senators could not participate because of the impeachment trial and Miller-Meeks had airline issues that prevented her participation, Hopkins said. However, the visits with staffers were invaluable. “We felt like they were taking us very seriously as representatives of the U.S. bishops.”
A staff member for Sen. Grassley said the senator would be interested in DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) legislation, Hopkins said. Earlier this month, Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced Dream Act legislation that would give DACA recipients — who arrived in this country as children with their parents but without documents — the opportunity to pursue a path toward citizenship. The conference participants and senators’ staffers agreed to continue dialogue on issues of interest to the participants and their congressional delegation.
Hopkins said she hopes to use what she learned about police reform to share with the police and civic leaders in the diocese. She stressed that the topic is not about defunding police departments but about using policing resources effectively, such as social workers in schools as an alternative to police officers serving as resource officers.
She hopes the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering will continue to offer a virtual conference because it brings so many people together, who are “on the same page. They all see social justice as evangelizing and they see the importance of social ministry in our dioceses,” Hopkins said. “It’s about meeting needs, not just physical needs but the need for people to have a voice in society.”