Sisters welcome Latinos
By Greg Eckerle
“The Hispanics in the area definitely are a vulnerable part of our population,” says Sister Joan Scheller. “They don’t often feel accepted, welcomed, or valued. They are more used to being excluded than invited. They are sometimes fearful to really be who they are.”
But the Ferdinand Benedictines are making inroads in changing all of that. For the past two years, Sister Joan has been directing the sisters’ Latino Outreach and Immigration Services programs. She offers low cost immigration services from her monastery office, and also sets up various events each year customized to the Hispanic population that has drawn many to the monastery grounds.
And once the Latinos are there, the time-honored Benedictine hospitality is ready to greet them. “We as the sisters offer them warmth, we offer them peace, and we offer them a smile, even if some can’t say anything in their language,” says Sister Joan, who also speaks fluent Spanish. “We offer Latinos a place to come, and it sometimes eases their burden of feeling isolated.”
She enjoys the questions of the Latinos who visit the monastery grounds for the first time. What is this place? Who are the Sisters of St. Benedict? What do you do here? Sister Joan fills them in. Then, invariably, they ask: You mean we can come here to church and pray? We can come to the grounds, to Grotto Hill, and pray, without permission? Of course. That’s why it’s here.
Sister Joan especially enjoys when the Latinos return. After a Marian Devotion Day last May, she recalled seeing some Hispanic families about a month later at the same Grotto Hill location, lighting candles and praying. Sometimes she’ll see flowers that have been left at the Guadalupe statue, just like Latinos do at the real Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico. “It just makes me feel good,” she says, “that through our events they feel they have a place where they can go, just to pray. Yes, they have their parishes, but this is a different space and a different welcome.”
Periodically she will receive a phone call from Latino visitors: “Sister, we were over praying at the Guadalupe statue. We didn’t see you, but just wanted to let you know we were there.” The comments are a testimony to the space and welcoming environment the sisters strive to create.
Sister Joan also is accredited by the U.S. Department of Justice to serve legal needs in matters of family immigration law, to determine eligibility for certain benefits. This includes helping people prepare and apply for a citizenship interview and test. Successes there have created some very rewarding moments for her. Some Latinos she’s helped, upon walking out of the Indianapolis office knowing they passed citizenship requirements, will phone her, saying, “Sister, I got it! Sister, I got it!” “It’s so exciting for them,” says Sister Joan, smiling broadly. “It’s enjoyable for me, too, when I can help them maneuver through a very complicated process.”
Father Carmelo Jimenez, pastor at St. Michael Archangel Parish in Sebree, Kentucky, is one who was successfully helped by Sister Joan. A fellow parishioner had recommended her to him. “The reason I came to her was because there was a lot of paperwork, and I didn’t want it be wrong,” he says. “I gave her all the information and she did it for me. She also prepared me for the interviews with immigration officials. It’s very hard to fill out the application forms, especially for the poor people, because lawyers are too expensive to go to. Many (Latinos) don’t speak English, they need somebody to speak in Spanish. So a lot of people go to her because it’s cheaper and she can speak Spanish and translate for them. There’s a lot of help from her to the people.”
There’s also how much a Benedictine cares.
“As sisters, we do ministry a little differently than what a lawyer would do,” says Sister Joan. “I don’t know that a lawyer goes to bed at night worrying about somebody who’s stuck in Mexico, whereas I do. It’s because we get personally involved in people’s lives. They’re not just a client, or a number. We care about them.” Whenever someone goes for a citizenship interview, she puts a notice on the sisters’ prayer board, so the entire community is praying that all goes well.
She currently has 44 cases in process. While some are relatively simple, others can take two to three years to complete. She wrapped up about 50 cases in 2016. Over 400 immigrants were aided by her office in fiscal year 2015-2016, including phone and office consultations. So there is a lot of work, but more help is on the way – Sister Michelle Sinkhorn, who already assists in tracking cases, is in the process of getting certified.
Elena Vicente, a parishioner at Our Lady of Hope in Washington, Indiana, is a fan of both the immigration services and the outreach programs. “All the programs and the immigration work Sister Joan has done have been a benefit for the community,” she says. “She’s really helpful in filling out the immigration papers. She’s always willing to help in anything she can. She’s a really great resource, someone we can always count on. We’ve always been thankful for her.
“I loved the women’s weekend retreat that we stayed in Ferdinand for. Another program, the Day of the Dead, was great for the families there. People said they enjoyed it, that they learned more about God with Sister Joan. I’m so happy to go there and continue my faith.”
When Sister Joan, late in her ministry career in 2009, agreed to study immigration law, she initially wondered why she had taken on such a task. But she didn’t question herself for long. “It was what was needed for the area,” she says. “That was what inspired me to do it. We sisters are drawn towards the marginalized. We have a sensitivity to those who struggle. We try to care for them in a special way. And we also do it because our mission statement says we seek God through hospitality and service to others, and because Benedict calls us to receive the stranger, and the poor, as Christ.
“Working with the Latinos is a spiritual gift that has helped me. To see life not always as something that needs to be fixed, but something that just needs to be lived. To be able to deepen my own trust in God, and trust in others. The community has been graced, I think, by the presence of the Latinos.”
The sisters offer various faith formation events in the Spanish language every year. Those days are family-oriented and enable Latinos to express their Catholic faith through their culture and traditions. About 166 Latinos participated in the outreach programs at the monastery in fiscal year 2015-2016.