Lighting candles of hope
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Maryknoll partners with a nonprofit organization in Chicago to empower immigrants


[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Giovana Soria, photos by Maria Villanueva[/googlefont]

Fernando Rayas understands the plight of immigrants. At the age of 15 and searching for a better life, he migrated alone from Mexico to Texas to live with his aunt.

“When I arrived, I felt that there was a script in society that defined me only as being Mexican or Latino, as something poor, small and insignificant,” says Rayas, now 32. “Part of the script was that I was not going to graduate from college and it was a challenge for me to change that script of my life.” But he did change the script and graduated from college with a degree in social work. Explaining how he overcame the odds and fulfilled his dream, he says, “I think it was my faith in God.”

Now as executive director of the Parish Peace Project (PPP), in Chicago, Ill., he feels God has called him to empower other Latino and immigrant youth to make positive contributions to society and fulfill their dreams. PPP, a nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, works in parishes in the southwest Chicago area to enable young people from low-income and immigrant communities to become Church leaders and peacemakers.

Recently Rayas decided to organize a prayer vigil and community art project in solidarity with immigrants and refugees who face an uncertain future in the United States. This year, with the enforcement of stricter immigration control, the number of arrests of undocumented people, including those without criminal records, has increased from a little more than 16,000 to more than 21,000.

“I thought of God and how challenges are often opportunities to grow in our faith,” says Rayas.

Rayas asked Kevin Foy, director of mission education for the Maryknoll Society’s central region, to collaborate with him on the prayer vigil/art project. Foy, who works at the Maryknoll Mission House in Chicago, was eager to help, seeing the project as a response to the need for peace among immigrants and an expression of Maryknoll’s mission.

Immigrants and parishioners of church in Chicago light candles and pray for the undocumented and refugees during vigil.

Young immigrants and parishioners of Providence of God Church in Chicago light candles and pray for the undocumented and refugees in the United States.

“Part of Maryknoll’s charism is to build bridges of solidarity among marginalized or excluded people to help them recognize that Jesus is present in their lives,” Foy says.

More than 120 people—documented and undocumented immigrants as well as other parishioners—filled Providence of God Church in Chicago, to pray, reflect and dream in solidarity with millions of immigrants and refugees in the United States and throughout the world.

Maryknoll Father Thomas Tiscornia, who serves in South Sudan and was visiting Chicago, welcomed them. He reminded them that in the eyes of Jesus, no one is a stranger and that everyone, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, gender or social status, is worthy to sit at Jesus’ table.

“In Maryknoll,” he said, “we minister to migrants and refugees and cross borders, and our neighbors from around the world welcome us.” He said that in his more than 40 years as a missioner in Africa, he has been treated like a brother.

Kurt Gutfreund, a Holocaust survivor from Germany, and Maryknoll Sister Joanne Doi, whose parents and grandfather were sent to relocation camps for Japanese-Americans on the U.S. West Coast during World War II, shared their stories at the vigil. Both reflected on the similarities between the attitudes of fear and distrust that led to the Holocaust and relocation camps and the current negative attitudes toward immigrants in the United States.

Showing examples from the past, says Foy, can help people think about the present and how to respond. “Let us ask ourselves how Jesus would respond in this situation,” he says. “We want residents to feel compassion and welcome immigrants to recognize God’s love.”

Kevin Foy, director of mission education for the Maryknoll Society's central region at prayer vigil for migrants

Kevin Foy, director of mission education for the Maryknoll Society’s central region, joined participants who attended the prayer vigil and the community art project.

The vigil culminated with participants lighting candles as a reminder of their call to bring light to the world especially in times of darkness and pain and to promote respect for human dignity.

Then participants moved to the parish hall for an art project in which they were invited to express their fears and hopes in a peaceful way. “Art helps to de-stress and communicates feelings,” says Rayas. One activity involved participants writing their worries on a piece of paper and throwing it in the trash.

Another activity put them in groups at tables, each table containing a letter of the word “dreamers.” Working together, they filled their assigned letter with illustrations of their hopes and dreams. Then they joined the letters to form the word DREAMERS, which they displayed at the main entrance of the church, reminding all who enter of immigrants’ right to dream.

Mother and son are engaged in a coloring activity during a community art project, sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Parish Peace Project.

Mother and son are engaged in a coloring activity during the community art project, sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Parish Peace Project.

“People are desperate and they don’t want to talk about their immigration status,” says Rayas. “We offered a community space through our faith.”

Foy says Maryknoll is working with the local community to support initiatives such as Rayas’. “Maryknoll’s mission is to join people who are going through social problems in the world and we have to start at home,” he says.

Rayas and Foy have committed themselves to work together on future projects to empower new missionary leaders in this community.

Featured Image: As the executive director of the Parish PeaceProject in Chicago, Ill., Rayas supports the Hispanic community and empowers young leaders.



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About the author

Giovana Soria

Was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Communication Science/Journalism from the University of San Martín de Porres in Lima. As staff writer, she writes and translates articles for Maryknoll magazine and Misioneros, our Spanish-language publication. Her articles have also appeared in the bilingual magazine ¡OYE! for Hispanic Catholic youth. Her work has received awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. She lives in Rockland County, New York.