Standup Sisters: Border Crossings with Sister Janice Vanderneck, CSJ

While America’s now wrestling with immigration policy, Catholic sisters have been the ‘boots on the ground’ of foreign and domestic aid for centuries. In Pittsburgh, Sister of St. Joseph of Baden Janice Vanderneck has been a leading advocate for the Latino community.

Read more about her efforts in the Global Sisters Report and Storyburgh.

Here’s her story thanks to Unabridged Press and their #NCSW2017 mini-grant supported event Standup Sisters: Border Crossings.

Sister Janice Vanderneck, CSJ:
Buenas tardes. Good evening. There's an expression that when your heart's desire meets the world's greatest need there is your bliss. And I think that that has a lot to do with the story of my vocation. I'm a sister of St. Joseph. I blame the part about the passion for speaking Spanish and Latin American culture on my mom because when I was five years old she entered me into dance class and this number that we did was called Down South American Way and she made me this darling costume, satin and ruffles just like Chiquita banana you know. And the whole class of us danced the Down South American Way and I think that's where my passion or my heart's desire for Spanish and Latino culture began.

 I took every chance I could all through school to learn more and more Spanish. I just loved how those R's would roll off my tongue so I just I studied as much of it as I could. The other passion I found that I had was these stories about Jesus. Jesus was so amazing. And the sisters lived their lives dedicated to him and they were happy. The Sisters Sister Barbara worked at St. Bernard school in Indiana Pennsylvania.

That's where I met the Sisters of St. Joseph and they would you know play tricks on me. They would say well 'OK, you want to be a sister we'll give you lists of vocabulary words to learn'. And one of the first ones you should learn is impetuous because that's what you are. And they had me, 'Well you know a good sister would know how to clean a basement so we'll have you cleaning our basement'. So they really took it. So the sisters were fun and they gave their lives to Jesus who gave his life for us. I thought what what better thing could there be. So, this Spanish and this living your life for God led me to join the Sisters of St. Joseph.

And I studied Spanish and became you know a teacher of Spanish but always in my heart a desire to actually go where where this culture was lived in this language was spoken equally. And many of you will remember this. There were some very significant events in our lives as Catholics. Vatican 2. Well first of all Pope John 23rd wasn't wasn't he extraordinary. And then Vatican 2. And what happened in Latin America was extraordinary because of Vatican 2 bishops and catechists began to look at the reality in Latin America and saw that there was a huge difference between those who had, and they had everything, and those who had not. And they were by the thousands who had not and many times indigenous peoples and vast difference between the rich and the poor and the bishops realized and met at a place called Medellín in Colombia in 1968 and they realized that you've heard the song 'The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor' and they decided that we must live.The church must live in the midst of this reality. The preferential option for the poor and that is what really you know inspired my life. The preferential option of the poor that I learned. I learned far more when I went to Latin America.

Our Sisters, Sister Barbara and I were missionaries in the Amazon in Brazil and there we speak Portuguese and we were there in the Amazon at a time when all of this teaching about base Christian community, about reflecting on the reality, reading the scripture, and learning what is that, what direction is that giving you fruit for your life in faith and with the people with whom we worked our main message was 'You are dignified in the eyes of God you are loved and you deserve to live a life that is sustainable. You deserve to get an adequate price for your fish for your crops your coffee'.  You should not have to beg the merchant for food for your baby's stomach'. So I learned all that in the Amazon and was very grateful for it. Then I came home back home to the United States and found that I just not just could not get over this passion in my heart for what I had learned in Latin America and for working directly with the people.

So I had the tremendous opportunity to be invited to act, volunteer of course, in social service ministry for the Diocese of Pittsburgh with the growing Latino community and that started in 2003. Pittsburgh always had a substantial number of professional Latinos from Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, some from Mexico. They worked in the hospitals. They were engineers, researchers, doctors, but suddenly you know at least now it would be 20 years ago the labor class started to come in to the city and to the surroundings.

There was a mass in Spanish. They found their way to that mass in Spanish and then they began asking the padre 'Can you please help me. My wife is pregnant. I don't know where to get go to get her care or my children are in school and I don't know how to talk to the teacher or you know where can I find enough food for my family or a place to live'.

So the padre soon became overwhelmed with all these requests and that's when I had the opportunity to start working with this population, since 2003. I have learned from this experience, from these beautiful people, what it is to live in this country as an undocumented immigrant. An immigrant who crosses the southern border without inspection, without visa papers, giving them permission to be here. And there are push factors and pull factors of why they come. And most of it has to do with poverty. No options for your family, no options for your children to have school or health care in your home country. And more so now. Tremendous violence from gangs and risk for your life.

So I understand, I understand why they come. I do wish that we could come up with some kind of a miracle that could help improve conditions in their home countries. But for right now, the way the world is, we have these folks among us. And I am so grateful to God and the Sisters of St. Joseph. That I and the wonderful staff that I work with, our agency is called Casa San Jose, that we are able to walk alongside these folks, accompany them, and provide whatever we can, for the moment, for them to feel welcome and them to feel loved.

And the story that I will end with is the story of Martin Esquivel. His story has become very public. It's been in the press a lot. He was a real, active community member in our Latino community. He took part in actually leading focus groups for our Latino needs assessment. He organized other Latino people whose children went to Arsenal grade school where there is a English as a second language component. He brought his kids to catechism at our church where we have mass in Spanish. Very involved. And here he was driving a vehicle that had I believe expired plates and the police stopped him for that of course, but then they called immigration and he was taken on May 2nd of this past year. And he just recently was deported. We walked the walk with him and his family, he has three beautiful kids and his wife here in Pittsburgh and we walked the walk with them. We went to the district attorney, begged that there be clemency for him because he was such an active member and such a good man. But, they kept to the rules, the Federal Attorney kept to the rules, immigration kept to the rules and that man was deported. But, right now we find ourselves at a place in this country where many many poor, more people face that risk. And so I'm grateful for this opportunity to tell my story. I'm grateful that God has given me the gift of doing what my heart's desire is. I ask you to be well informed of the issues and do whatever you can to reach out to welcome immigrants and refugees among us. And I think our country will be the more vibrant for it. 

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