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Two Sisters of Mercy Nuns Inspire CSLR Students to Work for Structural Change

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By Kyle Cristofalo
09/25/13

“We do things peacefully and respectfully but we never take no for an answer,” said Sister Pat Murphy during a conversation with a group of law and theology students hosted by Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion on September 9 (link to video here). With over four decades of advocacy for immigrant communities in the Chicago area, Sisters Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch are committed to working on behalf of their most vulnerable brothers and sisters. Speaking about her inspiration, Sister Persch drew upon a recent homily by Pope Francis at the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy in Sicily. Often a destination point for refugees from Africa and the Middle East, many have died on the tumultuous journey before ever gaining freedom. In his homily, Pope Francis laments that so many deaths have gone unrecognized and unrecorded, a sign that we have grown indifferent to the suffering of our brothers and sisters who struggle for a better life.

Despite many setbacks over the years, and an increasingly partisan divide in Congress regarding immigration reform, Persch and Murphy remain steadfast in their drive to foster a more just and equitable society. Their tenacity and inability to take no for an answer, resulted in the unanimous passage--in both the state house and senate in Illinois-- of the Access to Religious Ministry Act in 2009. The first of its kind nationwide, this watershed bill requires that any county jail holding immigration detainees in Illinois must permit religious workers reasonable access to visit detainees. The Sisters are now working to see the law enforced, and to establish houses of hospitality for persons released from immigration detention.

Throughout their decades of service to the community, Persch and Murphy bear witness to what can happen when a small, yet committed, group of people dedicate their lives to transforming systems of oppression.  As an illustration, Persch and Murphy recounted the start of a weekly prayer vigil outside of a detention center in Chicago. On a cold Chicago morning in January of 2007, Persch and Murphy battled the bitter weather to join a lone immigration lawyer keeping vigil in front of Broadview Detention Center in Chicago, Illinois. The lawyer, upset about the numerous laws inhibiting him from successfully defending his clients, decided to pray the first Friday of each month.  Witnessing the number of people entering the deportation center, always from a distance, and the struggles they faced, Persch and Murphy soon decided to return each Friday. As word spread of their vigil more people began to join, and now 20-30 people--mostly students-- gather in prayer every Friday at 7:15 a.m. to lift up the struggles of the immigrants facing imminent deportation.  Not content with staying outside of the detention center Persch and Murphy waged a several year campaign to be able to visit detainees in the jail. The campaign was only successful because of their abiding commitment to persist, even when the odds are against them.

Addressing future leaders in law and the church, Persch urged the group always to know that they could make a difference in this world:

“Don’t ever say what can I do?  I’m only one person, or we’re only a small group. Think about us. Sometimes I think of standing there that cold day in January. Now we’re a corporation, a 501(c)3.  We have a couple of hundred volunteers, we’re doing all of this. And it only came because people of faith--but you don’t have to be a person of faith--[realized] there is injustice. And if you don’t speak you’re complicit with a system that is broken and evil. And as the Pope said, who is weeping for these men and women that died coming for freedom? We’ve lost our ability to weep for one another.”

 The remarkable work of Sisters JoAnn Persch and Pat Murphy was recently chronicled in a documentary entitled “Band of Sisters” for more information, visit the website, here. Emory’s Aquinas Center will screen the documentary November 12 from 7:00-9:00 pm. The event is free, though tickets are required. Register here. 

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