November 15, 2016, Oakland, California – Sister Elisabeth Lang, OP, a Dominican Sister of Vietnam and an Adrian Dominican Associate, received a Lifetime Achievement Award for about 40 years of service in resettling refugees.
The award was presented October 21 to Sister Elisabeth during a Grant Awards Luncheon hosted by the Diocese of Oakland’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) at the parish hall of St. Columba Church in Oakland.
“I was very surprised but I’m very humbled by their giving me an award,” Sister Elisabeth said. “I credit it all to the staff who have been working in the [refugee resettlement] program. They’re making everything possible.”
Sister Elisabeth was one of four Vietnamese Dominican Sisters who came to Adrian, Michigan, in 1968 to study at Siena Heights College (now University). She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in education.
Sister Elisabeth had been in Adrian for about five years when Sister Rosemary Ferguson, OP – then Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters – suggested that she minister temporarily with the Vietnamese refugees. “I asked if I could go to the local agency here [in Oakland]. A limited number of people could speak Vietnamese.” What had originally been a temporary assignment of a few months stretched into nearly 40 years of ministry to refugees from numerous nations.
Sister Elisabeth was first able to return to her Congregation in Vietnam in 1991 to celebrate her Silver Jubilee. When she returned to the United States Sister Donna Markham, OP, then on the General Council, suggested that Sister Elisabeth become an Adrian Dominican Associate. She has recently celebrated her Golden Jubilee with her Vietnamese community and her Silver Jubilee as an Adrian Dominican Associate.
Now Director of Refugee Resettlement for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, Sister Elisabeth spent her first years helping to resettle refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other Indochinese countries. About 10 years ago, she said, the Vietnamese coming to the U.S. were regarded as immigrants rather than refugees. In recent years, Sister Elisabeth said, the largest number of refugees who are processed through her office come from Afghanistan – many of them translators and interpreters who had helped the U.S. military in their country.
Sister Elisabeth’s office is one of several Catholic agencies that work with the U.S. government to resettle refugees. Each year, Sister Elisabeth explained, the federal government agrees to take in a certain number of refugees and agencies are assigned a certain number of refugees.
“This year, beginning October 1, we were projected to receive 175 refugees,” Sister Elisabeth said. “In October alone, we worked with 43 people.” Last year, she added, Catholic Charities of the East Bay committed to resettling 150 refugees but instead worked with 173.
Sister Elisabeth’s office works with 18 parishes in the Diocese of Oakland. The parish teams are given very short notice – from one to three weeks – to find a suitable apartment for the family, furnish it, and drive to the airport to pick them up. Refugees also receive orientation to the U.S. culture, assistance in finding employment, help in enrolling in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, health care, and immunization for their children.
“Some refugees who don’t speak English at all need a lot of encouragement,” Sister Elisabeth said. “If they put heart and soul into it, they make great progress.” Other refugees – those who had professional careers as doctors or nurses, for example – need to be recertified in their professions before they can resume work in their field.
Sister Elisabeth is heartened by the many success stories among the refugees. “I love the work I’m doing,” she said. “You see the people coming in exhausted and worried, but we’re here to walk with the people and help them to get the resources they need to feel comfortable in going to school, learning English, and finding jobs.”
Among the success stories are members of Sister Elisabeth’s staff. “We have a staff that speaks different languages and in many cases were refugees themselves,” she said. “They experienced being a refugee themselves, so they can help empower the refugees to go through the same process.”
“I never thought I would spend my whole life out here, but I love the work I’m doing and it’s a challenge, too,” Sister Elisabeth reflected. “Seeing a lot of successful families and individual people is very encouraging. I feel honored to work with and serve them, to walk with them and help them in whatever way I can.”
Read a related article in The Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Diocese of Oakland.
Feature photo: Bishop Emeritus John S. Cummins presents Sister Elisabeth Lang, OP, with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo by Albert C. Pacciorini, Courtesy of The Catholic Voice
November 15, 2016, Chicago – When Sister Jamie Phelps, OP, PhD, presented a workshop last month to Pax Christi Illinois on “Biblical and Catholic Social Teachings’ Response to Racial Violence,” she was continuing a long-time, deep involvement with the national Catholic peace organization, Pax Christi USA (PCUSA).
For the past two years, under a grant procured by PCUSA, Sister Jamie has been traveling to local Pax Christi groups in the East, Midwest, and South – including Barry University in Miami – helping them to recruit Black and Latino Catholics to their membership. She received this charge from Sister Patricia Chappell, SNDdeN, also a Black Catholic, Executive Director of PCUSA, whom Sister Jamie has mentored.
The original grant has run its course, but PCUSA has applied for another grant to continue this work.
In the workshop, “We Grow Together: Catholic Communities of Color and PCUSA,” Sister Jamie outlines the contributions of Black and Latino Catholics and offers theological reflection. Participants have the opportunity to discuss what they have heard, identify a social justice issue pertinent to their area, and identify local Black and Latino Catholics who could become members of their Pax Christi group and help in efforts to address the issue.
In her visits around the country, Sister Jamie has noted that formerly all-white suburban parishes have pockets of Black, Latino, and Asian parishioners.
“I’m not seeing totally white churches as I used to see,” she noted. “What this speaks to is the reality that we … gravitate toward our homogenous groups. We have to figure out how to bring folks of various cultural and ethnic groups together.”
The workshops presented to the Pax Christi chapters helped participants to “reflect on their behavior and choices, like reading the signs of the times, but doing it locally,” she explained. “If we don’t reach out across racial lines, we tend to accept the stereotypes [about ethnic groups]. But if you work with people of other races you see how similar we are.”
The social segregation of various Catholic ethnic groups is foreign to Sister Jamie, who grew up attending Catholic school with students of other ethnic groups – Irish, Italian, German, Polish. “When I was learning about the different ethnic cultures, their feast days and dances, I found that they’re as human as I am human,” Sister Jamie said. “You have to choose to relate. I choose to live in a multicultural neighborhood because how can I relate to my brother who is different in a homogenous neighborhood, where everybody thinks like I do, looks like I look?”
While ethnocentrism – taking pride in one’s own ethnic group – is healthy, it can be problematic if it means closing oneself off from other groups and other ways of looking at the world.
To Christians, Sister Jamie said, being brothers and sisters to people throughout the world is not a metaphor but a reality.
“If we all have God as Father and Mother, then we are all brothers and sisters – but we are estranged. We’ve let all of these different lenses that we use alienate us from our brothers and sisters,” she explained. “While diversity is a gift from God, we use our differences as walls or barriers rather than enrichment.”
For this reason, Sister Jamie relishes the parish Bible Study programs she has been leading. She facilitates two local groups using the Little Rock Scripture Study program – allowing participants to come together and discuss their own understanding of Scripture.
“When we come together, we can come to a new truth, a fuller truth,” Sister Jamie said. “We can never discover everything about God, but if you tell me about your experience of God and I tell you about mine we get a fuller understanding of who God is and a fuller understanding of who Jesus is.”
Sister Jamie has great respect for the work of Pax Christi International, PCUSA, and the local chapters of the organization. “It’s a delightful organization, trying to do justice ministry, particularly looking at issues that come up. They’re very timely in their responses to unjust events.” She said the mission of Pax Christi aligns well with the Mission, Vision, and recent Enactments of the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
An Adrian Dominican Sister since 1959, Sister Jamie is a freelance theologian and lecturer, facilitating Bible study at St. Ambrose and St. Thomas the Apostle Parishes in Chicago. She served for eight years as the Director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies and the Katharine Drexel Professor of Systematic Theology at Xavier University in New Orleans. Before that, she had taught theology in the Chicago-based Catholic Theological Union (CTU) from 1986 to 1998 and Loyola University, 1998 to 2003. Sister Jamie has also served as a visiting professor of theology at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, from January to May, 2003, and twice at the University of Notre Dame: in 2005-2006 and 2012-2013.
Sister Jamie has also been engaged in other ministries: theology instructor in a catechetical training program for African American Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago; a psychiatric social worker and community organizer at Chicago Child Care Society; a theology teacher at Aquinas High School in Chicago; and a pastoral associate at three Catholic parishes in Chicago: St. Columbanus, Holy Cross, and St. Laurence.