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Sisters Report on Experience at Border of Mexico and Arizona

January 26, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Six Adrian Dominican Sisters were among hundreds of justice and human rights activists who learned about the injustice, violence, and militarization at the U.S. border with Mexico – and who expressed their solidarity and support with those afflicted by the injustice. 

The Sisters had taken personal time for reflection on this eye-opening experience before sharing their experience on January 22. 

For the second year, Adrian Dominican Sisters traveled to Nogales, Arizona, to participate in the Schools of the Americas (SOA) Watch Encuentro (Encounter) at the Border, November 10-12, 2017. Participating in the event were Sisters Judith Benkert, OP, Patricia Erickson, OP, Anne Guinan, OP, Michelle Salalila, OP, Helen Sohn, OP, and Marilyn Winter, OP.

The Sisters’ participation in the Encuentro and their recent presentation on the experience were coordinated by Sister Kathleen Nolan, OP, Director of the Congregation’s Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation.

Sister Marilyn Winter, OP, pauses at the turnstile at the Mexican border.

The recent experience at the border “was much more of a witness to our solidarity with people who are coming across the border,” while the annual event at Fort Benning was “much more of a demonstration,” Sister Marilyn explained. For 26 years SOA Watch hosted annual vigils and protests at Fort Benning, Georgia, to protest the School of Americas there that taught Latin American military leaders skills such as counter-insurgency, military intelligence, and psychological warfare. In 2016, the organization begin hosting the Encuentros at the Mexican-U.S. border to call attention to the militarization of the area.

The Sisters began their Encuentros experience at the Eloy Detention Center, where immigrants accused of being in the United States illegally are held indefinitely, surrounded by the desert and four layers of razor-wire fencing. Sister Judith described the sense of solidarity as the group listened to music and poetry readings and, light-sticks in hand, walked in the desert evening to the detention center. In response to their chants of “You are not alone,” the detainees turned their lights off and on, Sister Judith recalled.

The rest of the Encuentro took place at the 18-foot, metal wall between Nogales, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico. “I thought I would find the wall much more depressing than I found it because of the space between the bars,” Sister Anne said. The space allows people to reach out and touch one another through the wall.

During the Saturday morning rally – with stages for music and speakers on both sides of the wall – the Adrian Dominican group split up. Three Sisters crossed to the Mexican side to experience the friendliness of the people, as well as artwork depicting the experience of crossing into the United States. They returned to the Hotel Americana in Arizona on time to join the others in attending workshops about the conditions and justice issues in the border area. 

In one workshop, “Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico,” Sister Helen learned of the correlation between the increasing sale by the U.S. of ammunition, explosives, gun parts, and military firearms to Mexico, according to a study by the American Friends Service Committee. “The U.S. is not the only country selling arms to the Mexican government, but the U.S. has the biggest role in Mexico’s militarization,” she said.

Another workshop focused on “The Migrant Trail,” a program that helps people to share the experience of migrants who flee into the Sonora Desert in Arizona to find a new life in the United States. Many of the bodies of migrants who died in the desert are never identified, Sister Patricia said. “Participants say there is no way to replicate the experience of the migrants walking through the Sonora Desert, but [the Migrant Trail] does give some idea of what the migrants endured – and reason to advocate for change across the border,” she explained.

Sister Judith Benkert, OP, at the wall on the Mexican side, is surrounded by art work.

The experience culminated on Sunday morning with a rally on both sides of the wall – a time for integration, reflection, and prayer, Sister Marilyn said. After an hour dedicated to poetry and music, participants chanted a long list of names of people who had died while crossing the desert into the United States, or who had been killed by military forces trained by the SOA. The closing session also included scenes with puppetistas – huge puppets on tall poles – including the hopeful scene of two puppetistas shaking hands over the wall.

Referring to the Adrian Dominican Congregation’s Mission, Vision, and General Chapter statements, Sister Patricia explained her reason for participating in Encuentro. “As Dominicans of Adrian, we state that we are outraged by the injustices of our day,” she said. “We pledge our lives to work with people who are relegated to the margins. We state we will advocate for systemic change. This is why I participated in the SOA Watch this year. When I do not educate myself on the issues of the day, when I do not demand systemic change, then I am complicit.”

Below, view a recording of the entire presentation made by the Sisters on January 22, 2018.


Literacy Center Founder Sister Mary Hemmen Receives Distinguished Service Award from Detroit

January 26, 2018, Detroit – Sister Mary Hemmen, OP, founder of two literacy centers based in Detroit, recently received a Distinguished Service Award from the city for her contributions to the community. 

After being a traditional classroom teacher, Sister Mary turned to adult education when she founded Siena Literacy Center in Detroit in 1995. Building upon that success, she was also instrumental in founding All Saints Literacy Center, which opened in 2015 in a predominantly Hispanic section of Detroit.

“Sister Mary has been a champion for adult education for many years and has inspired numerous volunteers, tutors, and staff,” said Roger Frank, Director of All Saints. “All Saints Literacy Center is forever in debt to her for her work at the Center, and we continue to grow our program as one that has high standards that she set.”

Roger worked with members of the Board of Directors to obtain the Distinguished Service Award for Sister Mary. He contacted Raquel Castañeda-López, Council woman for All Saints’ district.

In his letter to the council, Roger wrote that Sister Mary “is a person who has given so much of her time and talent assisting Detroiters and has never sought any recognition. Sister Mary has worked tirelessly for the adults in Detroit who have struggles with literacy. Her work continues through the many volunteer tutors at Siena Literacy Center and All Saints Literacy Center.” 

Although the Detroit City Council announced the award in November 2017, Sister Mary only recently received the certificate, just days before she died on January 25, 2018.

“I never stopped teaching,” she said in an interview after receiving the award. “Very often I worked with the learners.” She also served as mentor to the staff and on the Board of Directors. 

Siena and All Saints are among the seven literacy centers sponsored by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. The centers offer free tutoring and other services to people who seek to improve their skills in the English language – either native English speakers or people in the English as a Second Language program.

Sister Mary noted that she “loved every minute” of her work in the two literacy centers, adding that the need for these services is increasing.

Donna Nesbitt, Executive Director of Siena Literacy Center said Sister Mary was a “champion of those in need of literacy skills necessary to improve their lives and the lives of their families.. She was tireless and tenacious in her efforts to secure funding, materials and supplies necessary to do this most important work.”

Mary Francis, former member of the Siena Literacy Center Advisory Board and Board of Directors, spoke of her delight in working with Sister Mary. “Sister Mary was no fuss, no drama, kind, and compassionate, a dedicated, professional educator who did her absolute best to ensure everyone felt welcome and respected… Many people's lives were changed as a result of Siena Literacy Center. Sister Mary believed in the power of education to reduce poverty and she believed in the city of Detroit. Thank God for her efforts.”

From left, Roger Frank, Director of All Saints Literacy Center; Sister Mary Hemmen, OP; and Chris Verklan, administrative assistant at All Saints Literacy Center in Detroit.



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