News | Live Stream | Contact Us
Employment | Donate
April 20, 2020, Flint, Michigan – Women in the Commercial Sewing program of St. Luke NEW Life Center are putting their training as seamstresses, their skills, and eight hours per day to good use: making cloth masks to keep the people of Flint and a variety of social service agencies and churches safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also continuing its outreach to the most vulnerable in the community by offering food to those in need.
Since its founding in 2002 by Sisters Carol Weber, OP, and Judy Blake, CSJ, St. Luke NEW Life Center has served the needs of the people on the North Side of Flint, Michigan. Its Employment-Preparation program teaches job skills such as commercial sewing to “structurally-unemployable” residents of Flint.
The Center’s sewing business, in compliance with the stay-at-home executive order of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, has put aside making its routine products, such as medical apparel. In its place, six of the Commercial Sewing employees have agreed to sew masks for organizations that order them for their staff and clients.
Sister Carol said she received a request for 1,000 masks from the CEO of the Mass Transit Authority (MTA) of Flint and Genesee County to keep staff members and passengers safe. They have since received orders for masks from businesses, churches, and social service agencies from as far away as Harbor Beach, Michigan.
The goal is for the women to sew 10,000 masks – including 7,500 that they will make specifically for the people of Flint, with material provided by a local foundation.
Sister Carol said some of the women sew at the Center, while others have opted to sew from home, enabling them to watch their children. Those who sew from home receive a weekly packet of material previously donated to the Center, thread, and elastic. At the end of each week, the women bring in the masks and receive a packet for the next week.
The women receive a weekly paycheck for making the masks, but the project means more to them than money. “The one thing I’ve heard them say over and over is, ‘I’m glad I can help somebody – that what I’m doing is helping somebody stay alive,” Sister Carol said.
“The project has brought us to a different level of awareness,” Sister Carol said. “When we talked about the people who are going to receive these masks, we decided that as a company we would be praying while we’re sewing for the people who are going to receive it and the people they’ll be working with.”
The St. Luke NEW Life Center is also serving as a food source for the people on the North Side of Flint. The Center purchases the food from a local food bank and, every Friday, distributes a bag of food – along with a bar of soap – to families who line up in their cars or on foot. “Last Friday they were lined up for four blocks,” Sister Carol said.
This is a new form of food distribution for the Center, which, before the outbreak of the pandemic, had served meals in the building, giving people a safe place to eat and to socialize. The Center has had to suspend that service because of the difficulty it would pose in social distancing.
But simply giving people food to take home without that safe place to eat has been a difficult adjustment, Sister Carol said. “One of the things we wanted over the years was that this be a place of safety,” she explained. “We’ve done so well that they want to get out of their cars and come here to congregate – and we have to tell them to stay in their cars. It’s very hard because this has always been a safe place for them.”
In light of COVID-19, Sister Carol said the Center has had to take much into consideration in its service to the people of Flint, both in food distribution and in the mask-sewing project. “We have to look at our people and our volunteers,” she said. “We have to keep them safe as well.” She noted that 95 percent of the people served by the Center are African American, a population with a disproportionately high rate of death from the virus.
The Center also takes special precautions in the commercial sewing work area. “We wash everything down three times a day,” Sister Carol explained. “Everybody has access to masks, and they’re close to bathrooms so they can wash their hands."
In spite of the complexities of reaching out to the most vulnerable in the Flint community, Sister Carol sees many reasons to hope. “We want to do our part in helping everybody we can,” she said. “It’s the prayerfulness that really governs our time together, not only to work but also to pray – and that’s a saving factor right now.”
Through the years, Sister Carol said, the people of Flint have learned to rely on each other, and COVID-19 confirms that interdependence. “We try to help as much as we can, and other agencies do, too,” she said. “We’re not standing alone in this at all."
Sister Carol hopes that the pandemic will change people for the better. “One of the things it’s taught me is how dependent we need to be on each other, and how positive people can be in the middle of a pandemic.”
The Center also appreciates help from the greater community. The NEW Life Center always needs donations of materials to help them sew the masks and other projects, as well as monetary donations to help with its many programs for the people of Flint.
Adrian Dominican Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP, Justice Coordinator for the School Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, both based in Milwaukee, will be riding for the first several days on NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus 2018 route, “On the Road to Mar-a-Lago.” Held for the past few years in the months before a national election, Nuns on the Bus is a program of Town Hall Meetings for Justice, visits to legislators, rallies, and site visits at local social service or justice advocacy agencies. This year’s goal is to “tell the truth about the Republican Tax Law and hold elected officials accountable for their votes.” The tour began October 7 with a pre-launch reception in Los Angeles and a kick-off rally the next morning in Santa Monica, California. Read Sister Durstyne’s daily blog of her experiences with Nuns on the Bus.
The Journey Ends with a Sense of Community
October 11, 2018
By Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP
We began our day at the Human Services Campus, a 13-acre oasis on the edge of Phoenix. It is a place of hope for the hopeless and homeless – a city unto itself with complete wrap-around services. It is an awe-inspiring campus.
Services include a dental clinic with state-of-the-art equipment; a documentation service to secure birth certificates and other documents required to secure certain services; a 400-bed shelter for men and women; a post office; a job employment center; and an outdoor space where people can relax while preparing for their next appointment. The center also serves breakfast and lunch. The staff is dedicated to helping the clients to become whole again and to secure a better future for themselves.
The morning was so rich, we couldn’t stop talking about this innovative approach to serving the needs of this population.
We drove for two hours to meet with C.J. Karamargin, of the Tucson office of U.S. Representative Martha McSally (R-Arizona). The meeting was pleasant but challenging as we tried to learn the reasoning of Rep. McSally’s votes on health insurance, which have jeopardized many of her constituents. We tried to determine how the tax policy has impacted the citizens of Tucson in other ways, but C.J. focused on increased construction of housing and increased job opportunities. We didn’t have time to ask him if these were affordable housing units or if the wages had been increased as well.
Feeling somewhat dissatisfied, as he did, we found a small rally near our bus. There, we met with people from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who told us that they had visited Rep. McSally’s office more than 172 times. When they heard that the Nuns on the Bus were coming, they quickly rallied activists to come and support us as we were supporting them. They even brought a cooler of cold drinks for us to take on our journey.
I am not from a union family, as my father owned his own bar in a little town with few employees. But my love for unions has grown since I met the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas and now the people of ACLU, who are working tirelessly for the benefit of their families now and into the future. It has been eye opening for me to learn what unions do and, most of all, the incredible community they create among themselves.
This ideal of community is one of the most important messages of the Nuns on the Bus. We are trying to communicate the message of “We the People” to whomever we meet. We cannot be a country of only individuals looking after our individual needs. We need to understand the significance of community. “We the People” together is what is going to make a difference. “We vote, we win” is my new slogan, thanks to these union workers.
After supper, we moved on to our last Town Hall in Tucson. The energy was unbelievable. More than 300 people came to experience the message of the Nuns on the Bus. The visual image of the impact of this tax policy helped them to understand the astronomical $1.9 trillion tax deficit, as well as the ways in which the wealthiest 1 percent of the population has benefited and continues to benefit under this new tax policy passed by the House.
The night ended with several conversations and the commitment by the participants to work for policy change in our country. Many signed the pledge cards and the bus.
This was the last event of the first week of the Nuns on the Bus. I can’t put into exact words what the experience was like, but it was powerful. It was a time of community in all aspects, from prayer together first thing in the morning, to meals, rides, conversations, and sharing the message of hope for the country. Many of us did not know one another, but we became an incredible team of women with a stronger commitment to our pursuit for justice.
The Nuns on the Bus picked up in Denver, Colorado, on Sunday, October 14, and will continue through several states to bring the message of hope that “We the People” can overcome this desperate time.
Thanks for joining me on this journey. I am so privileged to have been a part of the Nuns on the Bus. Let us continue to pray for the women who will continue on to Mar-a-Lago, Florida, on November 2.
View more blogs and video of the 2018 Nuns on the Bus tour.
Town Hall Discussions on Issues and Solutions
October 10, 2018
Today started out in the most unique fashion. At 9:30 a.m., we met up with hundreds of workers at the Culinary Workers Union headquarters for a pep rally unlike one I’ve ever experienced. The members all wore red T-shirts with symbols of their particular work and the slogan, “We Vote, We Win.” They also wore red hats, representing Local 226. The energy in the room was contagious. Teams of five sat at about 50 tables, folding, stuffing and preparing their work to go canvassing in the city.
We Sisters, 10 in all, were assigned a team and began folding paper as well. I observed that our team was made up of people of different ages, all working together for the sake of the future for their families. This work was done with such joy and enthusiasm.
As we completed our work, we gathered into an assembly. The cheers and clapping began with great spirit and camaraderie – a form of community. Then our team captain led us to the grounds for a rally. A great variety of speakers focused on working for reasonable revenue for responsible programs: Sue Chinn, Organizer; Nohemi Torres, Organizing Director; Guadalupe Mariel, Deputy Political Organizer; Ra’Shanda Wesley; Maria Clara Balicanta; and Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, Executive Director of NETWORK, which organizes Nuns on the Bus.
Then it was time to drive with my team and canvass the neighborhood. We walked door-to-door, ringing bells and knocking on doors. Most people did not answer; however, their dogs did. We did engage a couple of people in conversation on the issues and the candidates we are supporting.
At noon, we were on the bus again for a long drive to Phoenix, Arizona, where we met the people waiting for us at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ. What a stunning setting for our enactment of the tax policy of 2017! The church sanctuary was a series of glass window walls looking toward the mountains in the background.
We began with a wonderful poem by the pastor as a way to introduce the Nuns on the Bus. Before we came into the sanctuary, the pastor informed us that his church had just received 104 immigrants who had been released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that day. His church community will house the people and help them to get to their families somewhere in the United States. We were all inspired by their outreach and saddened for the overall treatment of our immigrant brothers and sisters.
This town hall featured some incredible conversation after our enactment of the tax policy. We heard stories of how the tax cuts have impacted health care insurance. A man stated that he is no longer eligible for Affordable Health Care and so he pays $1,200 a month for insurance. People noted that they are being denied medical coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.
Another gentleman reported that the lack of housing is having a terrible impact in Flagstaff, where he lives. The university is expanding and taking out affordable housing as private corporations take on the oversight of all the available housing. The corporations are pushing residents out of their three-bedroom apartments so that students can live in them at a higher cost. The tax cuts have assisted developers, who receive tax-write-offs and refunds for keeping their housing vacant instead of renting their housing.
In general, the tax cuts have decreased the sense of community connections; people are feeling isolated from one another and craving connections with other like-minded folks.
The people are deeply concerned that education is becoming privatized. Some 75 percent of the corporations in Arizona pay only $50 in tax. The lower tax base impacts education. They are also concerned about voter suppression as the number of polling places has decreased from 200 to 73. Voter roster changes have been noted. The homeless people are being kicked out of the parks.
We then flipped the conversation to identify some solutions to the issues. Many of the people belong to groups like Indivisible and the Desert Progressives, groups that have developed a voter guide for the upcoming election.
Neighbors are beginning to reach out to neighbors. One woman – who had brought her teenage son to experience Catholic Advocacy – said that for four months she has been going out to 550 homes in her neighborhood to say hello and to get to know her neighbors. She has been doing this for four months. She brings little gifts, such as seeds and fruit, and even taking neighbors to doctor’s appointments and shopping as needed. She believes that forming community among her neighbors is a first step to bring about tax policy change. “We need to teach big math like you did tonight,” she said. “We need not be afraid to ask for substantive information from our political appointees.”
The night ended on a high note as participants signed the Nuns on the Bus pledge cards and then signed the bus.
We are now preparing for the evening and our last stop tomorrow at the Phoenix Human Services Center and then onto Tucson to lobby and hold another Town Hall for Justice.
Encounter with the Culinary Arts Union
October 9, 2018
We began our day, October 9, in Southern California, gathered in a contemplative circle with local Sisters of St. Joseph. Our reflection centered on transformation. After breakfast we met with U.S. Representative Lou Correrá (D-46), of Santa Ana, California. He presented a citation to the Nuns on the Bus for their work and promised to work with us for the good of all.
At the Irvine, California, office of U.S. Representative Mimi Walters (R-45), we held a rally focused on the realities of struggling mothers and those who work on behalf of the vulnerable. All passionately spoke of the need for continued housing and care for those who desire a new life.
We packed into the bus again, eating our lunch as we traveled to Las Vegas. There, we met with members of the Culinary Workers Union – the largest corporation in Nevada, with more than 50,000 members from 173 countries. The experience was very moving. There is nothing like hearing from those who have learned the skill and art of negotiating their own future with their employers. The union has been successful in obtaining their contracts, winning by staggering percentages.
We quickly drove to Elizabeth Seaton Parish where we were greeted by Father Bede Wevita, the pastor. After a quick taco and fruit salad at the parish, we began our visual enactment of the Tax Cut and Jobs Policy of 2017, which gives more tax cuts to corporations. Through Nuns on the Bus, NETWORK hopes to spread the message that “the effects of this tax law will hurt families on the economic margins, and other vulnerable communities most.”
I was thrilled that two of my Adrian Dominican Sisters who minister in Henderson were able to join in the evening. Thank you, Sister Vicki Dalesandro and Sister Judy Nelson, for making the time to come say hello and experience the Nuns on the Bus. Your presence and support were so welcome.
We ended the night tired but grateful for those we met on the road, for their courage to share their stories with us, putting flesh on the realities of daily living and the struggle to move forward in hope. We will continue to share your stories as we go across the country, advocating for economic change and for reasonable revenue for responsive programs.
Visits and Meetings in Southern California
Monday, October 8, 2018
By Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP
We began our day Monday, October 8, with a half hour of prayer and contemplation, reflecting on the Gospel of Luke and the question, “Who is my neighbor?” This was our theme all day. Who is my neighbor? How is my neighbor being impacted by this 2017 Tax Cuts and Job Acts?
We were met in Santa Monica by a beautiful crowd walking along the Pacific Ocean and those who purposefully came to hear our speakers of the day, including U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Leader, and a new group called “the Littlest Lobbyists,” who advocate for children with complex medical needs. The speakers for the latter were a mother and her young daughter, now 11, who was born with a heart issue and, at the age of three months, had the first of 18 heart surgeries.
The presentations were powerful and very moving. Nancy Pelosi was impassioned by this tax cut policy that has only benefited the 1 percent wealthiest people in this country. The mother from Littlest Lobbyists voiced her concern that health insurance companies can now eliminate coverage for pre-existing conditions like those her daughter has.
After our time along the ocean, we headed to our first site visit, Homeboy Industries, founded in Los Angeles in 1992 by Father Gregory Boyle, SJ. Homeboy Industries offers a number of services to at-risk men and women who had been incarcerated or involved in gangs. These services include social enterprises – including a bakery – which serve as job-training sites.
Christina, the head baker and mother of four boys, shared her difficult story of being shot once and stabbed twice. She had nothing and couldn’t get out of her difficult life situation. Through her new life at Homeboy, she is on another track. What an incredible spirit.
Although she used to give her children expensive gifts with money she’d made from her previous activities, she recently gave one son a Dallas Cowboys shirt and hat for his birthday. “I’m just glad you are who you are today,” he said in response. “This is the best birthday gift you could have given me.”
We also met Janet, formerly incarcerated and now a caseworker at Homeboy, and her husband of one year, who spent 25 years in prison. They are a remarkable couple, committed to a new way of being in the world thanks to the intervention of Father Greg Boyle, who visits jails and prisons to invite the prisoners to come to Homeboy once they are released. It’s up to the individual to come see him, and the rest is a miracle of transformation and hope.
We stopped for a meal before we shared what we learned about the consequences of the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act during a Townhall for Justice at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. What a gift to be with this community of faith! Afterwards we gave the people large pens to sign the bus and write their messages to the world. The bus is now a sign that we are all on the bus, on a journey to justice.
Pre-Launch of Nuns on the Bus
Sunday, October 7, 2018, Feast of the Holy Rosary
I began the day with early rising to prepare to fly to Los Angeles to meet up with the rest of my companions on the Nuns of the Bus journey. Sister Reg McKillip, OP, and I boarded the plane together from Milwaukee to LAX. We are both excited and a little anxious about this opportunity. We are not experts on the tax policies but we are learning.
We arrived and hopped on a shuttle to the hotel, where we were greeted by the NETWORK staff and advance team: Abbey, Colleen, Meg, Melissa, Catherine, Mike and Kelly. What a wonderful team, assisting us to get to the bus and to our first stop for orientation with Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, Executive Director of NETWORK.
Ten of us Sisters are participating from all over the country – Pennsylvania; New York; Wisconsin; Kansas; Washington, D.C.; Illinois; and California. We represent diverse charisms. Our orientation consisted of do’s and don’ts, as well as an enactment of our presentation tomorrow on The Tax bill.
Today was about getting on the right time zone and meeting one another. I only knew three of the women on the bus. The orientation was to deepen our knowledge of the tax policy. I’ll talk more about this tomorrow.
After a day of travel, meeting one another, adjusting to the time, and enjoying a lovely Middle Eastern dinner, it’s time to rest and prepare for our task these next four days.
Nuns on the Bus participants board the special bus for the 2018 route.
Sister Durstyne Farnan, OP, is Justice Coordinator for the School Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, both based in Milwaukee, and former Director of the Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation for her own Congregation, the Adrian Dominican Sisters.