WASHINGTON, D.C. — Maria Jose Fernandez Flores says she wasn’t aware that the institutional Catholic Church was officially supporting Dreamers who were brought to the United States as children and are now fighting for a path to citizenship to stay in the only country they’ve ever called home.

At age four, her mother brought her to the U.S. from Lima, Peru. Soon after arriving, her mom married another undocumented migrant and now her three younger sisters are United States citizens — while she and her parents live with the fear of being deported and forever separated from them.

Now at age 21, she’s found herself in the nation’s capital, alongside 500 other Catholics from around the country, to participate in the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (CSMG), a four-day annual event that takes place every February, which serves as a lab for Catholic social teaching, followed by in-person lobbying on Capitol Hill on behalf of Catholic legislative priorities.

On the second evening of this year’s CSMG, which took place from Feb. 3-6, Flores said she spent the evening hanging out with new friends from the University of Dayton. As soon as they found out she was a Dreamer, they immediately stopped and asked if the group could pray for her.

“I just didn’t realize the Church was really rooting for us until now,” she told Crux. “Normally when you go to the rallies, it’s the Dreamers who are all there, so it’s nice to have people on the outside that are with you too.”

As the March 5 deadline looms for Congress to reach a deal on immigration, Flores admits that she lives with constant fear and anxiety but says her faith in God is strong.

“He’s not going to abandon me no matter what, and even if the result is what I want it to be, I know that. But it’s still really tough.”

“We can be good Catholics together”

For most ordinary Catholics, the work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is either a source of confusion or it’s entirely unknown to them that for 100 years the U.S. bishops have had a collective body to represent the Church’s interests in the public square.

Yet, the CSMG, which has taken place almost every February for nearly 30 years, serves as an open invitation to go inside the belly of the beast and join firsthand in that long-standing tradition.

Organized by the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, along with 16 other departments and agencies, this year’s gathering brought together individuals from over 100 dioceses and 45 states. The attendees are a mix of young students and seasoned social activists who have worked for Catholic-related causes for years.

A walk through the exhibitor’s hall will evidence the range of affiliated groups who participate in the event: A mix of climate change activists, immigration rights workers, pro-life and anti-death penalty organizations, and everything in between. Teenagers wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, brush up against nuns in full habit wearing buttons in support of immigrants, next to folks wearing shirts from this year’s March for Life. In some respects, it’s a visible witness of Pope Francis’s call in Laudato si’ to see that “everything is connected.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, told Crux that he hoped the gathering would bring together factions within the Church that often found themselves labeled as “social justice Catholics” or “pro-life Catholics” in a unified witness.

“If you’ve given your whole life and you want the death penalty ended, you’ll do anything to do that, and I say that’s good, just recognize that’s one angle,” said DiNardo. “Then, you’ll find other people who really fight to close abortion clinics or to give help to those with unplanned pregnancies.”

“We can be good Catholics together,” he said.

During the orientation, first-time attendees were told by a representative of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) that their participation is part of “the long history of the communion of saints” and in the advocacy tradition of Moses, who led God’s people out of Egypt and into the promised land. Rather than becoming partisan players, attendees were encouraged to be a part of “team Catholic,” and lead with their life stories, as “they matter more than facts or figures.”

While the CSMG was dotted with keynote addresses and masses celebrated by high-ranking Church officials, it’s primarily a grassroots driven event with specific workshops focusing on the range of issues confronting Catholics today, including racism, the opioid epidemic, ecological concerns, and, of course, immigration.

Although the event is education-driven, with break-out sessions and panel discussions organized by USCCB staff members and leading field experts, many of these representatives told Crux that it’s equally valuable for them to spend the four days listening to the experiences of those doing advocacy and activism back at home to hear what sort of resources and support they need from the institutional Church.

Missionary Discipleship in Action 

While the three-day immersion in Catholic social teaching takes up the largest block of the conference, the conference’s crescendo is “Hill Day,” when activists journey up to Capitol Hill to introduce their Catholic concerns to lawmakers.

Tyrone Ford, who works with Catholic Charities in St. Louis, told Crux he spoke with officials from Republican representative Ann Wagner’s office and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill’s staff.

This marked Ford’s first-time attending the CSMG and he said he was encouraged by colleagues to attend after being involved in community outreach following the Ferguson unrest after the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

Ford told Crux that he was most impressed by seeing what Catholics are doing on the ground “locally, nationally, and internationally,” and that the CSMG reminded him “there’s power in numbers.”

Katherine Meinzen, 20, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who was also a first-time attendee, said “it’s good to be refreshed on the moral stances of the bishops,” which she said heartened her own commitment to activism.

Meinzen’s sentiments were echoed by her fellow Hoosier state attendee, 19 year-old Timothy Durbin, who said he was impressed at just how much unity there was among the attendees, despite such diverse backgrounds.

“All of these issues we’ve discussed create a polarizing environment, on church, on campus, and elsewhere,” he said.

Durbin told Crux that he valued the efforts “to create a culture of encounter among the poor and the needy, but also those whose opinions differ.”

Meanwhile, Lynne Betts of nearby Delaware said she believed this year’s CSMG marked her 9th year in attendance as a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an organization committed to ending poverty.

At 59 years old, Betts said she loved the mix of ages and told Crux that this year brought together some of the most remarkable workshops she’s attended to date.

As for time on the Hill, she said her main purpose for being there was to show gratitude.

Betts visited Democratic Senator Chris Coons’ office, who just the day before introduced a bipartisan DACA bill with Senator John McCain.

“I thanked them for doing things the way we do it in Delaware: across the aisle,” Betts told Crux.

Reflecting on the colorful mix of participants, DiNardo told Crux that “Pope Francis’s constant appeal to missionary discipleship has been helpful both for the young, but even for the not so young.”

If missionary discipleship is defined by a necessity of “going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters,” as Francis writes in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, then that’s certainly what resonated with 19 year-old Jacory Bernard of Atlanta.

Bernard, who attended the CSMG with members of the Newman Center at Morehouse College, told Crux he “gained vision.”

“A vision of what’s happening in the world, and vision of the resources we have to fix things,” he continued.

Bernard, who had the chance to meet with Civil Rights legend Congressman John Lewis on Tuesday, said that concluding the CSMG on Capitol Hill was important because it reminded him “the representatives are human just like us.”

“It’s through us talking with them and giving them different insight and different stories that they realize the true problems we have in the world,” said Bernard.

“If you’ve never experienced poverty, it’s hard to make decisions on it. If you’ve never experienced the backlash an immigrant experiences, it’s hard to make decisions on it,” he continued.

“I feel like this opportunity is so powerful because of the diversity within this group.”