WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the U.S. Capitol at his back, Darian Benitez Sanchez Nov. 8 told the story of how his father used to take him to high school math competitions on weekends in Arizona, where he attended the Jesuit-run Brophy College Preparatory high school, and how his dad would wait hours for him inside a locked car.
“He’d hug me and he’d bless me with the sign of the cross. He’d wait the entire time in the heat,” Benitez said. “He wouldn’t come in (to the competition) because of the language barrier and because he was undocumented.”
Benitez, along with other alumni and students from the nation’s Jesuit schools, joined other faith-based organizations and groups who have been demanding in recent weeks that lawmakers drop partisanship and work for those on the margins, particularly as they are considering how to vote on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, a $1.75 trillion proposal with provisions for clean energy jobs, health care and immigration.
“A budget is a moral document, and I’m a little bit tired hearing that we don’t have the money to pay for basic needs for people, but we have billions of dollars for the military-industrial complex,” said Angela Howard McParland, who works as a justice resource manager for Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.
She attended a Nov. 11 rally in Rhode Island organized by the faith-based Poor People’s Campaign.
“I’m a little bit tired of hearing that we don’t have the money to give people housing, to give people paid family leave, when so many other countries have no problem doing this,” she said.
Through a faith-based social justice lens, advocates have been organizing to put pressure on lawmakers, making sure the human element of their decisions is on display.
Benitez told of his childhood, how his family crossed the southern border, from their native Mexico into the U.S., seeking better economic conditions and opportunities.
And this would later pay off as the Jesuit-educated Benitez, now a beneficiary of a policy aimed at helping young adults brought into the U.S. illegally as children, was accepted into Harvard University, where he now is a student.
Near the halls where U.S. lawmakers make decisions that affect those like him and his family, he told his peers how those decisions had affected him, how he’s still pained by the memory of his father crying at the kitchen table after his mother was detained by immigration authorities.
Benitez participated in the event as part of the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Ignatian Family Teach-in, which typically takes place in late November in Washington. But this year, the gathering took place Nov. 6-8 as lawmakers consider how to vote on the legislation that could change the life of those like Benitez, a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Though no Republicans and not enough Democrats are on board yet to pass the plan, some political leaders keep signaling optimism that it soon will pass.
“That is our plan, to pass the bill the week of Nov. 15,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Nov. 9 at the U.N. Climate Change Conference she was attending in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Poor People’s Campaign, which includes Catholic organizations, has organized a rally for that day on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to continue pressuring lawmakers.
To the students and alumni of the Jesuit schools set to visit their lawmakers or staff during the crucial time leading up to the vote, Benitez implored them to remember him and his family when speaking to political representatives about immigration reform.
The visit to Capitol Hill coincided with the climate issues that were the focus of the historic Glasgow conference, where some top U.S. lawmakers joined world leaders and environmental advocates in seeking to combat the causes leading to extreme weather patterns around the world.
Paul Campion, a graduate of Gonzaga College High School in Washington and a student at Loyola University Chicago, spoke about what led him to take part in a hunger strike in front of the White House to get U.S. lawmakers’ attention on environmental issues.
He said he remembered how Indigenous water protectors had been hosed down by authorities as they tried to prevent construction of the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016.
“It lit a spark in me,” he told fellow students, and it was part of what drove him to participate in a hunger strike with four others in front of the White House.
“Each of us knows this is a battle,” said Campion, adding that it’s one that has cost the lives of those who have tried to protect the environment in places such as Honduras, where activists have tried to protect Indigenous lands, like Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in 2016 for such an action.
“Each one of us has the opportunity to step into that” role, added Campion, urging those who would be meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol to fight for the common good, for the best interests of people, of the earth, instead of the interest of corporations.
“Remember, we have love,” he said. “They are more afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.”
A select group of students was scheduled to meet lawmakers as Congress considers voting against or in favor of the bill that includes many of the issues they were addressing.
“It’s going to take each one of us to make this transformational change we need,” Campion said.
Annie Fox, provincial assistant for social ministry organizing for Jesuits West, told students that just as some prophets in the Bible had decried calamities that had befallen them, perhaps some of them, too, were asking why their lives now have a pandemic written into them, why their lives are facing threats such as climate change.
The answer, she said, can be found in the book of Esther 4:14: “Perhaps you were born for such a time as this.” She encouraged them to be changemakers in the world.
Jesuit Father Ted Penton, secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, blessed those in the group of students heading to talk to members of Congress, praying that they would find words to touch the hearts of lawmakers.
“We pray for our civil leaders that their hearts will open to those on the margins that they may enact laws that serve to erase those margins, that they may resist the factions, the partisanship that may lead them astray, that they may instead work together to implement policies that serve the common good,” he said.
“We pray,” he continued, “for all of those who suffer, those who struggle, those who are vulnerable, those who are excluded from the abundance of life that you desire for all of us, for the migrants fleeing persecution in their home countries, for those who suffer the worst impacts of pollution, and of climate change, for those without adequate housing, without sufficient food, without proper medical care.”
He also prayed for personal conversion to connect with elected representatives even when they disagreed.
“Give us the patience and persistence to keep working for justice even when the struggle seems long, even when the goal seems far away,” Father Penton said. “Keep alive in us the yearning for the coming of your kingdom.”