US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Mothers' helper

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Stephanie Garza, a young new leader in the church, creates leaders out of Chicago moms.

The daughter of a Mexican-American mother and immigrant father, Stephanie Garza is no stranger to the Chicago community she works with as an organizer. She feels spiritually connected to the immigrant mothers there trying to strengthen their local schools. It’s a job she says she’s “called to do as a Catholic.” Garza, therefore, was shocked to learn she’d been nominated for the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, which she received from Catholic Campaign for Human Development at the U.S. bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore last fall.

“I don’t do it for recognition, but it was an incredible honor,” Garza says.

Grounded in faith: Garza, 25, grew up in an immigrant community in Houston and attended the University of Notre Dame. “I have been given so many blessings—an education, a supportive family—that I feel the responsibility to respond to God’s call to serve others,” she said at the award ceremony.

After graduating, Garza volunteered full-time with Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) through Amate House, a Catholic service program in Chicago. She learned to balance the demands of her job with her faith through the program. “I wanted to be spiritually present to other people and be intentional about my faith life and serving others,” she says.

Garza has continued to work at SWOP since she her year of service. She also continues to maintain a strong faith life both in spite of and because of the challenges she sees in her work. “Working for justice is hard without a faith foundation. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she explains. With Catholicism, however, she is comforted that “after suffering is redemption.”

Motivating moms: The U.S. Catholic bishops commended Garza particularly for her work with the Parents as Mentors program at SWOP. Begun in 2006, the effort tries to increase communication between schools and parents at five public elementary schools in Chicago.

The parents, primarily immigrant mothers, work for 10 hours a week with students. The collaboration between teachers and parents improves the parents’ understanding of education, and it also benefits students who need individual attention.

At first Garza was concerned she didn’t have anything to offer to the mothers. “What can a single person share with them?”

Both Garza and the women she works with, however, have thrived in the program. Garza says it’s rewarding to watch the women’s leadership skills develop.

One woman, she says, “came in as a stay-at-home mom for 12 years and went to being president of the Bilingual Parents’ Council and a catechist at church.” Initially very timid, the woman eventually began to share her testimony about her work publicly.

Garza enjoys “seeing the moms go from where they are to where they want to be.” Some women in the program have gone on to find employment with Chicago Public Schools.

At the award ceremony Garza’s own mother reflected on how her daughter has grown as a person and as a Catholic. “She is doing what God is wanting her to do,” Rose Garza said.

Sí, se puede: As she does with the Parents as Mentors program, Garza hopes to empower community leaders through immigration reform efforts so that they can become their own advocates. Her work shows how grassroots efforts can be successful.

Many of the struggles immigrants face, Garza points out, happen alone. “You don’t want people to deal with things in isolation.” Her role as an organizer is to bring together people with similar concerns and experiences.

Garza worked with a woman whose husband had been detained by immigration officials and who was struggling to decide whether to leave the United States and return to her home country. By getting involved with the larger community, she was able to become a leader, helping other families who went through the same situation. “It’s amazing how generous people can be with how little they have,” says Garza.

Leaders emerge from parishes, and while pastors offer support, the community members are encouraged to take the active role in immigration reform.

Through the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform, Garza has advocated for a bill that would allow religious workers access to detained immigrants who otherwise would receive no spiritual counseling. “I try to maintain a message of hope in light of the detentions and raids,” she says.

With the recent economic instability, though, Garza also has had to help immigrants with housing needs, including avoiding foreclosure.

Inner work: Although Garza, who serves as a Confirmation catechist at her parish, plans to return to school for a master’s degree in divinity, she is not abandoning her work as a community organizer. Her studies, she said at the award ceremony, will help her “become a better-prepared instrument of God’s peace.”

Faith, after all, sustains her. “Religion has strengthened my ability to stay in this work,” she says, “and I definitely see what I do as a vocation or a ministry.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 3, page 47).