Random Nun Clips

The strength of the human spirit

Podcast Recorded: June 4, 2021
girl looks out from behind bars but appears hopeful

From her immigration law clients, Sister Sharlet Wagner learned about the enduring power of faith and hope.

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Transcript (Click for More)+

Sister Rejane  
This Random Nun Clip is brought to you by A Nun's Life Ministry.

Sister Maxine  
I'm Sister Maxine, and my guest is Sister Sharlet Wagner, Executive Director of the Newcomer Network at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. The Newcomer Network provides immigration legal services to people and connects them with other necessary services, such as food, housing, and health care. So once you got your law degree, where was the first place that you ministered?

Sister Sharlet   
My first ministry was at the Central American Resource Center—CARECEN—in Los Angeles. The law school gave two fellowships each year to do public interest law, working with an organization, so I got a fellowship to work with CARECEN providing services at the Mira Loma detention center in Lancaster, California. I set up a program and did Know Your Rights presentations and then I represented clients before the immigration court. I did that for two years at CARECEN and at the end of the fellowship, I got a call from Holy Cross Ministries in Utah. Holy Cross Ministries is sponsored by my congregation and serves immigrants in Utah. They were just starting an immigration legal services program as part of Holy Cross Ministries and asked me to go out there. I was very happy to do that and then spent the next seven years at Holy Cross Ministries.

Sister Maxine  
While you were there, what kind of countries were your clients from? I mean, I don't really think of Utah as a big immigration center.

Sister Sharlet   
I heard that a lot while I was there. If I was traveling or talking to someone outside of the state and said I was an immigration lawyer and I was working in Utah, the typical response was, “Utah? There are immigrants in Utah?” Yes, in fact, there are quite a few immigrants. In the past, immigrants tended to be concentrated primarily in the Southwest and the southern border region, in large cities. That's really no longer the case. Immigrants are everywhere across the country, including in many rural areas. I found that immigrants are attracted to an area by the same things that attract U.S. citizens to an area. My clients in Utah would tell me that they came to Utah for jobs, and because it seemed like a good safe place to raise a family, they would say it's tranquilo, it's quiet, it's peaceful. That was an attraction for them.

Sister Maxine  
What were some of the countries your clients were from?

Sister Sharlet   
The majority of our clients were from Mexico. Many were from El Salvador, and we had Colombians and Peruvians. Those were the main areas. We had some from Africa, but not many. Also, Utah was a refugee resettlement area, in Salt Lake City. So there were a number of refugees from Africa. We worked together with Catholic Charities there, and Catholic Charities did the refugee resettlement cases. We did other types of cases, so we didn't have very many of the refugees, but we had every other type of immigration case.

Sister Maxine  
As you worked with folks there, is there a personal story that you recall and that you can share with us, respecting confidentiality of course, that reflects some of your learnings, maybe something you have carried forward into your work now with the Newcomer Network?

Sister Sharlet   
I'd rather not share any stories about any particular clients, but what impressed me as I listened to their stories was the strength of the human spirit. I had a number of asylum cases where clients had suffered tremendously, many domestic violence cases, again with tremendous suffering. And I would listen to a story of so much suffering and think how is this woman or this man still able to function and get out of bed in the morning and care for their family and go to work. As I sat there and listened to them, I could see that they weren't simply functioning--they were still engaged, they were still looking for something better, they were still struggling, they hadn't checked out. They still laughed, they still spoke, still had faith in God and gratitude for the goodness of those who helped them. I was just so impressed by the strength of the human spirit--how can seeing so many examples of that strength of spirit not touch you!  Something I learned from my clients in Utah was the importance of looking for the good, and we don't have to look too far, it's not hard to find. I don't mean that in a Pollyanna-ish way: we can't close our eyes to the real evil that exists in the world, but we also can't let ourselves be overwhelmed by it. We can't buy into the lie that it's a dog-eat-dog world, and everyone's just looking out for number one, because there are multitudes of people motivated by faith or by humanity and a good heart who are working for a better world. If my clients, who had been through so much, can still believe in a better world, how could I not.

Sister Maxine  
I hear that deep belief in hope and that deep commitment to hope. I would imagine that for you, on those days when it was especially tough, that spirit carried you forward as well.

Sister Sharlet   
It did, it did. My hope is rooted in God. It's rooted in my faith, and my faith that sustains me. I know at a deep level, that God is a God who stands with the oppressed, a God of justice, and that we are moving constantly toward what's better. It's easy to become depressed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and the xenophobic hate that seems so strong at this time. But then I look at those who are fighting for justice for immigrants in the crowds of people who march together. And the volunteers and the donors who support programs like the Newcomer Network, and all of that gives me hope.  And I look at my asylum seekers. Those who come here seeking asylum are uniquely strong and hope-filled people. If you think about what it must take to leave your home, everything you're familiar with, to make a dangerous journey to a land where you don't speak the language, you don't have resources, you don't know what's going to happen. You have to be a person of hope to do that. I think asylum seekers are hopeful because they believe in a better world than what they've seen. They believe in the goodness of this country. They believe that if they can just tell their story to someone who will listen, they'll be allowed to make a new life here, and their faith sustains them as they make the journey, and they go through that struggle.

Sister Rejane  
To hear full episodes of A Nun's Life podcasts. Visit the podcast page at anunslife.org/podcasts.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.


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