February 20, 2012
By Marianne Comfort
On this World Day of Social Justice, the United Nations is encouraging efforts in poverty eradication, the promotion of full employment and decent work, gender equity and access to social well-being and justice for all. That agenda can look overwhelming, so I will share some hope I found in all of the injustices being addressed in just one spot on the global map: Omaha, Nebraska.
Last week I had the privilege of traveling to Omaha to visit the College of St. Mary and Mercy High School, both founded by the Sisters of Mercy. I also met with many Sisters in the area and with the Mercy leadership team for the West Midwest Community.
Sisters in Omaha are visiting immigrants detained in the county jail for the sole crime of not having papers that give them an official stamp of welcome. One sister told of walking into the hospital room of a woman who had just given birth and was not being allowed to hold her baby, all while guards stood by. The sisters could offer some dose of comfort in these situations and reassurance that, of course, this is not fair and that they share in a small way in the immigrants’ pain.
Students at the College of St. Mary are tutoring young people from a school in a low-income neighborhood, in a way that they may not even understand is addressing the inequalities in education. The college itself, meanwhile, is reaching out to give opportunities to women who don’t usually have access to higher education: single mothers and low-income Hispanic women. The college is not just accepting these students in the application process, either, but actively seeking them out and in the case of single mothers providing housing and support services.
Mercy High School lives out the principles of justice in its negotiated tuition plan. The president interviews all families to determine what they can afford to pay. That means that about 25% of the student body come from families living in poverty and pay fees significantly less than those who come from wealthy families.
The high school students, meanwhile, are learning about immigration through a year-long focus that includes reading a book together on the subject. Some students are involved in a justice and peace club and others are raising money for projects such as building a school in Uganda.
At various points throughout my visit there happened to be discussions about how to talk respectfully with one another about issues upon which we disagree, in ways that all can be heard and some common ground can be reached. The college is instilling the principles of civil discourse into the classroom; a member of the leadership team talked about the need for “courageous conversations.” However it’s called, learning to talk and listen to one another seems to me to be an ingredient of addressing social injustices that we don’t often talk about.
My experience visiting Omaha reminds me yet again of the truth in the saying: “think globally and act locally.” May we all consider just one thing we can do to make the world a better place right where we are at this moment.