Compassion is key in immigration debate

PITTSFORD — Two islands and two boats — and never the twain shall meet?

When talking about the immigration debate that rages on in this country, explained Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Nancy Sylvester, it seems as if the two sides represented by the boat image may never come near each other.

"What we’re trying to do is get in a boat and try to start toward each other," said Sister Sylvester, who spoke during the Sept. 17-18 seminar "Engaging the Impasse of Immigration" hosted by the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. "It’s the beginning of a conversation."

Geologically speaking, the water that sits under those boats — the oceans — is interconnected and all people of all faiths and walks of life need to be reminded of that as a way to start truly hearing where another person is coming from, she said. She noted that when a person makes such connections, he or she can start listening and speaking with a compassionate heart, which was the focus of the seminar.

"At the core of our faith … there is unity," she said. "We are one."

Because she is a visual learner, the boat image resonated with Sister of St. Joseph Lorraine Julien. She said that the image of the islands helped her understand what the seminar participants hope they can accomplish when they go back to their communities.

"To see the two boats coming together and getting close enough to see each other’s faces … that’s when we can be respectful and listen to each other," she noted.

One way participants learned how to listen and be respectful was by taking on the persona of a fictional person during a group exercise. Sister of St. Francis Bea Leising of Buffalo portrayed an Italian-American financial broker who saw immigrants as a drain on society.

"I was glad to let go of it," she said of the persona. "But it did help me to see a broader picture about where those who think differently, where they’re coming from."

The only way to get over the immigration impasse is to understand the other side, especially when those people so often look like us but hold such different opinions, Sister Julien noted.

"It’s a way of getting unstuck," she said.

Just how complicated that impasse has become was demonstrated when Sister Sylvester asked the nearly 40 participants to describe it, and their responses filled seven columns on two large white boards in the room.

"You realize the depth of what we’re talking about when you say impasse," she said as she pointed to the responses. "People come to the table with what they need and what they think should happen on their own island."

Sister Sylvester is founder and executive director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue, which is based in Detroit. Through that work, she developed the immigration seminar in conjunction with NETWORK, a Catholic social-justice lobby in Washington, D.C. She worked for NETWORK from 1977-92 and served 10 years a national coordinator. The Rochester seminar marks only the third time she has presented since creating the immigration program in the last few years.

"The reason I developed this program … is that the current approaches to immigration are inadequate and the debate is characterized by stereotypes and fosters polarization," she said. "We need to find a new way to shift the public discourse. This process engages the complexities of the issue through a process that invites openness to the multiple perspectives and touches into the depths of one’s spirituality so as to approach this issue in a new way."

To get to the point of compassionately listening to a person with an opposing view, Sister Sylvester told the participants a person needs three dispositions of heart and attitude.

A person’s heart needs to be soft, spacious and welcoming "so you can be moved" by another’s feelings, she added. Those dispositions then help create the attitudes — openness, attentiveness and hospitality — that help a person relate to another’s experiences.

"To be open in terms of understanding your own biases and prejudices," Sister Sylvester explained. "Once you acknowledge that, it doesn’t control you anymore."

When a person has developed these new attitudes and dispositions, a shift in addressing people of opposing opinions will take place, she added. That shift will include being more patient, asking questions, not making assumptions and staying in the present moment.

"Slowing down the pace of a meeting or a conversation so that one can actually hear the person through to the end," explained Sister Sylvester. "Instead of pontificating or reacting to what someone says when you do not agree, ask a question of curiosity. … Don’t react as you have for years unless you have re-examined those feelings and thoughts and see that you still experience it that way."

When one reaches the stage of setting out to pay attention to another person only — instead of just preparing a response without really listening — then one can be hospitable to the message of that person, she remarked.

Sister Sylvester acknowledged that such strategies likely won’t work with people holding extremist opinions on the immigration issue. But these methods of engaging in dialogue are meant to rouse support from the people caught in the middle of this debate. Shifts in attitude may help propel the inertia of legislative reform, she noted.

"The more we can engage people with a compassionate heart, the more we’ll change things," she said.

Ami Kadar, who works with the Albion farmworker organization Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolas (CITA), said that it’s frustrating to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric she sees on so many websites and found useful some of the tools that Sister Sylvester offered. She wished, however, that more people who do hold such extreme views would attend seminars like this one.

As an activist, Kadar said that she remains hopeful that Congress will take action this fall on the DREAM Act. The legislation, which has been attached to a national defense bill, addresses the plight of about 1.5 million young undocumented immigrants who have grown up in the United States and wish to go to college and obtain legal employment. The bill offers current, former and future undocumented high-school graduates and GED recipients a path to citizenship through college or military service, according to

"If they give these students a chance, they could really contribute to the economy and be a real benefit," Kadar said.

Seminar participants also found the sessions useful in making connections with other groups, some of which have decided to keep working on the goals identified during one of the exercises. Those included getting correct information presented in the media and organizing community meetings to represent both sides of the immigration issue.

Theresa May, who is an associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph, said that the seminar offered a process to change oneself as a way to try and influence others.

"The beauty of this is we now have the energy to transform," she added.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue, visit

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