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A Time to Stand Up

Is the U.S. headed for another civil rights movement in response to proposed harsh immigration law reforms?

April 4, 2006

Is the U.S. headed for another civil rights movement in response to proposed harsh immigration law reforms?

In 1964, I was a student at Marquette University in my hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had recently left St. Francis Seminary in that city, where after three years I had discerned that God was not calling me to be a priest.

However, I had no idea what God had in store for my life. All I could think of was to complete my bachelor's degree in the bosom of the Catholic Church, which had nourished and developed me spiritually, intellectually and morally since I was very young.

I lived at home to save money, studied hard, commuted by bus — and lived the "safe" life that I had always been told was God's will for everyone.

One of the wonderful things my Catholic school education gave me was a strong sense of social justice, and a conviction that God calls everyone to respond to the call to be an agent of change — wherever they might be placed in society.

So I had joined with a number of my fellow students at Marquette — many of whom had also recently left convents and seminaries — to form a racial justice organization on campus.

One day, early in 1964, organizers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to campus. They challenged us to work that summer doing voter registration among rural blacks, people who were putting their lives on the line by attempting to register to vote.

They asked us to be organizers, encouragers and witnesses with these people who were standing up for justice and equality — and speaking to a nation vacillating over the obedience to the laws of man and the law of God.

They asked us to drop whatever other plans we had for that summer (for me, it was to work to pay for my next year's tuition) — and join the movement in the South.

This was the most difficult dilemma of my life. Everything in my teaching from my parents and family told me that the most important thing was to stay focused on my studies — and to work to pay for another year of college.

But my formation in the Church would not allow me to ignore the fundamental moral battle being waged by fellow Christians in the southern part of my country. And so that summer, I went to Alabama to join the voter registration movement.

That summer, I did not make a large contribution to the movement that was being led by courageous African-American people throughout the South.

They would have gone on and been just as successful without me. But my life was forever changed.

I feel that same call in regard to the movement that is emerging throughout the country from the struggle of immigrant people for basic human rights. The House of Representatives has thrown down the gauntlet and issued a moral challenge to all of us when it passed HR 4437.

If this bill passes the U.S. Senate, it will be equivalent to the laws that set up Jim Crow in the South, and that allowed lynching to go on without effective legal challenge. It will also be the moral equivalent of laws which made it a crime to harbor runaway slaves.

These are some very disturbing times in the United States. We face the choice as a nation between love, justice, equality and respect for human dignity — versus racism, hatred and death. Each one of us has to examine our hearts — and determine what our response will be.