CHICAGO — A Jesuit prep school in Chicago has a mission to set all its students afire with the Church’s teaching on the dignity of immigrants and its call for concrete actions on immigration reform.

Throughout Lent, St. Ignatius College Prep has been engaging its students and the broader community on the issue of immigration reform, looking at the complex situation with the eyes of the Church, in response to the call of the U.S. bishops and Pope Francis.

On Ash Wednesday, the school held an “Immigration Summit” for Ignatian Values Day, where more than 1,500 students, faculty and staff participated in discussion sessions that presented the immigration issue in a variety of formats and perspectives.

Peter Corrigan, director of faith formation and ministry at St. Ignatius, told the Register that the inspiration for the summit began with a visit by some students and staff to a Jesuit ministry on the Arizona-Mexico border, where they heard the stories of unauthorized immigrants as well as local ranchers. The challenge, he said, is to form students in putting their faith into action as the future leaders of their college campuses and communities.


Why is St. Ignatius College Prep doing so much on immigration reform?

We really feel captivated by this topic, because it is one that the Catholic Church has been very active on. We’ve certainly tried to follow the invitation of our bishops and leaders, particularly Pope Francis, to place the dignity of the human person at the center point of a lot of the political and economic debates that are here.


How did this begin?

This whole project began two Novembers ago, when I learned about a huge Jesuit ministry that is on the border of Nogales, Ariz., and Sonora [Mexico]. It is called the Kino Border Initiative. It is a Jesuit-sponsored soup kitchen, women’s shelter and advocacy center that hopes to promote comprehensive and humane immigration reform. It does direct service to folks who are right at the border.


What did you do next?

So, six students, myself and two other adults went in July to the border there. We met [migrants] at the soup kitchen we volunteered at, we went to the immigration court in Tucson, and we met with American ranchers on the U.S. side to learn their perspective.

The trip really made an impact. The students and adults got to see and hear a lot of stories firsthand from migrants who’d just been deported. So our thought and hope was to bring our experience back to the school and to Chicago, and then to do something about it.


What impression did this whole experience make on your group?

It was a remarkable, humanizing experience. It was an experience of solidarity, of shared joy and struggle. With our students, we really stressed the fact that “We want you to be present: We want you to listen, to learn and hear stories with an open mind and recognize that there are a lot of complicated realities.”


How so? Can you give an example of the complicated reality you learned about?

Well, particularly with the ranchers from the U.S. side: We went to Mass, and they hosted us to lunch. It was a specific group of ranchers who live in a remote area of Arizona, where the only fence is a four-feet high, little three-pronged cattle fence that anyone can easily get over. So I think we were shocked with some of the things we learned — and these were not xenophobic, hate-filled people. They were very kind, Christian, Catholic people who certainly had legitimate concerns. And they would first start with a question of “How many of you would love to have 2,000 pounds of trash dropped in your yard through the course of a year?” or “How many of you would like to have to live in fear, when you see men who are drug-runners operating with impunity on your property, with huge machine guns — and no law enforcement or border patrol around, because it is such a remote area?”

So I think the experience was surprising, eye-opening, humanizing and really left us with a lot more questions than answers. But its spirit was saying that “We have got to remember the human face here, through all these complicated realities.”


So with the July trip to the border behind you, what happened when you got back to St. Ignatius?

We then met with some of our other students and talked about this program called Ignatian Values Days, which are days in which we take up a mission-oriented topic. We said, “Well, what if we use this program as an all-day-long event, where classes don’t meet. We have Mass when we start the day, and then we have some sort of special talk from a speaker or a special set of activities for discussion.” So we said, “What if we created an Immigration Summit: a day where we looked at immigration from an interdisciplinary perspective, from as many different lenses as we could, to engage students and teachers from a lot of different angles?” That is where the creativity started.


How did you set up this event?

I started a lot of outreach to different teachers, saying, “Hey, would you be willing to host a session on immigration from your perspective? Let’s research it and see what we come up with.” And so we spent November and December in brainstorming mode. We wanted as wide a sweep [of the issue] as possible.


What were some ideas that people came up with?

So our Harlequins [acting] troupe has [students who are] immigrants who were really excited about doing dramatic monologues of migrant stories and singing some songs with immigration themes. Our librarians were really excited to look at personal immigration history, and so the thought came: “Could we do a genealogy project, where everyone in the school assigned to that section would research where their ancestors came from in their own personal immigration history?” Our social-studies teachers said, “Let’s hold an immigration and naturalization citizenship test and see how people do.”


How did students do on the test?

Well, several of the comments were: “Wow, I can’t believe I barely passed the citizenship test.”


Did you invite people from outside the school to present as well?

We really wanted to have, ideally, some people who were working in the daily labors of immigration reform and on these issues of [immigrant] accompaniment, and so several presenters — including some from the Archdiocese of Chicago — were immigrant speakers. We also had five or six undocumented individuals who also came and shared their stories — many of them just spoke Spanish — through translators.


How did you structure the Immigration Summit?

All told, there were 21 unique sessions.

Basically, the community had the opportunity to choose two sessions out of 21. We had two 50-minute periods: session one and session two, after Ash Wednesday Mass. We made it so the community was able to first learn about the sessions, pick two of their choice and then attend those sessions.


How many students in all participated?

Approximately 1,400 of our students and all of the adults — all of our teachers, staff members, development team, anyone who was hosting a session — were all learners that day. So in all, we had 1,550 individuals take part in these sessions. It was pretty awesome.


What has the feedback from the sessions been so far?

It has been very strong. According to our electronic survey, 80% of the community who responded branded their sessions as either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the sessions.


What’s the next step?

During Mission Week, Kino Border Initiative will be our mission partner for donations. We set a goal of $6 per member of the community, and our goal is to raise $9,000 in total in support of Kino. We’re going to host a faculty-student soccer game, and that is also for donations.

We are also going to attend a prayer vigil at the Broadview detention center, which happens every Friday. The archdiocese’s Office of Immigration Affairs and the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants hosts this vigil every Friday morning at the detention center, where there is prayer with migrants who are being boarded onto buses to be deported. We will have 22 students go to this prayer vigil at 7:15am, and there will be a series of other events. There will be a backpack track: We’re going to run a backpack drive for migrants as well. So students will have three ways to act: They can write letters in support of immigration reform on Friday, they can donate a backpack with toiletries or they can donate to Kino. So we were really excited to go from the education stage to the action stage.


What is the change you want to see at St. Ignatius College Prep down the road through these activities?

I would like to see deeper engagement in following up these issues of faith with concrete action. I think our particular community is a very blessed community, and there are a lot of resources that we have. We have a lot of kids who want to do great things and have other great schools in their future. So I just hope that the school continues to deepen its commitment to put faith into action in society.

  Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.