Chicago – The Chicago Archdiocese's Pastoral Migratoria, or migrant-to-migrant ministry, was the first of its kind in the country and director Elena Segura hopes to see the idea adopted in 200 Catholic dioceses nationwide.
To achieve that, the Peruvian who emigrated to the United States in 1984 has dedicated all her efforts to helping minorities and in particular the undocumented, "who are the most vulnerable."
"In Peru I was a radical socialist who hated the Catholic Church and never would have dreamed of settling in the United States, but I came to Chicago following the man who would be my husband for 20 years, and here I found an unexpected reality," she told Efe in an interview.
"I thought that in a country as rich as this there would be no poor people, but from the first day I began seeing the poverty and the problem of immigrants, and that began my transformation," she said.
Segura worked first with the Episcopal Church, coordinating programs for Cambodian refugees and African, Polish, Chinese and Hispanic immigrants.
"I was always interested in minorities, those who had no voice, but I never thought of working for the Catholic Church," she said.
Nonetheless, her work eventually led her into collaboration with the Archdiocese of Chicago.
"I still wasn't a Catholic - they called on me because of my experience in social justice programs, and since I can't do anything without understanding the basis of it, I began to visit the 365 parishes of the archdiocese," she said.
So it was that in 2005, when the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops launched a campaign for immigration reform, the Archdiocese of Chicago created the Office for Immigrant Affairs and Immigration Education and named Segura as director.
"By that time I knew 90 percent of the priests and community leaders, I understood what went on in the parishes and the needs of the faithful," she said.
At that point, Segura had to deal with "an unexpected divorce" that led her to ponder the question of faith.
"In my time of darkness I found the light, and I saw that being a Catholic is more radical than being a socialist, because we're always at the side of the poor, walking with those who suffer and we're more connected with society," she said.
The goal of Segura's office is to educate Catholics and the general public to understand "the dignity of every immigrant as a human being and to recognize the benefits of immigrants and immigration to our nation."
Segura has first-hand information about the abuse that detainees suffer, because every Friday she begins the day at 3:45 a.m. with a prayer and talks with family members in Chicago's immigration center where the undocumented are assembled for deportation.
The Archdiocese of Chicago serves 2.3 million faithful, of whom 40 percent are Latinos.
"Every parish has a support network for problems to do with immigration, labor, education, housing and domestic violence, while attorneys work pro bono every Sunday at the counseling tables," Segura said.
This is the model she wants to export to other Catholic dioceses in the United States.
"We have begun a process we hope to extend to 200 dioceses that have a Latino presence of between 60 and 70 percent," Segura said.