By Jennifer Szweda Jordan & Will Halim
She was only three years old, but she knew it was love
When Sister Janice Vanderneck was at that impressionable age, her mother signed her up for dance lessons. On recital day, the girl wore a white satin dress with colorful ruffles, and flowers in her hair. She swayed to Frank Sinatra’s “South of The Border (Down Mexico Way),” a love song about a woman in Spanish lace. Vanderneck fell in love, too, with the idea of a land far from where she was growing up in Indiana, PA.
“It was my first introduction to the vibrancy of the Latino culture,” Vanderneck says.
Now, 65 years later, Vanderneck heads Casa San Jose, a Beechview organization helping Mexican families, many of whom came to escape violence among warring drug cartels in their country.
But it all started in childhood. At 12, Vanderneck soaked up Spanish language classes. And as much as she was growing in love with the Latino culture, she was also enamored of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden who taught her.
“I was in love with my Catholicism,” she says. “Sisters seemed to have fun.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph have a motto: “serving God and the dear neighbor.” It doesn’t just apply to the person next door.
“I was…thinking of being a Catholic religious sister and thinking of being one as a missionary, and so Latin American missionary seemed to really draw me,” Vanderneck says.
As Vanderneck studied Spanish in high school, and then college, her commitment to faith and mission deepened. Vanderneck soaked up the dense writings of the great 16th-century Spanish mystic Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. While she was working on her Masters Degree in theology, she went to the Amazon in Brazil. There she offered religious education to people preparing for marriage, or baptizing children. She helped with worship services. Her work included conscientization, educating people to think critically about power structures, oppression and influence, and encouraging political engagement.
And she witnessed dire poverty.
“Raw sewage running in gutters in streets,” Vanderneck recalls of Brazil. “Permeable walls like cardboard or thatched straws. Everybody sleeping in the same place. Beds were unheard of. Very little to eat.”
Over the years, Vanderneck worked in other parts of Latin America and witnessed similar conditions.
“In Peru, I would see children with all kinds of disabilities begging on the streets. They had no services,” she says. “In the mountains of Guatemala, people were living on dirt, sleeping on dirt and with very little food.”
In all those experiences, Vanderneck found strength in Our Lady of Guadalupe–one of the foremost cultural and religious symbols of Mexico. The Guadalupe tradition holds that Jesus’ mother appeared to a Mexican peasant.
“She indicated she was on the side of the poor,” Vanderneck says. “on the side of those… who were suffering terrible lives.”
Vanderneck’s awareness of social injustices mirrored the teachings Latin American bishops were advancing in the 1960s and 1970s. What was known as the “preferential option for the poor” and liberation theology emphasized Biblical texts that promote giving favor and voice to the dispossessed and disabled.
“I was very, very influenced by liberation theology and the social mission of the church,” Vanderneck says.
Vanderneck’s social justice efforts included protesting the Vietnam War. She boycotted lettuce and grapes–actions led by Mexican labor leader Cesar Chavez in support of farmworkers in the seventies.
Back in the U.S., Vanderneck worked for decades as a religion teacher and principal at area Catholic elementary schools.
In the classroom, she says, she shared her experiences from Latin America “to tell story about the richness of culture and the dire circumstances of poor.”
In 2003, she started work at the Latino Catholic Social Ministry Office at a church in Oakland.
“I sure didn’t know a lot about immigration law or anything like that,” she says. “I soon learned. One of the first cases that I started to work on was a mom who came in and told me that she was denied Medical Assistance for her child, who was born here in this country… That set me on a crash course on learning what undocumented immigrants’ life is like and what they’re eligible for and what they’re not eligible for, and advocating. That started me on advocating.”
Then the Sisters of St. Joseph asked her to start Casa San Jose.
“I didn’t really want to, and I said to them all, ‘How am I ever going to form a nonprofit and get the money to run it?’ and on and on. You know, it’s because they kept driving me to do it, I found this church, it’s not a Catholic church, it’s a Lutheran church, that was willing to give free space and had fabulous workers. Soon we got a grant to pay for the workers. We’ve gotten lots and lots of grants, lots and lots of recognition.”
A good deal of Casa San Jose’s work focuses on those rites of passage many of us take for granted–going to school, getting a driver’s license and getting a job. Vanderneck says there is also significant domestic abuse in the community, and Casa San Jose assists children and adults in need of legal protection.
Lately, Vanderneck’s led prayer services and demonstrations for a father of three and local activist who faces deportation back to Mexico–Martin Esquivel Hernandez.
A number of young activists gathered at a recent demonstration spoke of their admiration for Vanderneck’s brand of faith in action.
“It’s more than fitting as a faith leader to follow the old scripture that tells people to take in the stranger and to help them and I think she’s been amazing at following that code, and not only following it but also setting examples for every other faith leader, which is why today we had 15 faith leaders here, the most we’ve ever had at any action,” says Christina Acuna Castillo, who works with the Thomas Merton Center. “She was there from the beginning.”
Vanderneck’s work has a heightened urgency now that the new U.S. President Donald J. Trump has vowed to deport millions of Mexicans.
“I can see more … more families being broken by having the dad deported and the mother and child left behind,” Vanderneck says. “Also, he has threatened to take away Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA. That would just be so inhumane.”
Vanderneck’s position on immigration is not as radical as some of her fellow advocates. She does not favor open borders. But she thinks everyone who comes to the U.S. should get a fair shot–a good lawyer and a hearing at least. For her, the fundamental goal is keeping families intact.
Because of Trump’s rhetoric, Vanderneck says that, for the first time in her life, she might have to go on hunger strikes to call attention to the plight of Latino immigrants. For now, she continues to find her strength in daily private prayer, and in the Spanish Masses at St. Catherine of Siena church in Beechview.
While a Sinatra song figured prominently in Vanderneck’s early attraction to Latin America, these days, she’s doing the singing. She’s part of the choir at the Spanish Mass. Vanderneck’s favorite song is Pescador Des Hombres. The lyrics include the words Vanderneck appears to live by: “Lord, send me where you would have me, to a village, or heart of the city; I will remember that you are with me.”
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