From PostCrescent.com, J.E. Espino, For The Post-Crescent, 29 Oct 2011.
OMRO, WI — Casa Esther, an unassuming building tucked toward the back of Main Street in this Winnebago County community, recently was the flashpoint of an ethical dilemma confronted by hundreds in the state.
A handful of women came to meet with the retired Rev. Joe Mattern and his volunteers at the Catholic Worker House’s tight quarters. The conversation turned to the risk undocumented family members and acquaintances would be taking by driving without a license to keep their jobs.
There is fear.
“The catch phrase is, ‘What’s not to understand about the law? They’re here illegally.’ Well, there’s a higher law. There’s a law of human dignity — God’s law if you want to put it that way,” Mattern said.
Mattern, 77, is the go-to person for many Hispanics in the region. He opened the center in 2008, the product of a 30-year ministry to Latinos that grew from his encounter with the first migrant workers to arrive in the late 1970s to the Wautoma area from Texas to pick crops. His is one of the oldest Latino ministries in the Fox Valley.
“I knew a little Spanish, enough to have Mass and do the sacraments. We went out in the fields right by the barracks,” he said.
The roles have reversed with the resurgence of Latino presence in recent years. People walking through the center’s doors want to talk openly with Mattern about their problems.
While driving privileges are a topic of occasional discussion at the center (Wisconsin started requiring proof of legal residency in 2007), it’s only a small part of what goes on there on a daily basis.
The Catholic Worker House gets steady foot traffic from people living in the Oshkosh and Omro areas whose needs are diverse.
A few examples of the center’s wide-ranging influence in the community:
» Is someone struggling with the language? There are English lessons.
» Does a family need financial assistance with auto insurance or medical bills? Mattern finds a way.
» What happens when a worker needs a ride to his job? Volunteers can provide transportation.
» The center offers high-achieving, but under-resourced, students scholarships — even for music and golf lessons.
Mattern and his team of volunteers meet with agencies, nonprofits, law enforcement officials and lawmakers at the municipal to federal levels to talk about issues facing the community they serve.
He goes about his work with this premise: “The answer is always yes.”
“This is every day. People come in and ask for help. We work to help the poorest among us, the neediest among us,” he said.
A helping hand
Casa Esther has been a godsend to Claudia and Jorge Rojas and their five children.
Within a week of moving to Omro, family members felt at home. They relocated five months ago from the Green Lake County community of Princeton.
The Rojas family lived in Aurora, Ill., for 13 years, but Jorge’s construction jobs dried up under the weight of the recession in the Chicago metro area. They sold their home and journeyed to Wisconsin.
The family’s new neighbors in Omro pointed them to Casa Esther as a community resource. Days after meeting Mattern, the retired pastor was hauling pieces of furniture to their home.
Right away, Mattern pushed for the older children to become involved in sports. The result has been a quicker integration to their new surroundings.
Two of the boys, Alexander, 12, and Alan, 11, also began clarinet lessons with him.
“That’s how it all began,” Claudia Rojas said. “When you are so alone — because we don’t have any other family in Wisconsin — he is here for support.”
Mattern arrived in 1979 at Omro’s St. Mary Catholic Church.
His religious credentials include studying four years in the Vatican. He is an accomplished jazz and big-band musician. He is fluent in English, Italian, Polish and Spanish. He learned the latter language when he traveled to Guatemala for immersion courses.
“Now I speak Spanish every day. I preach and administer and do all kinds of things in Spanish. My whole ministry grew along with my responsibilities as a pastor with St. Mary’s,” Mattern said. “When you talk about changes that have taken place over the years, there were just a handful of Hispanic families in the area when I first came. … It’s changed. But it also takes time to change attitudes.”
Advocates for the Fox Valley’s growing Hispanic community have big goals to achieve. High on their list is resolving the driver’s license issue and resident tuition rates for undocumented, college-bound high school graduates.
Because immigration is a deeply personal, politically divisive issue, some people expect it will be years before they see meaningful change.
“I have more hope that the states will pass laws, such as (to make allowances) for driver licenses. (Immigration) reform at the national level is not possible right now,” said Carlos Herrera, Hispanic ministry coordinator at St. Therese Catholic Church in Appleton. “Everyone is experiencing the same economic downturns, but what differentiates us in the Hispanic community is the lack of papers. Without those papers, we’re talking about the loss of many privileges and rights. … That’s a huge burden.”
Mattern said he looks to the civil rights movement of the 1960s for inspiration.
He cited as a small victory the Outagamie County Board’s passage of a resolution in July to oppose a state Assembly bill that would mimic Arizona’s stringent immigration law.
“This is a marathon we’re in. This is not a sprint, and we’re going to change (the) laws,” he said. “One of the things I like to say is, don’t give up hope.”