By Mary Baudouin
Sue Weishar knew as a young girl that she wanted to experience cultures other than the one she knew growing up in the Midwest. That desire led her around the world – to Samoa as a Peace Corps Volunteer and to Guatemala as a teacher – and to Louisiana as coordinator of international students at the University of Louisiana Lafayette and director of Immigration and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities New Orleans. Ten years ago, it led her to the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) in New Orleans, where she serves as a policy and research fellow focusing on issues of immigration and criminal justice.
JSRI is a joint project of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province and Loyola University New Orleans.
In every role, Dr. Weishar has based her work in what Pope Francis calls “the culture of encounter.” Her friendships with immigrants, refugees and incarcerated people inform her work as an advocate and researcher.
“Accompaniment really resonates with me. It is so important to keep me grounded as I try to understand issues from the way they impact individuals,” Weishar says. “I have developed such enriching friendships with people with life experiences and from cultures totally different from my own.”
Weishar’s research and advocacy on criminal justice issues, including solitary confinement, human rights and mass incarceration, led her years ago to attend a “Day of Compassion” at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola). During this event that brought together inmates and outside stakeholders for dialogue, Weishar befriended Robert, a 47-year-old man who has been in Angola for 27 years, convicted of second-degree murder after a fight with a friend turned deadly.
More than all the books and research studies Weishar has read, it is her friendship with Robert that has helped her understand the experience of imprisoned people – both the good and the bad.
“I talk to Robert once a week,” she says. “I have learned so much about faith from him. His faith allows him to live a life of love, mercy and forgiveness. Our lives are so different, but we share a common humanity. This grounds me and has been an incredible grace.”
Weishar believes that creating a culture of encounter is key to both breaking down walls and building stronger advocates. She is the creator and organizer of JSRI’s Teach-Ins on Immigration and Mass Incarceration, during which immigrants and formerly incarcerated people share their stories with students and parishioners. The relationships of trust that she has built with immigrants and formerly incarcerated people have given them the courage needed to tell others about their experiences.
Many of those who attend the Teach-Ins go on to join Weishar and JSRI in advocating for more just legislation, policies and practices for undocumented immigrants and people impacted by the criminal justice system.
Working directly with immigrants by teaching English as a Second Language, organizing food drives for families whose primary breadwinner has been deported and conducting legal services intake interviews after Immigration and Customs Enforcement workplace raids have fired Weishar’s passion for speaking out for justice in her writing, research and advocacy with law and policy makers. She speaks and write from her heart, formed by those on the margins she counts as her friends.