ARISE: Listening & Responding to Community Needs
By Sister Denise S.
The director of one of the ARISE service centers is out recuperating from surgery, leaving the staff short-handed. Two staff members deliver coffee and pan dulce to a neighbor who has multiple people at her house following the death of her son in a car accident. Back at the ARISE center, neighborhood children laugh and play outdoor games. It’s March and the children, enjoying their Spring Break, participate in ARISE’s special programs for children with working parents. An unannounced group of visitors arrives at the front door and wants a tour of the center. Behind them, a very depressed neighborhood woman comes through the door in great distress, describing her suicidal thoughts—she clearly came to ARISE in need of help.
This is a “day in the life” of an ARISE service center. Serving new immigrants in the Colonias (low-income, unincorporated neighborhoods) of the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, ARISE is a community development ministry. Founded twenty-five years ago by the late Sister Gerrie Naughton, ARISE is a co-sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Mercy’s South Central community.
ARISE has a strong connection with its neighborhood. Completely staffed and run by neighborhood women, ARISE promotes, trains and provides resources for women to become leaders, educators and community organizers of their own people.
A long tradition of home visits helps ARISE learn and respond to the expressed needs of the community. In 1987, when Sister Gerrie began ARISE, the United States just declared amnesty for a massive group of immigrants. The neighborhood people requested that the fledgling ARISE offer English classes for the Colonia people. Then came a request for help to prepare for the Texas driver’s license exam, which led to a uniquely designed driver’s education program tailored to the people. This is ARISE: listening and responding to community needs. Now ARISE has a whole array of programs for whole families, or for women, children, or youth.
ARISE has a strong history of networking and advocacy. Recently, these initiatives were greatly enhanced as ARISE joined ten other agencies to form the Equal Voice Network. Through its association with the Network, ARISE has educated and organized neighborhood people to work toward infrastructure change in their neighborhoods and policy changes in local, state, and federal governments. Active on the issue of comprehensive immigration reformation, ARISE transported groups of neighbors to Austin (the Texas capital) and to Washington, DC, where local people were able to give testimony to their legislators on their real life experiences as immigrants in this Country. ARISE does not tell the neighborhood people what to think, but rather it educates people on the facts and creates forums where the people can interact with local officials and make their own decisions. Through advocacy at the local level, the people have been able to achieve infrastructure change in their neighborhoods.
ARISE is entirely run by grassroots women. These neighborhood women who lead ARISE have changed me and evangelized me through their strong hope in a future for their people here in the United States, and through their willingness to struggle for this future. In ARISE, I have been exposed to the Mexican and Mexican-American cultures—with their strong relational and inclusive style, with the importance they place on family and community, with the animo (energy and enthusiasm) they demonstrate and with their strong faith and work ethic. I can’t imagine my life without the valuable experience of serving at ARISE, where the Sisters of Mercy Direction Statement—to act in solidarity with the economically poor, to embrace multiculturalism and women seeking equality of life—is lived out.