Capitol Assets

North Texas Catholic
(May 7, 2019) Local

Nolan Catholic High School teacher Lauren Sweet prayed with students and advocates at the entrance to the Texas State Capitol. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Erin Vader and Tan Parker should have met in the halls of Nolan Catholic High School many years ago. After all, they graduated just a year apart. Instead, Vader introduced herself to Parker at his office in the state Capitol in Austin when she visited the state representative from Flower Mound on March 26 — Texas Catholic Faith in Action Advocacy Day.

Vader and about 2,000 Catholics from across Texas stepped under the massive pink granite dome with a single focus: to make certain that state legislators know the Catholic position on bills under consideration during the 86th legislative session.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB), which has organized Advocacy Day for more than 10 years, set the goal of having each of the 31 state senators and 150 state representatives visited by Catholics from their home region. Beforehand, the TCCB reviewed the thousands of house and senate bills under consideration and prioritized several to discuss with the legislators regarding life, education, and restorative justice.

Vader, the diocesan coordinator for schools advancement and alumni relations, teamed with Catholic Charities Fort Worth’s Kasandra Fernandez and Bob Walters, Knights of Columbus diocesan team leader for pro-life, to visit three legislators representing districts within the Diocese of Fort Worth. Other teams from the Diocese of Fort Worth plus the 14 other dioceses in Texas bustled through the long halls to meet with their legislators.

With just 140 days in the biennial legislative session, time is gold and allocated accordingly. Most meetings lasted just 15 minutes. The Catholic advocates hope that despite the short duration, their visit will make a big impact.

After meeting with Parker, Vader said she hopes her team’s presence puts “healthy pressure” on the legislators. “I hope that he’s reminded of what he is called to do as a Christian and reminded of the concerns of a good chunk of his base.”

She continued, “If we want legislators to vote how we want them to, then we have to let them know we are paying attention.”


An early start

Meanwhile, nearly 100 student leaders from Nolan, who boarded Austin-bound buses at 5:30 a.m., participated in a mock hearing on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which provides temporary deportation protection and work authorization for undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children.

At midday, the students and advocates converged into a crowd of 2,000 for a rally on the steps of the Capitol, where each bishop from Texas introduced himself and encouraged the faithful to be witnesses for human life and dignity and to promote the common good.

At the rally, El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz said, “We are consistent in our love and respect for the dignity of life, especially of the most vulnerable. Catholic social teaching is based on that notion that human life and human dignity are inseparable. Every person, from the moment of conception until natural death, has that dignity.”

Speaking alongside the Texas bishops, Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the TCCB, summarized several bills at a critical juncture in the legislative process, concluding, “As Catholics, we support life, families, immigrants, the poor, religious freedom, restorative justice, improving access to healthcare, education for all, and caring for God’s creation. 

“Today you are joining me in this necessary and critical role as advocates. . . . We contribute to the common good, not because everyone else is Catholic, but because that’s what we do as Catholics,” she added.

Nolan sophomore Victoria Alford said seeing the unity at the rally among the bishops and lay Catholics hailing from El Paso to Tyler was a “testament to the greatness of our faith. The Church is a big community that you can’t find anywhere else.”

Alford observed that her Catholic education taught “believers need to act on their faith. But today we got to go and experience that.”


Student speaks at Advocacy Day (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Faith and the law

After the rally, the advocates resumed their legislative visits while Nolan students met with Bishop Michael Olson and State Representative Drew Springer from Muenster. Springer, whose three children attended Sacred Heart Catholic School in Muenster, explained a little about the legislative process, along with his philosophy and priorities since he was elected state representative in 2012.

“I compare [passing legislation] to baseball. I like to hit singles. I like to move the ball forward, make things better than they were before. And I don’t let the perfect get in the way of doing good,” he explained to the students.

The legislator, who represents 22 counties in north and west Texas, continued. “So many times, people will say, ‘I want to end all abortions, period. If you do anything that just moves it [the legal right to abortion] from 20 weeks to 12 weeks, that’s not good enough. You’re a bad person because you didn’t get it to zero.’

“I’ll take what I can get, and what I think the courts will allow us to get, and what I think I can get from the legislature — how we can make things better instead of just staying with the status quo. That’s the way I philosophically try to legislate,” Rep. Springer summarized.

Bishop Olson reminded the students that they, like the legislators, have a civic duty. A few of the students are 18, and others will soon be, so he told them, “Vote your conscience. Be informed. You have a moral responsibility to vote, to take part in the common good of society.”

The students asked questions, centering on education and the intersection between faith and government. Rep. Springer surprised some students with the revelation that most legislators have a strong religious background. “I wish society had as much faith as we have on the House floor,” he said. 

Springer concluded his 30-minute talk with the students by explaining how his faith influences his role in government.

“Faith is the absolutely the bedrock. Knowing where you come from, and knowing there is somebody bigger than you and what you are trying to accomplish, keeps you focused on ‘What do I want it to be like in 10 years, 50 years, 500 years?’ It’s never about us. It’s got to be about the greater good.”


A voice for others

At Catholic Charities Fort Worth, Fernandez works with the Padua Pilot, which offers intensive case management to help those living in poverty establish permanent financial self-sufficiency. Meeting with Rep. Parker and other legislators enabled her to share stories of her clients with those who enact policies that can have helpful or harmful repercussions for the poor.

Voicing their experiences, she hopes, will help the legislators “stay connected to the entirety of the people that they represent” and “look for ways to impact poverty by taking a long-term view, not just temporary help.” 

Bishop Olson expressed similar thoughts on enacting policies to assist the marginalized. He said, “A rising tide lifts all boats, and that’s good news only if you have a boat. There are some that are in situations that are so impoverished that people don’t have the boats to begin with. If you’re raising standards, people fall deeper into poverty. Catholic Charities Fort Worth, and some bills before us here, are precisely to enable people to be participants in society. It’s a great challenge.”

As Bob Walters, the pro-life team leader, made his rounds of the legislators, he felt the responsibility of being the voice for the 1.1 million Catholics in the Diocese of Fort Worth. “There’s a broad spectrum in our diocese — race, ethnicity, socioeconomics, age, gender. We are representing a lot of people.” In particular, he said, the unborn, those trapped in poverty, the imprisoned, and immigrants need someone to speak for them.

Being an advocate for the voiceless is part of our responsibility as Christians, said Vader, the schools advancement coordinator. “We need to get involved with the legislators as they make decisions that impact lives. We must make sure the Church’s point of view — Christ’s point of view — is at the forefront of their minds.”

Advocacy Day, DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, (TCCB), trending-english