Proclaiming Jesus through education and Christian formation.

Sisters in Ministry January 2012
Sister Jane Falke: No time to waste in serving the stranger

Sister Jane visits with Dawt Peng, a refugee from Burma who was hired in June 2011 as an intake and referral specialist at Catholic Charities in Kansas City. Peng came from a refugee camp in Malaysia and tells of the atrocities his Chin people go through in Burma, including forced hard labor, forced military service, sexual abuse and murder. “He’s good at helping with food stamp applications, Medicaid applications and interpreting,” Sister Jane said. “I’m very happy,” Peng said. “God knows my heart, so he gave me an opportunity to help my people.”

The quote from Matthew 25:35-36 is stenciled on the chalkboard gray wall behind Sister Jane Falke’s desk at the office of Catholic Charities of Kansas City, Kan. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me.”

One day a refugee who had come to the office for assistance was reading the quote slowly, word by word, until he stopped and asked Sister Jane, “What is a stranger?” Sister Jane replied, “That’s you.”

Since 2010, Sister Jane’s ministry has to been to welcome the stranger, mostly people coming to Kansas City from Burma or Bhutan, a few African nations and some Iraqis. “The U.S. government identifies people needing support as refugees or asylees,” Sister Jane said. “Catholic Charities is one of the agencies that will give support. The Catholic Conference of Bishops notifies us to see if we’ll receive them.”

It’s not a ministry this former teacher and business manager ever thought she’d do, but her easy laugh and her innate Ursuline hospitality makes her a perfect fit as the first person visitors meet when they walk through the door.

“We love having Sister Jane here, she’s great at welcoming everyone,” said Kristen Allen, director of the Kansas City Office of Refugee Resettlement. “We used to have no one at reception, it was like the Wild, Wild West, people were wandering around the hallways. She’s great at learning everyone’s name. We’re so lucky to have her.”

Family reunification is a major emphasis at the office, Sister Jane said. “Some come and they want to bring over the rest of their family,” she said. “Most are coming from refugee camps.”

The Kansas City office will pick up a refugee at the airport, find living space before he/she arrives, and make a donation of furniture and clothing. “We’ll take them through the health services, and get them bus passes. We’ll teach them how to live in an apartment rather than a refugee camp,” Sister Jane said. “We do an individual employment plan to find them jobs. Federal Express, housekeeping, landscaping and restaurant work are some of the more prevalent jobs available. We provide every type of social service – rent, utilities and spending money until they get set up.”

Sister Jane points to a picture of one of the success stories of the New Roots community gardening project in Kansas City. The woman in the picture worked in the community garden for four years, and now owns her own property. Sister Jane and three other sisters bought a share in her garden, and the woman brought them four to six items each week.

The job would be easier if Sister Jane spoke another language, but she doesn’t. “I can do Namasté,” she said. “Sometimes people just stand and look at me.”

Sister Jane keeps up with 15 calendars at Catholic Charities, and she makes a small chart each morning to anticipate who is coming in so she can greet them. “I have everyone sign in,” she said. “We have a few interpreters on staff, or I rely on someone in the lobby.”

Popular languages are the Burmese dialects of Chin and Karen, and Nepali, one of the languages of Bhutan, Sister Jane said. “They know a little English. Sometimes I just look around the room and someone else pipes in. I’ve gotten pretty good at some pretty unusual interpretations of English.”

One day in early November, Sister Jane said 50 people signed in, but only seven of them were scheduled appointments.

She is proud of the work being done at Catholic Charities, especially an urban community gardening project for refugees called “New Roots.” “An agriculturalist teaches them how to raise crops. They drive people to various farmers markets, show them how to market their products, pay taxes, etc.,” she said. Sister Jane lives on Reinhardt Drive in Shawnee Mission with Sister Dee Long, and two other sisters live a short distance away, Sisters Martina Rockers and Angela Fitzpatrick. The four sisters bought a share in New Roots for 20 weeks, and a woman would bring them four to six items from her garden to eat. “They learn to grow crops that are marketable here,” Sister Jane said, which includes kale, okra, tomatoes, beets, turnips, onions, basil and cilantro.

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