WASHINGTON (November 10, 2006) – Jamila Spencer, 26, a community organizer and immigration reform advocate in Denver, is the 2006 recipient of the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award. The annual award, presented since 1998, honors young Catholics who demonstrate leadership in fighting poverty and injustice in the United States.
Jamila Spencer works for the Colorado Catholic Conference. She is the first U.S.-born citizen in her family. Her mother emigrated from Baghdad thirty years ago.
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented each year by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), a national program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which provides grants to community-based, self-help groups that are addressing the root causes of poverty. The program also works to educate Americans about social problems that contribute to poverty in order to raise awareness about poverty and its deep impact on this country.
The award honors Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996), former archbishop of Chicago and a leading voice on behalf of poor and low-income people, who understood the need to build bridges across ethnic, economic, class and age barriers. The award will be presented Monday, November 13, in Baltimore, during the USCCB's annual fall meeting.
Jamila Spencer is the Citizen Advocacy Coordinator for the Colorado Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of Colorado's Catholic Bishops. She graduated from the University of Colorado in 2003 with a major in political science. She joined the Colorado Catholic Conference as a part-time community organizer at the parish level and, in early 2005, was invited to coordinate the Colorado Bishops' local initiative in support of the national initiative Justice for Immigrants: The Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform. "We did not know at the time that it would be such an explosive issue," she says. "It was the first big national campaign that the Colorado Catholic Conference had joined."
She describes working locally with CCHD-funded groups that are committed to protecting the rights and dignity of immigrants. "There has been a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment here and we are trying to understand the issues from a justice perspective, fight for the rights of migrants and change the attitude of average Americans toward immigrants," she says. "We were trying to educate the Catholic faithful before the 2006 elections."
Spencer's mother emigrated from Baghdad, Iraq, thirty years ago and ultimately helped her family navigate a nine-year backlog of visa-processing to join her. Her immigration reform work has been inspired by her family's determination to assimilate into American society, while respecting and practicing its own cultural traditions.
Her understanding of Catholic social teaching has informed her position on immigration reform. "I am passionate about insuring that there is a way for undocumented people to become lawful residents and citizens," she says. "There are 12 million-plus people living in the shadows. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to help them feel welcome and find their place."
"At the Colorado Catholic Conference, it's our job to promote Catholic social teaching in the public square," she adds.
In nominating her for the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., wrote: "Jamila's Catholic faith, coupled with her own family's difficult history of immigration, inspired her commitment to social justice. Through her faith and her great appreciation for the social teaching of the Church, Jamila has been able to influence both the language and dynamic of this important issue. And, perhaps more importantly, she has guided community leaders to look to the social teachings of the Catholic Church as a vital resource for understanding the many challenges facing our world today."
Spencer is an active member of St. Thomas More parish in Centennial, Colorado. In addition to her responsibilities with the Colorado Catholic Conference, she coordinates the Young Adult Ministry at her parish, organizing social and spiritual programs for men and women in their 20s and 30s. She also facilitates parish discussions on the Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II's integrated vision of the human person as body, soul and spirit, which he reflected on during his weekly audiences from 1979 to 1984.
Spencer participated in two World Youth Day events, the first in Paris, as a high school senior in 1997, and the other in Rome, in 2000, the Jubilee Year. "The Jubilee trip had a huge effect on my identity," she says. "Pope John Paul II looked at us and said that he was honored to be in the presence of the future saints of the Church. That was very affirming and challenging!"
As a college student, Spencer led Bible studies for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). She is currently pursuing a master's degree from Creighton University in Theology of the Body, and has also taken on an additional role at the Colorado Catholic Conference as the Associate for Public Policy.
CCHD Executive Director Timothy Collins said, "Jamila's confidence and initiative are an inspiration to others, particularly young adult Catholics who seek to live and express the fullness of their faith through the social doctrine of the Church. Jamila is able to articulate the Church's position and draw people of good will into a deeper understanding or their responsibility to act on the Gospel message. I congratulate Jamila and her family as she receives the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award."
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented to a young Catholic between the ages of 18 and 30 who demonstrates leadership to bring about long-term, community-based solutions to poverty in the United States. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is one of the nation's largest funders of self-help, community-based programs initiated and led by the poor. Funded by an annual collection in Catholic parishes across the country, CCHD has distributed more than $290 million to more than 7,800 self-help projects over its 36 years. This year, CCHD announced nearly $9 million in grants to support 326 local projects, selected without regard to religious affiliation, in 47 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Editors: For more information about CCHD, visit www.usccb.org/cchd. For more information about the Bernardin Award or to request a .jpg file of the award recipient, contact Barbara Stephenson (firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-541-3364).