Sister Elaine (center) and friends hang a banner along a busy street to show their support of immigrants, portraying an adaptation of Jesus’ saying, “I was an immigrant and you welcomed me.”

By Charlotte Hall

Mar 12 2024

For all women religious, responding to a call from God to devote their lives to Him and His work is the beginning of a new life. Sister Elaine Sanchez began her new life caring for children of working-class families at Sisters of the Holy Family Day Homes in California and Nevada.

Sister Elaine was at the Las Vegas Day Home on the day in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Most of the families they served were black. She vividly remembers how sad that day was for all of them, “These were my people,” she says looking back, “and I was grieving with them.”

She planned to join marchers in Las Vegas the following day in memory of Dr King. But when Sister Elaine’s local Superior heard, she said the sisters were not to march, as no other religious community would be participating. Sister Elaine says, “I went to the church to pray, planning to obey my Superior’s wishes. But then a parent of one of our Day Home children asked, ‘Sister, are you going to march with us?’ At that moment I knew I had to march. It was such a strong feeling of ‘You are made for this. This is what you are called to do.’”

Sister Elaine felt clearly that God was calling her to march that day and to make social justice an integral part of her ministry. That calling has led her to stand up for human rights, equality, and justice in many ways.

Affordable housing becomes an important issue

As housing costs skyrocketed in the 1990s, affordable housing became an important issue in California. In answer to that need, as the newly elected President of Sisters of the Holy Family, Sister Elaine led her community to seek out a developer of affordable housing to whom they could sell a piece of property adjacent to their Motherhouse. Many of their neighbors, plus City Council members, were against the plan.

Suddenly, Sister Elaine was at the forefront of advocating for affordable housing. She dealt with the complexity of city government, spoke at City Council meetings and gave presentations to various groups. During the many months it took to move the project forward, Sister Elaine became a fixture at City meetings, standing up for people who did not usually have a voice. Sister Elaine and the Sisters of the Holy Family persevered, winning over many of their opponents, making way for the building of Oroysom Village, which provides affordable housing for families, and Avelina for seniors. Both have become models for other developments.

Based on her work with the housing issue, Sister Elaine was asked to serve on Fremont’s Human Relations Commission, which handles a variety of complex issues in their culturally diverse city.

Combating human trafficking

In 2008, the travesty of human trafficking became known. The Sisters of the Holy Family made a commitment to work against this inhumanity. Sister Elaine joined Sister Caritas Foster to research the human trafficking issue so they could educate others about the problem. As their knowledge and influence became apparent, the local FBI asked them to be collaborators on their human trafficking task force. Together they built coalitions, educated people about the problem, advocated for the victims and developed ways to combat the issue. In 2017, at a national ceremony in Washington, D.C., the FBI recognized the Sisters of the Holy Family for their important contributions in this area.

Advocating for compassion and inclusion

For more than a dozen years Sister Elaine has served on the Tri-City Interfaith Council (Fremont, Newark and Union City, CA), whose purpose is to learn from and respect the various faith traditions, as well as work together for an inclusive society. This group has a strong social justice stance and one of their efforts is to encourage Fremont to join communities around the world in becoming a Compassionate City and adopting a Charter of Compassion.

The goal of a Compassionate City is to encompass all elements of a community into an inclusive whole, where the well-being of each individual and the entire community is a priority and that all peoples and living things are treated with respect.

Sister Elaine was a leader in advocating for Fremont to adopt a Charter of Compassion. Adopted in 2016, the Charter states, “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to…honor the sanctity of every human being, everybody, without exception, with justice, equity and respect.”

With that formally adopted Charter, Sister Elaine and others work to spread the message of inclusivity, and to address issues of hate and prejudice. They provide education about immigration, food insecurity, and homelessness in public forums and city meetings.

One year after Fremont became a Compassionate City, the Inter-Faith Council worked with the City’s Human Relations Commission to draft a resolution which re-affirmed Fremont as a place “in which all men, women and children, regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender, disability or sexual orientation, may live, learn, work and play in harmony…” and which declared Fremont to be a ‘sanctuary city’.

Answering what God called her to do, Sister Elaine continues to advocate for those without a voice and to commit her life to social justice for all. – Vatican News