Extraordinary Jane: Sister Libby Fernandez
Special to the Sunday Express
Sister Libby Fernandez is an everyday woman living in Sacramento. After a brief stint in the Air Force, she embraced her calling to serve and became a nun with the Sisters of Mercy.
As a Sister of Mercy, she has dedicated her entire life to God and serving God’s people, especially those who are sick, poor and uneducated.
Twenty-five years ago she became involved with Sacramento Loaves and Fishes, a private charity that neither solicits nor accepts government money to feed and shelter the homeless.
Since then she has worked tirelessly, bridging her spirituality with her sense of activism to be an advocate for the homeless. She was thrust into the national media when Oprah Winfrey aired a program featuring Sacramento’s tent city, a makeshift camp of some 200 homeless men and women living on a grassed-over landfill beneath power lines near the Sacramento River.
Sister Libby seized this opportunity to shed light on homelessness, open up a dialogue with city officials and expose whom the Great Recession was really impacting.
Q. Growing up, did you always want to be a nun?
A. I was a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy at Travis Air Force Base and one day I remember there was a strand of people chained to the doors of the chapel protesting. That was the beginning of me asking why are we an instrument of violence versus an instrument of peace? Why are we using the armed forces in foreign countries when we have so many poor and homeless here at home?
Q. Do you think you always had this sense of service?
A. Yes, my calling was always to serve my God even in the Air Force where it was for my country and my God. As a Sister of Mercy you take four vows, including a vow of service.
Q. How did you get involved with Loaves and Fishes?
A. I started volunteering in 1985 after I had left the U.S. Air Force Academy and my parents had just retired to Sacramento. I didn’t know anyone. Being a Catholic, I started volunteering for the Sisters of Mercy, and for the first seven years, I worked in their housing program seeking affordable housing for poor folks. I started working at Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento at Maryhouse, the daytime shelter for homeless women and children and then the Mustard Seed School, which is a free, private school for children 3 to 15 years old. In 2001, I opened up Genesis, the first free mental health program, and for the last four years, I’ve been the executive director of Loaves and Fishes.
Q. Do you believe that spirituality can play a significant role in political action?
A. Absolutely. The ability to protest is written into the mission of Loaves and Fishes. Our philosophy is not to emphasize words, but non-violent action. It’s really about social justice. We walk the talk.
Q. As the executive director at Loaves and Fishes, what are your duties?
A. Be present with our homeless guests. We see 600 to 800 guests each day, and I see as many as possible eye-to-eye and welcome them with dignity and respect; letting them know that they count as much as I do. I also work with the 12 programs we oversee. We have 90 employees, plus nearly 1,000 volunteers from local churches, Rotary clubs, boys’ and girls’ clubs.
Q. What is one of the biggest misconceptions about homelessness?
A. The face of homeless could be anyone. It can be the person who couldn’t pay rent because they were injured, let go or cut back on their employment. The picture of homelessness being because of drug, alcohol and mental issues, is partially true, but it is changing.
Q. How has the face of homelessness changed in the last few years?
A. In the last two to three years since the housing crash, we are seeing more families that are experiencing homelessness for the very first time. They are also staying homeless longer, six months to a year versus 30 to 90 days, because the shelters are so crowed. It takes almost 10 months to get into two-year transitional housing, and even after that it takes time to get income and skills together to get back on their feet.
Q. What do you try to instill in the homeless people you work with?
A. A sense of pride and respect, and that we need to band together, that they can stop hiding. For the past year, homeless folks have been speaking at Sacramento City Council meetings every Tuesday. They are speaking out on the City of Sacramento ordinance that does not allow sleeping on private or public property – where can you sleep at night that isn’t illegal? They are making the city and county deal with the issues of homelessness.
Q. Why do you think women should get involved in the issue of homeless?
A. Women are really the strong image of service, we don’t have to have our name on a building, but we have to have our hands in it working. I always go back to that instinct to fight or flight, it is a woman’s gut instinct to fight to protect the vulnerable.
It comes from centuries of caring.
See Jane Do is a multimedia program capturing the stories of everyday women doing extraordinary things for the planet. Catch the one-hour talk radio program on KVMR 89.5FM the first Wednesday of every month at 1 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.seejanedo.com.
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