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ST. LOUIS (CNS) — Twenty-two-year-old Edith Avila Olea said her friends think she is a hippie.
“It’s not so much that I’m a tree hugger, it’s the conversations that I purposely stir up,” she said, noting that she tends to ask a lot of questions and hopes to make people think.
And if she can get anyone to ask, “What am I doing to help my brother and sister?” she said she is convinced she is fulfilling her mission.
Avila, winner of the 2015 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, said she asks questions that might make people uncomfortable, particularly about helping those in need, but that’s only because she asks herself the same things. One of her big questions is: “What does it mean to be Catholic?”She started doing this, she said, during her four-month college internship with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. “I learned more than I could have ever asked for and was completely out of my comfort zone,” she said of her work there, which included helping to organize — on short-notice – a rally for wage increases.
Avila currently serves as coordinator of the parish outreach and board of young professionals for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, both initiatives that she started."Fighting for justice for all people isn’t an option for Catholics, it is our mission." She was presented with the Cardinal Bernardin award June 11 in St. Louis by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, during a reception sponsored by CCHD at the bishops’ spring assembly. CCHD is the bishops’ domestic anti-poverty agency.
The award, named for the late Chicago cardinal, has been presented annually since 1998 to a young adult working to empower others and respond to injustice in his or her community.
Avila said she was humbled by the award and thanked those who taught her about faith and justice. “I stand in awe of the Lord,” she added.
Avila’s petite frame belies her confident manner, but as she sees it, Catholics have to speak out and act on their faith to defend those living on minimum wage or trying to understand and fill out the maze of necessary government forms.
As she puts it: “Catholicism calls us to be anything but silent” and “Fighting for justice for all people isn’t an option for Catholics, it is our mission.”
Avila, one of six children, immigrated to the United States with her family from Mexico when she was young. She said growing up poor wasn’t easy. She attended five different elementary schools and two middle schools. Her family eventually settled in Georgia, where her parents worked multiple jobs to support the family.
At the awards reception she told Catholic News Service that she thinks a lot of young people leave the church because they are not authentically living out their faith.
“They’re living comfortably in the margins instead of in the trenches,” she said.
Avila said there are so many avenues in the church where people can find ways to serve. For her, she said she “fell in love with social justice — not just because of my personal story but I took the call to love your brother and sister very seriously.”
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award honors a Catholic between the age of 18 and 40 who demonstrates leadership in fighting poverty and injustice in the United States through community-based solutions. It is named for the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who served as archbishop of Chicago from 1982 till his death in 1996.
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