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Heidi Cerneka


Year Joined MKLM: 1996

Country: U.S.-Mexico Border

City: El Paso Texas

Focus: Justice & Peace

Populations Served: Immigrants and asylum seekers

Description: legal services


Current Ministry:

Heidi has begun a new ministry at the U.S.-Mexico border. She is based in the city of El Paso, Texas, which borders on the city of Juárez, Chihuahua. Although she is the first Maryknoll lay missioner at the border since 2007, she will be joining in collaboration with Maryknoll sisters, fathers, and brothers as well as many other faith-based and community partners.

Heidi’s new assignment is the culmination of a two-year process of discernment that recognizes the physical border as a place that speaks uniquely to our charism: “to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crossing boundaries of culture, nationality and faith to join our lives with impoverished and oppressed peoples of the earth.”

She is serving as an immigration attorney with community agencies. In addition, she plans to integrate immigration issues together with her experience with women and incarceration. Please check here for updates as the details of Heidi’s work at the border develop.

Personal Data:

Heidi claims both St. Louis, MO, and Chicago, IL, as home. She joined MKLM in 1996. Before that, she worked in campus ministry at Loyola University Chicago. She also has experience working with women in situations of substance abuse and domestic violence. In addition, Heidi spent two years in Belize working with the Jesuit Volunteers. Heidi received her degrees at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, IN (BA in Religious Studies [1987]), and Loyola University Chicago (Master’s degree in Pastoral Studies [1991] and Juris Doctor [2017]).

Past Ministry with Maryknoll Lay Missioners:

For over 20 years, Heidi has worked with incarcerated women, offering accompaniment and advocacy right in the prisons with the women, as well as advocating for justice policies that contemplate women’s unique situations and advocating for a world where prison is not the answer for injustices. She reflects, “Prison is the place where I most feel the presence of God. When you strip a person of everything else—family, home, job, freedom, and more—sometimes all she has left is her faith and her God and she holds tenaciously to that. I often hear pastoral ministers say that they visit prisons because it is our call to bring Jesus to the prisons. I believe that Jesus is there long before we are, and our job is to meet him there in the people that we visit.”

After earning her law degree in 2017, Heidi served in Kenya, engaging with local organizations in Mombasa and Nairobi. She worked with pastoral and legal projects to help women involved in the criminal justice system, especially with paralegal and self-representation programs that train them to be their own advocates in their criminal cases.

Kenya does not have public defenders, so considering that most people in prison have very limited economic resources, they generally end up without a lawyer to defend them in court. Training prisoners to speak up in court, to be their own advocate, not only gives them a better chance of a fair trial, but it also gives them courage and self-confidence that lasts far beyond their court case.

From 1996 to 2014, Heidi lived and worked in São Paulo, Brazil. She served with both the National Prison Pastoral Ministry—associated with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference—as well as with a nongovernmental organization, the Institute for Land, Work, and Citizenship (ITTC). Heidi worked on public policy and human rights issues for all people in prison, and for their families, but she developed a specific ministry with women in prison, because women are generally overlooked in prison policy and advocacy. She provided direct pastoral support to women prisoners through regular visits, and she networked with local, state and national governmental and nongovernmental organizations. They effected change in the treatment of women, the hearing of their cases, and opportunities for alternative sentencing, and at the same time, addressed larger issues related to crime, drug, and human trafficking, identifying patterns that repeat from country to country. Additionally, Heidi participated in United Nations expert working groups to develop Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of women (Bangkok Rules), and the revision of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of all prisoners (Mandela Rules).


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