A Hopeful Future Seen at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice 2013

If you want to get excited about the future of the Church, I recommend attending the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice next year, the annual event organized by the Ignatian Solidarity Network. This year’s event featured an array of interesting organizations, speakers, and break-out sessions. What impressed me most, however, was the remarkable group of students in attendance. Billy Kangas was also impressed:

These students were amazing! They were bright, passionate, engaged, informed, energetic and deeply committed to letting the love of Jesus spill out of them in both their personal lives and in our public policy. This weekend they inspired me, rejuvenated me, and showed me the face of Jesus over and over and over.

The students showed an exceptional passion for social justice. This surely must please those educators hoping to form men and women for others. Only at World Youth Day have I met so many inquisitive young people motivated by faith, searching for wisdom and truth, and dedicated to building a more just society.

Their passion for social justice was matched by a commitment to achieving real success and developing a thoughtful, sophisticated understanding of the issues that were being addressed. Not only the college students, but also the high school students, were asking incisive questions that showed they were not interested in simply regurgitating slogans and easy answers.

One asked about the impact of increasing the minimum wage on employment levels. Another asked about the efficacy of increased financial regulation at the state level, rather than the federal level, given the incentives associated with the “race to the bottom” phenomenon. They clearly were listening to the other side, determined to address the strongest arguments of those with whom they may have disagreed, instead of engaging in the type of behavior we too often see in DC: both sides talking past one another with closed minds rather than engaging in real dialogue (speaking from firm principles but with open minds).

The teach-in covered a wide range of issues including prison reform, peacebuilding, financial reform, environmental justice, human trafficking, racial justice, fair trade, and the death penalty. But the big issues that seemed to inspire the most energy and enthusiasm were immigration reform, workers’ rights, and food security.

I heard a young man from Brophy in Phoenix describe an idea for a video that would show how many unauthorized immigrants rely on those connected to the drug trade to get across the border and the dangerous consequences of this reliance. He wanted to show the human impact of various policies and explain reasonable measures that could be taken to fix some of these problems. He was hardly alone. Jesuit Refugee Service’s Mary Small delivered a speech on immigration reform that seemed to draw the largest reaction from the crowd. Students were aware that this is an issue at the forefront of the national agenda and that now is the time to really press for comprehensive immigration reform, which is exactly what they did on the day dedicated to advocacy efforts.

Another issue that captured the attention of many students was food security with cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) looming. Belief in the Catholic teaching that each person has a fundamental right to food was pervasive. Unrepresentative stories about corruption were not. Nor were students grossly overestimating the amount of foreign aid dedicated to ensuring food security and other essential needs, as is the case with the general population. They understood the issue and wanted to see how they could make a difference and help ensure that everyone has access to that most basic need.

Students also shared stories of the exploitation they had witnessed and experienced as workers in a country where employers are too often able to exploit their employees with impunity. They described workers being cheated out their wages and working extra hours without pay, the difficulties of living on a non-living wage, and the lack of security and consistency that exists in people’s lives when workers have schedules that fluctuate and require them to be on-call.

What was truly inspiring was the clear connection between their faith and this commitment to justice. There was a strong sense of community and joy as all joined together in communion for the mass. Their faith was real and vivifying, giving them meaning and purpose.

The fight for justice is long and hard, filled with inevitable setbacks and disappointments. We can only hope that these students’ educators help to equip them with not only a sense of justice that is durable but also a faith that is enduring, and that events like the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice will build a sense of community that will fortify their sense of the interdependency of faith and justice.

And from what I saw over a week ago, there is good reason to hope. While they gathered to “illuminate the horizon of hope” in a stormy world, beams of hope surely illuminated some of their own souls. In looking outside themselves, they saw a clearer picture of their authentic personalities as children of God, craving communion, experiencing joy, and finding meaning in helping to build the Kingdom of God. It is perhaps this hope that should make us the most hopeful about the future of the Church.