Finding Inspiration with the Ignatian Family

After spending a weekend at #IFTJ13 all I can say is “wow!” The Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice 2013 was an inspiring event. I hadn’t heard of it until recently, so I’ll assume many of you don’t know about it either. It’s a gathering of mostly young college and high school students from Jesuit institutions that happens every year. During the Teach-in, these young people pray together and learn together about how to work for justice in the world. The speakers were inspiring, but the students were even more so!

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.

As Bread for the World’s resident Catholic conspirator, I was given the opportunity to put a team together to hang out with hundreds of these amazing young people who are looking to explore what it means to be an active Catholic with a public voice. We were able to do a number of sessions, covering how to create a “Circle of Protection” around essential safety net programs here in the United States, and on how providing proper nutrition for children and mothers from the beginning of pregnancy until a child’s second birthday is essential for preventing disease, improving education and overall health, and ultimately saving lives. These 1000 days are key! On Monday, we gathered at the Capitol building for prayer, praise, and advocacy meetings with our congressional representatives, where students went out and challenged policy makers to pass comprehensive immigration reform, protect food security programs, and establish a living wage.

Here are the five takeaways I received from the conference:

  1. They gave me three great questions to ask myself every day: 1) With whom do you cast your lot? 2) From whom do you draw your strength? 3) Whose are you? If I could ask myself those questions FIRST before I face any challenge I think I would be a much stronger person.
  2. They helped me understand justice better. One thing that really stuck out to me was the idea that justice is God’s public love. As a person whose faith is the foundation of my work for justice, I found that this definition resonated strongly with my own experience of working for justice as a person of faith.
  3. They taught me that some Catholics actually CAN sing. Let me be honest for a second. I love being a Catholic, I really do… but I miss the singing of my Protestant background. I can’t tell you how sad it is to go to mass and see some of the greatest examples of the Church’s hymnody butchered by the typical throng of Catholics that seems to feels put upon to mumble or hum through songs that demonstrate the great work of redemption we now participate in Christ. This group was different. They sang, they clapped, they cheered– it was wonderful!
  4. They made me wish there was a third order for Jesuits. This group was awesome… and I felt SO at home with them. Conference speaker Fr. Jim Martin articulated what it meant to be a Jesuit powerfully as someone who knows deeply how loved they are by God, and wants to share that love with others. That is who I want to be.
  5. The most important thing I walked away with was hope. The media is filled with stories that condemn this young generation as lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to speak up to change the systems that keep people hungry and poor. This group, and those like it, are proof that their generation is not only engaged but immensely creative with their activism. Take a look at some of the messages these students posted on their representative’s twitter pages as part of our social media campaign!

It was great to be there.

Seeing the Divine in the Sky and the Poor

One of my spiritual practices is to look at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day each morning. I am humbled by the greatness and beauty of the universe. There is a certain holy fear that staring up at the stars inspires in me. The universe is filled with amazing, beautiful things that have been present for as long as humans have walked this world, but we are only now able to see many of them. Take for example how  we have been able to slow down the noise of crickets and reveal how amazingly beautiful their chirping is–or how microscopes have helped us to see the magic of butterfly scales and unveiled incredible creatures we never knew existed 

The universe is amazing! And it’s far beyond anything we can even imagine.

Scientists estimate that in the observable universe alone there are 170 billion galaxies. That means that if each person in all of human existence (about 100 billion) was given a galaxy, that would still leave about half of the galaxies we can observe unclaimed. Each of these galaxies contains an estimated 400 billion stars, and the closest of these stars (other than our sun) would take 19,361 years to reach using the fastest vessels we have today (which go 150,000 miles per hour).

What’s more amazing to me is that the One who upholds and sustains this extraordinarily vast and complex universe would reveal himself through the humble frame of a man, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God comes to us as a child at his mother’s breast, as a day laborer in a backwater district of an occupied nation, as a man stripped, beaten and killed, as one like us.

The glass contains the ocean. A breath contains the sky. The womb contains majesty without end. The unmoved mover was moved to meet us where we move.

In Jesus, God reveals himself in the universal human language of humanity itself. God adopted human flesh, and so human flesh has become the greatest icon (image) we have of God.

How are we to venerate this great image? Jesus tells us we do it when we love, when we feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, and take our coat and give it to the one who is cold and naked (Matthew 25:31-46). Yes, one of my spiritual practices is to admire God’s handiwork in pictures of the universe, but perhaps I would be better served in seeing God by making an extra lunch in the morning and keeping my eyes open for icons of God in need of a sandwich.

Perhaps this is what Dorothy Day realized when she stated, “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Billy Kangas is the Catholic Relations fellow at Bread for the World, a PhD student in theology at Catholic University, and the editor of The Orant.