The Jesuit who taught me to live for others
Jesuit Father Dean Brackley taught that theology without encounter falls flat.
The people of Capim Grosso, Brazil taught me to dance. Jesuit Father Dean Brackley helped me make sense of the experience. At the time I was a 21-year-old pilgrim from the Midwest plopped in the rural plains of Brazil without my phone or credit card or anything I usually carried to make me comfortable. None of it would have done me any good in Capim Grosso, anyway. The people lived modestly. I saw what I thought was poverty: small houses with chipping paint, meals of rice and beans, very little technology. Then the village invited me to dance. Brackley would say this is where my “world became unhinged.” I thought these people were poor, but the spirit I felt was rich. The whole community gathered in the streets after dinner, clapping and laughing. A young Brazilian laid down a beat and then they—well, we—began to dance. With each cha-cha, I felt something slip away. Expectations, perceptions, even self-consciousness. The hosts and we visitors weren’t so different after all.
Dean Brackley saw the horizons of many young people expand during his years in El Salvador. After joining the Jesuits in 1964, Brackley dedicated his life to fighting poverty and promoting justice. In 1989 Brackley volunteered to take the teaching position of a Jesuit brother who was martyred along with five other Jesuits and two women at the University of Central America (UCA). He would remain in San Salvador until his death in 2011. The university was Brackley’s playground for putting theology into practice. One of Brackley’s main ministries at UCA was connecting college pilgrims from the United States with local Salvadorans. Privilege met poverty on these immersion trips. Matters of justice took center stage.
I first encountered Brackley’s thought during my sophomore year of college as my university prepared to give Brackley an honorary degree. I read his essay, “Higher Standards for Higher Education: The Christian University and Solidarity.” It immediately poked my comfortable middle-class bubble. Brackley wrote about the need to educate students in justice. His words made me rethink the purpose of my college education. Was I using my privilege to address poverty?
Brackley knew how I felt. Growing up in a middle-class family, Brackley reached a “crisis” of faith during Jesuit formation when for the first time he saw just how much violence plagues the world. His heart ached for victims of all kinds. He moved to the lower east side of Manhattan in 1970 to be with people living in poverty. By the 1980s Brackley was a well-respected community organizer in the Bronx. He used his priestly privilege to advocate for people in need.
Brackley stated bluntly that oppression and liberation are at the center of reality today and therefore must be at the center of the Christian university’s mission. We must strive for “international solidarity,” Brackley said. This means people who are rich must care about people who are poor—and vice versa. People from the United States must care about people from Latin America—and vice versa. Solidarity challenges us to live as one human family.
Brackley, who taught theology at Fordham University before moving to UCA, believed Christian universities play a critical role in helping students expand their horizons, confront their biases, and thus move deeper into solidarity. He was adamant that while good work in this area can be done in the classroom, comprehensive education must help students enter into experiences with people in poverty. This can include everything from going on an international immersion trip to volunteering weekly at a soup kitchen. Experiences evoke conversion—intellectual, moral, and religious. Beyond the books, Brackley said students need to be welcomed by people in poverty, to make the sweet realization that “those people” are not so different after all. In fact, “those people”—the poor and marginalized—are actually the ones at the heart of the Christian life. Jesus himself was born into poverty.
Dancing with the people of Capim Grosso is my only experience of in-person international solidarity. I study Catholic Worker philosophies and have done some local volunteering and advocacy work over the last few years. But it doesn’t seem like enough. Jesus is clear: “Just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). The works of mercy are demanding: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty. In other words, meet people’s material needs. Where to start? There are so many social structures that need fixing abroad and at home, so many people feeling isolated, hungry, left behind. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s also easy to make excuses for staying in my comfort zone. I’m inspired by Brackley’s ability to balance the demanding life of an academic theologian with a commitment to doing pastoral work in poor areas of San Salvador. He engaged poverty head-on. He wrote about it in the Jesuits’ America magazine and his book, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times (Crossroad).
Brackley’s writings prod me to always keep an ear toward the poor, especially now that I work in university campus ministry. I’ve found it easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work of higher education. Programs need to be planned, committees need to meet (and meet, and meet again). My students have plenty of needs, too. They come looking for help deciding on a major or grieving the death of a grandparent. I try to honor each encounter in the Benedictine mantra: “Receive all people as Christ.”
At the same time, Brackley will not let me forget that Christ is found beyond my university bubble, too. “Higher Standards for Higher Education” challenges me to remember that theology without encounter is empty. Solidarity becomes just another buzzword if it’s not practiced. I’ve tried hosting service-based retreats and Saturday volunteer opportunities to get students into local shelters. Schools with more funding often sponsor immersion opportunities to third-world countries and dedicate staff to help students reflect on the experience.
Brackley’s ministry helps me learn that perhaps my role as a campus minister is to help facilitate encounter. Meet people of different classes, races, nations. Listen to a young mom tell you what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. Sit across the table from a Salvadoran who barely speaks English and is so excited to welcome you into his home. The gift is in the encounter, which, in the words of Brackley, tends to open up “a richer, more real world.”
This article also appears in the May 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 5, pages 45–46).