How to turn a lukewarm parish into a hotbed of social justice

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Article Parish Life Social Justice
In a 1990s article from Salt of the Earth, Jack Jezreel wrote about the surprising success of JustFaith, the parish-based program on social justice, at its beginning.

In 1988, I decided to give parish work one more try. I reluctantly accepted a position as minister of social responsibility with Church of the Epiphany in Louisville, Kentucky, a position that focused on what today we call "parish social ministry."

I confess my motives were mixed. On the one hand, I had spent the past six years in Colorado with a faith community modeled after the Catholic Worker and was convinced of the primacy of justice work in the life of faith. On the other hand, my previous experience with parish work and parish social action had been very discouraging, so discouraging in fact that I had decided to abandon parish ministry for farming.

But the financial reality was that I needed money to buy a farm, and so I consented with fear and trembling to try parish ministry again, at least long enough for a down payment on 10 acres. I admit that I was at least intrigued by the idea that a parish would hire somebody full-time to do exclusively parish social ministry.

"I realize" I had written sincerely in my application, "that peace-and-justice work will always be done by only a handful of parishioners, that it will most likely remain on the periphery of parish life, and that it will be eyed suspiciously by most parishioners." One of the great graces of my life has been that I was wrong.

But it didn't seem that way at first. At my first monthly Social Action Committee meeting, four people showed up. At my second Social Action Committee meeting, three people showed up.

"This is not going well," I thought to myself. What to do? I had three choices, it seemed. I could take early retirement and borrow money from my dad for a farm. I could hope a lot of social-action-type Catholics would join the parish soon. Or I could try to figure out how to build a parish social ministry, something that I had never seen done.

Three hints

The problem with confronted me was: how does it happen that any one of us ever moves from a life of disinterest in matters of human need to become absorbed in the life of compassion? The problem, I have come to conclude, has much bigger ramifications than I understood then, as I will explain later. But there were some hints.

The first hint was my experience in the parish. Despite my early frustration with parish life, I did have a very favorable impression of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I had facilitated the RCIA for various parishes for five years, and I was always impressed by the fact of transformation. As a matter of fact, it had been my only experience of seeing people change in the parish setting.

People who, for various reasons--some not altogether inspiring--had chosen to become Catholic often experienced significant transformation during the time they were in the RCIA. Of course this has been many people's experience with the RCIA around the world.

The second hint was my experience in the Bijou Street Community in Colorado Springs, an intentional Christian community modeled after the Catholic Worker. I was always curious about the fact that so many in that community had studied theology on the graduate-school level.

This was not unlike the larger experience of the Catholic tradition. The movers and shakers in peacemaking and seeking justice have been people--often religious and ordained--who have had some access to more of the tradition than what most Catholics experienced in the parish. They knew who Saint Benedict was, they knew something about Catholic social teaching, they knew about liberation theology, or they had studied the prophets. 

The third hint was the personal testimony of the great saints. It is the testimony of the encounter with the suffering. It is the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero, it is the story of Saint Francis, it is the story of Jean Donovan, it is the story of Jean Vanier.

"Our theology," says Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M., "is that we discover God in the eyes of the poor. Period." In other words, we need another set of experiences to mold us. We need to place ourselves in the company of the suffering, the poor, the marginalized, so that we can learn who we are, who God is, and what's to be done.

JustFaith takes off

So, with little to lose, in the fall of 1989 I offered a program that I called "JustFaith." I advertised it as an intensive study of the peace-and-justice traditions of the Catholic faith. For nine months, we would meet every week for two and a half hours. Participants would be required to do a lot of reading (two to four hours each week). I also planned two or three retreats, some workshops, and some kind of interaction with the poor and vulnerable.

A fellow staff member told me that I had just planned the most demanding parish program ever offered. Of course, I had no idea if anyone would be interested, and I did not know exactly what we would do, and I certainly didn't know what would come of it.

As it turned out, 12 people signed up that first year. And the experience was nothing short of extraordinary.

SO what did we do? To put it very simply, we read some of the best books I could find, we watched some very compelling videos, we discussed the hardest issues we could think of, we marched in a downtown rally after the massacre of the Jesuits in El Salvador, we listened to guest speakers and missionaries, we experienced an "urban plunge," we prayed, we had retreats, we became close friends, and at the end we were all different.

In some cases, we were very different. And the people who went through that first JustFaith are today some of the pillars of the parish and the greater Louisville faith-and-justice community. This experience has been repeated for each of the six years that JustFaith has been offered.

Conversion stories 

The stories of transformation are many and powerful. Some are even dramatic.

At least three participants left high-paying jobs for other work that paid less because of social-ethical concerns.

Pat Bowles left an engineering job with a major corporation out of concern for the dehumanization he experienced in the workplace and an interest in nurturing young people; he now teaches high school.

Mike O'Brien was the chief financial officer for a major health-care provider; he grew weary of the overemphasis on profit and longed to do something that connected directly with his faith. Today he works in development for a residential facility for at-risk teenage boys.

Tom Wannemuehler worked as a counselor and still does, except that now he oversees the care of the boys at the same residential facility where O'Brien works.

All of them would say that their experiences in JustFaith were the reasons for, or at least played a major role in, their decision.

Spouses Mary and Gary Becker went through the program together. Mary went on to become the chairperson of Louisville's Council on Peacemaking, and she started Louisville's only Pax Christi group. She also began her own business in socially responsible investing. Gary got involved with Prisoner Visitation Service, visiting federal inmates in Lexington. He also regularly works at a homeless shelter. Together, they have visited El Salvador and Haiti and they provided a sizable donation to start a micro-loan program in El Salvador.

David Horvath oversaw the beginning of a sister-parish relationship with a community in El Salvador, which has prompted over 50 parishioners to visit this Third World country. Sara Kamlay continues as contact person.

Martha Davis is now on the local board of Habitat for Humanity and served as chairperson of the parish social-concerns committee. Rosetta Fackler spent three months in El Salvador and worked to create local markets for Salvadoran crafts. Chris Bowles began a parish committee trying to address issues of racism.

Rosemary Smith, Mary Sue Barnett, Jackie Claes, and Keiron O'Connell began a women's concerns committee and orchestrated a women's homily series that provided an opportunity for women's voices to be heard from the pulpit. They were also responsible for a yearlong program on the role of women in the church, inviting such speakers as Mary Luke Tobin, Richard McBrien, Mary Jo Weaver, and Katherine Hilkert, not to mention some outstanding local speakers.

David Chervenak oversaw a yearlong discernment process on the matter of civil rights for homosexuals. Bob and Dotti Lockhart have made at least eight trips to El Salvador, one lasting six months. Mike O'Brien is involved with a grassroots inner-city organization funded by the Campaign for Human Development.

Other participants have gone on to be involved in parish social-action committees, legislative networks, material-aid collections, etc. Many have simplified their lifestyles--everything from moving to less expensive homes to eating less meat to just buying less. And many have become very generous with their wealth.

Side effects

In addition to these transformations, there were three other results that I had not expected and did not intend, but they speak volumes.

The first was that the people who went through the JustFaith process together often became very close. The experience of watching each other struggle, grow, choose, and change made for some very strong bonds. The difficulty of the choices they were trying to make and the common concerns for the world's poor and wounded made for ready affection.

Indeed, the testimony of many of the participants is that over time many of the former relationships in their lives gradually faded in intensity as their lifestyles and commitments continued to be molded by the gospel values of inclusiveness, forgiveness, and compassion. Meanwhile, the relationships that shared these values grew and became more important. I suspect this might have been the experience of the early church.

The second unexpected result was that, as we turned our attention to the external order, to the world and its wounds, there was a resulting need and appetite to address and more fully explore our own personal inner lives.

Thomas Merton was right: a caring look outside of us is somehow connected to a caring look inside of us. Prayer and action are intrinsically connected.

In fact, for some participants, personal issues that had not been resolved even after years of counseling prior to JustFaith suddenly had a fresh and unexpected answer. I am reminded of one participant who spoke of her utter inability to heal a hate she had for her mother. It wasn't until she read Jim Douglass' remarkable book, The Nonviolent Coming of God, that she found some keys to reconciling herself with her mom. Personal and social redemption are so interconnected as to be indistinguishable.

The third unexpected result was the impact on the parish. By the third year of JustFaith, there was something of a "hundredth monkey syndrome." The simple fact of 37 JustFaith graduates, energized and eager to be about social ministry, had an impact not only on spouses and friends but on the larger community as well. It surely wasn't the case that the entire parish embraced with passion the message and call of justice and peacemaking, but it was the case that the parish's agenda included more focus on such matters.

Thirty-seven parishioners working on anything might well be called a mass movement. That various matters were being brought before the parish council--such as requests to start sister-parish relationships with churches in El Salvador and the West End of Louisville, requests to fund new projects, and proposals to facilitate parish forums on environmental issues--meant that a great part of the parish's focus and agenda was being devoted to this business.

I believe the impact was, to borrow from the words of Peter Maurin, that it made it easier for the parish to do good. It also made, in my opinion, the parish a more vibrant, exciting place to be.

Now after six years of offering JustFaith to 75 people, the work of social ministry is larger than one person could hope to manage. One hundred and twenty households are integrally involved in social ministry, with another 100 to 150 supportive of various parts of the work. And, of course, each year another 10 to 15 people are integrated into the work.

The single most exciting dimension of all this is that now most of the initiatives and work of outreach, advocacy, and solidarity are authored by parishioners.

It would seem JustFaith has provided some critical insights that encourage the growth toward pastoral authority and action. But it may very well be that it is nothing more than the claim that deeply felt compassion--could this be what we call the "Spirit"?--has on our lives.

In any event, the work and projects grow. The maturity and spiritual wisdom increases. And some of the wounds of the world are healed.

New life 

The experience of JustFaith and its impact on Epiphany over the past eight years has taught me what faith, conversion, parish, and social ministry are about.

I believe conversion is primarily about the broadening and deepening of love--love for God, ourselves, for our neighbors. Any change--intellectual, practical, or spiritual--that allows for the expanded inclusion of the stranger, the enemy, and the suffering into the sphere of my care is holy.

Parish social ministry is simply the effort to organize the church's ever-broadening love for the world. The so-called preferential option for the poor, for example, is nothing but the church responding to the children of God the way a mother would respond to her own children, attending with special care to the needs of the one in pain.

And parish social ministry is at the heart of the Good News. It is good news, not just for those victims whose wounded lives might be healed by the work of compassion, justice, and peacemaking, but for the workers as well. It gives life and restores us as we recognize our common brokenness. And the paradox of the cross is something I have witnessed over and over again these past few years: the embrace of human suffering is somehow the route to resurrection.

I can only say that as people have healthily integrated social ministry into their lives, they have become more alive. They experience their own lives with more vitality. They are less attached to things that do not matter. They love better. They are more patient, more empathetic, more forgiving, more generous, more inclusive. What better definition can we give to "new life"?

All of this has caught me by surprise. I had not anticipated eight years ago any-thing like what has happened at Epiphany. And while I am sure such stories are told in other places, I have been humbled and personally renewed by the lived experience of seeing so many conversions, so many deeds of courage, so many acts of sacrifice and care, so many caught up in God's mercy and justice.

I admit that I had at one time dismissed the parish as an ineffective tool for social transformation. I now consider its possibilities to be the most potent that I know.

And that is why, even after I bought my farm, I continue to work in the parish.

This article originally appeared in Salt of the Earth, a former sister publication to U.S. Catholic.