Over 1,700 people from Jesuit institutions and parishes gathered in Washington, D.C. from November 7-9 to learn, reflect, advocate, and pray about domestic and international social justice issues. A group of over twenty students and several faculty members from Boston College attended the conference. This year, the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ) hosted nearly 100 delegations, including groups from Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, and Canada. From high school students to well-known social justice advocates to a plethora of Jesuits and scholastics, everyone in the Ignatian family was represented.
The theme of the conference was “Bridges” and how bridges of dialogue, understanding, and compassion can be built effectively. In his opening remarks, Chris Kerr, Executive Director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, which coordinates the IFTJ, said that “instead of raising walls, we need to be building bridges.” Kerr asked participants to use Pope Francis as a model of bridge-building, adding that the Pope “used the word dialogue twelve times” in his address to the U.S. Congress earlier this year. Father Rick Malloy, S.J., of the University of Scranton reiterated the theme of bridges in his speech, saying that “when we don’t build bridges, people suffer.”
One of the keynote speakers at this year’s gathering was Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. Sr. Helen is a well-known advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. One of her books, entitled Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, has been developed into a movie and an opera. Sister Helen spoke about awakening ourselves to the realities around us, saying that “the first bridge we need to build is one from ourselves to the Holy Spirit.” She told the story of her awakening from ignorance of poverty and injustice to becoming the world-renowned advocate she is today. In describing her feelings towards working for justice prior to her awakening, Sister Helen recalled thinking, “We are nuns, we are not social workers! I don’t want politics, I transcend politics!” She grew to understand that it is “not God’s will for poor people to be poor” and began ministering in housing projects in New Orleans. Sister Helen also began corresponding with a man on death row whom she began visiting in prison. She became his spiritual advisor and through this relationship discovered that “everybody is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done in their life.” Since that time, Sister Helen has been working tirelessly towards the abolition of the death penalty.
Other speakers, including high school students, community organizers, and university professors, shed light on other social justice issues. Another keynote speaker was Maureen O’Connell, Ph.D., a professor of Christian Ethics at LaSalle University. O’Connell challenged participants to think about the racist structures within their own justice-oriented communities. O’Connell said that as a white woman, she was at first hesitant when she felt called “by the Holy Spirit to wade into the troubled waters of racial injustice.” She maintains that racism is a form of social sin that cuts off our ability to empathize with others. She asked participants to respond to the “call to holy boldness that we all receive as followers of Jesus” to end the “collective crucifixion of people of color.” O’Connell urged all present to encounter the pain of racism by first listening and being present, building an inclusive community, and loving all the people in that community.
The Ignatian Family Teach-In ended with a liturgy on Sunday night. On Monday morning, over 1,500 students descended on Capitol Hill to meet with nearly one quarter of the U.S. Congress to advocate for immigration reform, human rights in Central America, and environmental justice. Students learned what it meant to live out “a faith that does justice” before heading home to their respective Ignatian communities.