WASHINGTON (CNS) — Activist Lisa Sharon Harper stood before a ballroom full of young social justice advocates and told them: “All of us, every human on earth, is a representative figure of God. … Not on our watch will the image of God be so fervently crushed. Not on our watch.”
Harper, chief church engagement officer for Sojourners, a Christian nonprofit that advocates for social justice, peace and the environment, challenged the crowd, “Are you ready to go to the halls of Congress, to tell Republicans and Democrats, ‘Not on our watch’?”
Harper gave one of three keynote speeches at the 19th annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice Nov. 12-14. More than 2,000 people gathered at the event, hosted by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, to learn about social justice issues, share their stories and advocate for the marginalized from a Catholic perspective.
In recognition of the final days of Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, this year’s theme was “Mercy in Action.”
“I’ve been really amazed by the way people have embraced mercy this year,” said Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. “The theme fits really well with our advocacy focuses.”
The three-day event — two days of lectures and reflection and one day of advocacy — was primarily attended by people ages 16 to 24 from Jesuit schools all over North America: religious, students, volunteers and professional social justice advocates.
“I look across the crowded room and I see high schoolers all the way up to people who have graduated and are working in different social justice fields,” said Kari Nelson, a Jesuit Volunteer at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “I think especially in this past year it’s important to know that we’re not alone in doing the work that we’re doing.”
Between keynote speeches, participants attended breakout sessions on everything from the Dakota Access Pipeline to applying to graduate school for a social justice-related degree.
“It’s really great to have more concrete tools,” said Hannah Wingett, a justice and peace studies major at Georgetown University. “In my experience, there’s a lot of desire to help and no real way to actually make that happen.”
One speaker was Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, author of “Tattoos on the Heart.” Father Boyle is the executive director of Homeboy Industries, a rehabilitation program for gang-involved youth. He addressed people’s tendency to demonize others and expressed the importance of standing with the demonized to counteract that human inclination with tenderness.
Sister Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, a nationally recognized advocate for immigrants and the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told participants of the simple ethic behind her broad ministry: “The way I see it, they are part of the human race, of who I am.”
Father Boyle spoke of the presidential election just days earlier.
“It’s necessary for this group of people to be vigilant … and to take seriously what Jesus took seriously — the widow, orphan and stranger — otherwise we’ll lose our way in partisan silliness,” said Father Boyle. Other speakers and attendees echoed his sentiments.
The Teach-In ended on Capitol Hill with more than 1,400 people participating in a day of advocacy for humane immigration policies and criminal justice reform grounded in dignity.
“The issues that we’re talking about here, and the issues that we’re going to be talking about in the aftermath (of this election) are about people,” said Kerr. “Our work, and the work of the church, has always been grounded in the Gospels and in the way that Christ calls us to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters. And that doesn’t change, whoever’s president.”
Donnellan writes for America magazine.