Ignatian Family Teach-In Empowers Students to Advocate for Justice

By MegAnne Liebsch

December 16, 2019 —“Above all, trust in the slow work of God,” reads Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s prayer, Patient Trust. The prayer is poetic and pragmatic, but I also struggle to follow its advice. The season of Advent, in particular, encourages us to wait, to trust in God’s work. Yet, this patience often escapes me, especially when it comes to social progress. Working within different social justice spaces, I have often felt a restless anger at “the slow work” of advocating for systemic change.

Today’s social and political climate makes it hard for me — and I suspect many others — to trust in the slow work of God. Climate change and compounding ecological disasters force me to question whether there is enough time for the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice, as theologian Theodore Parker once wrote. It feels to me like there is a seething anger—a force of destruction rather than unity—bubbling just under the surface of our social fabric, and from that, I struggle to see a more just future.

Last month, however, I attended the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ), a three-day event that gathers nearly 2,000 high school and college students, as well as dozens of organizations and activists, to educate and advocate for social justice. On the final day of the Teach-In, students participated in a Capitol Hill Advocacy Day, meeting with their Congressional representatives to urge action on issues like climate change and migration. While shadowing several of these meetings, I witnessed groups of vibrant and passionate students hold their leaders accountable and challenge lawmakers to think differently about political and social issues.

Students cheer at a keynote speech during the 2019 IFTJ (Doris Sump).

What struck me most about these students was their energy and patience. My first meeting of the day was with students from Jesuit schools in Northeastern Ohio and a staffer for Ohio Senator Rob Portman (R).  Over the course of the meeting, attended by nearly 40 students, the group advocated for a series of migration reforms: increasing the number of marriage-based green cards, abolishing family detention, opposing Remain in Mexico, extending TPS, bringing the Dream Act to the Senate floor for a vote.

“We respect the need for borders but our faith commands that people have the right to preserve themselves, their families, and their identities,” a Xavier University student told Portman’s staffer.

High school students from Northeastern Ohio pause between meetings with lawmakers.

While the staffer was cordial, she offered no concrete promises, saying she expected the Senator to take a stand “as things come up.”

I found this answer wholly dissatisfying (yet predictable). But most of the students I spoke to afterward were energized rather than dejected. In fact, they were galvanized—eagerly practicing for their next meeting with Representative Marcia Fudge (D).

“I’m going to ask her why she didn’t block Trump from withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord,” Maeve Fleming, a Walsh Jesuit student, told her classmate.

Honestly, I was surprised at this tempered response. Like these students, I have strong convictions about what society owes people, and I become infuriated by the politicization that prevents much-needed reforms, such as abolishing family detention. Rather than dwell on the unlikelihood of Portman actually enacting the reforms they advocated for, students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to speak with his staff. They embraced the slow work of advocacy, recognizing it will take many letters, petitions and meetings to effect the change they seek.

In the afternoon, I accompanied seven students from South Dakota to their meeting with Senator John Thune.

“This is not activism. This is survival,” Jenna Tobacco told South Dakota Senator John Thune (R). Tobacco is a student at Red Cloud School, a Jesuit elementary and high school on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The school sent seven Oglala Lakota students to the IFTJ this year to advocate for improved water safety on their reservation. The Dakota Access pipeline — which runs oil through Pine Ridge’s water source, the Missouri River — has leaked several times since it was first opened in 2017.

Students from Red Cloud School advocate for water management plans at Senator Thune's office.

“I’m worried that if we lose [our water] again, we’re going to lose ourselves,” a student named Redpath Woman added. “Will we face the same harsh reality as Flint, Michigan?”

In particular, they wanted to know what official plans were in place if a large-scale leak in the pipeline contaminated indigenous water supplies. Thune evaded the question, noting that 70 percent of the energy that South Dakota produces is renewable. Tobacco calmly pushed back, “That’s not what we asked.”

For some students, this was the second or third time they had met with Thune to discuss similar concerns about indigenous land and water rights. I’ve thought about this patience — this persistent dedication to returning to the same offices to ask the same questions for many years — for the last month. I have come to see this patience as an incredibly radical form of activism.

Hundreds of students gather at Union Station before their advocacy meetings with lawmakers (Doris Sump).

It reminds me of a quote from Jesuit Marcos Gonzalez: “For us, faith and justice are never separated. We pass a law, and that changes how we're supposed to act. But the work of transforming the heart is what we do in activism. That is harder.”

What I saw in the students at the IFTJ was a commitment to transforming the heart, a painstaking process. It requires a trust in God that hearts can be changed. When Parker wrote about the moral arc of the universe, he argued that spirituality was essential to the cause of justice. Faith helps ground our action, reminding us to treat the transformation of hearts with delicacy and respect rather than anger. For me, this belief, which I witnessed in the actions and words of so many students at the IFTJ, is a potent reminder to trust in God’s slow work toward justice.

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