After graduation, student hopes to take social justice work to the next level

Cara Weidinger, 20

Cara Weidinger, 20

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Cara Weidinger
Who she is: Student at St. John's University in New York
Lives in: Burke, Va.

Sr. Camille: Cara, at a time when our earth is so abused, so taken for granted, it was a relief to learn of your efforts to raise awareness by participating in the People's Climate March. How many participated in this action?

Weidinger: There were eight students at the climate march, and the students were either members of the student group, Students for Global Justice, or CRS student ambassadors.

Where was it held?

We started our morning bright and early in front of St. Thomas More Church on St. John's University campus with muffins and a sending-off prayer. We then traveled into Midtown Manhattan and met with the rest of the Vincentian Family in the religious section of the march.

What was your role in it?

My role was that of a student leader. I helped organize the student participation along with Anna Misleh and Laura Dease.

Who or what inspired you to get involved in this effort?

My parents raised me to be conscious of my impact and my role in the world and as part of a global community. I grew up seeing the simple things: My father gave blood religiously every four weeks. My mother was running around working and taking care of my family. She often made meals for other members of the community who were sick or suffering. Having a prayer board that always included global issues and our free discussion around the dinner table sparked my interest in social justice and a global common good.

Where and with whom did you spend your childhood?

I grew up in a large German-Irish family right outside D.C. in the northern Virginia suburbs. I'm the third and oldest girl of eight kids (four boys and four girls). My father works as a staffer within the House of Representatives, and my mom used to work as a nurse and now works in the school system.

Was social activism part of your family's concerns?

I would say yes. My parents weren't ones to take us to rallies or protests, but they made it clear that you had to defend the vulnerable and be aware of how blessed you are to have a voice. Now that I am an adult, I vote. They taught me that you cannot stop using your voice when you are comfortable but your neighbor isn't.

As your senior year unfolds, where do you see yourself after graduation?

I hope to be working in the public health sector and later to attend medical school with the hope of becoming an emergency room physician and working in disaster relief.

How did St. John's University help mold your social consciousness?

One: It's a Catholic university, so I was required to take 18 credits, or six classes, of theology and philosophy. But they weren't generic classes: I took Catholic Social Teaching, and Moral Theology of Healthcare, and Social Justice, and Contemporary Moral Problems.

Two: It's a Vincentian university, where social justice is ingrained in so many aspects. I have been a member of Students for Global Justice since my freshman year. I discovered this organization at the activities fair my first week of school. Its members put on events and lectures that were social justice themed. I had the chance to meet other students who were passionate about social justice. Later on, I was able to take a more active role in the organization and work on its e-board, which has allowed me to program events and service opportunities for other students. But what I think is truly remarkable is that Students for Global Justice is not the only organization that attracted me. We also have STAND, ONE, Students for Life, Fair Trade Coalition, and others.

The Vincentian Center for Church and Society on campus gives us a link to a world outside our college campus. We get to meet Vincentian fathers, Daughters of Charity, and laypeople who have all treated the world and its inhabitants with great care. They had an entire conference on social justice last spring and opened it to students for free!

Three: Our student and faculty partner with Catholic Relief Services. Last spring, 11 students, me included, were trained as CRS student ambassadors. Now, we have forged a great bond with an amazing organization that has justice for all as its primary goal, and we can help spread their message on our campus. Through CRS, we have amazing materials, guidance, training, and support. They have been a blessing over the past year.

Our professors have also had created a partnership with CRS, and that has been immensely beneficial to students. In one of my classes, Catholic Social Teaching, I was able to have a discussion with students from Brazil.

How would you describe the education it provided?

Surprising. Not in a bad way, but when I came to St. John's, I thought the classes were going to be (surprise, surprise) academic. And they have been, but they have also been so much more. They have challenged my convictions, my purpose, and my role. They have opened my eyes and my heart.

Can you name an outstanding professor? If so, what makes him/her so?

This is hard. I have had quite a few. I guess I will use my personal test: Did I tell my mom about this professor?

I have two that stand out to me.

Dr. Joan S. Tropnas, assistant professor and director of the Health and Human Services program. I've taken a few classes with Dr. Tropnas, and each has been a different experience. She came to academia with years of experience, and she has brought that experience into our classes. We have our typical lectures and notes and tests, but beyond that, we have case studies, current events analyses, and class discussions centered on public health, social work, child advocacy and substance abuse. In those discussions, I have been challenged to drop conventional methods of treatment and to recognize the dignity of the men and women we are going to work with when we graduate.

Dr. Meghan Clark, assistant professor of theology and religious studies, taught my first theology class, and my second, and my third. I had to take the first two because my major required me to take specific theologies and she taught the honors sections of these classes, but the last one I just chose to take her a third time. Her classes were so cool. She incorporated service, movies, music, poetry, literature, games and prayers into her classes on Perspectives of Christianity, Moral Theology of Healthcare, and Catholic Social Teaching. Dr. Clark is part of the CRS partnership, and we were able to take part of our class in CRS University. But what I think I am so impressed by is the fact that she engaged a diverse group of students, met us on our level and walked with us in our education.

What is your image of God?

I think my image of God is fluid. On days like the climate march, I imagine God looking like an activist walking the front line, fighting alongside his children to protect the Earth he created for us. On nights that I interact and serve men and women who experience homelessness, I think of God as the cop who bought boots for the elderly man sleeping that night on the streets or a student sharing his or her meal with an elderly woman who has all her worldly possessions with her on the subway.

Sometimes, God is in the silence and the calm or stirring in the wind. I have no concrete image of God, only that when I see his servants on Earth, I am reminded of God's power and love for us.

What challenges does Catholicism pose for you?

I think the challenge that Catholicism poses is that you can never be settled until you rest in God. No amount of prayer, service, and Bible study will be enough. You cannot rest on your laurels or say you have done enough good or you were Catholic enough. There's no right formula for a path to heaven. You have to take life one day at a time, one moment at a time. So for someone who is goal-oriented, that is frustrating but also enlightening. Because even when you fail, it will never be the end. You can always be forgiven and work to take another step forward.

What incentives does your faith inspire?

As cheesy as this sounds, I am now thinking of the part in Mass when the priest says, "in communion with the saints." Your life on Earth is centered on growing closer to God and his son, Jesus, so that you will be ready to enter the kingdom of heaven, so I think the ultimate incentive is the kingdom of heaven, meeting God and Jesus, all the saints and angels. I can think of no better incentive. There's also the community aspect of Catholicism, of the global church, of being in solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters in Sudan. How beautiful is it that I cannot be complete in my humanity unless I recognize their humanity in me?

How would you like to see it improved and promoted?

I would like my faith improved in the ways that I share it. I think that I am too tentative to openly speak about my prayer life and my relationship with God. I have always felt that I don't need to speak about my faith, that it should be seen in my actions, but I now think that is incorrect, that my words must mirror my actions and vice versa because they mutually reaffirm each other and my commitment to Christ.

How and with whom do you pray?

I love Mass. I'm lucky enough to have access to daily Mass on campus, and I wish I went more often, but I think it is a great way to center my faith, my prayers, and what I have learned in class along with my interactions with others. I see them merge in the reflective moments of Mass all for the glory of God.

Other than that, I love to sing, and singing in the church choir is one of the ways I enjoy sharing my prayer with others. I also relish reading, reading the Bible, stories of the saints, reflections, articles. Reading allows me to pray and reflect. I just spoke to someone about Harry Potter and a particular passage, the story of the Deathly Hallows, and how I find the story so beautiful and so relatable. I was saying that I think a lot of people forget, myself included, that there is beauty and dignity within death. My favorite line of the story was, "He then greeted Death as an old friend and went with him gladly to parting his life, as equals." I think it is so poignant and true. We should prepare for death as a time to meet God and enter into perfect union with him.

What subjects do you find most challenging?

I have always struggled with the issue of birth control within the church, especially within developing nations. I think that the economic growth that allows for a high population density without poverty is a direct function of the availability of birth control: It leads to smaller families (as is the case in all nations that allow birth control), and that allows families to have power to support themselves and provide their children with education, which is universally recognized as necessary for sustainable growth.

I have also really appreciated Pope Francis' responses to the "lukewarm" faith of members of the church. I think it is a great struggle that millions face. It is a struggle that pits our culture of greed and access against our church for the poor.
And lastly, the church's response to the LGBT community, regardless of church doctrine. My only hope is our compassion and love for our fellow man shines the brightest.

Have you settled on a career in which you'd like to apply your talents?

I think I have. I think public health is where I am called. It is a right to have access to health care, to clean water, to give birth to your child without having to walk 5 miles from your village in Africa.

Why this one?

Because I think it is the seed from which the tree of human flourishing can blossom. People can't be educated if they are hungry; they can't work if they are sick.

Did you ever consider entering religious life?

Yes, I have considered religious life, and I think I am still considering it, but currently I have made no plans.

What interests do you share with your close friends?

I love cooking with my friends and playing card games, even though I am insanely competitive. I also like mini adventures, like a day that starts with service in the city, then thrift shopping through tens of stores in Manhattan. I love finding dollar pizza with friends and going together to Catholic Underground and then dealing with the hellish weekend subway construction, hopping train to train, on the way home.

What qualities would you look for in a husband?

I'd want him to be intelligent, passionate, kind, religious, funny and family-centered.

Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models?

My family members: my mom and dad, my grandmother and grandfather and my brother. To these, I would add Paul Farmer, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Marie Curie, Sts. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, and Pope Francis.

Who's your favorite author?

Another hard one. It's a tie among Khaled Hosseini, J.K. Rowling, Dorothy Day, Harper Lee and Markus Zusak.

What do you enjoy reading?

Everything from the newspapers and scholarly articles to science fiction as long as there are no aliens. Currently, I am bouncing between Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

Cara, it's an absolute delight to learn about you. May all your dreams come true.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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