Doing the work of justice with a bias for the marginalized

I was surrounded by 1,600 students, faculty, staff, volunteers, organization and community leaders on the 25th anniversary of the death of the Universidad Centroamericana martyrs on Nov. 16. We told stories, sang songs, asked questions, and grew in faith, hope and love for the lives of our friends and the lives of those we have yet to meet.

The Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice roughly began in 1998 with an outdoor tent and Mass that Bob Holstein, his wife, Loretta, and several of their friends and companions spontaneously cobbled together. The Ignatian Solidarity Network grew out of this experience to instill a lasting, year-round experience of learning and teaching around social justice issues especially rooted in the stories of El Salvador and the American involvement in their civil war.

ISN celebrates its 10th year with more conviction, centeredness and grace as it continues to organize Catholic schools and institutions to become better leaders in the work of social justice.

Students from 95 Catholic institutions and 25 states gathered to learn how to be faithful leaders, especially around the issues of immigration reform, the Central American humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied minors, and sustainability.

High school and college students brought their passion for a more inclusive world to their representatives in Congress and to one another.

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I was repeatedly moved to witness God's inspiration and work in the lives of yet even younger voices working for the kin-dom of God: How do we get our school to purchase sweat-free team uniforms? How do we support our undocumented students more completely and robustly? How do we engage in dialogue around racial and cultural realities in light of what's happening in Ferguson, Mo.? How do I keep up this pace of being in solidarity with others that I may lose myself in "the work"?

I can't help but think that Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría and his companions set off a revolution that now reaches into our American realities. Father Ellacuría's vision for a university came from deep prayer, real needs in the community and the courage to speak truth to power.

In his 1982 commencement address at Santa Clara University, Father Ellacuría outlines the role of the university:

There are two aspects to every university. The first and most evident is that it deals with culture, with knowledge, the use of the intellect. The second, and not so evident, is that it must be concerned with the social reality, precisely because a university is inescapably a social force: It must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives. ...

Liberation theology has emphasized what the preferential option for the poor means in authentic Christianity. Such an option constitutes an essential part of Christian life, but it is also an historic obligation. For the poor embody Christ in a special way; they mirror for us his message of revelation, salvation and conversion. And they are also a universal social reality.

Reason and faith merge, therefore, in confronting the reality of the poor. Reason must open its eyes to their suffering; faith, which is sometimes scandalous to those without it, sees in the weak of this world the triumph of God, for we see in the poor what salvation must mean and the conversion to which we are called.

A Christian university must take into account the Gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence -- excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.

Father Ellacuría's vision for the role of educational institutions takes Cardinal John Henry Newman's vision for a place of critical thinking to the place of action.

This is what excites me: that students who were not even born in 1982, let alone 1989, can gather in one place, share their passions, be encouraged and challenged by their peers, and use their voice to create a change of heart in their leaders by advocating with much compassion, clarity, insight and love.

God's preference for the poor frees us to be in relationship in a much more whole-ly way to the world. Passing this value and way of life to the next generation is an honor and a privilege. I hope I can learn from this generation as we all grapple with human immigration reform. I hope that 25 years from now, students from all over the world are doing the work of justice with a real bias for the marginalized and an authentic desire for deep friendship and companionship.

Thank you, students, for breathing in hope to our world and our church! Thank you, people of faith, for continuing to model attitudes of generosity, hospitality and community.

[Jocelyn A. Sideco is a retreat leader, spiritual director and innovative minister who specializes in mission-centered ministry. She teaches bioethics, feminist theology, Christian sexuality, and Christian Scriptures at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif. Visit her online ecumenical ministry, In Good Company, at contemplativecompanions.org or email her at jocelyn@ingoodcompany.net.co.]

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