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November 18, 2015 — Inspired by Pope Francis’ recent visit to the U.S., a record-breaking 1,600 students and young adults gathered for the 18th annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice Nov. 7-9 in Washington, D.C. “Bridges” was a fitting theme for the gathering: connections were built, ideas were forged and friendships were made among the participants from Jesuit universities, high schools, parishes and the larger Catholic Church.

“We’re asked to reflect on the bridges in our world,” said Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, which organizes the Ignatian Family Teach-In, or IFTJ. “The bridges that need crossing, to expand our circles of compassion. The bridges that need repairing, to let light shine forth. The bridges that need imagining, to create new spaces and new possibilities. The bridges that the world is calling us to create, in collaboration with each other.”

Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, on the main stage of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice.

The IFTJ is a nationwide conference sponsored by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, a national faith-based social justice organization that works to mobilize Jesuit universities, high schools, parishes and ministries throughout the U.S. in order to effect social change on critical issues.

Exhibitors and representatives from Jesuit and Catholic schools, organizations and volunteer programs were on hand to answer participants’ questions.

Keynote speakers for the IFTJ included Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., anti-death penalty activist and New York Times bestselling author of “Dead Man Walking;” Sister Simone Campbell, S.S.S., executive director of the Catholic lobbying organization NETWORK; Father James Martin, SJ, bestselling author and editor-at-large at America Magazine; Justice Janine Geske, director of Marquette University Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative; and Hector Verdugo, associate executive director of Homeboy Industries.

Fr. James Martin, SJ, presented one of the main breakout sessions.

“Everybody is worth more than the worst thing they ever do in their life,” said Sr. Prejean in her remarks. “Even those among us who have done a terrible crime have a dignity that must not be taken from them.”

Sr. Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” spoke about ending the death penalty during her keynote speech at the IFTJ.

“With Pope Francis’ recent call for an international end to capital punishment, I could not think of a better time to have Sr. Helen Prejean speaking from the main stage at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice,” Kerr said. “Sr. Helen’s passion for ending capital punishment will have an inspirational effect on the 1,600 teach-in attendees.”

“I really want to be challenged on a lot of the ideas that I have right now,” said Luke Self, a junior at Loyola University Chicago. “I want to come away with new ideas because I’ve been challenged in different ways of thinking about different issues.”

An overflow crowd listens to Fr. Alejandro Olayo-Méndez, SJ, speak about immigration.

This year’s IFTJ featured a new event: the “Voices From the Margins ’15” film festival, presented in collaboration with America Media. The contest, which was open to undergraduate college students as well as recent graduates, invited participants to create short films focused on a variety of topics, including poverty, immigration, race, gender, human rights and the environment. Click here to view the winning entries.

“We are excited to be collaborating with America Media to lift up the work of young filmmakers committed to social justice,” Kerr said. “’Stones,’ our inaugural winner produced by Creighton University student Nico Sandi, brings a human face to the inhumane act of a state-sponsored execution. Nico’s creativity gives a new medium for illuminating voices from the margins of our world and society.”

Students from Georgetown University pose for a group photo in front of the main stage.

Jesuits speaking at the Teach-In included Father Richard Malloy, SJ; Father Alejandro Olayo-Méndez, SJ, and Father Peter Neeley, SJ, who offered breakout sessions on immigration; Daniel Gustafson, SJ, who offered insights on Ignatian advocacy; Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ, who celebrated the Sunday liturgy; and Brother Ken Homan, SJ, who spoke at the rally on Capitol Hill.

Participants raised their hand in blessing during a prayer at the opening of the IFTJ.

Jesuit Father John Meehan, president of Canada’s only Jesuit undergraduate college, Campion College at the University of Regina, accompanied a group of students from Campion to the IFTJ. “It gives me a lot of hope for the church to see so many young people who take their faith seriously,” he said about participating in the event for the first time. “It shows them they can do something, not to fall into despair when they look at the world, but that they can actually be agents of change.”

Fr. John Meehan, SJ, second from right, with students from Canada’s Campion College.

In addition to those from Campion, students from the three Jesuit high schools in Canada were also in attendance for a total of about 40 students from Canada, according to Fr. Meehan. He hoped the students would think about questions like “Who are the agents of change? Are you going to commit to making change when you go back?”

Participants at the IFTJ made one step toward that change on Nov. 9 by meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill during the event’s Advocacy Day. After attending a rally on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, students dispersed to the offices of their Congressional representatives to lobby for humane immigration reform, improvement of human rights policies in Central America and attention to domestic poverty.

IFTJ attendees met with about one-fourth of Congress on the Advocacy Day, a fact Br. Homan said was “absolutely wonderful, because it means we’re going to have a really huge impact. Even if it’s not ‘this Congressperson’s going to change his or her mind immediately,’ we’re planting a lot of seeds,” he said. It was Br. Homan’s first time chaperoning after having previously attended the Teach-In as a participant.

Br. Ken Homan, SJ, back row, with students from Marquette University High School.

“We’re developing a ton of young leaders who are all excited about action and change and developing a new and better world. We’ve got this huge opportunity to build God’s kingdom here on earth.”

Evelyn Cortes, a Boston College student at the rally, was moved by the unity of mission among the students. “As a daughter of Mexican immigrants, to see people who recognize their privilege and who are able to be compassionate toward this issue gives me so much emotion. It wells me up with tears,” Cortes said. “We couldn’t do it alone.”

Students from Creighton University attended the public witness on the front lawn of the U.S. Capitol before meeting with lawmakers.

Another student from Boston College, Seán O’Rourke, also appreciated the chance to meet with members of Congress on behalf of the marginalized. “It’s really empowering for a group of young people to have the opportunity and exposure to people in these higher positions of power,” he said. “We’re all called to be men and women for others in the world and with others in our own communities, parishes, schools and dorms. I’m really excited to go in and feel like I have a voice, like I can be heard and actually meet people face to face.”



Article and photos courtesy of Jesuits.org