Story by David Karas |Correspondent
Catholic social teaching – including the life and dignity of the human person, solidarity and care for the poor and vulnerable – are embedded in the Catholic faith and mainstays in both Catholic school education and parish religious education classes.
And each summer, for a number of young people in the Diocese of Trenton and beyond, that social teaching comes alive through JusticeworX, an immersion in service and reflection on the intersection between faith and social issues facing our society.
“Just because a person was dealt the hand they were dealt in life, or reacted in a certain way, it doesn’t make them less human,” said Mary Ann Ernesto, vice president of programs and outreach at the Lawrenceville-based Center for FaithJustice, which administers JusticeworX and a number of other programs for folks of various ages. “It doesn’t make their story less real.”
Interacting with others and learning about their stories, she said, is a cornerstone of the weeklong JusticeworX program, which is “designed to help high school-age students explore the connections between their faith, the Gospel call to service and justice, and their everyday lives.”
Hands-on service opportunities in Trenton, Philadelphia or the Appalachian region of West Virginia are coupled with deep conversations and reflections on the broader Catholic social teaching and social justice implications at play. And both tie into a call to action for the teens to find ways to make a difference based on their experiences.
“We expose our students at the start of our week to think about the individuals they are going to meet,” said Ernesto. “They really will get to know the issues that are faced.”
The issues addressed by a soup kitchen, for instance, are personified through the individual program participants that the students then meet and interact with.
“They are putting names and faces to those issues,” she continued.
Then, Ernesto said, comes the students’ frustration as they grapple with why those who are less fortunate do not enjoy the privileges and benefits of everyone else.
“By Wednesday, they start to get really angry,” she said. “Thursday and Friday we bring it back to tell them, ‘You can do something. You can change this problem.’”
Small Acts of Kindness
This summer, nearly 300 teens from across New Jersey and in Southeastern Pennsylvania took part in the JusticeworX program. The Diocese of Trenton was well-represented, with participants from St. Rose High School, Belmar; Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville; and parishioners of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
Several priests, including retired Msgr. Vincent Gartland and Trinitarian Father Santhosh George, former pastor of Incarnation-St. James Parish, celebrated Mass for participants throughout the summer. And in service programs hosted in Trenton, participants were based in a retreat space at the St. James campus of Incarnation-St. James Parish, with a vacant convent and rectory space used for lodging.
Trenton service sites include the Visitation Home Day Program, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, HomeFront, Crisis Ministry, and the Step Ahead Preschool (Mercer ARC).
Caroline McHugh, 17, a senior in St. Rose High School, Belmar, and a member of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish, Avon-by-the-Sea, participated this summer in JusticeworX for the second time.
One of the things she learned this year – while gardening and spending time with residents in a day program at the Trenton-based Reading Senior Center – was about the impact of small acts of kindness and service. “Gardening for the community isn’t going to solve world hunger, but you are helping a few people, and the difference that makes is really important,” she said.
She spent a great deal of time with seniors there, eating meals together, talking and playing games. And in the evenings, she would engage in conversations with her fellow participants about the broader social justice implications of that work.
In a recent interview, McHugh shared the story of Fred, a senior who had faced a number of obstacles in his life, including the death of some of his children.
“He was just so active and lively and was always saying he wanted to be the light in other people’s lives,” said McHugh. “You wouldn’t have guessed that he had such a hard path when you meet him.”
She said that her JusticeworX experience has inspired her to continue her involvement in service work, and that she has already become more aware of ways to support those in her parish community.
Following Jesus’ example
Another St. Rose senior, Ava O’Shaughnessy, 17, has taken part in JusticeworX twice. The parishioner of St. Denis Parish, Manasquan, spent last summer at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and this summer at a Trenton day care center.
“We helped the children read and write, and we just tried to keep them entertained and happy,” she said. “I felt like I was needed, and that my presence was appreciated.”
She pointed out the clear connection with Catholic social teaching: “Jesus was a great example of serving the poor and less fortunate,” she said. “His teachings are true thousands of years later. There is still a need to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.”
Even though some have less opportunity in their lives, she said, they still “deserve the same rights and opportunities.”
“Those who have the advantage,” she said, “should reach out and help others who need the assistance to have an equal opportunity.”
She continued, “My time at JusticeworX was a great way to reflect upon all of the teaching I have learned in Catholic school. It was a great experience just to witness it, and just experience it for myself.”
Ernesto stressed the importance of not only addressing the immediate social needs tackled by the agencies, but also exploring and reflecting on the broader need for such agencies – and finding ways to take action.
“By the end of the week, we want (the participants) to know that they can write a letter to Congress or a senator, and they can advocate for these individuals,” she said. “Just because their week at JusticeworX has ended, doesn’t mean they are done.”