By David Karas | Correspondent
From expanded university partnerships to the facilitation of additional retreats and service projects, there is a lot to look forward to at the Center for FaithJustice this year.
“We’re in an exciting time here at CFJ,” said Maggie Smith, manager of special projects and WorX programs.
Smith’s excitement, along with that of her colleagues, surrounds an array of engaging and faith-enriching programs that the Lawrenceville nonprofit organization has lined up for the coming school year – including several initiatives involving youth, schools and parishes in the Diocese of Trenton.
The year will see a continued, and expanded, collaboration with Georgian Court University, Lakewood, with the center leading several sessions of a seminar for first-year students, with one session focusing on the intersection of faith and justice, and their connection to the Mercy core values – a critical foundation of the university’s identity and mission. The organization, which is rooted in Catholic tradition that aims to foster economic, political and social justice through service-immersion programs for young people, will also organize service opportunities for the entire freshman class.
“We all learned a lot in our pilot year partnership programs and are excited to continue to grow and improve these programs in the year ahead,” said Mary Ann Ernesto, vice president of programs and outreach for the center. “This year, students will likely see our staff on campus a little more than they may have last year as we continue to expand our areas of partnership and grow together.”
That expansion will include collaboration with college seniors through their capstone course, as well as the return of a summer credit-bearing MercyworX hybrid program for high school students.
“I’m excited to see our partnership with Georgian Court develop even more and flourish throughout the fall semester and beyond,” said Smith. “It’s great that we get to work closely with this Catholic university in the Diocese.”
Coming up later in September, the center will hold a dinner for recipients of ten $1,000 scholarships provided by St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, and a parishioner, which allowed them to participate in MercyworX last June.
“This dinner is a time to bring the group of scholarship recipients back together along with their families, as well as staff from CFJ and GCU,” said Ernesto. “It will be an evening of fellowship and sharing their experience of the program and what they plan to do now to continue to work for justice.”
Another program coming up will partner the center with Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, for a FaithJustice Xperience, one of the academic-year programs that offers faith-based service immersion retreats during the school year. Programs like this one, Ernesto said, are customized around the needs and schedules of a school or group, and are usually long weekends or week-long experiences that include service activities in Trenton and the surrounding area.
“This is a program that typically includes hands-on service and reflection activities facilitated by our staff,” she said.
And as the year progresses, the center will again facilitate opportunities for middle and high school students and their families for a day of service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This partnership will continue this year in St. Ann Parish with an added retreat component built into a weekend program for some Confirmation candidates.
Ernesto said organizers are also planning a MLK service program to be hosted in the St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral Parish, Freehold. She said that the initial plans would be to include an open invitation to those from local places of worship as well, in addition to a potential expansion into the Diocese of Metuchen.
Ernesto noted her excitement not only to continue existing programs, but also to explore new and expanded offerings.
“We love creating new ideas together with our fellow ministers to youth and finding innovative ways to work together in this ministry,” she said.
Stephanie Peddicord, Center for FaithJustice president, also encouraged schools and parishes interested in working with the organization to contact its staff.
“I want parishes and schools to know that we are in service to them and their young people. We are a willing and enthusiastic resource,” she said.
‘Drawn to the Mission’
Peddicord also stressed the importance of the organization’s alumni, explaining that this year, it is conducting a study with former volunteers and their parents to consider how experiences of faith-based service immersion influence lifelong vocations and faith practice.
“Most people don’t realize that more than 5,000 young people have ‘graduated’ from our programs,” she said.
For example, Smith is not only one of the new faces around the center, having begun in her role in July. She first learned about the center during a youth group meeting, and later participated in a summer program. She continued staying involved throughout her college career, and is thrilled to return after finishing her graduate studies in theology and pastoral ministry in Villanova University, Villanova, Pa.
“I felt drawn to the mission of CFJ and to educating young people on service and social justice in the light of the Gospel message and Catholic Social Teaching,” said Smith. “This combined with the experiential piece of going out to serve in a variety of communities is what makes WorX programs different, attractive and important.”
She shared her view that serving those in need is “transformative,” and that the center’s programs offer “opportunities for encounter, growth, and transformed hearts and minds.”
Smith added, “To put a face with every story, with social issues, with injustice – it changes you and compels you to keep working for change, even if it’s in small ways.”
One of Smith’s primary responsibilities is working with the seminar course at GCU, along with MLK Youth Day of Service projects and a longitudinal survey of alumni and parents this fall, which will seek to learn more about how the WorX programs have impacted participants’ faith and conceptions of service and social justice.
Ernesto shared her hopes that the broader faith community recognizes that the center for FaithJustice does more than its signature ServiceworX and JusticeworX summer immersion programs.
“CFJ is home to two retreat houses – The CASA in Lawrenceville and St. James in Trenton – that can be rented out September through May for use by groups looking to lead their own program or have us create a program for them,” she said. “We are also happy to work in one-time or ongoing consultative relationships with parishes, schools [and] groups to expand or enhance their youth and young adult ministry programs, especially in the areas of Catholic social teaching, works of Mercy and issues surrounding the concept of FaithJustice.”
To learn more, visit www.faithjustice.org.