Social-justice program encourages, empowers participants - Catholic Courier

Social-justice program encourages, empowers participants

Jack Jezreel didn’t set out to create a national movement of social-justice volunteers.

He simply intended to teach parishioners at Church of the Epiphany in Louisville, Ky., about social justice using Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults-style classes after noticing that the social-justice events he organized were sparsely attended.

“My experience was that people just seemed completely unfamiliar with the relationship between the Catholic faith and the Gospel that they are called to be Christ in the care of our most vulnerable sisters and brothers,” said Jezreel, the founder and executive director of JustFaith Ministries.

In 1989, Jezreel adapted features from the RCIA program as a way to engage people and convert them to living out Catholic social teaching. The program he developed, JustFaith, is a 30-week adult-formation program that uses prayer, immersion, books, videos, retreat experiences, discussion opportunities and guest speakers to teach social justice and build communities.

“The central question JustFaith asks is, ‘How does this change you?'” said Jezreel, who spoke to the Catholic Courier prior to an April 15 workshop for new JustFaith participants at Rochester’s Our Lady of the Americas Parish. The event also included a potluck dinner that was a chance for JustFaith graduates to meet Jezreel.

He said he was shocked at how well his program came together. Within a few years of initiating it, the program had attracted the attention of other parishes and soon was used in several. In 2005 — a mere six years after Jezreel developed the program — the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services partnered with JustFaith Ministries to help bring the program to parishes across the country. In 2007, Bread for the World partnered with JustFaith Ministries to create an ecumenical version of the program.

JustFaith has spawned several other programs, including JustSkills, which teaches participants the practical skills needed to do social ministry; JusticeWalking, or J-Walking, which is an adaptation of the JustFaith program for teens; JustMatters, six- to eight-week sessions that focus on a specific social-justice topic and culminate in a call to engaged action; and Engaging Spirituality, a new, 21-session program that connects contemplative living and social action.

Jezreel said he believes a key component of good social ministry is an active spiritual life.

“People who do social ministry well are people who are committed to a life of faith and prayer,” he said.

Jezreel said the Diocese of Rochester has been one of the dioceses in the country that is committed to the program. The Rochester Diocese first offered JustFaith in 2003.

“This is a diocese that enjoys a reputation of being one of the most active dioceses in terms of Catholic social teaching in the country,” Jezreel said.

The diocese also has several connections to the national program. Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center, penned The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching, a book used by JustFaith participants across the country. Mich and Deacon George Dardess also are writing a text that will be available for use by interfaith Catholic-Muslim groups exploring social action together.

Several recent program graduates, who finished JustFaith in December, said they felt sorry that it was over.

“I learned things I never knew that I should have known,” said Kathy Hunt, a parishioner of Greece’s Our Lady of Mercy Parish.

“Your religion becomes a living religion with just limitless possibilities,” observed Helene Walkowicz, an Our Lady of Mercy parishioner.

Fran Grillo, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Americas, said her participation in the JustFaith program spurred her to continue participating in peace-oriented Masses in honor of her friend and fellow JustFaith classmate Jan Bezila, a noted local peace activist who died July 24, 2007. JustFaith grads at the parish also have been active in a partnership with St. Joseph Parish in Penfield in raising money to build wells in Sudan.

“I wish everybody would go through it because I think it was a renewal of faith,” Grillo said of participating in JustFaith. “It’s how you wish the church could be.”

Other graduates told how the program had changed their lives. Kim Lindner of Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Parish said she had never volunteered prior to the JustFaith program, but now she’s volunteering at least two nights a week.

“We have been ministering to the neighborhood for a long time, but this gave us a more global view,” Joanne Corcimiglia, director of Rochester’s St. Martin’s Place and an Our Lady of the Americas parishioners, said in reflecting on how JustFaith changed her.

Jezreel said he hopes in the future to continue spreading the word about the JustFaith program to reach and engage more people.

“It seems to me the local Catholic parish remains a sleeping giant when we consider the social impact people could make within the local towns and cities, if Catholic social teaching was taken seriously within our lives,” he said.

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