BY KELLY SWAN | November 22, 2019
Solidarity is not just a feeling of compassion. It is an attitude, a virtue. Solidarity is the firm determination to commit oneself to the good of all.
-Sr. Peggy O’Neill, S.C.
From November 16-18, 2019 in Washington, D.C., more than 2,000 individuals committed to the common good gathered for the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s 22nd annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ).
This year’s theme—Radical Hope, Prophetic Action—honored the witness of the Jesuit martyrs and their companions in El Salvador, marking the 30th anniversary of their deaths on November 16, 1989. They were killed for their commitment to the marginalized of El Salvador and speaking out against the injustices perpetrated by the government and military.
Saturday evening’s speakers grounded the weekend in the story of the martyrs. Francisco Mena Ugarte, executive director of Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ), broke open the theme, framing the weekend in the history of the Salvadoran civil war, including his own family’s story.
The evening keynote was delivered by Sr. Peggy O’Neill, S.C., founder and executive director of Centro Arte para la Paz in El Salvador. She powerfully invited delegates to recognize the interconnectedness of all people as a reality of God’s universal love, leading to a response to human suffering and to a greater call to solidarity. “Can we develop a new spirituality that will help all people live lives of dignity?” she asked attendees. “What response does seeing human suffering demand of us?”
Saturday’s mainstage events concluded with the Prayer for the Jesuit Martyrs, an annual IFTJ tradition honoring the lives of the Jesuit martyrs and other lay and religious who have given their lives in the service of faith and justice.
On Sunday morning, keynote Marcia Chatelain, Ph.D., a professor at Georgetown University and scholar on race and ethnicity in America, invited attendees to consider the idea of choice in resistance to injustice.
“One of the great privileges and burdens many of us face is that of choice. We can choose what we learn more about, what we resist, we choose our relationships, how we spend our time, we choose,” said Dr. Chatelain. “Jesus’s example helps us understand—not just love in action, but the radical refusal to say no to the idea that injustice, cruelty, and desertion is just a consequence of life.”
The final keynote speaker of the weekend was Reyna Montoya, founder and CEO of Aliento, an Arizona-based community organization that is DACA, undocumented, and youth-led, invested in the well being, emotional healing, and leadership development of those impacted by the inequalities of lacking an immigration status, which has partnered with ISN member institution Brophy College Preparatory.
Montoya’s words powerfully echoed those of Sr. Peggy and Dr. Chatelain earlier in the weekend, most notably the concepts of interconnectedness and choice, tying together the themes of the weekend through the lens of her own immigration story and work as an activist and community leader. “We are beings of life. We are beings of hope. Let’s not forget to see each other eye to eye. My humanity is tied to yours. Your humanity is tied to mine,” she said. “I hope you remember that we have a choice to nurture, serve, and lead with love in the midst of darkness. There’s nothing radical about believing that we are all connected.”
Sunday concluded with Catholic mass, with presider Rev. Brian Paulson, S.J., provincial of the Jesuits’ Midwest province. He concluded the day again with a grounding in the story of the Jesuit martyrs. “The sacrifice of their lives are all intertwined with the salvation history of the Salvadoran people…We would not be here today as Church if it weren’t for these martyrs,” he said during his homily, then asking, “How are we going to love and what are we going to do?”
Joanna Williams, director of education and advocacy for the Jesuit-run Kino Border Initiative, and Jose Aguto, associate director of Catholic Climate Covenant, provided policy briefings on immigration and environmental justice. Other well-known speakers included Sr. Simone Campbell, S.S.S., Fr. James Martin, S.J., a panel from Homeboy Industries, and Alfred “Dewayne” Brown, death row exoneree and subject of an upcoming Netflix documentary.
Speakers throughout the weekend were complemented by art as activism, theological reflection, and social analysis. Francisco Herrera, a musician and longtime IFTJ artist-in-residence, was joined on the mainstage by The Peace Poets, who joined IFTJ in 2018 as keynotes. Their presence elevated the energy in the room through music and storytelling.
Kate Marshall, facilitator of the House of Hagar Catholic Worker in Wheeling, West Virginia, presented Rooted in the Roses, a dynamic art experience providing opportunities to explore the Jesuit martyrs’ stories and the legacy of action inspired by their deaths through a dynamic exhibit and screenprinting.
The annual event culminated with a public witness in Washington, D.C.’s Columbus Circle, with more than 1,500 individuals then attending advocacy meetings on Capitol Hill, asking Congressional members to act for humane immigration reform and climate action.
ISN spoke with three students from Loyola Blakefield, a Jesuit high school in Towson, Maryland, about their IFTJ experience. Austin Maultsby, a senior, spoke about his reaction to Saturday night’s Prayer for the Jesuit Martyrs. “I find that it is impactful that people are so passionate that they are willing to give their lives for God,” he shared. “It makes me think that I have to be able to do that for something too—maybe not to the extent of laying my life down—but to be willing to commit my all for something.”
Keivon Anderson, also a senior at Loyola Blakefield, talked about the sense of community and connection he found at IFTJ. As a third-year IFTJ attendee, he spoke about the weekend as an opportunity to form a moral conscience on justice issues—the ways in which conversations with fellow attendees have pushed him to take a more active interest in issues that he did not perceive as affecting him prior to his Teach-In experience. “I have had the opinion of I don’t really care, or it doesn’t really affect me” about certain issues, he shared. “But being here changed all that,” he went on to say. “Topics are going to come up, for example…I’m going to meet immigrants in my life. And I feel like it wouldn’t be fair for me to have the rights that I have and not have an opinion. Being here helps you formulate an opinion, or may affirm or challenge an opinion you already have. Either way it’s just beautiful. That’s it, one word, beautiful.”
Senior Michael Nwafor took that idea one step further, sharing that “one of the great things about coming [to IFTJ] is that you don’t have to have all the pressure to try to solve the problem [of addressing justice issues on your campus] on your shoulders. You can come here and put it out in the open space and everyone can pitch in their little ideas and help formulate a plan about how to go about conquering the problem.”
Kelly Swan has served as communications director for the Ignatian Solidarity Network since 2016. She grew up in West Virginia and is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University. Kelly has worked in parish social ministry, child and family advocacy, community education and organizing, and publishing. She lives in the Cleveland, Ohio area with her children.