Ignatian Family Teach-In Bridges Divides

By Doris Sump

November 14, 2018 — On the surface, the crowd assembled at the 21st Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ) had much in common. Many were from Jesuit schools, many cared about the same social justice issues — immigration, criminal justice, climate change. Their ages ranged widely, but the majority were high school and college students ages 16-22.

But their focus was not on what they shared. Their focus was on division: discussing, analyzing and attempting to overcome it.

This year, the IFTJ drew attendees across North America to Washington, D.C., from November 3-5 to bridge divides related to race, gender, poverty and more with the theme "Discipleship at the Crossroads."

Chris Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, opening the weekend’s events.

“We are at a crossroads in our nation when we can choose between discipleship and division,” wrote Chris Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, which organizes the IFTJ. “We are called to uphold the dignity of all as we gather together this weekend to consider our presence and place in our intersectional community.” 

Nearly 2,000 participants attended the 21st annual Ignatian Family Teach-In.

Each November, the Ignatian Family Teach-In is convened in memory of the Salvadoran martyrs, the six Jesuit priests and two lay martyrs murdered on November 16, 1989, for speaking out against El Salvador’s civil war. From its early beginnings as a protest outside the School of the Americas in 1997 in Columbus, Georgia, the IFTJ has grown to become the largest annual Catholic social justice gathering in the U.S., bringing about 2,000 students to the nation’s capital to learn, reflect, pray and advocate.

Students had multiple opportunities for small-group discussion with peers from Jesuit schools across North America during the breakout sessions.

Over 135 Jesuit and other Catholic universities, high schools and parishes in the U.S., as well as Canada, Mexico, Spain and El Salvador are represented. Space limitations at the venue have seen the conference sell out each year, with demand far exceeding capacity. Two days of networking, keynote speakers and breakout sessions fostered conversations on timely issues such as racial injustice, gun violence and LGBT Catholics. The event is, in the parlance of the youth, “woke.”

The Teach-In’s first keynote speaker, Bishop George V. Murry, SJ, of the diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, urged the Catholic church to reimagine the way it addresses inequality stemming from race.

Bishop George V. Murry, SJ, bishop of the diocese of Youngstown, Ohio gave one of the Teach-In’s three keynote speeches.

“Racism [is] an issue which has persisted in our society and unfortunately has persisted in our church. And as we go forward, we have to come together to overcome this parasite of society,” he said. “We must realize that personal interaction is extremely important. It is extremely important to make an effort to know someone of a different race, to listen to their story, to walk in their shoes, then to use the gifts that you have been given — especially through the Jesuit and other schools that you have gone to — to offer people on the margins opportunity.”

Watch Bishop Murry’s entire talk below.

The topic of race was further dissected in “Journeying Together: Addressing Racial Justice,” offered among the first set of breakout sessions. Other concurrent sessions covered gun violence, climate change, migration, mass incarceration and a new talk by well-known author and editor-at-large of America Magazine, Fr. James Martin, SJ, “Welcoming and Respecting LGBT Catholics in Our Parishes.” 

Students lined up for photos with best-selling author Fr. James Martin, SJ.

Honoring the sacrifices of the Salvadoran martyrs, newly canonized Saint Oscar Romero and the dozens of religious and lay men and women who gave their lives in pursuit of a more just world, the first day of the Teach-In closed with a solemn candlelit prayer service. 

The candle-lit Prayer for the Jesuit Martyrs.

On Sunday morning, Jorge Huete-Pérez, vice president at the Universidad Centroamericana Managua in Nicaragua, updated the audience on the largely overlooked human rights crisis in his country. Students from Brophy Prep in Phoenix and Loyola University Maryland also spoke about the campus organizations they founded on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and Black Lives Matter.

The Peace Poets received standing ovations for their spoken word performance.

The second day’s keynotes were given by Nichole Flores, Ph.D., Latinx theologian and faculty member at the University of Virginia, and The Peace Poets, a collective of artists who celebrate, examine and advocate for life through music and poetry. Smaller breakout sessions explored subjects such as “Men for Others in the Age of #MeToo,” “Mental Health and Catholicism,” “Organizing for Farmworker Justice,” “Embodying Love: Faith and Sexuality” and “Seeking Dialogue and Peace in Nicaragua.”

A variety of organizations across the Ignatian Network were on hand to meet participants during the breaks.

Even mealtimes and breaks became opportunities to ask questions and learn: students curious about Jesuit Volunteer Corps or Bread for the World attended networking lunches to meet representatives and about 60 organizations set up tables for the IFTJ Social Justice Expo, among them the Maryknoll Lay MissionersJesuit Refugee Service/USAFriends of Fe y Alegría in the U.S.CommonwealL’Arche, and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities

Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ (screen, lower right) led the IFTJ closing liturgy.

The conference portion of the IFTJ concluded with a liturgy by Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, who preached about love in action in his homily. “When love gets close and specific, it gets really complicated and hard and beautiful and surprising and challenging. This is because love is more than just a feeling. It's a decision and it's a commitment that we make,” he said. “Love is aching feet. And maybe a broken heart or two. And hands that get dirty and knees that get scratched.”

Students spoke to staff from California Senator Kamala D. Harris’ office about immigration reform.

Students lived out that love the next day on Capitol Hill, getting a bit dirty and wet in the rain for the Teach-In’s largest advocacy day ever with a record 1,500 individuals participating. Although a 100 percent forecast of rain canceled plans for the Public Witness rally within sight of the Capitol at D.C.’s Union Station on Monday morning, still the young activists persisted. They prayed, met with members of Congress and their staff and advocated for better immigration and criminal justice reform.

Teach-In participants from Bellarmine College Preparatory of San Jose, California, pose for a photo in the Hart Senate Office Building.

“The world is crisscrossed by roads that come together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good,” Pope Francis has said. The road to the Teach-In had brought the participants together as students at a crossroads, but they moved apart as disciples working for the greater good.

View recordings of the IFTJ main sessions at the Ignatian Solidarity Network website here.

Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit for more information.

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