Latin America

After 25 years, the Ignatian Family Teach-In still invites Jesuit-educated students to respond to the ‘signs of the times’

This October marks the 25th anniversary of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, the annual Catholic conference attended by droves of Jesuit high school and college students from across the country. The weekend-long assembly—a lively (and often crowded) affair distinguished by keynote lectures, exuberant prayer services, political lobbying and panel discussions examining a litany of pressing social topics—gathers a sizeable coalition of faith-based advocacy groups and honors the memory of six Jesuits and two women killed by the Salvadoran military in 1989.

On Oct. 22, America sat down with Teach-In organizer Christopher G. Kerr, the 11-year executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, to discuss the evolution of the conference from a tent outside Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., to large-scale gatherings in Washington. Mr. Kerr, an Ohio native, taught elementary school in the Diocese of Cleveland before directing social justice programs at the Jesuit-run John Carroll University, his alma mater, in University Heights, Ohio.

The following transcript of our interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.

What are the origins of the Teach-In and how is the conference connected to the Jesuit murders in El Salvador?

The murders at the U.C.A. [Central American University run by the Jesuits] were really jarring because both members of Congress and the average citizen in the United States thought we had rectified our poor behavior during the Salvadoran civil war. During that time, the United States was providing, on average, $1 million a day of military funding to the Salvadoran government. In addition, the U.S. was providing training to Salvadoran soldiers at what was then called the School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

The Teach-In offers a way to engage your faith and examine the reality of the world around us. I think we need to be a church that is of the world, not a church trying to separate ourselves off from the world.

When the Jesuits were killed, the president of Georgetown University asked Charlie Currie, S.J., who was then a Georgetown faculty member, to serve as the liaison for the Jesuits to the congressional investigation. And Father Currie connected with Jim McGovern, who was then a staffer for Representative Joe Moakley, from Boston. At the same time, a gentleman named Bob Holstein, a former California Province Jesuit who left the Society, had become a very prominent labor lawyer in Los Angeles. Just naturally, the California Province had connections to the Central American Province, so he knew these guys who were killed.

Bob heard that there was going to be a vigil at the gates of Fort Benning a year after the murders to call attention to what happened. And so he went to the vigil. In 1995, Bob participated in a civil disobedience action at the gates of Fort Benning. He was arrested, prosecuted and spent three months in federal prison. He was frustrated after he got out of prison because he felt like there was an irony to the fact that the government had been funding the Salvadoran Civil War, and so he reached out to Charlie Currie and said, “I want to have a Teach-In.” In 1997, Bob said, “I’m going to rent a tent and I’m going to pay for this.” And that’s how the Teach-In started—in a tent on the edge of the Chattahoochee River. I was at the first Teach-In as an undergraduate at John Carroll University.

So you’re attending the University when the Teach-In begins?

Yeah, exactly. And that year was beautiful. There were years where it was 40 degrees and raining, but it kept growing. And the School of the Americas was also doing their own work to try and put a better image on what was happening, in terms of training. But the reality was that there was some really nasty stuff that was being taught in those schools. Of course, everything was happening in the midst of the Cold War. There was a lot of tension.

How did the Teach-In grow from a meeting in a tent into this very wide collection of many different faith-based groups and publications?

In 2003, about six years after the Teach-In started, there was an interest in looking at the idea of creating some entity to sustain this energy, this connectivity, year-round. The Jesuit Conference here in D.C. sponsored a feasibility study, and they interviewed upwards of 100 people from all over the country: laypeople, Jesuits, people in social ministry and higher education. There was a lot of energy for the idea, but they realized it wasn’t something that the Jesuits had the capacity to staff.

The feasibility study proved that this idea would work. So the Ignatian Solidarity Network was founded as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, independent of the Society of Jesus, in 2004, and it took on management of the Teach-In—still in Georgia—that year. The Teach-In moved out of the tent and into the Greater Columbus Convention Center because it just couldn’t get a tent big enough at that point. There were literally upwards of 4,000 people coming to Mass on the Saturday evening before the Sunday vigil at the [Fort Benning] gates.

The reality is that there are students who have no historical context for the events of 1989, so we’ve really had to think about how we help younger folks understand the legacy of the martyrs.

In 2010, it moved to Washington, D.C., to be able to engage a broader range of issues and to also use a different strategy to elicit change, moving from direct public action to legislative advocacy on Capitol Hill. It was hard to make that transition to D.C. because a lot of folks felt like we were stepping away from a deep commitment to the [Jesuit] martyrs. But I actually think what we’ve done is create a broader vision of the martyrs’ legacy that is able to engage people in a range of issues.

Today, how does the Teach-In make relevant the history of the 1989 murders to young Jesuit students, especially high school students?

The reality is that not only are there students who have no historical context for the events of 1989, but many of their young teachers and young Jesuits were not even around then. So we’ve really had to think about how we help younger folks understand the legacy of the martyrs. I think sometimes when we hear about the martyrs we think about the day they were killed. We focus on that event. But we have to look at their work.

The Jesuits who arrived in Central America in the late 1960s were charged with developing a network of universities: one in Nicaragua, one in Guatemala and one in El Salvador. And that would create space for people to analyze the reality of their country. The Jesuits used their academic disciplines as sociologists, psychologists, theologians and philosophers to help the Salvadoran people deeply reflect on what flourishing most fully would look like. The Teach-In also provides a space to begin a deep dive into the complexity of issues.

Last week, I visited El Salvador. We had been working with a group of artisans who are part of a cooperative in El Salvador to construct handmade, hand-painted crosses that represent the stories of the martyrs. We’ll have everyone [at the conference] make a white wooden cross with the name of someone who has been marginalized in some way. This was a tradition in Fort Benning. People would take part in a mock funeral procession with a cross bearing someone’s name, someone like Sister Dorothy Kazel or a two-year-old Salvadoran child who was killed.

We also do a very intensive orientation for new attendees to help them understand the martyrs’ story. We’ve invited a partner from Christians for Peace in El Salvador to come speak about the life and legacy of the martyrs. I think there’s so much that we can still learn from the martyrs today and apply to today’s society. And I think the most important piece is that we have consistently talked about the importance of reflecting on reality. In a way, it’s countercultural to reflect on reality because a lot of our society wants us to live with tunnel vision, to be consumers, to not be too concerned with what’s happening around us. I think the story of the martyrs invites us to challenge that as people of faith.

How is the Teach-In preparing to respond to the next 25 years? Looking ahead, how is the conference hoping to keep the story of the martyrs alive?

It’s a daunting task. One of the realities that I think we can acknowledge is that our church is changing and what it means to be Catholic is changing. We have to take this into account. Over 40 percent of the 1,800 people at this year’s Teach-In are college undergraduates. The Teach-In offers a way to engage your faith and examine the reality of the world around us. I think we need to be a church that is of the world, not a church trying to separate ourselves off from the world.

What I love about the Teach-In is that people bring what are their own passions, relevant to their own lives and regions. I hope folks leave the Teach-In invited to action. After social analysis, reflection and prayer, we get to action, and it has to be just as much internal as external. If we believe that our country should be more welcoming and humane towards people who migrate here, we have to make sure our own communities are welcoming. If people believe we are not acting on climate change or building a sustainable society, we have to make sure our own communities are environmentally sustainable.

I think that the Teach-In will always have to evolve. It should respond to the signs of the times. What we’re talking about today is not what we’ll be talking about in 10 years. We might be talking about some of those things, but in different ways.

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