October 9, 2009

Founder of JustFaith Ministries says parishes must be committed to the poor and vulnerable

Jack Jezreel, founder and executive director of JustFaith Ministries, makes a point during an Oct. 1 SHINE workshop in Indianapolis. (Photo by Brandon A. Evans)

Jack Jezreel, founder and executive director of JustFaith Ministries, makes a point during an Oct. 1 SHINE workshop in Indianapolis. (Photo by Brandon A. Evans)

By Brandon A. Evans

Jack Jezreel scanned the faces in the crowded conference room and asked his audience how many people are in a parish that is “filled with” members doing the work of social ministry.

No one raised their hand.

“That’s about the right statistic,” said Jezreel, founder and executive director of JustFaith Ministries.

A parish should be deeply engaged in social ministry for the same reason that it should be deeply engaged in the Mass, he said. Both are core elements of the Christian faith.

“Without a commitment to the poor and vulnerable, you do not have a Christian,” Jezreel said.

He made that comment during an Oct. 1 workshop at a kickoff conference at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for a yearlong social ministry renewal in the archdiocese that is know as SHINE—“Spreading Hope In Neighborhoods Everywhere.”

During the workshop—“Motivating Adults to Care about and Engage in Social Ministry”—Jezreel quoted from the 1993 document of the U.S. bishops, “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish.” The document states that parishes “should be measured by our help for the hungry, the homeless, the troubled, and the alienated in our own community and beyond.”

As Jezreel has traveled around the country, he has learned that the language of social ministry is “unfamiliar vocabulary” in most parishes.

He recalled a time when he worked at a well-to-do parish in Louisville, Ky. He advertised for a roundtable-type meeting for the parish to decide how to get involved in the community. He expected hundreds of people to attend, but only four came. After another month of heavy advertising, the meeting was held again. This time, three people attended.

Frustrated, Jezreel said he looked to a program that is immensely successful at making Catholics passionate about their faith: the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program.

He crafted the opposite of a simple meeting: a 30-week program held from the fall to the spring to teach Christian social justice and which required participants to read corresponding books. He advertised for it by saying that it could change people’s lives. Thirteen people took the course.

Eventually, the program—called JustFaith—went national under the sponsorship of Catholic Charities and has enjoyed tremendous success. It is advertised as a way to provide “a lively and challenging format to read, view, discuss, pray, experience, and be formed by the faith tradition that changes lives, inspires compassion, and transforms the world through love and service.”

Parishes pay a fee to use the program. They receive support and administer it locally. It does not strive to directly do social work, but to excite others to do it.

According to Jezreel, too many parishes are ruled by what he calls “the tyranny of small expectations.”

People wander parish halls not wanting the smallest things asked of them, he said, but if they are asked to do great things, many parishioners will respond.

People listen to the Gospel each week, he said, and know that the word of God is not asking them for little things, but for everything.

The JustFaith program tries to echo that Gospel call. The length of the program gives the Holy Spirit room to work, he said.

“It takes time,” he said, “to grow into the type of person who can give their life away.”

Janet Roth appreciated Jezreel’s insights.

“God’s love speaks through our actions,” said Roth, the youth ministry coordinator for St. Ann, St. Benedict and Sacred Heart parishes in Terre Haute. “Commitment to the poor and spirituality go hand in hand.” †

Local site Links: