In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Dave and Anita Tanzola were arguing a lot. A longtime married couple with three adult children, they found themselves on opposite sides of the political divide, having circular debates about challenging topics like immigration that didn’t do anything but crank up the stress level. They wanted to break out of the destructive cycle and do something positive together that would help bring them closer again. After prayer and reflection, they had an idea. Although they disagreed about immigration policy, they both had a sincere desire to help immigrants in their community. What if they could get involved together in some sort of ministry of welcome and support to immigrants and refugees who were arriving to live near their own home in South Jersey?
That’s when I heard from Dave for the first time. He’d asked his pastor for some ideas and got my name. As the social justice director for the diocese, could I point him in the right direction? So Dave and I sat down for a chat in our diocesan office’s lunchroom in Camden, NJ. He wanted to know every possible way he and Anita might get involved with migrants and refugees. We talked for a long time, I suggested ways they could get involved, and I also took him to my office and pulled six or eight books on Catholic Social Teaching off my bookshelf for he and his wife to study together. Dave’s energy, curiosity, and deep spirituality blew me away. I thought about what I was witnessing: What would I do if I had big political disagreement with my spouse or someone else close to me? I’d be tempted to ignore it and hope it’d go away. That wasn’t Dave and Anita’s approach. They tackled the conflict head-on and are doing something new.
Well, some things new, more accurately. Since that first chat, Dave and Anita have connected with the social justice committee at their parish, serving as immigration/refugee point people of a sort. They organized a refugee welcome card campaign and a panel discussion at the parish featuring migrants and refugees and those who serve them. They are volunteers with our diocese’s refugee resettlement program, participating in activities like a Christmas toy giveaway to families who have come to South Jersey from Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Colombia, and other countries.
Dave and Anita’s zeal reminded me of a message Pope Francis tweeted last summer. “Love requires a creative, concrete response,” he wrote. “Good intentions are not enough. The other is not a statistic, but a person to take care of.” That’s what I’m seeing in my friends: creativity. They said “no” to simply rehashing the same arguments, “no” to pretending their differences do not exist, “no” to the easy way out. They said “yes” to the encounter that has helped them know migrants and refugees and their stories by name, and “yes” to hard work together that has helped them discover new energy and open their hearts. Do Dave and Anita now see totally eye to eye on immigration policy? Not exactly. But their hard work and encounter, with one another and with migrants, has helped make smaller the gap between their perspectives, and their common experience is an important foundation to their continued discussion. Imagine if Dave and Anita’s model of encounter and hard work together in the face of disagreement could be imitated in thousands of families and communities across the country.
This July, the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors, in partnership with the USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Charities USA, will hold its 31st annual Social Action Summer Institute, with a theme inspired by a Pope Francis tweet. Entitled Cultivating Creativity in Social Justice Ministry: “Love requires a creative, concrete response.”—Pope Francis, the four-day gathering, at St. Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia, is for Dave, Anita, and all Catholics who, like them, are interested in overcoming polarization and division in order to engage the issues that divide us in new and creative ways.
As we dive deep into social justice ministry and Catholic Social Teaching with a dynamic array of workshops, keynote addresses, experiences of creativity and site visits to some of Philly’s most inspiring social justice organizations, we hope that the creative energy which has propelled Dave and Anita to new ways of encounter and dialogue, will be our experience as well.
If you’re a diocesan social justice director or a parish volunteer just getting started or somewhere in between, prayerfully consider joining us in Philly from July 15-19. You can get more information and register here. See you this summer!
Michael Jordan Laskey is Vice Chancellor for the City of Camden and Director of Life & Justice Ministries, in the Diocese of Camden.