How encounter and dialogue can transform our families, and politics

Michael Jordan Laskey, Diocese of Camden

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.

Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia: The Eucharist Calls Our Families to Transform the World

Michael Jordan Laskey, Life & Justice Ministries, Diocese of Camden, NJ

Michael Jordan Laskey, Life & Justice Ministries, Diocese of Camden, NJ

My wife Genevieve used to work at an urban retreat and social justice education center in a poor city, which is in the former convent on the property of a Catholic parish. There were a couple of homeless guys from the neighborhood who would occasionally stop by the center for something to eat. Because youth were often in the building, the center’s security policy didn’t allow the men to come in, but staff members would always prepare a “to go” bag with a sandwich or two and anything else that was in the kitchen.

There was a daily Mass in the chapel across the parking lot from the center, and Genevieve would go before work from time to time. One of the men who came for food most often – I’ll call him Frank – would sometimes be at Mass, too. He would join in the prayer and receive communion with the rest of the assembly.

Genevieve was struck by the fact that while Frank was understandably not allowed to enter the center, he was more than welcome in the church. He was part of the one human family gathered around the altar for the Eucharistic feast; he didn’t have to take this meal to go.

Mass, said the scholar Aidan Kavanagh, is doing the world the way it’s meant to be done. At the end of each liturgical celebration, we are sent forth to make the world more closely resemble the unity that we practice in the sanctuary, where all welcomed to the table and can receive what they need.

Pope Francis makes this connection between the Eucharist and our call to create a more just world in paragraphs 185 and 186 in his brand new apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”).

“The Eucharist demands that we be members of the one body of the Church. Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members,” he writes. “When those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily. On the other hand, families who are properly disposed and receive the Eucharist regularly, reinforce their desire for fraternity, their social consciousness and their commitment to those in need.”

Why does Pope Francis talk about the connection between the Eucharist and working for a more just world in a document about the family?

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. It is the celebration of Christ’s self-giving love and sacrifice for us, his brothers and sisters. We are meant to emulate this Eucharistic, others-centered love in our family lives – directed toward our own blood relatives, surely, but also reaching outward to all of God’s children, especially those who are hurting.

Formed by this Eucharistic love, our families can become what Pope Francis calls in the document “vital cell[s] for transforming the world.” Our families are meant to be schools of mercy, where compassion and care for the poor are learned and practiced. I think of my friend Sean, who has devoted his life to Catholic social justice ministry. When he was growing up, his family would help serve a meal at a soup kitchen every single Christmas. Sean doesn’t remember this tradition seeming strange or unusual. “It was just something we did,” he says. He learned mercy in his family and it had a profound impact on the person he has become.

How might the self-giving love we celebrate in the Eucharist be calling your family to work for justice together? What a privileged opportunity we have to respond to the Holy Father’s call!

Michael Jordan Laskey is director of Life & Justice Ministries and vice chancellor for the City of Camden for the Diocese of Camden, NJ. 


Go Deeper!

Read the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia online at the Vatican’s website or order copies through USCCB Publishing.

Learn more about how our faith inspires us to respond as disciples in the world today by watching this short video on WeAreSaltandLight.org.