Lasallians gathered together July 23-27, at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the 2018 Lasallian Social Justice Institute (LSJI). Themed “Community Responses to Urban Challenges,” LSJI focused on poverty, food and racial injustices through presentations and by immersing participants into urban communities and providing time to reflect on how Lasallians are called to become advocates in our urban communities.
Vazken Panossian, a junior at Bethlehem University in Palestine, was among the LSJI participants. Panossian spent the summer in the United States, interning at Christian Brothers Conference in Washington, D.C. Reflecting on this unique LSJI experience, Panossian said, “My week at the LSJI was very enlightening. In the Holy Land, when we hear about the United States we always look at the tall buildings and the pretty lights, but we never talk about the poverty problem and all the issues that come with it.”
LSJI included visits to number of agencies that serve people in urban neighborhoods. It started with a mural arts “pilgrimage” through Philadelphia to highlight the beauty of the urban community. Also in Philadelphia, participants visited La Salle Academy, a San Miguel-model school, and the Aquinas Center, where they received a tour and saw the summer camp that serves the residents of south Philadelphia.
The week also included a visit to Face-to-Face, a facility whose goal is to meet basic human needs and reduce suffering in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Participants met with staff and took part in a discussion-based activity about living in poverty. Afterwards, the group headed to DePaul USA, which supports men who are experiencing homelessness, where they heard a powerful testimony from a resident at DePaul.
On what he hoped to bring back to his ministry, Michael Aquino, director of educational technology and a social studies instructor from De La Salle High School in Concord, California, shared, “Practically speaking, the experience of seeing what other communities are doing to confront poverty, gentrification, racism and hopelessness in some ways that were new to me (trauma-informed care, maintaining service as mutually beneficial, etc.) were great takeaways that will inform how I approach my own curriculum and teaching.”
LSJI participants also visited Camden, New Jersey, where they toured Hopeworks ‘n Camden, which uses education, technology and entrepreneurship to partner with young men and women as they identify and earn a sustainable future. The group also visited the Center for Environmental Transformation, where they learned how the organization engages, educates and inspires people to practice a more environmentally responsible way of living on the planet. The group also toured the gardens that provide food for sale for the surrounding community. Participants also volunteered at Cathedral Kitchen, where they served dinner to people in need.
After visiting Camden, Charles Rooney, a computer science teacher at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey, commented, “I would say that our day spent in Camden was the best and most eye-opening day for me. Being able to witness Hopeworks, Center for Environmental Transformation and Cathedral Kitchen working hard and working with the public, gave me hope for the future of social change. Seeing the young adults at Hopeworks coming in and working to get their high school GED and then moving onto interning at various jobs within the organization with the goal to get a high paying job at a major company was amazing. Seeing the drive in them to get to work on time and to enjoy what they are doing with a goal in mind was a very uplifting experience. I hope to bring my sophomore computer science class there to see this organization up and running and changing the lives of these young adults.”
The LSJI experience ended with a chance for prayer, a final open circle reflection, and a sending forth commissioning.