The power of practice
A conference in San Antonio, Texas emphasizes the importance of academic research and grassroots experiences going hand in hand
By Susanne Janssen
Academic conferences can be very theoretical, not always in touch with the daily life of ordinary people. Not so at a recent conference entitled, “A Hearth for the Human Family,” held at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. There researchers, professors, entrepreneurs, young people and concerned citizens, all looking for new models that work both at an institutional and grassroots level, came together to inspire one another.
For example, entrepreneurs presented the tenets of the Economy of Communion, where the person is at the center and the earnings are used not only for the growth of the company, but also for projects that promote this new way of doing business and helping those in need directly.
Young people shared about their initiatives in favor of those in need: Sasha Ongtengco director of CARA Connects of Chicago, provides training and employment opportunities, Elizabeth Wallin trains women transitioning out of the correctional system in Indiana, giving them a chance to earn their own money and restore their self-confidence.
Celsea Tibbitt, a doctoral student in public health, got a firsthand look at the precarious conditions of people living on the streets of Boston. One Saturday, she started to bring them some fruit, healthy food that they don’t get easily in shelters and food pantries.
The following weekend, she started to prepare some meals in her tiny kitchen. She got some friends to help her; vendors at the local market donated some produce. Now she uses the professional kitchen of a restaurant. She has even received a substantial amount of money to carry on her mission.
“I never made a business plan,” Celsea said, “but I just want to encourage everyone to start, when you feel in your heart that you should do something.”
This expresses the “abundance mindset,” referring to the ability to trust that “there is enough money, resources or material goods out there,” Wallin said, “We just have to be open and discover them.”
Life experiences also accompanied another topic of the conference: immigration. Two women who had fled with their family from the 1980s civil war in El Salvador gave a human face to the atrocities so many people are also facing today. This family was left with only one option: leave everything behind, start a new life in a different country and adapt to a new culture and language.
Also highlighted was the importance of listening to those who fear that the influx of too many immigrants threatens their culture, and to engage in a conversation that allows varying points of view.
One goal of the conference was precisely “to slow down enough to listen to each other,” as Amy Uelmen, professor at Georgetown University and co-organizer of the conference, framed it. This means creating spaces where people can practice the art of dialogue, opening the possibility of generating a new thought that goes beyond the limits of each individual’s perspective.
The main speaker was Jesús Morán, Focolare’s co-president and a philosophy professor, who shared his reflections on Pope Francis’ thoughts on the economy, and on discernment in the light of the charism of unity.
Quoting Francis, he said, “Ideas are discussed, situations are discerned.” Even Jesus had to discern in order to discover the will of the Father. Discernment is a central part of the Jesuit tradition; and in the spirituality of unity, discernment is taken to a new level: “listening to that voice,” as Focolare founder Chiara Lubich expressed it, referring to the voice of the conscience, and living mutual love in a way that Jesus can be present among those united in his name (Mt 18:20).
This experience of Jesus’ presence, fruit of being active in loving and listening, can lead to a Trinitarian discernment: “Each one understands better what God wants in depth, and in perfect respect for personal conscience. At the same time, we also understand better what God wants from us as a community,” said Morán.
In this mutual listening, no theory is too lofty and no experience is too small to contribute to a deeper understanding of hot topics like economy and immigration. This can also contribute to an education that forms the whole person, an important task in an age where more and more young people do not have a religious affiliation, yet are thirsty for true meaning and values.
After the conference, Living City spoke with Jesús Morán about his impression of his first visit to the U.S. and the importance of education.
What is your impression of the United States?
I was very impressed with several things. I still have a partial vision, however, because in these two weeks, I’ve gotten to know only some cities on the East Coast and a part of Texas, but my overall impression is very positive. It has confirmed in me that this nation is made for unity. It has a vocation to unity.
This can already be seen in its configuration, in the multiculturalism that I found in all the cities I visited. Of course, history also speaks of conflicts, such as the integration of African Americans, which has been painful and still remains unresolved. In addition, there’s the enormous challenge of the relationship with the indigenous peoples …
Nonetheless, despite these challenges, I see a nation with a vocation to unity, where everything is possible, where integration is real. The American poet Walt Whitman expressed it very well over a century ago in his poem regarding the wealth of this nation: the ability to integrate everything, the immense variety that forms this nation, that is, e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”
I also encountered a great entrepreneurial spirit; you can see in various cities the ability to innovate and even take big risks.
Our society is in a state of crisis: doubts loom over democracy, polarization dictates conversations. What can give us hope?
We actually live in an era with a disconcerting lack of positive leaders, at all levels. Often those who have emerged do not represent a positive model; instead, in many occasions they could be paradigms of truly risky, strong personalities, even with the power they have. This is a sad observation that we have to make.
I agree with the researcher Susan Cain who suggests uncovering the strength of introverts, the strength of those who are not the classic leaders, but who are positive leaders because they are capable of creating relationships. These people believe more in relationships than in themselves. In her book Quiet: The power of introverts, she says in the first chapters that American culture has historically favored these exuberant leaders, the type that imposes their self.
However, now another type of leader is emerging: a relational one. This gives me hope because there are many of them.
How can we spark a change? By trying to influence public opinion, or by working on education?
I believe that undoubtedly we should start with education. It was not by chance that the pope launched a “global pact for education.” He is summoning many educational leaders to Rome in May because he wants a conference to address how to transmit important values.
Education is decisive because it works in the long run. If we want people who aim at relationships, we need to start teaching them how to do that. After that, of course, we can also work on having an impact on public opinion; but that’s the business of mass media. Education takes much longer, but is a much more effective process.
Many young people feel the pressure to always be connected in social networks, to be perfect; but this destroys many. How can they be encouraged to shift their attention?
Using the language of Pope Francis, you have to say to young people, “Don’t let them rob your life, don’t let your identity be defined by others, don’t follow the rules of fierce competition, which ultimately makes you ill!”
However, we should be able to convince ourselves first — and then others — that doing small things well, building something positive together with others makes us much more serene. Eventually this has an influence on everything.
Don’t think that the world is guided by appearances; go beyond the appearances! But many young people today have already understood this. In Europe, for example, we see a return of young people to the countryside; they take over small farms as if to express that they have understood that it is useless to run after fictitious, unreachable ideals that society imposes.
It is very encouraging to hear of young people who start initiatives or businesses not to accumulate profit, but to serve others. Could it be that they are looking for a greater meaning in their lives?
I think that the individual at the service of the community can counter individualism. Young people are made for communion; it is there where they find true relationships. They want an individuality that creates something for others. And I think this is a very attractive ideal, very attractive for young people.
For many, the Church is no longer credible after the sex abuse scandal. What can be done to fill this hole?
This process that the Church is going through here and also in other parts of the world is certainly one of humility. Maybe if we know how to live it well, it can be very positive. It can help us focus on the essentials.
Not so much on institutional power, which is now in crisis, because it is the institution that is frowned upon, but on what experts call the “culture of generativity,” to start generating that life that Jesus exemplified and expressed very well in the Gospels, in personal relationships.
If we look at the Gospel, Jesus showed little concern about leaving a perfect institution — he did not worry about this — he formed the Apostles. But above all, he trusted more in the Holy Spirit, not so much in the strength of the Apostles. It is the Holy Spirit who is generative.
So this call to humility can be a chance to live relationships based on the Gospel.
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