Hard Work for Faith that Does Justice

JSRI researchers work to support the oppressed.
JSRI researchers work to support the oppressed.

By Nathan C. Martin

The Jesuit Social Research Institute Turns Five.

It looks a lot like a dentist’s office—carpet and paint in the most neutral tones, chairs fronting a table stacked with magazines, even a little window in the waiting room behind which sits a receptionist. But on the wall, instead of a poster outlining the importance of oral hygiene, there hangs a hand-stitched quilt that says, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

This is the office of the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI), which, over the past five years, has become one of the strongest agents for social research, advocacy, and outreach at Loyola University New Orleans. From its unassuming headquarters in Mercy Hall, its efforts connect Loyola to a powerful network of Catholic advocates in the Gulf South and far beyond, to students of Jesuit schools across the country, and—perhaps most importantly—to the intersection of Catholic Social Thought and real, on-the-ground work for positive social change.

Fr. Fred Kammer, S.J., J.D., is the JSRI’s director. He spoke with LOYNO magazine on the occasion of JSRI’s fifth anniversary. Kammer, a Jesuit priest and former national president of Catholic Charities USA, has been working with JSRI since its inception, initially as a representative of the local Jesuit Province and, since March 2009, as its director. He’s an energetic man who speaks about the institute’s history easily, recalling events and details on the fly and jumping up to grab pamphlets and print documents for figures and statistics. His investment in the organization’s efforts is immediately palpable, and he seems visibly excited at its progress.

“I like to say we’ve become an adolescent,” Kammer said. “After five years, we’re starting to get a real sense of structure and set of processes.”
If the institute is just becoming an adolescent, it has had a busy childhood. In the conference room where we spoke stood an easel with handwritten text in blue marker on a sheet of paper from a recent meeting. Its list of topics read: Death Penalty, Payday Loans, Anti-Immigrant Legislation, Trafficking, Medicaid Expansion, and State Network.

This list gives one a decent sampling of the types of issues the JSRI team tackles. Whether by religious investment, testifying at legislative hearings, helping organize conferences and rallies, or raising awareness through research and publishing, they work on behalf of the poor, immigrants, prisoners, and other oppressed groups in political, business, religious, and academic realms. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but over the past five years, Kammer and his team have developed an infrastructure based on their experiences in action from which the JSRI can directly enact transformative change in the Gulf South that aligns with Loyola’s Jesuit mission and is distinctly Catholic in character.

With Katrina Came Focus: Poverty, Racism, and People on the Move

The initial movement to form the Jesuit Social Research Institute began in 2004, when the regional Jesuit Province advisory board saw the need to create an agency to analyze social problems under its geographic purview. While plans were in the works to create such a body and deliberations were afoot on the issues it should target, Katrina struck.

“Katrina gave [the JSRI] a new impetus in the sense that the problems—especially of race and poverty—became so much clearer to people in the news,” Kammer says. “We knew it, as Southerners, but that really drew attention from a lot of people elsewhere.”

In recent decades, the Society of Jesus had begun to focus seriously on issues related to “people on the move”—a category that includes immigrants and refugees, which Catholic scriptures hold in special regard—embodied in the creation of the international Jesuit Refugee Service in 1980. Along with highlighting issues of poverty and race, Katrina also drew unprecedented numbers of Latino immigrants to the Gulf South. Along with them came issues related to people on the move, who are particularly vulnerable to threats such as wage theft, human trafficking, and detention. This confluence of factors led the JSRI to make “migration” (immigration, migrants, refugees) the third pillar of its focus.

Loyola as a Resource and a Partner

There are many Jesuit social centers around the world, and many are freestanding, unaffiliated with any other organization. But the founders of the JSRI saw a great potential resource and partner in Loyola, which has supported the JSRI’s work in numerous ways—including providing office space, support for publishing, and a direct channel to professors and students, which helps the institute reach an academic audience. Loyola also helps endow the institute, and helped solicit a major gift from New Orleans Saints owner and longtime Loyola friend Tom Benson, H’87, to get the institute started.

The JSRI connects to Loyola’s students and faculty, as well as the broader New Orleans community, in part through conferences it hosts on Loyola’s campus. Since 2008, the JSRI has hosted a conference each year with high-profile members of national Catholic, academic, and social justice communities. Its first, titled “Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility,” explored political themes outlined in a letter from the U.S. Catholic Bishops written in advance of the 2008 elections. In 2009, the JSRI conference focused on “people on the move.” It spanned four weeks and featured seven events that examined topics from hyper-local (New Orleans residents displaced by Katrina) to global (international migration and refugees through the lens of Catholic Social Thought).

The 2010 conference returned its focus to New Orleans and asked the question: “Is post-Katrina New Orleans a Welcoming Community?” Five years after the storm, the conference looked at issues related to displaced New Orleans residents unable to return home and to immigrants who had come to New Orleans to help rebuild the city. Both the 2009 and 2010 conferences were funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
In 2011, the conference focused on immigrant detention and the faith community, including the economics of prison and immigration law and racism’s part in the prison industry.

This year, the institute, together with other Loyola centers and faculty, put on a conference in October that highlighted issues of human trafficking related to mega-events such as the Super Bowl, which are often major magnets for sex trafficking. In September, it also sponsored a Biever Lecture by Fr. Bryan Massingale of Marquette University on race, poverty, and Catholic Social Thought in the context of the 2012 elections.

On-the-ground Advocates

The JSRI’s actions are not by any means restricted to conferences or academia—in fact, much of their work takes place far from campus. The institute’s members strategically support oppressed people throughout the Gulf South, from tomato pickers in Florida fighting for a living wage, to a juror removed in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, for his objection to serving while a Confederate flag flies over the courthouse. In its advocacy, the JSRI’s staff continually strives to implement faith that does justice.

JSRI immigration expert Sue Weishar, Ph.D., provides one example that reflects the tenor and scope of the work conducted by the institute. In one case, Weishar found Omar Hassan—a Somali native who came to the U.S. and filed for political asylum in 1996—in a homeless shelter in Austin, Texas, last year. Hassan had just been released from five months in a series of immigration detention facilities in Arizona. She recorded his story—details of the degradation he experienced while in detention, and the way in which it had senselessly derailed the life he had built over the past 14 years as an electronics technician. Then she edited and published it in the fall 2011 issue of JustSouth Quarterly, the JSRI’s print newsletter, which is distributed to faith- and advocacy-based groups throughout the country.

Hassan’s oral history is a qualitative component of a systematic effort by Weishar to validate stories and complaints from immigrant detainees across the country. From this research and visits with Loyola law students to immigration detention centers, JSRI staff and board have developed a more systemic approach to detention and abuses. The Jesuit Province, with JSRI staffing, joined other religious investors in a responsible shareholder initiative to persuade the two largest U.S. private prison corporations to adopt international human rights standards for all facilities, including detention centers. This new multi-year project, partly funded by a Langeloth Foundation grant, can use Weishar’s findings in negotiations with corporate management to make the facilities more safe and humane.

An Emphasis on Students

Now that the JSRI has established itself as a force for social justice and Catholic thought on campus, it has plans to increase direct engagement with Loyola students. Through the JSRI, staff members each have liaison duties with Gulf South states that require them to travel often; Kammer and others already find time to lecture in Loyola classes; and there are talks about starting a JSRI-related interdisciplinary course. This year, Kammer helped the Office of Mission and Ministry lead the Spark week of service and reflection for first-year students with a background in service. The JSRI’s strategic plan calls for increased outreach to student groups, such as LUCAP, the Loyola University Sociology Student Organization, and the Black Student Union. Along with its e-newsletter sent to all faculty and staff six times a year, JSRI staff member Christi Schott has spearheaded the creation of Facebook and Twitter accounts to further connect to students online.

Thanks in large part to its supercharged staff, the JSRI is a staunch advocate for social justice in the Gulf South and an important part of Loyola’s Catholic identity. After just five years, its accomplishments are many and the bonds it has forged in the communities it serves are strong. It has become one of the most dynamic organizations for advocacy and outreach on campus, and over the next five years, will undoubtedly enhance its efforts on behalf of faith that does justice, and justice that brings about peace.

For more information on the JSRI, visit www.loyno.edu/jsri or call (504) 864-7746.

Nathan C. Martin is the marketing copywriter for Loyola’s Office of Publications and Creative Services.

View the complete fall 2012 issue of LOYNO.

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