By Christopher Kerr
“By visiting our community you have shown us that you are part of our struggle. We will be part of your struggle, too. Together, we can work for a more peaceful world.”
These words were spoken to me 15 years ago by a woman in a rural Nicaraguan community. We met while I was leading a group of high school students on a 10-day immersion experience to understand the realities of one of the economically poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
During the three days we lived with this community, we came to understand some of what it means to live without consistent electricity or running water. We saw young adults rise early in the morning to travel two hours to maquillas (apparel factories often referred to as sweatshops). We met a mother who had lost her six-month-old child to a curable case of dysentery due to a lack of access to basic medical care. We came to know the stories of this community, and they invited us to be in relationship with them — a relationship of solidarity. How we respond to such an invitation gets at the heart of what it means for people to be in solidarity with each other.
For me, the response seemed simple. I felt called to begin incorporating a concern for the reality of that community into who I was and the choices I made in my own life. To this day, it is impossible for me to shop for a piece of clothing without considering the people who helped to assemble it and how they are treated and compensated. I still get uncomfortable when I see people using excessive amounts of water, knowing that billions of people struggle to have access to clean drinking water just like that Nicaraguan community. And every time I take my children to the doctor, I think about that mother and father who lost their baby to something that could so simply be remedied. It is through these ongoing reflections that we can be challenged to consider how we can be people in solidarity with a community in Nicaragua or a person we have come to know in our own communities.
On a macro level, our work at the Ignatian Solidarity Network invites the Jesuit-Ignatian network into relationships of solidarity with people marginalized by our country’s immoral immigration system; violence and impunity in Central America; and the growing ramifications of human-caused climate change, which Pope Francis recently illuminated in his encyclical “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.” This growing network of students, alumni, parents, teachers, Jesuit Volunteers, parishioners, and many more, helps people learn about the ways their brothers and sisters are marginalized and invites them to become advocates for change that builds a more just and humane society.
This past November’s Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice is a prime example of what it means to be in solidarity. In conjunction with the Teach-In, the largest annual Catholic social justice conference in the country, more than 1,000 individuals (predominantly students and faculty from Jesuit universities and high schools) participated in a legislative advocacy day on Capitol Hill.
The invitation to solidarity is open to each of us. Are we willing to be part of the struggle?
Christopher Kerr is the executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. He has more than 15 years of experience in social justice advocacy and leadership in Catholic education and ministry and speaks regularly on these topics at campuses and parishes. He and his family reside in Shaker Heights, Ohio.