Small Groups and Social Justice by Claire N. Dale

“Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?” This mantra, now expanded to include “Is it just?”, binds a small church group at Christ Our Light Parish in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, which has been meeting since September 2015. The mantra was included in a session on prudence provided by the social ministry group JustFaith Ministries.

According to the organization’s website, JustFaith Ministries “was birthed in the effort to invite and prepare people of faith for the life-changing and world-changing call of the Gospel to help heal the world and, in so doing, experience a deeper faith, a more fulfilling life, and a community of care and vitality.” To this end, JustFaith Ministries offers a variety of programs and resources that have been used by over 50,000 individuals in parishes throughout the country. Program themes include cultivating nonviolence, faith and racial equity, and deepening the call to discipleship.

One of the strengths of the sessions was the opportunity to resurrect and practice ancient, but unfamiliar, virtues in new ways. For example, I have always liked the word prudence, connecting it to Patience and Hope Islands in Narragansett Bay, Roger Williams, and the anchor on the seal of Rhode Island that bears the word Hope. However, the word has a faintly Puritan connotation, cautious and limiting, and is certainly not seen as an expansive, positive virtue.

Anyone who has ever taught will be awed by the organization, guidance, scripture selections, audio-visual materials, personal storytelling, outreach activities, and meeting preparation (homework) and prayer resources (Lectio Divina) of JustFaith Ministries, which give even fearful facilitators the structure needed to succeed. Of particular value are the Group Guidelines, which we have continued to adhere to over the years and which each participant signs. The guidelines are positive statements and include such things as honoring differences, sacred listening, sharing speaking times, and participating fully. Everything shared within the group stays within the group.

Immersion experiences based on the works of mercy are a key component of JustFaith’s programs. In small subgroups, some of our members have spent an afternoon with a local funeral director learning about customs and practices, advanced directives for health care, and bereavement ministry. Others have participated in the mission of our Diocesan Refugee Resettlement Program and helped with a furniture drive. (Tragically, after assisting 100 families per year, this program was virtually ended by a President Trump–executed order.)

When the “Good News People” module ended, and reluctant to break our bonds, our group agreed to continue meeting and exploring other options. In the ensuing four years, we’ve read together Joan Chittister’s Radical Spirit, a guide to humility through the Rule of Benedict. We were happy to learn that humility does not mean humiliation; it is a positive virtue like prudence. Another book which surprised us was Your Sorrow Is My Sorrow, reflections on the Seven Sorrows of Mary, by Joyce Rupp. To our delight, the Mysteries came alive when viewed from Mary’s perspective. The Flight into Egypt was recast as an emigration story, the Holy Family seen as refugees in a new land facing a new culture, language, and religion without their “comfort” necessities, their relatives and friends.

Rupp’s 2018 book, Boundless Compassion, and accompanying volume Prayers of Boundless Compassion provided nine months of spiritual nourishment, including examples of this Servite Sister’s struggles to persist in extending compassion to the emotionally needy. Moving from contemplation to action is our present challenge, using Chittister’s new release, The Time Is Now. The chapters are brief but challenging, as Fran Salone-Pelletier’s review in the June/July 2019 issue of Today’s American Catholic attests.

Living in the Philadelphia metro area, endless opportunities for social justice activities present themselves as well as lectures, music, museums, and public library and public television events. In early November many of us went to Villanova University to hear Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries speak as he received the Adela Dwyer-St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award. His compassion, reflecting his humility, touched all those present and bonded us in solidarity.

What seems to increase our group’s cohesiveness is meeting in homes, keeping group size between eight and 12 members, being flexible in scheduling (but meeting at least every other week), beginning and ending with prayer, and adhering to a fixed schedule, such as 90 minutes for our ministerial program followed by 30 minutes for refreshments and socializing. The small group experience challenges us to grow from a people focused on personal sanctification through prayer and good works to a people who know that wisdom can be gleaned from encounters with all of God’s children, and that shared wisdom fortifies us, enriches us, and adds joy to our lives.

Claire N. Dale is the chair of the Justice & Outreach Commission at Christ Our Light Parish in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Further information about JustFaith Ministries and its small group programs is available here.

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