Social justice can be really cool

  • Written by Louis McGill
  • Published in NW Stories
Seventh graders from Our Lady of Lourdes School in Vancouver worked on a community farm as part of their Mission Institute experience. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of Lourdes School, Vancouver Seventh graders from Our Lady of Lourdes School in Vancouver worked on a community farm as part of their Mission Institute experience. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of Lourdes School, Vancouver

What seventh-graders can learn, and teach us, by becoming missionary disciples

On a gray day last December, Rachel Hammes was busy getting her hands dirty.

The seventh-grader and her classmates from Our Lady of Lourdes School in Vancouver were working hard, picking turnips and radishes at Clark County’s 78th Street Heritage Farm. Now Rachel was pulling carrots from the earth and placing them in a bucket so they could be cleaned, packed, and taken to the county’s food bank — sent on their way to feed the hungry in southwestern Washington.

“It was really cool how many people besides our class were there to help volunteer and help to make a difference and help the people who are hungry,” Rachel said.

For Rachel and her classmates, volunteering at the food bank farm was another step in their journey toward understanding and easing hunger in their community.

The students have focused on hunger all year as part of the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Mission Institute. The pilot program cultivates leadership skills and “missionary discipleship” among seventh-graders at three schools: Our Lady of Lourdes, Sacred Heart in Bellevue and Holy Family in Kirkland.

“We wanted to come up with an exciting experience that informed students and got them out of the classroom,” said Kelly Hickman, assistant director of the archdiocese’s Missions Office.

The Mission Institute dovetails with the seventh-graders’ study of the catechism and is designed to inspire missionary zeal. “That’s how we catch our kids and keep them,” said Kristin Dixon, an assistant superintendent for the Office of Catholic Schools.

Students give speechesSeventh-graders from Holy Family School in Kirkland made a presentation about their Mission Institute project during a gathering at Seattle University in March. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Encounter, disturbance, response

Students often think of missionary work as something that happens in far-off locales, but the institute aims to make missionary discipleship a daily philosophy, said Dan Sarlitto, seventh-grade religion teacher at Sacred Heart.

One of his students, Audrey Frigon, appreciates the opportunity to work outside of a religion book. “I thought this was cooler because you’re learning about real-life situations instead of made-up ones,” she said.

Sarlitto said the program also meshes well with the mantra for his religion class: acta non verba (deeds not words). “Christians are people of action,” said Sarlitto, who challenges his students to double their service hours during the last trimester of the school year.

As developed by Hickman, Dixon and Kevin Foy (western region associate director for Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers), the Mission Institute has three phases: encounter, disturbance and response. Each phase asks a
question: Who is my neighbor? Who is showing love to my neighbor? How am I called to love my neighbor?

In the “encounter” stage, during Advent, students learned about those living on the margins of society,
studied the effects of injustice locally and globally, and chose an issue to explore more deeply as a class. At Our Lady of Lourdes, it was hunger. Sacred Heart decided on both hunger and clean water. Holy Family focused on gender equality.

“Once we had the topic of hunger, each student got to choose the subtopic that they want to talk about,” said Holly Rogers, interim principal at Our Lady of Lourdes, who teaches the program with seventh-grade religion teacher Henriette Burns. Those subtopics ranged from types of food — genetically modified, organic and hybrid — to the history of hunger in the U.S. The students explored what the church says about their responsibilities toward the hungry.

The “disturbance” stage, during Lent, focused on reflecting about the ways Catholic organizations and agencies perform missionary discipleship as they respond to those in need.

Each class discussed ways to address their issue locally. In March, the three classes gathered at Seattle University to share information and plans for service projects.

The “response” stage, coinciding with the Easter season, is a time for students to apply what they’ve learned to the real world, through a service project they’ve designed as a class. At Our Lady of Lourdes, the seventh-graders invited people from the parish and broader community to participate in a conversation about hunger.

Rachel Hammes volunteered at a community farm to learn more about hunger. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of Lourdes School, Vancouver

Powerful experience

The teachers participating in the pilot program say it suits seventh-graders because they’re starting to think outside themselves, making decisions about their beliefs. The program merges with their study of the New Testament and teaches them greater sensitivity to the people around them, said Tracey Yackley, sixth- and seventh-grade religion teacher at Holy Family.

Annie Becker, a student at Sacred Heart, said she was shocked to learn how many people around the world die every day because they don’t have enough to eat. “I want to do something about it to help those people who are really hungry,” she said. “They’re not just hungry because they haven’t had a snack in a few hours.”

The hands-on lessons, research and class discussions add up to a powerful experience for both students and teachers, according to Hickman. Next year, the Mission Institute will be offered as an option for all seventh-grade classes in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools. “We’re really hoping that the takeaway for students is they see themselves as leaders,” Hickman said.

Seventh-graders at Our Lady of Lourdes are already starting to lead by example. Their trip to the Heritage Farm has inspired students in other grades to consider volunteering more, Rachel Hammes said.

For Annie, the Mission Institute experience has given her a new perspective.

“I always knew I had a pretty good life, that I was privileged more than others in the world,” she said, “but I didn’t know how good I had it.” 

Northwest Catholic - May 2015