Service and Justice

About this article

In this reflective article, Connie Fourre Zimney looks at social-justice education and identifies five steps on the continuum between charity and justice. She sees these as a "natural growth pattern" for individuals and schools. The first three stages—collections, direct service, and empowering activities such as tutoring or coaching—provide a valid foundation for social-justice work. Potential challenges, such as compassion fatigue and personality styles, are discussed in a matter-of-fact style. Stage four attempts to move students to a justice perspective in which structural issues are addressed and Catholic social teaching serves as a foundation for examining injustice. A need to teach students how to analyze, and working toward an integrated approach in curriculum is emphasized. Stage five has students taking action for structural change. This is a must-read for anyone involved in service-learning programs because it calls us to so much more than charity!

We are standing on the brink, and our bishops are urging us to jump. Many of us don't know where we'll end up, and we aren't sure whether we'll land in one piece. Yet the sense of urgency is building, and our hearts keep tugging at us to make the leap.

The brink is social justice, and the bishops' most recent call to Catholic educators comes through their document Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions. The dilemma was expressed clearly at a recent gathering of Catholic elementary and high school principals in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis.

Most schools have outreach efforts, but when asked whether those programs work toward charity or justice, the majority of administrators decided their schools were involved primarily in charity. The principals were clearly willing to move toward action for justice, but they were puzzled and concerned about making the shift.

This hesitance is shared by many of us in Catholic high schools across the United States, and the concern about moving from charity to justice is legitimate. No one is likely to raise much dust by planning a Christmas-basket drive, but start talking about welfare reform, and life quickly gets interesting. The complexity involved in creating structural change is daunting to all but the foolhardy.

The following reflections are the fruit of my work both as a lifelong volunteer and as an eight-year member of the faith formation department at Benilde-Saint Margaret's High School. I hope my thoughts will affirm the good work being done by so many of my fellow teachers and campus ministers, and perhaps provide some new insights.

When doing social-justice education, we commonly begin with the distinction between charity, or works of mercy, and justice, which seeks to address underlying causes of injustice. Though this division is valid, experientially I see five distinct steps on the continuum between charity and justice. These five stages seem to form a natural growth pattern for individuals and school communities.

The First Three Stages:
On the Way to Justice

The first stage focuses on collections: preparing Christmas food baskets, giving monetary contributions to faraway countries, gathering mittens or underwear for a local free store. Collections bring real relief of immediate needs, but they generally do not provide direct contact between students and recipients.

The second stage is direct service work: raking leaves, sandbagging during a flood, providing child care at a shelter, serving a meal at a soup kitchen. These activities push comfort zones and often put participants in direct contact with people whose worlds are very different from their own. It is hoped that the activities break open some stereotypes and widen the circle of compassion. Occasionally, without structured reflection, they reinforce students' preconceived notions about the poor. For teachers and campus ministers, these can be grounding experiences that renew our awareness and commitment.

The third stage engages students in action that empowers them by providing new skills or experiences. Students may volunteer to tutor in ESL, mathematics, or GED skills. They may coach a team of developmentally challenged adults, or be mentors for children who lack positive role models in their lives. This work enables people to take greater charge of and pride in their lives, and has a natural impetus toward breaking down the distinctions between "giver" and "receiver." Action toward empowerment invites a greater level of commitment and engagement on the part of students and teachers, and it usually requires a higher level of skill. Yet it does not risk controversy, and it does not tackle the structures that do so much to create and sustain the inequities in our world.

Some people criticize these first three stages as being somehow second-class engagement, but I believe they are both valid and necessary. They are valid because urgent needs cannot wait for structural change to happen. They are necessary because they provide the pathway of conversion most of us follow in becoming committed to social justice. Our culture, our media, and our human nature do not seem to bring us naturally to the awareness and passion required for social-justice work. The experiences in these first three stages provide the spark that starts most of us on the journey.

Challenges of Stages One,
Two, and Three

Each stage carries its own questions, and I will mention some of these before moving on to the last two stages. The hidden challenge of collections, which can creep up on us and catch us unaware, is compassion fatigue. As faculty and staff members volunteer and develop loyalties to organizations, the number of causes grows. As the school comes to be seen as a resource by social service agencies, it receives more and more requests for help. With collections, there is usually minimal opportunity to form a bond with recipients; contact is generally limited to information distributed via posters and announcements. At Benilde-Saint Margaret's, we are finding that response to some of our traditional collections is beginning to drop off due to the large number of new drives during the school year. We may need to monitor the number of causes we adopt in order to maintain the generous response our students have shown in the past.

Direct service can be geared toward short- or long-term commitments, and in large- or small-group activities. Analyzing the differences between these approaches can help us plan our programs more effectively. The shotgun approach--one-time service opportunities in a variety of settings--is a good method for introducing students to service. It allows them to dip their toes in the water and see how it feels. Sustained programs, involving consistent sessions over an extended period, increase students' familiarity with and commitment to a community or agency. Developing an ongoing relationship with selected populations or agencies improves the likelihood of personal investment. Both approaches have merit, and ideally a school would be able to sponsor both types of opportunities.

Awareness of personality styles is also important. Introverts and extroverts have different preferences. Some introverts like working in tutoring programs because they foster long-term relationships with a relatively small group of people. Extroverts thrive on meeting everyone who walks through the door of a large soup kitchen, and on learning to handle unexpected challenges. What may look like a lack of generosity in student response may simply be the result of service opportunities that do not match personalities.

Just as in teaching we need to avoid teaching only to our own learning style, in service it helps to be aware of others' serving styles.

The challenge in programs that empower people is that they require more skill and commitment and therefore tend to be time consuming. The ESL programs I have worked with recently have had very limited resources and materials, and I have only basic training in teaching English as a second language. My students and I have struggled to provide services for which we are not well trained and with materials that are inadequate. An effective program thus requires a significant investment of time and money; the corollary is that there is then less time and money available to work on other programs. To be effective we need to set priorities and often invest our own personal time and resources--a perfect opportunity to model the commitment we ask of our students.

Stage Four:
Bridging the Gap

Service has much more power to change hearts if we move into the fourth stage of providing structured reflection for our students. Reflection also begins to build the bridge toward a justice perspective. Journal writing is a common expectation in service work, and it is the reflection method I used when I first began teaching our Christian service class. This basic level of reflection focuses primarily on students' emotional responses to their experiences. My lesson plans were geared toward developing social, organizational, and problem-solving skills.

Developing a justice perspective requires another, much more complex kind of reflection. Many of us have heard the story of the picknicking family on a riverbank who hears a drowning man call for help. They rescue the man and return to their meal. Soon two women are heard calling desperately from the river, and again family members plunge in for the rescue. The women are followed by ever more people floating down the river crying for help. Eventually someone asks the obvious question,

"Where are all these people coming from?" and heads upstream to investigate. After a service experience, it's not difficult to invite students to ask, "Where are all these people coming from?" Leading them through the underbrush to discover the answer is another story altogether.

As religion teachers or campus ministers, few of us have the necessary training in economics and political science to be able to do a sophisticated analysis of issues such as the World Bank or national welfare reform. Some of us have had the humbling experience of being shown up by an exceptionally well informed student who argues the other side with a wealth of opposing statistics and facts. We are equipped to lay out the basics: There are people who are disenfranchised and economically poor through no fault of their own. It is the responsibility of those of us with the resources and skills necessary to succeed in our society to share what we have with others and to alter the structures that perpetuate inequity.

By providing students with experiences that stretch their capacity for compassion, we help them move emotionally toward this basic awareness. The bishops' document distills the essence of Catholic social teaching into seven principles to use as a foundation in examining injustice:

  1. the sanctity of life and the inherent dignity of the human person
  2. the call to family, community, and participation
  3. a balance of rights and responsibilities
  4. the option for the poor and vulnerable
  5. the dignity of work and the rights of workers
  6. solidarity
  7. care for God's creation

We can teach these principles much as we have taught the Beatitudes in the past: by requiring students to memorize them and by explaining the meaning of each concept. But applying the principles to the problem of homelessness today is like applying a memorized mathematical formula to a word problem: it's tough. As the bishops note, we are in need of tools that can help us research and discuss current issues with our students.

We also must remember that providing an analysis is not the same as teaching students to analyze. Students need to learn media literacy and how to navigate the Internet for reliable information--skills that we have very limited time to learn ourselves. Strategies for teaching critical thinking and a disciplined approach to complex questions are essential to effective teaching. In our rapidly changing world, students desperately need to acquire tools for intelligently assessing new situations as they arise.

Working with other departments also helps convey the message that social justice is not just a "religion teacher thing." A partnership with social studies departments can be invaluable because those teachers are trained in economics, history, government, and geography. This highlights the bishops' critical call to integrate social-justice education throughout our curriculum. I believe this effort is in its infancy in most schools. The literature on multicultural education offers valuable insights on the process we are likely to follow in bringing about this change and also offers tested strategies for bringing this awareness to other departments in our school.

Stage Five: Action for
Structural Change

The fifth and final stage, taking action to bring about structural change, brings us to the brink mentioned at the beginning of this article. Analysis without action will not help the poor, and our students can only learn to act through practice. Sharing Catholic Social Teaching says, "There is a need for Catholic educational and catechetical programs not only to continue offering direct service experiences but also to offer opportunities to work for change in the policies and structures that cause injustice" (p. 12). Because Benilde-Saint Margaret's, like so many other schools, is just beginning to move into this stage, my comments reflect what we have learned from our early endeavors.

First, it is essential that we research an issue thoroughly before we embark on any action with students. Student research is an important part of the learning process, but it must be overseen and evaluated by an adult. We not only need to research the facts about an issue but also to study and pray over the possible repercussions of any action we may take. There are reports, for example, that some of the efforts to end child labor in developing countries have resulted in children being put out of factories and forced into prostitution or begging to support their families. If we lead students in an effort that later turns out to be counterproductive, we may reinforce rather than reverse their sense of powerlessness in the face of injustice.

Thorough research, and student-based research, is also an important component of the objectivity we need to bring when presenting issues to students. Students quickly tell us they will respond only to an approach that does not pre-empt their right to make judgments for themselves. We need to make sure that we invite students to action without communicating judgment about students who choose not to join us.

We need to have our information readily available for any parents who may be concerned, or for students who voice disagreement with our action. Quotations from papal and episcopal documents that support our work can be very helpful.

Action needs to be nonpartisan and remain focused on issues. Although many strategies we take may be supported more by one political party than another, it is both bad policy and bad strategy to identify ourselves too closely with one political group.

God's Call

The complexity of social-justice education makes sex education look easy. The conversion of heart that underlies service and justice education is a lifelong process for us as well as our students and their parents. The needs are enormous, the forces against us sophisticated, and we are all too often made aware of our personal limitations.

This is one of the many moments when we are reminded that we must rely on God's strength and not our own. We are not engaged simply in political activism--we are answering God's call for our life. God invites each of us according to our gifts and our circumstances, and we can answer this call in many ways. The good news is we aren't in this alone. God and committed colleagues over the next hill and across the country are on our side.

Connie Fourré Zimney

teaches religion at Benilde-Saint Margaret's High School in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota. She works with faculty on service-learning approaches, and promotes justice education in schools.


Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at

Published April 1, 1999.