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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Christopher O. Kerr

By Gordon Nary

Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as Executive Director of Ignatian Solidarity Network?

Chris: In my role as ED of ISN, I work with a talented staff committed to animating the Jesuit network and broader Church in work for justice grounded in Gospel values. Our work is rooted in the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the legacy of the Jesuits and lay women murdered in El Salvador in 1989.  I have the opportunity to work with people across the U.S. and beyond at Jesuit institutions and our other partner organizations to create opportunities for greater collaboration on social justice education and advocacy initiatives. This collaboration centers around our priority issues, including migration, care for creation, domestic poverty, and racial equality, and human rights in Central America. As the leader of a lay organization, I have the responsibility of defining what it means to work in partnership, often co-laboring in work for justice with the Jesuits.

Gordon: How do the Jesuits define Social Justice and what is our shared responsibly as Catholics to participate in Social Justice advocacy?

Chris: The idea of working for justice in the context of our Christian faith has been contextualized by the Jesuits throughout their history, starting with Ignatius. It is, of course rooted in Scripture, including what is embodied in the example of Christ. Ignatius provided a framework for exploring how our lives as Christians can be committed to illuminating God’s love through our concern for the common good and God’s desire for all people to live in the most fully human way possible. Our call to justice in Ignatian terms invites us to find the presence of God in our brothers and sisters, particularly in the poor and marginalized. We are also called to a willingness to take action to ensure that they too have access to an experience of God’s love in which their dignity and humanity are valued by society.

Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.’s leadership of the Jesuits during the 20th century provided a contemporary way of living out Ignatius’s framework for exploration. It was grounded in Arrupe’s sense of the world from his life experiences, including the experience of living through the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Arrupe invited the Jesuits into focused reflection on how the order could respond to the realities of modern time, particularly the realities on the margins of the world, such as the situation of refugees or those faced with oppression from inhumane governments. Arrupe pushed his brother Jesuits and lay partners to deeper reflection on the call to justice with statements like: “to be just, it is not enough to refrain from injustice. One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society,” which he shared with alumni of Jesuit schools in 1973. This challenge is prophetic, just like Christ’s challenge to love our enemy or respond to the need of the stranger.

Gordon: Immigration advocacy is a Social Justice challenge. What are some of the most pressing immigration challenges?

Chris: One of the greatest challenges facing our criminal justice system, maybe the greatest, is the grossly inequitable impact on people of color. For example, African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the rate in five states, according to The Sentencing Project. A system that perpetuates institutional racism only furthers the sense of racial divide that still exists in our country over fifty years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. The good news is that there seems to be a bipartisan sense of the inequities that exist and a desire to respond by some on both sides of the political aisle to seek solutions at the Federal level that could lead us in the right direction.

Gordon: If some of our readers would like to learn more about Social Justice, what book would you recommend?

Chris: I think any book that invites a person into understanding the reality of someone marginalized by poverty and injustice or highlights the ways in which a person stands with those marginalized is a good a read. For me, Oscar Romero’s personal diary, entitled “A Shepherd’s Diary” was powerful, because it took a reader through his experience of coming to understand the injustice that the people of El Salvador, particularly the economically poor, were facing each day. Kevin Burke S.J.’s collection of writings by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., entitled “The Essential Writings of Pedro Arrupe,” offers an insight into Arrupe’s commitment to justice and its grounding in his love for Christ, providing a reader with an in-depth understanding of how his leadership of the Jesuits had such an influence on the order and its institutions.

Gordon: You also serve on the board of directors of Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ). What interested you in helping this organization?

Chris: CRISPAZ has a rich history of solidarity-building between people around the world and those in El Salvador. In 2014, I came to know their work more personally when they facilitated a delegation for ISN that brought 45 people from across the U.S. to El Salvador to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the murders of the Jesuits and Elba and Celina Ramos. I was so impressed by their staff and their work. It has been an honor to serve on their board of directors.

Gordon: Violence appears to be a response to life challenges by so many. What , in your experience, are some of the factors that affect personal violence and what can  we do to help reduce violence?

Chris: I would not claim to have any expert opinion in responding to this question. I think that so much of violence is grounded in an inability as human beings to recognize the sacred that is present in each of us. However, I do not know that there is truly any more violence in the world today than in other parts of history. Acts of violence are certainly more well known because of advances in media technology and the ways in which we can use violence are greater and more powerful. To respond these realities, I think we have to continue to promote a Gospel vision of the world that recognizes everyone’s human dignity from the baby in the womb, to the terrorist threatening our country, to the convicted felon on death row, to the person walking down our street that we consider to be suspicious, etc. Are we capable of finding God present in them and value them as a fellow human being created by God? And, are we willing to advocate for a society where other people will see each other that way as well? How can we use the tools of communication and media in today’s world to promote such a culture, one where human dignity is valued and we can live in peace together? Where does it start? In our home, in our community, in how we communicate with those we know and don’t know on the road, the phone, Facebook, etc. As Mother Teresa said, “Peace begins with a smile.” 

Gordon: Thank you for a great interview and sharing your your insight and advice on these challenges that affect all of our lives.


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