By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
For Southern Illinois’ Catholic schools, service and values education are more than just “doing the right thing” – they’re an essential part of imbuing education with Catholic social teaching.
The Church has developed seven themes of this teaching, aimed at building a just society and living lives of holiness: The life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation.
In ways big and small, schools throughout the diocese lead students to understand the importance of these principles. Kids do service to help their neighbors, and learn just and peaceful ways to settle disputes. Schools send students on field trips that focus on civil rights and addressing inequities.
Teachers in all classes look for ways to incorporate the teachings into their curriculum.
Principal Mike Kish of Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Columbia, says that at its core Catholic social teaching is straightforward: “What is social justice?” It’s Jesus at his best, teaching us to love everybody.”
At Saints Peter and Paul Catholic School in Waterloo, service to others has become a cornerstone of teaching Catholic social principles, says Principal Lori Matzenbacher. Each year, students in every grade participate in multiple service projects, based on the community’s needs.
“Sometimes people reach out to us for help; sometimes we reach out to people in the community and ask what they need,” Matzenbacher says.
They hold two official service days, one in the fall and one in the spring.
Students from different grades team up for projects. During the most recent spring service day April 12, pre-kindergartners and third-graders helped out at the local public library, stacking books, doing errands and beautifying the grounds. Some students visited a senior home to read and sing to the residents; others worked closer to home, pulling weeds at the school and at a nearby Catholic cemetery.
“We’re showing them that we’re all people of God – we all have strengths and weaknesses,” Matzenbacher says. “We all want to feel like we’ve done something good for somebody.”
Saints Peter and Paul has an ongoing relationship with The SeeMore Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Waterloo and with its parent organization Human Support Services, which works with individuals who have developmental disabilities. Recently, students in the school’s “faith families” created party favors to decorate tables at a prom put on by the organization.
Faith families are another way in which the school reinforces Catholic social teaching, Matzenbacher says. These small groups of students meet monthly, and routinely send home assignments that kids are expected to carry out with their families.
“For example, one family went together to serve food at a homeless shelter,” she says. “They came back to school to make a presentation.”
When dealing with disputes or problems, the school practices virtue-based restorative discipline, which seeks to nurture virtuous behavior while addressing harm done to others. The practice employs “prayer circles” where students can work through a problem in school, or something that happened to them outside of school.
The values are part of the school’s teachings, reaching across subject areas, she says, and can spill over into students’ interactions with each other and with their families.
At Immaculate Conception, Kish says his approach to Catholic social teaching sprang in part from the school’s presence within a fairly homogeneous community.
“We lack diversity,” he says bluntly. “We started as a German community, and a lot of people who have moved here have means, and so diversity is somewhat lacking.”
It’s important to him that his students get a fuller view of society than they may find on the streets of their hometown, so he takes them on field trips to expand their world view.
Every other year, sixth- and seventh-graders from Immaculate Conception make a trek to Memphis, Tenn., to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Inspired by the civil rights experiences of Immaculate Conception’s former pastor, Father Steve Humphrey, Kish says, “I took it to my heart a little bit.”
Over the years, classes also have visited the nearby Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, located in a former Memphis plantation that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“They can see where slaves would hide at night, and learn how they followed the ‘drinking gourd’ (the Big Dipper) north,” Kish says.
While in Memphis, the group also has made stops at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which Immaculate Conception students have supported through fundraising efforts.
On these trips, Kish emphasizes the connections between different struggles for social justice. Along with Martin Luther King, students learn about St. Oscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 because of his fight against poverty, injustice and brutality in El Salvador.
“Social justice is not just a racial issue,” he says. “It’s about fighting for the poor, and the disabled, and women, those who are not given respect.”
In addition to the Memphis trip, Immaculate Conception takes students to Chicago and to Washington, D.C. Wherever they go, Kish tries to get them to see the everyday lives of the poor and disadvantaged – and where possible, find ways to serve others.
“Jesus was a get-your-hands-dirty kind of guy,” Kish says.
Closer to home, students at Immaculate Conception collect food for the hungry, and volunteer with St. Vincent de Paul.
They pack meals for Missions International, and Kish says that when they replace their classroom technology or soccer uniforms, they send the older equipment to schools in Haiti.
Immaculate Conception also partners with Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis, through visits and fundraising. “At our school play, we’ll collect money for Sister Thea Bowman – we may bring in $1,000 over four nights,” he says.
Kish says his proudest moments are those when his students and former students show that they’ve absorbed all of these lessons. He points to a recent visit from a former student who attended Georgetown Law School, but bypassed a lucrative legal career to do pro-bono work for immigrants and the poor. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.