By LYNN VENHAUS
At only 27, Louis Damani Jones has already made quite the name for himself in the Diocese of Belleville and in the Catholic community nationwide.
Recently, Jones was recognized for his work on anti-poverty issues with the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, a national honor bestowed on someone between the ages of 18 and 40 who has demonstrated leadership against poverty and injustice in America.
Part of that work has included a recent stint as intern for the Diocese of Belleville’s chapter of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
The award, sponsored by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, recognizes the leadership, energy and diverse skills that young people bring to the anti-poverty work of low-income projects and Catholic parishes. It highlights the gifts of young leaders and their Gospel commitment to the poor.
Past recipients of the award include, Ana Chavarin, for her work with migrant families; Father Matthew McDonnell, for his work with Chicago’s poor; and Ana and Jose Aguayo, siblings instrumental in the success of the Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center.
“It’s a great honor and a blessing,” Jones said. “There are so many people deserving of this type of award – they work in their communities and they don’t get recognition.”
Jones is currently working on a master’s degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis, which he expects to complete by December 2021. He is also a research assistant in the Center for Social Development and the Gephardt Institute for Civic Engagement.
In normal times, Jones would have received the award in person, but this year’s gathering was virtual.
The award’s namesake, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996), was known for strong leadership in building bridges across ethnic, class and age barriers. He nurtured CCHD in its early years and remained a strong supporter while serving as Archbishop of Cincinnati and Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago. It has been said that his gift was a vision to build consensus “that doesn’t just settle for what already exists but moves us ahead to what is possible.”
In many ways, Jones exemplifies what Cardinal Bernardin strived to do in support of CCHD.
Despite his school work and the pandemic, Jones has been keeping up a hectic schedule. He was slated to participate as a panelist in the USCCB’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth Online leadership conference December 7-11. The event is coordinated by the LMFLY secretariat’s national advisory team on young adult ministry and will share best practices and introduce skills to better equip those who minister to young adults in the Catholic church.
Jones said the forum planners used Pope Francis’ 2019 apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, and his message to young people as guideposts for this virtual event, which was to feature live webinars and discussions, daily prayer experiences, networking opportunities, and workshops from more than 60 pastoral leaders and ministry experts.
In these days of feeling isolated during the coronavirus pandemic, Jones said it is important to integrate the fraternal and social aspects of the church with modern life.
“It’s a very confusing and challenging time for young adults. We want to engage them in discussion, fully engage them in the gospel, so that they don’t feel separated and can still have a sense of community,” he said.
Jones was born in New York City and moved to St. Louis as a youth, attending kindergarten through fifth grade there. Then he moved to Swansea, Ill. He belongs to the Knights of Columbus and is a Fourth Degree member.
Jones says he left the church when he was younger, and after many struggles, returned to find that Catholics were working on social justice issues through the church teachings.
He strongly believes in the church’s social doctrine and is an avid fan of Pope Frances’ “deeply spiritual and pastoral” letters and teachings.
“I reconnected to my faith and I contemplated goals,” he said. “We can live a life of faith through the Catholic social teachings of the Second Vatican Council.”
In 2018, as Jones served as a CCHD intern, he discovered the importance of the work the campaign did, focusing on community and economic development in rural, urban and suburban areas.
“It’s a community effort, working to change society,” Jones said. “We build up communities. CCHD is a tool of evangelization. The most important aspect is bringing people to Christ, connecting to God.”
Now there is an even more critical need because of the economic downturn and job loss this year.
“You see what CCHD is trying to do in the areas where people have suffered, and it’s very problematic with the reality of the infrastructure, and how education and job opportunities are needed,” he said.
Jones moved on to work for the Archdiocese of St. Louis and with Catholic Charities, and currently serves on the board of directors. He continues to help on both sides of the Mississippi River, though.
“I was traveling back to Belleville and East St. Louis to speak at different parishes,” he said. “I’m really grateful to be able to talk to people, engage with the scriptures.”
The COVID-19 restrictions have altered his usual busy schedule in that he doesn’t go out in person for speaking engagements, but he does set Zoom time with people.
And he hosts a weekly podcast called “Living Communion” with Dr. Mark Etling, a theology professor at Saint Louis University, and Matthew Flynn, the director of Adult Faith Formation at St. Clare of Assisi Church in O’Fallon. It is available on Louis’ Facebook blog page, Living Communion, and can be found on Apple and other podcast platforms.
Jones said his ministry helps him stay engaged in the church.
“There are beautiful communities in our neighborhoods. It’s important to go out and see our humanity at work, that’s our calling—to find and build solutions for them,” he said.
In January, he will work with the Belleville Diocese’s Catholic Urban Programs to help people at the crisis intervention center and one-on-one at the Holy Angels Shelter.
To support the CCHD, collection is ongoing online or in person. https://stclarechurch.weshareonline.org/ws/opportunities/CCHD.