For the students at St. Theresa Catholic School in Des Moines, Iowa, the idea of knowing God and reacting to the call to evangelize as disciples is not put off until they are old enough for high school or college. For St. Theresa students, the day of Baptism is a day of commissioning into active missionary work. It is encouraged, celebrated, and practiced, and the seeds are planted as early as kindergarten—where those early sprouts get consistently watered and fed straight through to the eighth grade.
It is a holistic approach in a culturally diverse city school where teachers, parents, parishioners, and pastor each assist in the training of what it means to live in an atmosphere of Catholic social teaching—day by day, week after week, and throughout the entire school year. Catholic social teaching is lived, thought about, and worked on in daily life; all that it means to be a disciple of Jesus at home, in the public arena, and around the world is infused into the education students receive.
Wouldn’t we all like to know how much of an impact our Catholic work has on the life of another person or perhaps a child living on the other side of the world? In what can be such a slow process, we tend to want quick results and certainty that our efforts and hard-earned cash are never wasted.
But at St. Theresa Catholic School, the kids know their efforts are worthwhile and productive. How? By making the most of a long-beloved tradition—Catholic Schools Week.
For St. Theresa students, it has become a week where age-appropriate inner conversion is encouraged; it’s a time for them to see themselves in relation to their family and their world. In order to accomplish this year after year, they receive tools they can grow up with, eventually placing knowledge into action. Money, space, time, role-modeling, and encouragement from all kinds of sources are sought to help this molding process. It is labor-intensive but the positive atmosphere generated within the school is palpable.
According to teachers, students, and parents, it is both time and money well spent.
Parents in the Lead
It is a lot of work to prepare, organize speakers, schedule space with teachers and their lesson plans, and obtain funding from skeptical parent organizations, but one lead parent organizer, Cindy Mumm, underwent her own conversion process after taking a 30-week Just-Faith course in Des Moines.
“After a year, I felt very strongly that Catholic social teaching should be practiced in schools—all grades—and so did other parents I talked with. We formed a Social Justice Resource committee hoping the teachers would tap into us. We worked a bit with the first-grade class, but there was little progress.
“One night, at a committee meeting, Brett Toresdahl, a Lutheran who sends his daughters to St. Theresa’s, spoke up. He was in charge of the school’s artist-in-residence program that had been going on for the previous two to three years. It consists of an artist coming for a week and working with all the grades. Brett suggested our group join efforts and have a joint week focusing on social justice,” says Mumm.
The National Catholic Educational Association says that National Catholic Schools Week is the annual celebration of Catholic education in the United States. Schools typically observe this week with Masses, open houses, and other activities for students, families, parishioners, and community members. Through these events, schools focus on the value Catholic education provides to young people and its contributions to our Church, our communities, and our nation.
Up Close and Personal
Since parents began Social Justice Week in conjunction with Catholic Schools Week in 2008, the results have been just short of breathtaking.
Any number of speakers are brought in to perform, give talks, work with art projects, and tell stories about their work overseas or locally with the poor communities they serve. These are no ordinary speakers but ones who can speak from their direct experiences of service—from the CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa to the state leader of Catholic Relief Services.
There are religious sisters who work with the local poor and immigrant communities, and performing artists who help the students rehearse and compose songs that deal with social justice topics. Artists-in-residence are invited to help students from every grade level create art projects centered on the issues of hunger and poverty.
Each day of Social Justice Week brings home the mission of the Church as being in allegiance with the poor of the world. The kids meet the faces working in the field and, as Principal Ellen Stemler puts it, “These people are real, and because it is real, what they say becomes much more powerful.”
Films on hunger are shown during the evenings of Social Justice Week to students, their families, and parishioners. This forms a foundation through which everyone works under a similar understanding of the mission for the week: to raise awareness of funding projects, cultures, and people coping with life within the various cycles of poverty.
“Hunger and poverty are not just issues relating to food,” says Cindy Mumm. “The students are also taught [about] the many kinds of hunger—the hunger of loneliness and isolation or the poverty of spirit. It’s not just about money.”
St. Theresa Parish has a year-round working committee of parents, teachers, and students who actively search out opportunities for Social Justice Week. This has resulted in a wide range of ongoing programs that have specific goals and targets for fund-raising throughout the year.
The depth of commitment runs deep in this school of 295 students and 1,400 parish families. Where a school may have one project a year for fund-raising, or parish activities that may include one short-term goal, St. Theresa’s projects raise amounts of money that most parishes would envy. Over the past eight years, they have built wells in Tanzania and raised money for the John Paul II Orphanage in Haiti.
As a parish, they are in their 10th year of a sister partnership with a parish in Togo, participating in a Des Moines diocesan-wide effort to help improve living conditions for seminarians at the Holy Ghost Seminary in the African nation.
Locally, kids cook and serve food at a nearby homeless shelter every month and have participated in feeding families overseas by packaging food supplies for shipment. But in the midst of their global efforts, feeding the hungry isn’t limited to “the ‘other.’”
Teachers at the school quietly identify students who, along with their families, may be in need of food over the weekend. Privately, backpacks are filled so that the children and their families don’t go hungry over the weekend, providing them with the nourishment they need to energize their learning the following school week. If clothing is needed, it is the teachers who pass the observed needs along to the principal, who then contacts those who can help directly and quickly. The practice of social justice, as difficult as it is to discern at times, here is institutionalized.
“We build our curriculum into it,” says Principal Stemler. “We plug into the cultures here in our area and invite them to talk to the kids. This makes it real for them. The faith formation is built into everything we do. For example, math is built into it. We talk about feeding a child in Africa and have them calculate the math [involved]. We look at the Scripture and ask what does Jesus tell us on how to be productive in the world? Our kids really need a global perspective. And kids want to learn this. They want to learn more. Handouts just don’t do it.”
A Child Shall Lead Them
One of the most successful projects the school completed during a particular Social Justice Week came from the inspiration of one student. St. Theresa sixth grader Joseph Seymour had been to a Christ Our Life Conference where he heard how the Mary’s Meals project was formed. In a small shed in Scotland, a man by the name of Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow began Mary’s Meals after hearing that there were 300 million hungry children in the world. Joseph was shocked to hear how many children were going without food every day. But what also surprised him was to hear just how easy it can be to feed those in need.
Joseph learned as he listened to Magnus that it was important for those who have more than they need to share with those who lack even the most basic things in life—such as food and education. Joseph went to the Mary’s Meals booth for more information. Feeling compelled, he bought five of the blue plastic mugs offered by the agency. The mug size is the same as the serving of food a hungry child fed by Mary’s Meals receives each day.
Using his own money, he purchased enough mugs for his teachers and the principal, knowing it would help him put forth Mary’s Meals for a fund-raising project. But he also had confidence that people would listen to what he had to say.
“I knew my school was very open to helping people because of the things we’ve done in the past. I thought, Wow, these people would want to help. So when I brought the mugs to the teachers and set up a meeting with Mrs. Stemler, our principal, on how we should do something here at the school, she thought it was a good idea too.”
The school decided to help, through the Mary’s Meals program, a group of schoolchildren in the African country of Malawi. Student council members and Joseph put their heads together to think up some ideas. St. Theresa’s had to decide how they would raise money to help build a kitchen in the Malawian school, which students’ mothers could use to make and serve lunch. A functioning kitchen would ensure that every child who came to school that day would receive one meal right in the school where they were taught their lessons.
Joseph and the other students realized two important things: First, that every child should not go hungry when there is plenty of food in the world. And second, that any hope for the future involves educating children.
St. Theresa fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Mary Hingtgen, was an avid supporter of the program.
“We prayed for Mary’s Meals every day,” she says. “We prayed that the money would come. We prayed for each child. We prayed for the workers in Mary’s Meals; we prayed for Magnus.”
Lasting Side Effects
Before long, a phone call was placed to the Mary’s Meals coordinator of Iowa to come and pick up a check for over $14,000. St. Theresa School and parish together had raised the money to build a large kitchen, and, in October 2013, MacFarlane-Barrow arrived in Iowa to give a speech about Mary’s Meals at the Iowa Hunger Summit in Des Moines.
But he also had another plan in mind. He wanted to visit the school that had raised so much money for Mary’s Meals. He wanted to meet the one person who brought up the idea to the school. He wanted to meet Joseph.
“It was a big deal for me,” Joseph says, smiling. “He doesn’t do this very often. We had an all-school assembly that day and we all wore our T-shirts. I got to meet him and to get my picture taken with him. When I first heard of him and saw him in person, I had a different idea of what he was like, but then I got to see that he was just a humble and truly amazing person. I admire what he does.”
Even today, students talk about the lasting impression of that particular Social Justice Week. The school’s Malawian project is still being prayed for almost two years after its completion. Now 13 years old, Adam Jackson, an eighth grader at St. Theresa’s, continues to process what he learned about the children he was raising money for. He says, “It’s amazing how many people got food and just how little people have to eat in one day. But it really changed me, too. It changed how I treat people now. We eat school lunches and you complain because you don’t get what you want, but those people, they don’t get to choose. They don’t get any choice.”
Fourth grader Petra Knupp agrees. “You get to feel really blessed,” she says. “We always seem to want more here,” seventh grader Katlyn Stein says. “It really hits home when you see people your age going without anything to eat. You tend to relate. All they have is one book for a whole class. They have very few school supplies. No pencils—just sitting on hard benches. We in the United States are not restrained by limits of what our dreams can be because we have materials, money, and what you think you can do, you usually can.”
Nine-year-old Mary Ann Wilkerson adds, “Why should I be complaining about anything? If we get a cold, we can stay home from school and take cold medicine, but they don’t have any of that so it could easily turn into a bigger problem. Sometimes I wonder, How did it go that way?”
How does this approach to social justice impact the Church of the future? What kind of ideas do these young workers in the field bring forward and into their own relationship with the Church? Aren’t these disciples simply too young for this?
Adam Jackson says, “I really do believe that this changes me. It gives me a different aspect of thinking and it makes me think about what I have that other people don’t have. I think the future Church should really try for equality and I don’t [just] mean spiritually. I mean the Church should try and help all people have more in life—especially food.”
Mary Ann Wilkerson is adamant. “I see in the future that everyone has the same amounts of stuff and food. Like what we have and that everyone is helping out and trying to help other people.”
“I don’t want as many hungry people,” chimes in Petra Knupp. Quiet Katlyn Stein nods her head, speaking philosophically. “We all know that there’s a slight chance that everyone can be equal,” she says. “But we need to help them feel safe and secure and know that they have a friend. There is a saying that I like very much and it goes, ‘No matter what side of the world you’re on, everyone still sees the same stars and moon and sun.’”
Sue Stanton has been a nurse for 30 years and holds a BS in religious studies. An avid traveler and outdoorswoman, Stanton has written seven children’s books and has had articles published in various Catholic publications over the last 15 years.