Finding Their Faith Alive

Students live greater through service and reflection

“Once you know this person’s face, name, and story, you can’t unsee it. And in this moment, you may ask, ‘What am I called to do?’”

Matt Bender ’13 was describing how a service experience so often leads to action. A History major with minors in Theology and Faith-Justice Studies, he knows the power of reflection common to the Ignatian pedagogy and the pastoral circle described in Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, both taught and applied in various programs at Saint Joseph’s University.

In classrooms and communities, Saint Joseph’s leads students well beyond performing service. “Distinctive for us are faith and reflection,” said E. Springs Steele, Ph.D., Vice President for Mission and Identity. “There’s an intentionality and quality in what we do that starts with connection and results in critical thinking and taking action.”

A Culture of Service

Through Saint Joseph’s Weekly Service and Immersion Programs, hundreds of students are “finding their faith alive,” as described by Tom Sheibley, Director of Campus Ministry. “Even in the midst of dire poverty, they see joy and find in themselves a sense of being alive that they’ve never before experienced,” he said. “Somehow in the process of discovering that ‘things are more complicated than I thought,’ a student can find faith and own it.”

In September, more than 500 students committed to serving two to three hours each week over 10 weeks through more than 35 community organizations in the Philadelphia area. The volunteer opportunities span many areas of interest: education and mentoring for youth, healthcare support, prison outreach, serving the hungry and homeless, and work with persons with disabilities, the elderly, and people from other countries.

“We don’t need to create a culture of service; it’s already here, so our role is to deepen it,” said Beth Ford, Assistant Director of Campus Ministry. “Service is completely voluntary and comes down to motivation. Some students are naturally drawn to service; others are willing to plug into the range of experiences that others have recommended and that we make accessible.”

While immersion programs are open to students of any background and faith tradition, they are based in Gospel values and Catholic social teaching. All opportunities—from the Urban Challenge in Camden, New Jersey, to the Gulf Coast and Appalachian experiences, to programs in San Diego, New Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala—offer time for prayer and reflection.

Responsibility in a Broken World

Why is the student I’m tutoring in the morning showing up hungry?

Sometimes learning begins with a question.

Celebrating 20 years in October 2012, the Saint Joseph’s Service-Learning Program enables students to ask such questions in the context of abstract concepts and potential societal connections. In academic year 2011-12, the program offered 40 courses that bring together academics, service, and reflection. Courses typically require a three-hour weekly volunteer commitment in an inner city Philadelphia agency working with marginalized communities.

“There is no real, deep encounter that doesn’t alter us….The meaning of change for our institutions is ‘who our students become,’ what they value, and what they do later in life and work.” — Very Rev. Adolfo Nicolás Pachón, S.J., S.T.D.,
30th and current Superior General of the Society of Jesus

Service-Learning As a Transformative Experience has been studied extensively by Saint Joseph’s University professor Frank Bernt, Ph.D. and Matthew Bernacki, BS ’02, MS ’03, MSW, Ph.D. Their research shows that students exposed to Service-Learning as freshmen were more likely to become engaged and hold leadership positions on campus and eventually take on more pro-social careers. Other generally agreed upon outcomes include positive social attitudes, development of critical thinking, and personal growth.

“Our marker of success, drawing upon the Jesuit tradition explained by the current Superior General of the Society of Jesus, is who our students become,” said Ann Marie Jursca Keffer, MSW, Associate Director, the Faith-Justice Institute. “Students in these classes must be ready to be challenged—to see racial and societal injustice, at times to be in complex and difficult situations. As a result of experiencing a broken world, they often take on a responsibility to act.”

Called from the Inside

Matt Bender’s Saint Joseph’s University experience began through the Philadelphia Service Immersion Program (PSIP), which he promotes as “the best introduction to Saint Joseph’s you can have.” Following three years of volunteerism through weekly service and immersion programs plus study through Service-Learning courses, he currently serves as one of four student interns running the Weekly Service Program.

Saint Joseph’s student volunteers often find something holy and sacred already present in the communities they serve:

Faith. Hope. Gratitude. Gracefulness. Perseverance.

“We are not there to fix something, but to build a family,” Matt said. “This is about relationships that move and change us. We see obstacles, challenges, and struggles along with hopes, dreams, and talents. We learn to ask bigger questions.  And we hope that students are then called from the inside to do something.”