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JustFaith: Empowering people to live as Jesus did

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Empowering people to live as Jesus did

by Kate Norton

In 1989, Jack Jezreel put together a 30-week program on social justice at his parish in Louisville, Ky., and literally prayed that people would come.

Twelve people signed up, and with that auspicious number, a ministry was born. During the next seven months of the JustFaith program, participants studied a curriculum that covered the church’s tradition of care for the poor, Gospel readings, Catholic social teaching and received hands-on experience working directly with the poor.

And an amazing thing happened. As participants learned how to impact the lives of others, they found their own lives were profoundly changed.

Stirred by their experience with JustFaith, those first 12 people were moved to put their faith into action. They became the driving force of social ministry in the parish and the greater Louisville area. Graduates of the program chaired the Hunger and Poverty Committee, served on the Board of Habitat for Humanity, developed relationships with parishes in the Third World, and started a Pax Christi group.

“There is nothing quite so remarkable as to witness people changing and becoming enthused about their capacity to do good in the world,” says Jezreel.

He goes on to point out, “Essentially it’s at the core of Gospel teaching: what is it that opens people’s hearts to recognize their kindredness and to respond to each other’s needs with heartfelt compassion, generosity and care?” Jesus constantly reaches out to the poor, the marginalized and the rejected and so must we.

Jezreel feels fortunate to have been in places throughout his life where people were making the connection between faith and their response to world. By participating in a Catholic Worker community, reading books by Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and other spiritual writers, hearing testimonies from people working with the poor in Central America, Jack says he found himself, “…Drawn into the womb of the gospel by a thousand witnesses.”

The challenge for Jezreel, as the head of social ministry in his parish, was figuring out how to initiate a conversion process that might awaken that compassion and sense of responsibility. And he realized that most people in parishes were not prepared - spiritually, practically or even catechetically - to do parish social ministry.

He decided to model his program on a conversion program with a long history of success: RCIA. Having spent six years working as an RCIA facilitator in various parishes, Jezreel had witnessed rather remarkable conversions. So he created a process that incorporated key features of RCIA:

  • Long-term process (at least 30 weekly meetings)
  • Access to substantive education
  • Opportunities to discuss the material thoughtfully
  • Invitations to good speakers

Strong emphasis on community building, and opportunities to explore traditional and new prayer forms, retreat experiences.

By taking characteristics of the RCIA and combining them with immersion experiences of the poor, the program both prepared people and inspired them to work for change. Jezreel says, “I wanted to prepare participants to become prophets and dedicated servants of God’s compassion.”

To create the JustFaith Ministry, Jezreel also drew on the church’s rich tradition of social justice and ministry. He points out that when many Catholic immigrants first came to this country, they struggled. They were the outsiders, the marginalized. So, the church built schools, hospitals and social programs to address their needs. Over the years, as the Catholic community has succeeded, there is a temptation to forget the struggle, and with it, our need to take care of one another.

Jerzeel believes that social ministry is an essential part of our tradition, one that challenges us and asks us to be generous and act with courage. It is also a precious gift because it is one of the places where we encounter most intensely, communion with God. With JustFaith, Jezreel says he’s trying to create an environment where people keep bumping into the jewels of our Catholic tradition, our commitment to the most vulnerable among us.

What began as an experiment in social ministry with 12 faithful people has become a program that is energizing parishes throughout the country.

Jezreel recalls, “As the word got out and other parishes became interested, it struck me that we had stumbled upon something that the Catholic parish was hungry for. With this strategy of increasing the ranks of those committed to social ministry, we had also unwittingly discovered one way to make parish life more vital, to make liturgy more compelling, and to make Christian community more life-giving.”

The JustFaith program has been offered in more than 600 parishes in 38 states and more than 90 dioceses through the United States, including six of the seven dioceses in Florida. JustFaith is partnered with CCHD (Catholic Campaign for Human Development), Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services.

The Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Saint Augustine has invited Jack Jezreel to give an all day introductory workshop on Feb. 24 at St. Joseph’s Parish (Cody Enrichment Center) in Jacksonville. Jezreel’s presentation will cover the theological tradition on which JustFaith is based, stories of the impact of JustFaith, and how parishes can implement the program. Lunch will be provided, and a donation of $10 per person is suggested.

For more information contact Bill Tierney at (904) 268-7461 or email: or Nancy O’Byrne at (904) 461-9216 or email: