Fr Jim Duffy sm, writes from OLA Parish, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A: A Beginning
In the Fall of 2012, fifteen parishioners from Our Lady of the Assumption Church (OLA) in Atlanta, Georgia gathered in the parish library to begin a comprehensive study and prayerful discussion of the Church's rich body of teachings on social justice. The group used materials designed by Just Faith Ministries, an organization that provides resources to help people respond to the Gospel's call to love, peace and justice for all. Over the course of 30 weeks the group read several books on Church teaching, engaged in lively discussion, and prayed together.
As the weeks progressed discussions focused on social action and the question emerged: "What is mine to do?"
Through prayerful and informed discernment, members moved into action. Some started teaching in the Dreamers Program, a ministry held nearby at Marist School, where immigrants take classes leading to GEDs and college credits. Others became involved in prison ministry. Eventually with the support of the pastor, Fr. Jim Duffy, SM, the Justice and Peace Ministry (JPM) was established at OLA. The ministry's mission is to educate, advocate and live the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching (Life and Dignity of the Human Person; Call to Family, Community, and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers; Solidarity; Care for God's Creation). The newly formed ministry team sponsored a weekend on capital punishment, which included showing a video presentation by Archbishop Wilton Gregory (former Archbishop of Atlanta) discussing capital punishment at all Sunday Masses. The deacons preached on it while the team shared literature after Mass clarifying the Church's position.
In 2014, the JPM began holding monthly Fair Trade sales, selling Catholic Relief Services (CRS) certified coffee, tea and chocolate. With the help of the JPM, the parish also supported small cooperatives, ensuring that farmers earned a fair wage. Using the profits from the Fair Trade sales, the JPM commissioned Food for the Poorto build 4 new homes in Central America. This program continues today with more homes scheduled to be built in the future. Additionally, the ministry holds an annual drive to support Stand Up for Kids, an organization that helps homeless and street kids in cities across America.
In June of 2015 Pope Francis released his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si', or "Praised Be." This important document inspired the OLA JPM ministry to increase and expand its effort to bring love, peace and justice for all; all people, all creatures and all of creation. As the ministry focused its vision around caring for our common home, it also deepened its reflection on what it means to love, and how this spiritual practice of caring for one another and caring for all of creation leads us to a deeper relationship with the One who is Creator of all.
During this time Archbishop Gregory responded to Laudato Si' with a letter to parishes in the Atlanta Archdiocese in which he wrote "There are no easy or facile solutions to the challenges we face to protect and preserve resources that belong to all of humanity." The Archbishop asked that all of us "carefully review what Pope Francis said in the encyclical and more importantly to consider what each of us might do to respond to this concern which touches us all." The Archbishop then engaged the University of Georgia in Athens (UGA) to help devise an action plan for Georgia.
The "Laudato Si' Action Plan," authored by UGA professors and staff, contains a variety of options for parishes to help reverse the threat of global climate change and environmental degradation, and to create a more sustainable world in harmony with God.
This development inspired OLA's JPM to conduct a class on Laudato Si' for all parishioners. As a direct result of the course, OLA formed a Care for Creation team to implement the Archdiocesan action plan locally. As a first step the team is hoping to participate in an archdiocesan-sponsored energy, water, and waste audit conducted by Georgia Interfaith Power and Light (GIPL). Looking for ways to make the parish more environmentally friendly is already happening. Additionally, the Creation Care team intends to participate in a local annual effort to clean up the Chattahoochee River. During Lent the team organized a parish-wide prayer service, conducting the Stations of the Cross service in Light of Laudato Si'. The service invited participants to reflect on both the passion and the suffering of the entirety of creation. Increasing education is an important concern for the team. The Creation Care team members provide information on the implementation of Laudato Si' and inform parishioners about opportunities for service at OLA and other environmental service organizations.
Some of the members attended the Green Summit given by GIPL for interfaith inspiration and information.
The OLA parish school has also made tremendous strides enacting the Laudato Si' Action Plan. It began to incorporate the main themes of Laudato Si' within the curriculum in April 2017 and held an in- service course for the teachers and staff. The school is engaging these themes in many ways throughout the curriculum.
Students in science class work to calculate their carbon footprint. They then determine and promote ways to reduce it. Literature teachers have added the book "A Long Walk to Water" to the required summer reading list, exposing students to global environmental issues. The school recycles aluminum, plastic, and paper with the help of a student Recycling Club. Older students travel off-site to work in community gardens and prepare meal kits for clinics. Several students visit terminal cancer patients at nursing homes, while others visit and play with children with special needs.
In 2018, OLA Catholic School built an addition, which includes a new cafeteria and kitchen. The cafeteria serves lunches on permanent plates and flatware, which are cleaned with a water-saving automatic dishwasher. The students planted a garden on school grounds, and the cafeteria incorporates the harvest in meal preparation. When designing a new addition, the school opted to install a variable refrigerant flow (VRF) heating and cooling system, which is expected to lower energy costs by fifty percent.
Alongside all of this important action and behavior change, there has also been an effort to learn and reflect; to change our hearts. Many members of the JPM and the Creation Care Ministry have been deepening their prayer lives, especially in the tradition of contemplative prayer. Community members are seeing the link between contemplation and action, experiencing the transformation that takes place while praying the prayer of the heart, and seeing more deeply our inter-relatedness to the entirety of creation. During contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer, Adoration, Lectio Divina, we put on the mind of Christ and begin to experience our relationship with God and our concerns for equality, justice and the non-discrimination of people and the planet as intimately related.
Increasing education and action regarding care for creation has been both inspiring and challenging. In a recent homily by Jim Duffy, SM, we were reminded about our core beliefs and the challenges associated with following them. Fr. Jim preached on the text, Matthew 5: 38-48, and said, "I believe this passage is one of the cornerstones of Christianity and it is difficult to live out, but that is precisely what we are to do. We are called to non-violence by word and deed. We are called to care for each other and for God's creation. To work for justice and equality for all. This is difficult to do, but it marks us as Christians."
Source: Marist Today: Society of Mary in the U.S. Spring 2020. https://www.societyofmaryusa.org/todays-marist