By: Kari Nelson, Sojourner Truth House, Atlanta 16. Georgetown University 16.
I remember sitting in this same room, a few rows away from this same chair, one short year ago. I watched as Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ gave a passionate speech about abolishing the death penalty and accompanying those on death row. I was inspired, but I didn’t have much background on what she was speaking about. I had never dove into the murky depths of the criminal justice system, except for when my studies in American history made the connections between slavery and incarceration unavoidable. But even then, there was some degree of distance, the safety of time passed. Of a horrible thing that happened “back then.” I had thought about the lasting implications of racism and the death penalty from an academic perspective, but I hadn’t dared let it fully impact me. Listening to this feisty nun from Louisiana, what struck me most was her incredible hope in the face of such despair and anguish. I thought, “I could never do something like that, could I?”
At my first Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in 2015, I was in awe of the community around me and its steadfast commitment to social justice. But during the entire weekend, I felt like I was taking up someone else’s seat. I was among people who were doing the groundwork of social justice while I thought about it from the safety of my classroom.
One year later, the physical surroundings were the same but I came to the Teach-In from an entirely different place and perspective. I did not arrive via a quick 10-minute van ride nestled snugly in the middle of 15 other Georgetown Hoyas. My ability to attend was completely by luck; I was grateful my JVC placement organization happened to have a fundraising dinner in DC that Thursday.
As an intake specialist at the Southern Center for Human Rights (a criminal justice law firm in Atlanta, Georgia that works for humane conditions in prisons and jails, adequate legal representation for indigent people accused of crimes, and represents people who are facing the death penalty), my understanding of the criminal justice system is being reshaped every day. I am in direct contact with those impacted by this unbalanced system. This system that is supposed to be based in equality yet heaps injustices on people whose main offenses are too often being poor and/or people of color. The Southern Center is not a placement I would have thought to choose for myself, but each day I am increasingly grateful to be here doing this work.
Tuesday, November 8th was a rough day for me. Even before any announcements about our next president were made, I was holding back tears in a parking lot. My home state of Nebraska voted to bring back the death penalty. I felt my heart breaking. Then came feelings of guilt: that I had not done enough, that I had not let my voice be heard, and I decided that I was not going to feel that way again. The next morning as I got on a plane to Washington, DC, I felt in myself newfound resolve. Strangely, I felt hope amid the shock and despair that hung in the air of our nation’s capital. I felt God’s presence, a strength to continue and take on whatever comes next.
Though I was a repeat attendee, this Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice was a wholly new experience. This time, I felt fully a part of the Teach-In, but I also looked back more gently upon my 2015 self. I realized that I didn’t have to “earn” my seat. Sitting awkwardly in the crowd last year was a step to getting where I am today, a place of full and immersive service. My life is much more fulfilling now that I am able to combine my knowledge, skills, and interests in direct service to others. But I had to do the work to gain that knowledge and develop those skills and interests before I could use them effectively. Everything led me to where I am, in ways I would never have expected.
It is difficult to go to the Teach-In and not leave with a call to action. I arrived back at the Southern Center on Monday, ready to dive back into this difficult work with fresh resolve and a new centeredness that I am not in this fight alone. I still believe in striving for a more just and hopeful world; in fact, my time as a Jesuit Volunteer is more important now than ever.
Let’s get to work.
Above: Jared Ison (Georgetown 17), Ghipsel Cibrian (JVC Andahuaylillas, Peru 16), Justine Worden (Georgetown 17), Kari Nelson (JVC Atlanta 16), Fr. Jim Martin, SJ.