Growing in Faith, Working for Justice
Ted Penton, SJ
My moment of spiritual awakening occurred in 1997 at Wat Suan Mokkh, a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. I was 22 years old and agnostic, but had a considerable interest in world religions. At the suggestion of someone I'd met travelling, I signed up for a 10-day introductory meditation retreat. The retreat was very difficult-after being woken up by a gong at 4:30 am, and spending numerous sessions in silent meditation with only two small meals of brown rice and steamed vegetables, by the early evening most of my own meditation centred on food. But God broke through my hunger and on the seventh day I had a brief, sudden sense of overwhelming peace, love and joy, far beyond anything I'd experienced before. In that moment was contained the seed of the rest of my life since then. Born then were, among other things, a desire to follow a spiritual path, a desire to work for justice with those on the margins, and the knowledge that my own spiritual home is in the Roman Catholic Church, in which I had been raised, but which I had left several years earlier.
A couple of months following my retreat, I began graduate studies in philosophy. More importantly, I had begun regularly attending Mass and also working with the campus Pax Christi chapter. Over the next two years, while I enjoyed my classes, I increasingly found more life and energy in my volunteer work, notably in visits to a Franciscan soup kitchen or a Catholic Worker house.
I left my graduate studies behind to pursue full-time volunteer work through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. My work placement was with Legal Aid of North Carolina, in a special unit offering legal services to migrant farmworkers. The majority of our clients were Mexican nationals in the United States on seasonal work visas. The nature of the visa program, which does not allow them to choose to work for a different employer, leaves them open to a multitude of abuses. Many of the men I met with assumed that, as foreigners, they simply had no rights in the United States, at least none that could be upheld. Our outreach efforts aimed to let them know that they did have rights here, that they could, e.g. file a complaint if pesticides were being sprayed while they were working in the fields, or if they weren't receiving their full wages. Generally, people were very reluctant to act, understandably so given the concerns over employer retaliation. However, in those cases where people did have the courage to stand up for their rights, it was a real blessing to witness the awakening of a new sense of their own dignity.
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps also introduced me to Ignatian spirituality. Ignatius's way of bringing together his mysticism with a pragmatic approach to engaging with the world resonated deeply with me. Thoughts of a religious vocation started to surface. I only began to pursue them several years later, though, after I'd gone to law school and had worked for a few years as a lawyer.
I entered the English Canada province in 2009, drawn to the Society in particular by Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit commitment to living out a faith that does justice. Both of these aspects of my life have been deepened considerably throughout my years as a Jesuit, notably in my formation in spiritual direction and in the three years I spent working with the Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP). ISP offers weekend retreats for men and women experiencing homelessness and in recovery from addiction. The retreats draw on the wisdom of both Ignatian Spirituality and the Twelve Step traditions, which complement each other well. As on a more 'typical' Ignatian retreat, it was always a tremendous joy and blessing to walk with people on ISP retreats as they came to a more profound awareness of the depths of God's love for them, a love that is manifested so uniquely with each individual. I have written in more detail about the dynamics of these wonderful retreats here.
In August of this year I was assigned as the new Secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology (OJE) of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. OJE's mission is to promote reconciliation with God, one another and creation, through advocacy, education and networking for social change. Our work is grounded in Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching, placing at its centre the voices of marginalized and vulnerable communities in Canada, the United States, and around the world. Even from the short time I have been with OJE, I am excited by the many opportunities to advance and strengthen the great work that is being done in these areas in our own conference and around the Jesuit world.
Having been born together so many years ago in Thailand, my religious faith and desire to work for justice are one. Trying to imagine either without the other seems empty. In my own life since then they have either grown together, or, at times, withered together. Representing farmworkers who are awakening to a fuller sense of their God-given rights, going through the rigours of Ignatius's spiritual exercises, accompanying others in their own spiritual journeys, amplifying the voices of people on the margins through advocacy with government and business leaders: these are all ways that I have myself grown closer to God and shared in the journeys of others.