Imagining a Path Forward
Reflections from the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice
On October 16, 2021 the Ignatian Center hosted 22 students from the ELSJ course "Human Suffering and Hope" taught by Diana Gibson for the Ignatian Solidarity Network's Virtual Teach-In for Justice "Imagining a Path Forward." With speakers ranging from Lyle May, deathrow inmate and author, to Sr. Norma Pimentel, Catholic Charities Executive Director, students walked away from the conference with a renewed sense of purpose and kinship. A few of those students shared their reflections here.
Joe Galang '22 | Mechanical Engineering Major
My day at the Ignatian Teach-In included several conversations about South American immigration, climate change, and the United States justice/incarceration system. All of the speakers provided several new insights and ideas that I hope to share with others and implement in my own life. One of the most impactful speeches I heard was given during the opening from an Illinois (I believe) campus ministry director/choir teacher. Her words discussed the value of human beings changing their behavior to act more like water. She mentioned that water is very fluid and dynamic. It flows over and around obstacles. It freezes and evaporates (rises up). It naturally coalesces when there are water droplets close together. I found her metaphor of water as an example of healthy human behavior very inspiring. Water is a very powerful example: a necessity of life, 60% of our body, 71% of the Earth we live on. It is something that physically defines our very existence. In this case, it can give us wisdom to become better human beings. As humans we have to adapt to the challenges we face in life (flowing over and around obstacles). Go with the flow! We should know when to stop and reflect (freeze) and rise to the occasion (evaporate). We should also seek to find the many connections we share with our fellow human beings (coalesce).
I saw this metaphor of becoming more like water present in all of the other speaker events. Sr. Norma Pimentel who directs migrant aid in the Rio Grande Valley near the U.S. Mexico border, called for the audience to take serious action at the border. It was a call to encounter and connect (coalesce) with these people who were living in these border camps, especially the children, who were hurting the most. Like our discussion on Lamentations from previous weeks, she called us to bear witness to the suffering and to become an active advocate, to sign a blind check of our humanity (a call to share our kindness with fellow humans in whatever way possible).
Dr. Brian Henning from Gonzaga University was the second speaker who carried this water metaphor. In his talk regarding climate change, he argues that technology alone cannot solve climate change. Rather, we have to change the relationship between humankind and the Earth. I was very intrigued with Dr. Henning’s presentation. Right now, we are often told to take material actions: reuse, reduce, recycle; drive electric; and consume less. His arguments make sense that we should also reform our behavior. We have to freeze and think deeply about how our species must diverge from being lords of dominion and become stewards who harmoniously integrate, coalesce, into nature as every terrestrial being before us.
The final speaker was a death row inmate from North Carolina named Lyle May who performed a Q and A session regarding his life and prison experience. I found the conversation revelatory. During his time he shared his determination to attain higher learning, the hope to make the most of his remaining life, and a personal renewal of faith. He shared his passion for studying criminal justice and the efforts he has made as a writer and scholar to find the connections between crime and the flawed U.S. justice system. It’s a system which gives up on reforming people, like Lyle, who exhibit true potential for personal change. He found hope and purpose, flowing over and around the dismal reality of death row, the identity of being a convicted murderer, and an entrapping past of trouble. He’s aware of his wrongs and is making the most of what he can. It’s difficult to find positive words for someone who has committed such a heinous deed as murder; however, Mr. May’s story reveals that even society’s worst, those most distanced from God, can still find some goodness and a fragile hope that their life can still be meaningful.
Katie Hughes '22 | Finance Major
The teach-in today sparked a number of emotions that I am still struggling to put into words. I am incredibly grateful for the varying perspectives I was able to hear from today. This experience allowed me to put this class, and even my own life, into perspective. Hearing about numerous topics allowed me to put a few puzzle pieces together of the importance of this course. More importantly, I have been pushed to check my privilege. For so long I have been quick to dismiss the hardships that so many face: homelessness, environmental damage, the criminal justice system, and corrupt governments. I hear of these issues, but I have been so desensitized to them that they go in one ear and out the other. That was until now. For once, I have put my foot in the door to opening my eyes to the realities of tragedy. I also realize that I can play a part in making this world a better place for others.
I will illustrate this realization with one specific experience from the teach-in. I was most deeply impacted by our conversation with Lyle May, a death row inmate. I had these contrasting feelings that I am still working out. On one hand, he is on death row for murder. On the other hand, and what hearing his voice made so clear, he is a human being. Although he was sentenced to death in 1999, he has spent the past 21 years of his life working to better himself and make a difference. Having a conversation with him showed how intellectual, caring and thoughtful he could be. I do not believe that humans should have the power to take away someone’s life. That decision is not our divine right. Even more so, under such dire circumstances, Lyle has shown me how to continue to live life. He gives me hope for the future. Although he will never be free again, he has found ways to give his life meaning. He got a degree, has published some of his writing, and has brought awareness to the inside of death row. Lyle shows how we must see all people no matter their status because we all have a story and we can all make a difference.
Jack Kirvin '22 | Finance Major
The session that stood out to me the most from the teach-in on Saturday was the Q&A with a member on death row, Lyle May, that we watched as part of a break-out session. This session moved me to have many different feelings that often conflicted each other. First, by looking up the man’s name, we easily could find the horrible crime he committed. This made the session feel surreal and kind of unsettling because we were listening to someone that committed such a brutal and horrific crime and took the life of not only a mother, but her four-year-old kid as well. It almost did not feel right to be listening to him and hearing what he had to say. On the other hand, I felt compassionate towards him and really felt for his pain and suffering. He clearly made a major mistake in his life, and probably had many factors that led to that, but he is still human and clearly working to better himself. I am fully against the death penalty because of how dehumanizing it is and how little I believe it does to make situations better. I do not believe that other humans should be the ones to decide who lives and who dies as we all make mistakes, even if some are bigger than others. Listening to the speaker talk made me really feel for him and see his suffering, which is a major theme in our class. I tried to imagine how lonely and devastating it must be to sit in a cell all day and count down the days until you die. To be able to still have the motivation to continue to learn and better himself each day is a sign of tremendous courage and hope that he possesses. I pray that there can be reform and a change to the systems that we have in place that currently dehumanize people on death row and in our prison systems in general. I have heard people say our prisons are modern day slavery, and I hope that when we look back on this in the years to come, that I can be part of something that helped make change to improve this system. I pray that people wake up and see how horribly our fellow humans are treated in prison systems and hope that can lead to change.
Adrian Ramirez '22 | Engineering Major
This weekend I was able to attend the Saturday teach-in hosted by the Ignatian Center. One of the first presenters was Sr. Norma Pimentel. She currently lives in Texas on the southern border where the Rio Grande meets Texas. Her talk was super touching and was really close to home. She talked about seeing immigrant children around the city begging for clean clothes, water, and food. She detailed one specific experience she had with a child that had wet his pants begging for a fresh set of jeans. Unfortunately, Sr. Pimentel couldn’t help him because she didn’t have the child’s necessities on hand. She did a great job at presenting the suffering happening close to the border. I myself actually immigrated from Ensenada, Baja California, when I was around four years old. Fortunately, I didn’t have to cross the border through the Rio Grande and didn’t have to suffer and struggle like children in Texas. Sr. Pimentel’s talk really hit home because those kids are my people. I have found a home in the United States, but when I think about these sorts of situations and how bad my people have it, it just demonstrates that I am privileged. The fact that I didn’t have to beg on the streets and suffer day in day out just shows me how easy I have had it. Sr. Pimentel calls everyone to action who attended the Teach-In, asking for us to be conscious about these horrible living conditions across our very own nation. She pointed out the fact that a lot of U.S. citizens, in a way, ignore these people in suffering and she highlights how we should start seeing everyone as our equal by providing assistance in whatever way we can. I feel like if it weren’t for this ELSJ core requirement, I’d still be oblivious and not aware of the damages the U.S. imposes on people that were born outside it. In my opinion, I feel like we also can’t blame everyone because a lot of the time, the media doesn’t showcase these types of things so I feel it’s important for people like me, people that learn about these instances of suffering, to spread this type of news. I got to be the one to inspire my friends and family to take the time to inform themselves about the type of suffering that’s happening outside the U.S.’ bubble.
Jean Schuler '22 | Management Major
I think there were two aspects of the teach-in that especially stood out to me. First was the keynote speaker, SR. Norma Pimentel, M.J. who is the Executive Director of the Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, meaning that she works right on one of the border areas between the US and Mexico. A lot of the topics she covered in her speech were related to things we discussed in class, from how we dehumanize these people trying to cross the border (as addressed in Dr. Aguilar’s talk), and how these people are really migrating to provide a better life for their families, something we would all want for our families as well (as Willy mentioned in his talk). She also spent a lot of time focused on her call to action, which was mainly for us to bear witness to these people and their suffering. She spoke with a lot of passion for these issues, so her talk was both impactful and somewhat challenging to listen to because she has clearly taken on the suffering of these individuals to be able to speak about it so passionately.
The second section that impacted me was the question and answer with the inmate on Death Row, Lyle May. I was a little bit nervous for this section, and I could tell that my classmates were as well because there was a lot of nervous energy in the room before the talk began. I was moved by the level of passion and intellectual interests of this man, and I think it is a good example of how we fear what we don’t understand. Even writing about it now, I find it unsettling to think that Mr. May has killed people, even if it was 20+ years ago. I think most people are disinclined to want to think about death and especially to deal with people who have caused the death of others intentionally. But I think talking to this man showed me that if nothing else, the issues of the human spirit and psychology are still more complicated than we would like to make them seem. I think it would make us all a lot more comfortable to create neat little boxes to stick people in, and I think this is a lot of what our justice system currently does. But I think attending this conversation showed me that there is a lot more to it than that. I don’t feel as though I have the answers for these issues now by any means, but I think it showed me another valuable perspective which I appreciated.