By: Congregation of St. Joseph

Editor's Note: Partnerships For Peace from the Fall/Winter 2018 Issue of imagineONE, the publication of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph is reprinted with permission.

Community Builders gather for a photo in Chicago. (Photo Courtesy of Congregation of St. Joseph)What does blue stand for to you? To the students and faculty of St. Joseph's Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the color blue now awakens them and calls them to action against the horrors of sex trafficking going on in the U.S., particularly in their hometown. What does P.U.L.S.E. stand for? To the students and faculty of Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, Illinois, it stands for Peace, Unity, Love, Service, Everywhere. These are the qualities the students were trying to convey when they engaged primary school students of all races in a program to dissolve potential racism. What can the values of inclusive love, focused zeal, wise discernment, and warm hospitality do? Students, faculty, and families at Maria Reina Academy in San Juan, Puerto Rico, experienced that putting these values into action created a profound experience of community as they addressed the crises following Hurricane Maria.

These actions and responses are the results of Community Builders for Peace, a program that brings together students from our sponsored high schools, as well as high schools sponsored by other Sisters of St. Joseph. During the week they spent together in the summer of 2017, twenty students participated in Community Builders for Peace. Students served in a variety of ministries with the sisters and reflected on their service in light of the Congregation of St. Joseph's spirituality and mission of unity. The students were asked the following questions: "What is preventing oneness with God and all of creation from happening in your geographic area? What project can you create to build community and peace and address injustice in your area?"

The response to these questions was astounding. The girls at St. Joseph's Academy were enraged by the evil of sex trafficking. They learned about an app which was created through a collaboration of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Exchange Initiative, and Washington University in St. Louis in order to address human sex trafficking. The app allows individuals to take pictures of hotel rooms they're staying in. These pictures are sent to the FBI to help them identify the location of victims, who are often trafficked in hotels. Armed with this knowledge and their passion to address this evil, the students began raising awareness, inviting prayer, and calling forth a community of faculty, friends and family to engage in contacting hotels to ask permission to take pictures of rooms. Undertaking this ministry evoked the depth of compassion, courage, and confidence in these young women, and all those who participated in building relationships with the hotels in order to gain their support in trying to end this modern-day form of slavery. The students are part of a larger movement against sex trafficking. Thanks to the work of the FBI, anti-trafficking activists, and students like ours, the FBI was able to close down a website that advertised sex trafficking victims.

Students from Nazareth Academy hear of the violence that is evoked by racism in the news every day. Why not address violence before it can take hold? This was the vision that led Nazareth Academy students to plan a program, which they named P.U.L.S.E., to build community among young children of various races. It sounded so easy, but students learned that their plan would take a lot of effort. First, community had to be built with various schools and agencies where these children were located. Then, community needed to be built with the children and families in these schools. Next, more volunteers, primarily students and chaperones, had to be recruited to help. Finally, community needed to be built with businesses in the area, inviting them to participate by supplying needed materials for the program. The pay-off was huge. One student said, "The little ones taught us. They entered right into the play. They gave themselves to the whole event without holding back, which led us to give ourselves to the experience and quit being nervous. They were the ones who engaged us in sharing from a very deep level." Another Peace Builder participant said, "We knew our event was successful when one of the moms called school   to tell us that her little  boy  made LEGO people and put them all around the globe at home—‘because we won't have peace in the world, Mom, until everyone in the whole world can hold hands and be friends like this!'"

St. Joseph’s Academy, Baton Rouge, students who are members of the Community Builders for Peace program gathered to video-conference with their counterparts from sister school Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, Illinois, and students from Academia Maria Reina in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They were joined by Sister Ily Fernandez, CSJ (center). (Photo Courtesy of Congregation of St. Joseph)

Students from Maria Reina realized divisiveness is a concern where they live. So they intended to integrate the values of the Sisters of St. Joseph spirituality into the everyday lives of students, faculty, and families in order to bring deeper unity in all areas of life. Then Hurricane Maria came. They knew these values could help them address this crisis. These students were inspired to build community in order to address situations all over their city. They led the prayer that helped bring about unity for the PTA and led Monday morning prayer over the PA at their school, focusing on the values of the Sisters of St. Joseph. They gathered parents, faculty, and students in an outpouring of love to clean up the neighborhood after the hurricane. As they continued listening to the inspiration of the Spirit, they developed projects all year to put love into action. Projects ranged from gathering needed materials for those who are severely developmentally challenged, to providing clean water for neighbors, to raising depressed spirits by expressing gratitude, and pointing out goodness in unique ways to a variety of groups. Their zeal was contagious and led the community to spend this next year focusing on mission integration in all their schools.

The engagement of all of these students for the sake of something much bigger than themselves evoked gifts they never imagined possible. Pursuing this adventure together opened them to energy beyond each group. The students transcended themselves, leaving behind "their plans" and moving instead in the direction that they were called, which made the projects so much better than they had dreamed.

As they gather to reflect on these experiences a year later, one student was heard saying, "I learned that I can do something big. I will never be afraid to dream big and set out to use my gifts to accomplish something big again." Another student shared, "I learned that the world is full of goodness."

The efforts of the Peace Builders ripple outward as the students continue to put their experiences and insights into action to make the world better connected and full of love.