By Ignatius Plato
The Jesuits Anti-Racism Sodality (JARS) formed in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province in response to the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 Latino people dead. What began as a way for Jesuits in formation to discuss racism and racial injustice quickly became a community of prayer and service.
This approach to JARS’s mission was sparked by the sense of community felt at its first in-person meeting in 2022. Reynaldo Belfort Pierrilus, SJ, was among the leadership at the gathering that helped to solidify JARS’s mission statement for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province.
“Our first meeting in person helped us to put our mission into perspective,” Belfort said. “We honed our mission statement to three words: prayer, service and community.”
While discourse on racial justice is still an important part of JARS, members of the JARS Leadership Team focus more on these parts of this mission. Brother Sullivan McCormick, SJ, gives special emphasis to prayer.
“Part of the mission of JARS is to pursue racial justice from the standpoint of Ignatian Spirituality,” says Br. McCormick. “We’re always searching for ways in which the Spiritual Exercises speak to the problem of racism in today’s world.”
Belfort agrees: “There’s a focus in the work of JARS to bring ideas from the Spiritual Exercises into the discourse of anti-racism. One of these ideas is from Week One of the Exercises: acknowledging that we are loved by God despite our sins and using this reality to convert our hearts to God’s will. JARS applies that to the world, framing racism as a sin that the whole world grapples with. JARS aims to prove that God desires us to love one another, despite this racism that is so obviously against His will.”
For Br. McCormick, the anti-racist ideals bolstered through his leadership in JARS manifest in his ministry as a teacher of theology and speech and debate at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School in Houston. JARS helps him to be more aware of how wider conversations on inclusion can apply to the more specific environment of the school through its faculty and students.
Belfort is Afro-Caribbean and from Puerto Rico, where he experienced a vastly different racial climate than that of the United States. “While the notion of race does exist in Puerto Rico,” says Belfort, “it has a very different connotation than in the U.S. A big cultural shock of coming to the U.S. was learning that race has to do with being associated with a group that is very much culturally defined (i.e., being told that you look or act ‘Black’ or ‘Brown’). There is racism in Puerto Rico, of course, but it is experienced in very different ways.”
Thanks to his Jesuit and Catholic identity, Belfort has found a way to use his varied experiences with racism to enliven his Jesuit formation.
“JARS is a community of Jesuits and lay collaborators that tries to facilitate a process of healing and transformation, both within the Society of Jesus and the places where we serve,” he says. “We serve all around the world; it’s important to consider how that service can adapt to different areas, especially as it applies to the race and racism in a specific area. Healing and transformation may take on a completely different shape in countries outside the U.S.”
Both Belfort and Br. McCormick point to the communal aspect of JARS as its strongest characteristic.
“Our provincial, Fr. Thomas Greene, has made it clear that advancing anti-racism is the responsibility of the whole Central and Southern Province,” Belfort says. “He sees JARS as a space to articulate the initiative, to participate in and manifest anti-racist ideals within the Society of Jesus. Put simply, we’re an anti-racist community that strives to form other anti-racist communities through the lens of faith, hope and love.”
Brother McCormick reflects on JARS’s growing sense of community: “Whenever we gather or do our work together, JARS becomes a space where everyone can bring their cultural experiences to the table. We talk about how we’ve encountered racism and other social injustices. It’s become a place to share our stories and heal the wounds left by racism, in a way.”
This sense of openness within the JARS community brings much-needed rejuvenation to an issue that many avoid because of the disquiet it naturally brings. The JARS community is able to address racism openly by focusing on love and hope.
“We share these experiences with each other and realize that JARS forms us to seek different kinds of love,” says Br. McCormick. “Not only the external love for others through service, but also that internal love within JARS and within ourselves.”
“The hard work of striving for racial justice cannot be done alone,” adds Belfort. “Uniting our minds and hearts is very important in this work. Regarding our minds, we need each other’s guidance and perspectives to understand what we are dealing with and what we can do to make things better. But in terms of our hearts, the communal aspect of anti-racism gives us hope. In our differences – which we fear will drive us apart – we find that we are brought closer together, both in God and with each other.”
In January 2023, members of the UCS JARS were part of a larger community as they joined with the Ignatian Solidarity Network to sponsor a gathering focused on Ignatian Spirituality and anti-racism. More than 70 lay and Jesuit colleagues from the provinces in the U.S. and Canada attended this first-of-its-kind event.
Across the country, prayer, service and community continue to be the reality of JARS as its members take anti-racism into their ministries and use it to form communities for hope.
The Jesuits Anti-Racism Sodality originated as a group of USA Midwest Province Jesuits seeking to disseminate a message of anti-racism throughout their province. Now, JARS has groups in several Jesuit provinces in the U.S., including the USA Central and Southern Province. The USA Central and Southern Province JARS group occasionally collaborates with the other JARS groups in the East and Midwest Jesuit provinces.