BRISTOL – The idea of grounding social justice efforts in faith and love carried the day on June 8, when nearly 250 people from across Connecticut and neighboring states gathered for an annual conference.
"Rooted in Faith – Building Just Communities" was the theme of the fourth annual Bishop Peter Rosazza Social Justice Conference, which was held at St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol. (See full photo gallery here.)
Interest in the conference has increased steadily. Attendance rose by approximately 15 percent over last year’s, according to Linda Roberto, who is the finance, development and communications coordinator for the sponsoring agency, the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office of Catholic Social Justice Ministry. A significant number of young people from local high schools attended this year, she added, including 16 from East Catholic High School in Manchester.
The day-long program featured speakers, 27 workshops and 20 exhibits focusing on a wide range of social justice ministries and programs. Many offerings were provided in English and Spanish.
Alexie Torres-Fleming, founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, gave the keynote address. She shared her experiences and described events that led to the creation of the community- based organization that seeks to inspire young people in South Bronx neighborhoods to promote peace and justice through political education, spiritual formation and community development.
Approximately 50 Hispanic participants listened to a Spanish translation of Ms. Torres-Fleming’s testimonial message through wireless headphones. United Action Connecticut, a community organization in Hartford that receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, loaned the headphones and broadcast equipment for the conference.
In either language, perennial participants and first-time attendees relished Ms. Torres-Fleming’s message.
"She was wonderful; she spoke from her heart," said Patty Messina, a member St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Unionville.
Maryann Smialowski, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in New Britain, was at the conference for the first time. She said she was impressed by Ms. Torres-Fleming life choices, which she described as countercultural.
Ms. Torres-Fleming was raised by immigrant parents in the South Bronx. After moving up and out of her impoverished neighborhood, she achieved professional success in Manhattan. She returned to aid her community. Working with her former parish priest, she led initiatives that purged the neighborhood of crack houses. In addition, she helped establish the first and only youth center in the area; it serves a community with 15,000 youth, half of whom live in poverty.
The workshop topics reflected the conference theme. While the topics varied from human trafficking to understanding the scriptural roots of justice, each workshop emphasized the importance of grounding social justice efforts in faith and love.
There was standing room only in a workshop covering the role of the Church in prisons.
Several workshops focused on topics related to peace, non-violence, and conflict resolution. Victoria Christgau of the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence outlined six principles of Nonviolence; and Deacon Art Miller, director of the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholic Ministries, discussed building community as an antidote to violence. Brenda Cavanaugh and Samuel "Joe" Brummer of Community Mediation Inc. addressed conflict in parish settings.
Ruben Espinosa, a lay minister at his parish, St. Joseph in Poquonock, has attended the conference since it was established in 2010.
"It’s a great place to see people; it’s like a reunion where we meet and reflect on what’s being done," he said.
In his concluding remarks, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Peter A. Rosazza, for whom the event is named, acknowledged the East Catholic students on hand and their teacher, Laurie Janecko, director of campus ministry.
"You are not only leaders of today," he said, "but as you experience more things like this, you will grow in your capacity for leadership."
He encouraged attendees to not only perform acts of charity but also to seek out ways to work for justice through parish social ministry, school and neighborhood organizations.