Kathleen Harter is an Adler University Online Campus student pursuing a master of arts degree in nonprofit management. She was one of three winners of the 2016-2017 Student Affairs Essay Contest, which centered on spirituality and social justice; and in Harter’s case, a morning with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Containing my excitement was difficult as I sat quietly on a church pew of the Maranatha Baptist Church.
I had planned this day for more than a year and was thrilled to be sharing it with my 6-year-old son and parents. We had gotten up early to hear one of the greatest social justice leaders of my lifetime talk about faith and his spiritual connections to his life and work. We spent that morning enveloped in the lessons and experiences of former U.S. President James “Jimmy” Carter.
But let’s back up: Just days earlier, my third graduate course at Adler University had started. We were assigned the task of identifying resilient leaders and the characteristics that define them. As I thought about this assignment, leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Pope Francis, and President Carter came to mind. Each of these leaders has identified his or her work and inner strengths as having a spiritual connection.
“Individuals who derive their worldviews from their spiritual traditions are provided with a framework to assess the existence of justice, or the lack thereof, and a rationale to pursue its realization,” writes professor, researcher and fellow David R. Hodge, Ph.D. “In turn, their spirituality … provides the motivation to work toward a more socially just society.”
President Carter’s worldviews and experiences are deeply rooted in his spiritual faith in God. Since departing the White House, he and his wife, Rosalynn, have impacted millions of people through their volunteer work and advocacy. Their deep faith has guided them to be open to other cultures, assess individual and community needs, and work with teams of people to enact large-scale changes.
After all, those who push the limits of social justice and advocate for equity often lead people in unfamiliar territory and outside their comfort zones. And as Hodge notes, moral standards through spiritual traditions, “provide an external framework for assessing the world.”
People hear about social justice every day and may see it in action without even recognizing it as such. When parents advocate for school reform and less tolerance toward bullying, they are improving the school environment. When a small rural library is set to close, community residents may find funding alternatives that ensure the facility stays open and provides continued access to books, computers, and educational opportunities.
We hear about social justice continuously, and often through spiritual connections and teachings. In fact, Hodge found that religious organizations, “devoted more content to social justice issues than to personal morality.”
That notion was validated at 10 a.m. on March 5, 2017, when President Carter entered the Maranatha Baptist Church sanctuary and greeted guests with a warm smile. He asked questions and then gave an overview of his week — he had welcomed leaders from Sudan to the living room of his home in Plains, Georgia.
After his weekly summary, he started his Sunday School class and delivered his lesson with a quiet conviction and understanding that also highlighted his knowledge and passion for human rights. I listened to the elderly voice that carried so much worldly experience and so much love for the meanings within the Holy Bible.
President Carter referenced Matthew 4:1-11 and related the scripture to some very simple but powerful questions that focused on the temptations we all face on a daily basis.
“Every day when we wake up, we have a choice,” he said. “We can ask ourselves, ‘What type of person do I want to be?’ We could choose to say, ‘What do I want to do?’ or we can ask ourselves, ‘Who do I want to be?’ It’s not all that complicated, really … Do I have courage? Do I have honesty? Do I have compassion?”
As I wrote these questions in my journal, I reflected on my own daily struggles and recent decision to enter graduate school and study nonprofit management. Just two years earlier, my best friend had battled cancer and through this experience, we prayed and struggled with fears and doubts.
But along the way, we learned valuable lessons. My friend courageously fought disease while I supported her emotionally and physically. We found that food became something for us to focus on other than cancer, and it was a factor she could control in a realm of uncertainty.
Today, through my graduate work at Adler University, we are developing a nonprofit organization that will include cooking classes for youth and families, support for cancer patients and survivors, and sustainable farming practices that address environmental concerns.
“For justice to be effective, it is important that people’s behaviour be shaped by their judgements about what is right, separately from judgements about what is personally beneficial,” researcher Tom R. Tyler said, in the International Journal of Psychology study, “Social justice: Outcome and Procedure.” For justice to be effective, it must be able to gain acceptance of rules and decisions that depart from individual or group self-interest.”
The aforementioned resilient leaders have done these very things. They have changed millions of lives, pushed for equity, and focused on topics and injustices that many choose to ignore or dismiss. They chose to do what is right and departed from individual or group self-interest. Our world has benefitted from their work and their deep spiritual connections. Their legacies continue today and they serve as inspirations for others who are just now finding their voice. When President Carter was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway in 2002, he concluded his speech by saying:
“The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices. God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes — and we must.”
These words, spoken by a pivotal social justice leader, carry powerful ideas, hopes, and a roadmap for individual and community change. It is up to us, social practitioners, to ignite them.