By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 6, 2006
Sister Joyce Ann Hertzig, OP, believes that in her former job as principal for a low-income, racially mixed elementary school that was 3 percent Catholic in rural Alabama, God was preparing her for her work in social justice. In 2003 she became the coordinator of parish social ministry in Atlanta. Since taking her position with Catholic Social Services for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, she has worked resolutely to connect parishes with the resources of CSS, other parishes and in the community and to educate the faithful on Catholic social teaching on social justice and human dignity and the light it sheds on current events.
Sister Joyce Ann also believes that her CSS job has prepared her for her new journey in faith, serving on the leadership team for her religious order of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, Mich. As she leaves the archdiocesan position in mid-May, she witnesses indeed that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
Her call to social justice is reflected in the cards, posters and pictures taped and tacked on her office walls, including those of Martin Luther King Jr., social activist Dorothy Day, Pope Benedict XVI, a sign reading “Break the Cycle of Poverty” in Spanish, and a sketch of a person kneeling reading, “What does Yahweh ask of you? To act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.”
A poster above her desk states the seven principles of Catholic social teaching of the dignity of the person; call to family, community and participation; the individual’s rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; dignity of work and rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation.
And on another wall is the mission of parish community ministry to connect with the potential of each community to address economic, spiritual, physical and emotional poverty.
She said it’s a “bittersweet” time to be elected to the leadership board and called home to the motherhouse, as she has just begun to see the progress being made in her work in North Georgia. It’s been a “very enriching” experience for her to work together to help meet community needs. “It’s bittersweet because I’m leaving a just blossoming community in response to my connections to parishes and social justice issues, and I have to always remember it isn’t my ministry. It’s God’s work here in this place that grows with each new person that comes,” she said. “The soil has been tilled. … Parishes have to be connected with services, and we need to know what’s going on in parishes.”
Joe Krygiel, Secretary for Catholic Charities, said that Sister Joyce Ann will be deeply missed by the organization for her joy, tireless energy and Christian charity. He has often turned to her for counsel with regards to social justice issues affecting the archdiocese. “Sister Joyce is well respected not only in the Atlanta community but also nationally and among the staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for her work in promoting human rights, care for the poor and the dignity of all people.”
This Dominican sister, who speaks steadily and earnestly about her work, has a background in education which has empowered her. Wearing a purple ribbon symbolizing Lenten reconciliation and one of the Dominican order pinned to her navy blazer, Sister Joyce Ann also retains the comfortingly didactic air of a Catholic school teacher as she speaks on social justice. She previously had worked about 20 years as a middle and high school math, science and religion teacher, eight years as a principal in elementary and high schools, and later for 14 years in Mobile, Ala., as a diocesan curriculum coordinator for religious education. A graduate of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, she also serves on its board of trustees. She came to Atlanta on “a leap of faith,” knowing no one and unfamiliar with the state.
In her current position, she has coordinated and presented at parish programs on social topics such as the Faithful Citizenship campaign in 2003, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops death penalty campaign, and alternative giving at Christmastime and has supported Catholic Relief Services participation in the Fair Trade movement, which ensures a living wage to developing world artisans and farmers. One of her most challenging education campaigns was the living wage initiative as many complained that raising the minimum wage for low-skilled workers hurts businesses and the whole community. With many issues, persons disagree when they don’t fully understand the church’s position, she said, adding that many still disagree when they do. With the living wage issue, “I recognize it’s a complex economic issue, but people who work ought to be able to make enough to support their families.”
This caring sister now is engrossed with the Justice for Immigrants Campaign, speaking at and providing information to parishes and helping to arrange for national campaign manager Leo Anchondo to speak at St. Pius X Church in Conyers. This and other work has brought her into collaboration with other community groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
She was grateful for Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Bishop Kevin Boland’s forceful stand in support of the human rights of undocumented immigrants and recalled that with the death penalty issues Catholics were much harder to sway in their support before the
USCCB launched its national campaign.
“With immigration issues you really are looking for conversion of heart. It’s a real test of whether or not people believe Catholic social teaching that people have dignity and rights. What happens is the Christian Coalition says they broke the law and they should go back and come back the right way. It should be on a story-by-story basis, how they have not been able to do it on their own and they will risk dying to live,” she continued.
Sister Joyce Ann, who wears a CRS “one human family” bracelet, believes the bishops’ statements on Catholic social justice issues are filled with wisdom and “right attitudes” and encourages people to study them and open their hearts and minds as they reflect on them. And she knows how to respond to the assertion that the church should preach the Gospel but just stay out of politics.
“It is the people who bring values to society,” she said. “The church doesn’t tell you what to do, what it does is reach back into Scripture and the heritage we have with encyclicals and take today’s situation and say these are principles on which we operate if we are to complete God’s plans. … This is really for you now to pray and sit with this situation and see what is a possible solution” in light of God’s plan and values.
Another aspect of the job has been to build bridges of communication and inform parishes when another parish is holding a program of common interest, like when she linked Our Lady of Lourdes Church members interested in partnering with a church in Haiti with Transfiguration Church in Marietta, which was holding its annual conference on their long-term twinning relationship with a Haitian parish. She also hopes that one day the individual parish job support programs will become connected into a network, and that the archdiocesan Web site will have a section especially for parish social ministry. She calls it the parish “silo effect,” when one parish may have a great charity project but may not realize that people down the road or at another parish are doing complementary work but haven’t tried to build connections.
She has worked on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development anti-poverty campaign to empower low-income populations in communities, in promoting projects and its grant allocation process for local community and parish groups with projects addressing root causes of poverty. While only a handful of parishes actually now have a parish social ministry or social justice committee, all have some social outreach or groups like the St. Vincent de Paul Society or Pax Christi. Sister Joyce Ann has worked with various parishes to help them and other churches to develop programming and outreach and was pleased when Christ Redeemer Church in Dawsonville added a SVdP chapter. Among those making valiant efforts, she commended the work of Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain, which among its many ministries has tutoring and other programs for African refugees, and the efforts of St. Matthew Church in Tyrone, which has developed a parish social ministry Web site including related events from pro-life to immigration.
When she has made one too many phone calls, she finds respite spending time with the poor. “It’s those experiences that help you keep going because it energizes you.” She noted that charity and justice work go hand in hand, as when one serves the poor one is naturally led to ask why the situation exists and challenged to become an advocate.
“What leaders of parish social ministry groups are called to do is to ask questions like ‘why,’ recognizing you’ve got to do charity and then have some time of reflection in between and help them to analyze and bring Catholic social teaching into it.”
She explained that Catholic social teaching is grounded in the dignity of the human person and under that falls everything from pro-life issues to workers’ rights to preferential option for the poor, to care for the earth, as conditions like clean water and air are necessary to live. “The foundation of Catholic social teaching is the human person, the dignity of the human person.”
The determined sister has worked with various ministries including pro-life, AIDS and prison outreach. She knew from day one the importance of Hispanic ministry, as one of the first groups she met with in Atlanta came from Sacred Heart Church, and they spoke about their efforts to be more inclusive of the parish’s Hispanic community.
She acknowledged that it’s easy for parishes to become overwhelmed as they fathom all the poverty, violence and suffering in the world but believes individuals and groups must find certain causes they feel drawn to and can embrace with Gospel compassion. She gives the analogy that the tree trunk is Catholic social teaching, the branches are the issues and the leaves are the efforts one parish can make on that issue.
Sister Joyce Ann has regularly sent to over 1,000 parish and community contacts her “parish social ministry e-notes” with calendar listings of Catholic and ecumenical social justice activities, ranging from forums on the violence in Sudan to an acoustic concert and coffee hour benefiting the Seamless Garment Catholic Worker house in Marietta, and a one-woman show about the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day. And that list was critical when Hurricane Katrina hit, as she disseminated notices on which parishes were doing what and how others could help, donate supplies or join mission teams.
“Because I had that network up people were grateful because there wasn’t anything else that got out to people” fast enough.
When CSS was flooded with evacuees needing short- and long-term assistance, she and others switched gears and began meeting with clients, while carrying out other responsibilities. Krygiel commended her hard work in the position, particularly when ministering to the needs of evacuees.
“We call Sister Joyce Ann the Energizer bunny around here because of her indefatigable energy and spirit,” he said. “Normally she’s the last employee to leave each day after communicating social justice news or information.”
He often attends Mass with her. “I then see her take the strength and energy she receives from the Eucharist and use it in service and outreach to others. She is truly a reflection of Jesus Christ to all she meets,” he said. “She is an agent of service, change and care in our world … As this expression of Jesus’ love, she serves in many roles each day as educator, social worker and advocate.”
Sister Joyce Ann grew up in Omaha, Neb., and recalled how people attended the parish of their ethnic background, whether Italian, Irish or Polish. Her family attended the Croatian church because they lived near it. While they are of German descent her father would tell her as a girl the family was Croatian, as following World War II it was frowned upon to be German. The Dominican feels that this experience helped her to understand early on the experience of being of a different background and is glad to have an “excellent relationship” with staff of different races and ethnicities, including those in the offices of Hispanic and African-American ministries.
Janet Claussen, director of religious education at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, is another church professional who will greatly miss her, as she helped her and the parish social justice committee become connected with CSS and find support in planning parish social justice programs on topics including immigration, the death penalty, and the consistent life ethic. Sister Joyce Ann also gave a presentation on the foundation of Catholic social teaching.
“It just kept me aware of what the diocese was doing and gave me a place I could go to when I wanted to address anything in the social justice arena. When she came it just made a huge difference,” said Claussen.
She also appreciates how Sister Joyce Ann is a humble, respectful educator. Social justice education “is a hard thing not to become cynical about and not to dismiss or judge people not as passionate about it. She always was charitable in recognizing people are in different places.”
She recalled the IHM program on immigration where one attendee said they had heard enough about the undocumented immigrants’ rights side of the debate and asked why they weren’t addressing the other side’s viewpoint.
“Her answer was so eloquent and so diplomatic. She was just gracious, diplomatic and articulate and yet did not compromise on the Catholic perspective on the issue. I’ve been doing justice issues for many years, but she really is passionate about this and so knowledgeable about so many things whether immigration or the death penalty or Katrina, and if she doesn’t have the facts she goes and finds them. She’s pretty amazing,” Claussen said. “She lives the Gospel. She’s Matthew 25, ‘… just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me …’ And she does it in a very gracious way.”
Simone Blanchard, director of emergency services for Catholic Social Services, has also worked closely with Sister Joyce Ann and found her to be a “tremendous blessing” to the agency with her steadfast work and loving spirit.
“She is an example of how we are to be Christ to others. She is very tenacious and lives from the energy of the Holy Spirit, and it is evident in the fruits she produces.”