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The Protagonists: Woodstock Meeting Spotlights Hidden Subjects of Globalization

(published in Woodstock Report No. 79, October 2004)

Gathering Marks Final Consultation

GEC1Participants in the International Consultation celebrating daily liturgy

Arguments over the global economy have been not only furious but also notoriously abstract, beginning with the word "globalization." Integration, liberalization, and "marketization" are real, but so are the people living amid these forces. They and their communities are the often invisible subjects of globalization.

Over the past five years, the Woodstock Theological Center's Global Economy and Cultures project (GEC) has helped bring these conversations down to earth through a process of storytelling and prayerful discernment. Dozens of written narratives have emerged from the project, giving rise to reflection among Jesuits and their lay collaborators in dozens of countries.

In September of 2004, Woodstock held its fourth and final international consultation on this topic, bringing together representatives of Jesuit social research and action centers in 23 countries. Though the formal discussions have ended, the Center will now begin drafting materials for publication that seek to capture this specifically Ignatian approach to understanding and transforming global realities.

In his opening talk at the five-day consultation, Woodstock director Gasper F. Lo Biondo, S.J., described GEC as an attempt at "communal cultural discernment," referring to a concept developed by theologian Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J. This sort of reflection involves close attention to local situations as well as discernment "of how God is working in the hearts and minds and actions of people," said Father Lo Biondo, who co-directs GEC together with Woodstock senior fellow Rita Rodriguez.

After delving further into this approach, he told the gathering, "We want to make these tools available to local people so they can work with others from the worlds of business, government, and civil society, in creating sustainable development alternatives from below."

A central piece of this methodology is the narrative approach. At the September 5-9 consultation, the representatives focused primarily on nine narratives from Brazil, Cameroon, China, India (which accounted for two narratives), Mexico, Slovenia, South Korea, and Zambia. Each story related global economic realities as experienced by individuals and communities in their own cultural settings.

The key word was "protagonists," the ones profiled in these stories of economic and cultural transformation. They have been caught in the upheavals and ambiguities of globalization, as have the local cultures in which they "live and decide," in the phrasing of the GEC project.

"All of our protagonists are trying to maximize the good of the situation they're in, and minimize the evil," said Francisco Claver, S.J., a Filipino bishop who is currently an international visiting fellow at Woodstock. "That is a very human philosophy, no matter what kind of political or economic system you're in. And it's very hopeful."

The discussions held at Georgetown University probed deeply into the lives of the protagonists and the meanings of their encounters with global economic and cultural forces.

There were stories heard of a chili pepper farmer in India, a sandwich seller in Cameroon, and a factory worker in Mexico (to cite a few of the narratives), all of whose lives and surroundings have been changed unalterably by sudden market integration.

Not all of the protagonists are poor. In one story, "Peter," who grew up under Communism in what was Yugoslavia, converts to capitalism as well as Catholicism (he was raised an atheist).

He finds good work in the financial sector and buys a car and house in the suburbs. But through his faith, which comes alive in a 30-day retreat, he begins to question the new religion of consumerism and wonders about the many who have been left behind by the global economy. His nose to the corporate grind, he also yearns for more time with his wife and children.

This story from Slovenia highlighted one theme of the discussions: the role of religion in mediating between the global economy and local cultures.

"It was the [retreat] experience that led him to question his global situation," said Gabriela Gorjon Salcedo of the Center for Human Rights in Mexico City. Likewise, Katarzyna ("Catherine") Iwona Tomczak, a doctoral student who represented a Jesuit center in Warsaw, said Peter's attitudes toward money and career in a liberalized economy were being shaped by "the experience of a relationship with God."

Although one participant expressed interest in hearing more about "who the villains are" in these stories, others urged caution. "I think it is better to condemn behavior than to condemn people, because otherwise the dialogue stops," said Jose Mario C. Francisco, S.J., director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Quezon City, Philippines.

Engaging all "Actors"

In this research project, the relationship between researchers and subjects has been far from distant. The Jesuits and their colleagues live, work, and pray among the people whose stories they are telling. They are close to their subjects, and yet one consensus aired at the meeting is that those who seek to address global questions must reach beyond local protagonists.

"Knowledge is social. So we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of saying that the protagonists have the whole truth," said Father Lo Biondo. "They are the privileged locus for our theological reflection, but solidarity requires that we engage all the actors."

"Actors" was another key word at the consultation.

"To have a complete understanding, we need the point of view and the involvement of the other actors," said Rodriguez, an economist with long experience in international finance. She has overseen GEC's day-to-day work along with project manager Theresa McCaffrey.

As a global community, the Jesuits have an obvious role to play here, through a ministry of dialogue and reflection already begun by Jesuit social centers. But on that score, Rodriguez noted how little communication there is between these centers and Jesuit universities. "The universities graduate many people who go on to be social actors," she pointed out. "How to integrate all that is a challenge." (See sidebar).

Within the Society of Jesus, the seeds of these global reflections were planted in 1995 at the Society's 34th General Congregation. In its decree, "Our Mission and Justice," the congregation stated that while globalization may produce many benefits, it could also result in "injustices on a massive scale." The congregation also warned against an unhealthy, homogeneous, "modernization" of cultures.

During the gathering in Rome, James L. Connor, S.J., Woodstock's former director, began talking with his counterparts about the possibility of joint endeavors involving Jesuit social centers. From those conversations came the idea of a collaborative focus on globalization, leading to GEC (with Father Lo Biondo as the project's first director, before succeeding Father Connor as Woodstock director).

Besides the narrative approach and emphasis on cultural context, the project has highlighted a method of reflection that taps the spiritual resources of the Jesuit tradition. The approach has been reflected in the meetings themselves, including the international consultations that began in 1999 and five regional consultations in Brazil, Philippines, India, Kenya, and the United States. (The latter meeting dealt with globalization as experienced by U.S. communities like Camden, New Jersey, where the meeting was held).

During these gatherings, Jesuits and co-workers have followed the Ignatian method of spiritual discernment. For example, participants take time to "reflect on the meeting, writing their consolations, desolations, and unanswered questions," as Father Lo Biondo related.

Throughout the project, "Participants have employed the Jesuit method of decision-making, which begins with experience, continues with reflection, and ends with decision and action," he said.

With the last of the consultations held, Woodstock will begin preparing materials including selected narratives, with a view toward helping protagonists and their communities better understand the global forces interacting with their cultures. This effort at "communal cultural discernment" is ultimately aimed at helping to turn marginalized people into social actors.

In the closing period of the consultation, participants took time to talk about their own work and how GEC relates to their ministries. These activities cover a thick range of Jesuit social ground: micro-loans to budding entrepreneurs in Argentina, under the leadership of Father Rodrigo Zarazaga, a café-bar in South Korea newly opened by Father Kim Chong-dae to provide cultural space for workers, legal aid to low-caste Dalits ("untouchables") in India under Father Prakash Louis, among other social ministries.

Father Raymond Kemp, a diocesan priest who heads Woodstock's Preaching the Just Word project, had this to say after hearing about these far-reaching manifestations of faith in the service of justice:

"You Jesuits have a capacity to pull this world together around the globe. I'm not sure who has that capacity, if not the Society of Jesus."

Students and Jesuits discuss globalization over dinner

gec2Students and Jesuits
share dinner and dialogue

Jesuit social centers are close to the poor. Jesuit universities are close to people who will one day make decisions that affect the poor. Yet, as a few participants noted at Woodstock's recent globalization consultation, there appears to be a missing link of dialogue between Jesuit centers and Jesuit universities.

As a center of theological reflection, Woodstock is seeking to draw these links by nurturing a dialogue in its own backyard at Georgetown University. This growing collaboration (Woodstock is not formally connected to the university) was put on view September 5, opening night of Woodstock's Global Economy and Cultures consultation.

That Sunday evening, 28 Jesuits and lay co-workers who participated in the meeting shared a meal and conversation with approximately 90 students and a handful of faculty members, filling the Riggs Library on campus. The Jesuits and their collaborators represented social centers in nearly two-dozen countries.

Word of the dinner spread through the Georgetown community by way of a September 10 article in The Hoya, Georgetown's student newspaper of record.

There were opening messages by Woodstock director Gasper F. Lo Biondo, S.J., and Daniel Porterfield, Georgetown's senior vice president for public affairs and strategic development.

Hoya staff writer Moises Mendoza conveyed the atmosphere:

"The Jesuits at each table facilitated a wide-ranging discussion that touched on diversity, inter-religious dialogue and the role poverty plays in society.. Throughout the evening Porterfield and Lo Biondo roamed the area listening to conversations and occasionally adding their own input to the discussion."

Later in the week, another sign of this dialogue between different (Jesuit) worlds was presented, in the form of Georgetown president John J. DeGioia.

"I want to add my voice to those of the Georgetown community in support of this incredibly important initiative," DeGioia said during remarks at the globalization gathering. "I look forward to seeing how together we could move forward in addressing the needs of the poorest of the world."