Kath Engebretson launches
Joan Daw’s Young People, Faith, & Social Justice


daw book cover cropped 342Dr Joan Daw’s book presents the findings of a research project of the Yarra Institute for Religion & Social Policy. Dr Kath Engebretson launched this important publication on 17 May 2013 at the Knox Centre in Melbourne. The project was part-funded with a grant from the Melbourne College of Divinity.

Copies of the book are available for $20 each plus $5 postage from the Yarra Institute,
PO Box 505, Box Hill, Victoria 3128, admin@yarrainstitute.org.au
03 9899 4777.


I was delighted to be invited to launch Joan Daw’s book on young people, faith, and spirituality. As an educator and academic in the discipline of religious education, I have often contended that the tireless work of Catholic schools in providing Christian service programs and opportunities for justice involvement for their students is undermined if there is not also an explicit link between these programs, the teaching and actions of Jesus Christ, and the powerful principles of Catholic social teaching.

Service motivated by volunteerism out of a sense of community solidarity, fundraising for social causes, and good neighbourliness are all excellent, but they are far short of the radical work for justice to which Christians are called.

joan daw-kath engebretson cropped resizedUnderpinning this call is the example of Jesus’ table fellowship with those on the margins of society and his determination to challenge the obsession with ritual purity of his fellow Jews that labelled some as unclean and therefore as outcast.

Volunteerism is also far short of the call to scrutinise unjust and oppressive societal and global structures, and to work to eradicate them that is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Christian service programs in Catholic schools belong to the longing for and straining towards the Reign of God that has been the vocation of the Church since Jesus Christ spoke of God’s reign as already present but still to come.

These claims are obvious, but I know of no other research that addresses this connection than that of Joan Daw as reported in her book Young People, Faith, & Social Justice. Joan’s research proceeded from four sets of questions. The first group of questions concerned the extent to which the faith narrative and faith community influences young people to take up social justice activities. The second group of questions concerned young people’s social networks and the modelling of others as incentives to social justice activities. The third group of questions centred on the benefits accrued to young people from their involvement. And the fourth concerned the motivations of the young people: were they motivated by a Christian vision of justice, or by more secular concerns?

The research was grounded in current literature on young people, spirituality, and faith, and the groups of questions to which I have already alluded emerged from this literature. This review of the literature is, in itself, a fine aspect of the book, one that will be of interest to other researchers, and one to which I know I will return in my own work.

The empirical part of the research centred on Catholic secondary schools and Catholic social justice organisations with a high level of youth involvement in social justice activities. In all, nine organisations participated, five Catholic secondary schools in differing socio-economic areas of Melbourne, and four Catholic social justice organisations. Single in-depth interviews were conducted with teachers who led Christian service programs and representatives of the social justice organisations, a total of nine extended interviews in all.

As Joan explains, the interviewees were selected on the basis of their relevant position in a school or organisation with a high level of youth involvement in social justice activities. Clearly, the interviews were extensive, ranging over many aspects of the topic, and quotations from the interviews are widely used throughout the book to illustrate the findings.

This is the second aspect of the book I want to commend. The voices of the teachers and justice organisation represented are warm, thoughtful, reflective, and wise, and Joan has respected them and used them very effectively in her reporting.

An entire chapter is given to the kinds of activities taken up by young people, and these were numerous, ranging from simple fundraising activities to life-changing immersion programs in disadvantaged communities, to advocacy on behalf of the powerless. In the data from the schools, the three findings that struck me were the need for the social justice activities to be underpinned by Scripture and Catholic social teaching in the religious education curriculum, the need for structure and leadership in offering these programs, and the need for them to be highly visible in the school. This visibility gives them an aura of ‘coolness’ – that is, not just something churchy people do.

Among a wide ranging menu of activities, the social justice organisations had young people involved in awareness-raising through information sessions and face-to-face encounters with disadvantage.

Turning now to the four sets of questions that guided the research, I’d like to concentrate on some of the findings. The first area of research was the extent to which the faith narrative and faith community influenced young people to take up social justice activities, that is, the context of their activities. The second group of questions concerned young people’s social networks and the modelling of others as incentives to social justice activities.

In general, in relation to the schools, the community context was very important. When the Christian story and vision were taught in the school as well as being modelled by teachers who were themselves motivated by this story to work for justice, optimal conditions for the involvement of young people were created. The young people needed to see the connection between the narrative (that is, the gospel and Catholic social teaching) and the school community of which they were a part. Both aspects were essential: the why of the gospel story and Catholic social teaching; and the how of the Christian message being lived out in the school community which modelled ways in which young people could also work for justice.

Similar findings came from the research with the social justice organisation representatives. They too emphasised the role of the sacred narrative in providing a context and rationale for the activities. They too emphasised the power of modelling and the ways in which social justice activities could provide community and communal bases for action for young adults.

Other motivating factors linked to the parish, the school, and the individual emerged from the school data. The observation by the teachers that very few of their students were involved with a parish or attended Sunday Mass unless there was a strong family commitment to this, comes as no surprise. The teachers proffered a variety of familiar reasons for this, but the overall conclusion was that the social justice activities of the young people did not, with rare exceptions, flow from Eucharistic participation, at least at a parish level.

This is very significant when we recall that Vatican II speaks of the Eucharist as the apex and font of Christian life, and sees all Christian service as emanating from Eucharist and returning to Eucharist. As one of the teachers remarked, “You’ve got to know what happens at Mass to make the connection between Mass and justice in real life. If you’re not going to Mass, then you’re not even going to ask the questions.”.

The challenges in this issue are immense for dioceses, parishes, and Catholic schools. As Joan points out, the most effective context for young people taking part in social justice is when there are connections between the family, the school, the parish, the weekly Eucharist, and social justice organisations. This connectedness is the key, so that the young are aware that involvement is part of their entire Christian lives, not just something they do at school

Again not surprisingly, the influence of families is powerful. If in their families the young people encountered a passion for justice in their parents or siblings, they were more likely themselves to make choices for involvement. A very interesting finding was that there is no one set of characteristics that distinguishes the students who decide to become involved.  They may be natural leaders, or have introverted personalities. They are not always model students. A passion for justice can be found in the rebellious student or in those who are blessed with natural empathy.

Benefits to young people

The third set of questions concerned the benefits that accrue to young people who take part in social justice activities. These benefits are many, and were identified by the teachers as the development of confidence, skills, a sense of achievement, and reinforcement of Christian faith.

Also interesting were the findings about young people maintaining their involvement. In some cases, schools provided opportunities for school leavers, and in others, the school fostered relationships with social justice organisations so that there was a natural progression into continued involvement when the young people left school. I was struck by the story of one school to which lots of Year 7s turned up to a lunchtime social justice information session because they were new to the school, were lonely, and wanted something to do at lunchtime. This is what the teacher said about this:

It began because they were lonely Year 7s and they liked the food that was provided. But with time they became hugely committed, and by the end of Year 12 they were absolutely committed. Even though they are now at uni, they’ve been back to two meetings this year to see how it’s going.

Connecting the dots: faith and social justice.

The fourth group of research questions concerned the motivations of the young people, and whether they were motivated by a Christian vision of justice or by secular concerns. There are many insightful comments by teachers and social justice organisation representatives about the extent to which the young peoples’ involvement was guided by Christian faith, and opinions varied about this.

The teachers were of the view that the young people expressed their spirituality in terms of wonderment at creation and a search for meaning, rather than in formally religious ways, except at times of loss and tragedy, when Catholicism offered them deep support.

In addition, and exacerbated by their lack of direct experience of the Church, the content put before them in religious education classes has difficulty taking root. This also has implications for social justice involvement. If their connection to the tradition is weak, faith is not a strong motivator for involvement.

Another finding, one which is of great interest and relevance to all Catholic schools, is that in consequence of their general lack of association with the Church, young people often receive a fragmented version of the Christian story, missing out on vital understandings that would be present if the whole of Christian life were familiar. This is not to lament the glory days of the past, but to state the situation simply as it is and as the teachers described it. There seemed to be a consensus that approximately half the young people did not make the connection.

Despite the best efforts of the schools and the social justice organisations, some of the young people appeared to be involved in social justice activities for humanistic reasons, rather than as a result of Christian motivation specifically. Joan is rightly cautious about this, however. Most young people find it very difficult to talk about religious faith and spirituality, and the  fact that they don’t articulate it is not necessarily a sign that their involvement does not come from a Christian motivation. Their humanistic values may well be grounded in a Christian faith they are unable to articulate. This is an area for another study in which young people who are involved in Christian service are asked specifically why they have made this choice. Perhaps this is another project for the Yarra Institute.

I could go on, but that is probably enough. In short, we need this research and the book to which it has led. It raises our knowledge about the young people in our schools and social justice organisations; it points to gaps in and between religious education curricula and Christian service programs; it gives us an agenda for the future to make the connections between faith, the Church, the gospel, Catholic social teaching, and Christian service more explicit; it challenges us to work with understanding alongside young people in helping them to make connections between Christianity and the service they choose.

The recommendations at the end of the book provide the basis of an ongoing agenda, and I commend them to you. Thanks to Joan and to the Yarra Institute for this excellent work, and congratulations. To all of you, I present, Young People, Faith, & Social Justice by Dr Joan Daw.


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