Fairfield Now - Winter 2007
Richard Ryscavage, S.J.:
By Meredith Guinness
|Teaching is but one way the Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., lives out his ministry; another is as the founding director of Fairfield University's Center for Faith and Public Life.|
Wise parents the world over have reminded their children there are three things you don't talk about in polite company, unless you're itching for a fight: money, politics, and God.
For the Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., director of Fairfield's Center for Faith and Public Life and Professor of Sociology, the three topics are often part of his opening conversational gambit. Talking about politics and faith - and money, if you're talking about humanitarian aid - is his job. Getting students to understand how to put what they've learned into action - whether at the soup kitchen or on the floor of the U.S. Senate - is his calling.
"I want to open their minds," says Fr. Ryscavage. "They sometimes have limited visions of being doctors, lawyers, accountants. All of those are good, but there are wonderful things available in public service. I want to get them thinking in those terms, too."
This academic year, Fr. Ryscavage joined faculty and Center staff in incorporating this mission into several intriguing initiatives. From interviewing national politicians on faith and politics to trips to the United Nations to lively classes on ethics and global issues, students are learning that government doesn't have to be a dirty word.
"People see government as 'toxic,'" says Fr. Ryscavage. "But you can have a true impact working within it. There are public agencies devoted to practical work, including international agencies for development. They need smart people to do this work."
If you want to reach students with that message - or any message, for that matter - you need to head to the classroom, says Dr. Lisa Newton, director of the Applied Ethics program. When she first heard about the Center, she wondered how her program would fit with a center so close to her mission. Happily, she's found a kindred spirit in Fr. Ryscavage and has added new dimensions to her courses. "It's really about teaching students how to be the most useful and effective in their desire to support humanitarian aid," says Dr. Newton.
Next semester, she will teach "Ethical Dimensions of Global Humanitarian Policy," a course that surveys ethical dilemmas that arise in the context of global need and opportunity and will consider how helpful - and sometimes unintentionally harmful - humanitarian aid programs can be. "When students come in, like anywhere else, they're completely self-centered, but they really do change," Dr. Newton says. "Many of them are looking for things to commit to and if inspired will get going on it."
Dr. Gita Rajan, associate professor of English, agrees, and her class for the spring semester, "Global Theories and Narrative Critique," will examine global crisis points using humanitarian solutions from a literary vantage point. Reading books such as Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje's novel about ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka, and Khaled Hosseini's bestseller, The Kite Runner, the students will consider ways to engage with the rest of the world, how to respond to crisis, and, ultimately, Dr. Rajan hopes, "how to find a place for global civil society. The whole focus is not just on the cliché of democratic society, but on what does it mean to have a deliberative democracy."
Both classes were inspired by the Center's collaborative efforts with Georgetown and Fordham universities to form the Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network (JUHAN). JUHAN's purpose is to engage university students in developing strategies that prepare them for true involvement in complex humanitarian crises, both here and abroad. This is not about throwing money at problems or sending in troops: Fr. Ryscavage is currently working with a leadership team of about a dozen students Fairfield will send to the first JUHAN national workshop in June to develop programming for the University community. "We want to get them more sophisticated about organizations and public life," he says.
Working to inspire students to consider careers in public life, Fr. Ryscavage (left) exposes them to an array of nonprofit
and public service organizations, including the United Nations. Here, Methodist Minister Kathleen Stone speaks with students
in the U.N. Interfaith Church.
About 30 interested students are members of the Students for Public Service Group, a learning community and mentoring group for students interested in professions in public service, be they political, nonprofit, humanitarian, or military.
This October, Fr. Ryscavage, who teaches sociology and international studies, brought members of his classes to the United Nations, visiting UNICEF, the World Youth Alliance, and the missions of China and Brazil. He plans annual trips to the UN and Washington, D.C.
Before coming to Fairfield, he was the national director of the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, a non-governmental organization operating in 50 countries. He was also a tutor and researcher at the Refugee Studies Centre of Oxford University and, in 2006, served as official advisor to the delegation of the Holy See to the United Nations 61st General Assembly.
It's no wonder he's deeply committed to the public issues where politics and religion intersect, issues that include migration and human trafficking, the subjects of two large-scale conferences the Center organized in the past three years. The Church and Catholic service groups "witness the constant struggle with poverty, family separation, and workplace exploitation," he has said. "So it is natural that they speak to the policy makers from that pastoral experience."
Fr. Ryscavage has made a point of having the policy makers speak to students as well. In his "Politics Meets Faith" series, Fr. Ryscavage interviews politicians on the role of faith in political life before a student audience, and the discussions are filmed for national educational facilities and regional media. Recent guests have included Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays, a Christian Scientist, and Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, a Methodist minister. Meeting "movers and shakers" through the series, shadowing local mayors, and hearing from regional advocacy leaders, gives students crucial role models, he says.
In Fr. Ryscavage, Dr. Rajan says she's found an even-handed partner in helping students understand global ethical imperatives from many standpoints. Recently, she organized two events on human trafficking, including a screening of the Emmy-winning film The Selling of the Innocents, about sex trafficking in South Asia. "Teaching students how to engage in this world, which can be so dangerous and chaotic, is absolutely vital to education today," she said. "He has given me the room to teach."