Social justice, the promotion of human rights and the dignity of every person, has long been at the heart of the mission of the Society of Jesus. In fact, the term “social justice” was coined by Italian Jesuit Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio in the 1840s. Today, the Society works for justice in many of its ministries across the country. This week, meet Jesuit Father Jeff Putthoff, who helps inner-city youth in Camden, N.J., learn technology skills at Hopeworks 'N Camden.
Bringing Hope and Healing to a Troubled City
Jesuit Father Jeff Putthoff recalls visiting Camden, N.J., in the late 1990s and seeing a Good Friday procession through the devastated streets of that frighteningly poor city. Hundreds of the faithful — Latinos, for the most part — made their way dauntlessly past burned-out buildings and vacant lots used as trash dumps. Then, standing on some of the broken glass that seemed everywhere, he saw the parishioners raise a large white cross above the throng.
“I couldn’t figure out how people could claim Christ in such brokenness, in the face of such devastation,” says Fr. Putthoff, who was a Jesuit theology student in Cambridge, Mass., at the time. “I wanted what they had.”
Though he belonged to the Missouri Province Jesuits (and still does), Fr. Putthoff was given permission to serve in a Jesuit parish in Camden, after wrapping up his studies at the Weston School of Theology in 1998. Two years later, he found a way to embody the unfathomable hope he witnessed on that Good Friday in Cambridge. Together with other religious leaders, he spearheaded an organization called Hopeworks ‘N Camden, which helps young men and women stake out a future amid the poverty, drugs, and violence.
Hopeworks is a nonprofit organization that taps new technologies and applications for the purposes of youth training and development.
“When I started with this, I didn’t know anything about technology,” Fr. Putthoff says frankly. “What I knew is that I wanted to work with young people.” But the Jesuit had heard of a community organization in Milwaukee that trains young people for website design. He was off and running.
Today, Hopeworks provides those between the ages of 14 and 23 with high-tech training along with education in basic skills such as literacy. The agency also links them up with paid work through its own business operations — including web design — as well as through corporate partners. Each year, about 250 young people receive these and other intensive, one-on-one services from the organization. Some live in a residence managed by Hopeworks for those working full-time at the organization or attending college nearby.
Much of the activity revolves around businesses launched by Fr. Putthoff. For example, the web department has more than 400 paying clients (mostly small business and nonprofit community groups) for its design, development and hosting services.
Fr. Putthoff has also forged a Geographic Information Systems business. It collects data — for example, about the size and ownership of individual properties — and produces maps (used typically in brochures and presentations) for more than 60 clients. There are other units for video production, cloud computing and social media consulting. The latest venture is a service that helps companies use Salesforce.com, an application for managing customer relationships, social media and other business needs.
Camden’s youth do the work with help from a dozen Hopeworks staff members.
The economic bustle is all the more significant in a city of 74,000 people where more than half of the children live in poverty and where more than a fifth of the families scrape by on less than $10,000 a year. The youth education is also taking place against the backdrop of a 70 percent dropout rate in Camden’s public high schools.
“The ministry of Hopeworks is a perfect example of Jesuits in the U.S. responding to the call of General Congregation 35 to reach out to the margins — the geographical and spiritual places others find it difficult to reach,” said Jesuit Father Jim Shea, provincial of the Maryland Province Jesuits. “The city of Camden and the young adults whom Fr. Jeff and the Hopeworks team serve experience traumatic events daily: physical violence, economic exclusion and educational inequality. The support and opportunity that Hopeworks offers youth in Camden is just one example of the faith-justice work carried out by Jesuits and lay colleagues in institutions and ministries across the United States. It is a tangible response to the challenge of Pope Francis to build a Church of and for those who are poor.”
Fr. Putthoff emphasizes that the real business of Hopeworks is not economic opportunity but, above all, healing. The Jesuit points out that Camden youth have grown up with levels of trauma paralleling the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Among other factors, he notes that many of them come to Hopeworks with random violence and sexual assault in their pasts. As Fr. Putthoff explains, service agencies and social ministries aim at helping them to thrive, but many inner-city youth are preoccupied with something more basic — survival.
“Their struggle to survive impacts their ability to be in touch with their future,” he says. “So they’re unable to take advantage of the services” that those organizations offer — training and education, for example.
The Hopeworks answer to this dilemma is to help “create safe pathways” for young men and women, the priest says. This involves acknowledging their histories of trauma and loss and helping them craft a plan to succeed in the future, despite it all. Fr. Putthoff does not hesitate to use the Jesuit catchword “formation” to describe this process in which a young person is asked to “take responsibility for his or her plan,” through attendance, punctuality and personal initiative.
Fr. Putthoff and his team encourage the young people to reflect on every increment of progress.
“We recognize the need many youth have to experience success,” the organization says on its website. “With that understanding, we celebrate with them things that they are doing right, their accomplishments, their progress, and their strengths. Each meeting with a youth begins with questions like ‘What are you doing well?’ or ‘What has been good this week?’ We feel that by concentrating our efforts on the positive aspects of a youth, we can create a culture of hope where we can activate and mobilize the positive aspects of a youth’s life to overcome the weaknesses and the negative forces they face.”
The spirituality offered by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, helps Fr. Putthoff sees God’s hand in these workings of hope.
“Ignatian spirituality is all about God in history, in my history,” says the priest, meaning the here and now. “God cares about flesh and history. And that’s huge, because that’s what’s happening to me when I’m with the youth in Camden. It’s incarnational. God is tremendously invested in all of that.”
Fr. Putthoff adds that Jesuits are called to draw closer to Christ and his suffering, in part by entering into the joys and anguishes of the world. As he reflected in an interview published in Southern Jesuit Magazine two years ago: “How truly little did I understand that till I began working in Camden.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuits.org/become for more information.