By Ignatius Plato
Social justice is central to the Society of Jesus’ way of proceeding. Christine Dragonette, the director of social ministry at St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis, shares fully in this mission, basing all she does in love of her neighbors.
Dragonette has served in social ministry at the parish for ten years, making it a significant step in her personal formation. “I had always been passionate about the areas where faith and justice intersect,” Dragonette says. “Working at College Church and attending graduate school at Saint Louis University opened me up to the Jesuit charism, which definitely helped to push that passion even further. I felt like I was prepared to say ‘yes.’”
One of the biggest ways she brings the charism into her work is through the College Church’s Outreach Program, which assists those with limited resources in legally obtaining Missouri State IDs and birth certificates from their home state.
“The Outreach Program is a significant part of our parish life because it fulfills a huge need,” says Dragonette. “We see over 3,500 people each year who need help getting the right documents for proper identification and covering the costs. Building on the work of many before me and figuring out creative ways to address a need of that magnitude has been both energizing and challenging.”
These efforts are leaving an impact throughout St. Louis and the rest of the country. “Other organizations in St. Louis have learned from our efforts in starting their own programs, and have also joined us in advocacy efforts,” Dragonette says. “That speaks to the importance of this issue and the need to look beyond the direct work to the systemic issues at play. Why is it so hard for certain people to obtain government identification in the first place? How did we get to this point? We have started to bring these issues up to people in positions of power and advocate for actual solutions to the problem.”
As a parish, College Church is committed to anti-racism and racial justice. Dragonette spends much of her time engaging with these efforts.
“Racial reconciliation is a difficult but necessary part of forming the parish,” she said. “We’ve learned the hard way, in some cases, that being in a relationship with one another and with God is necessary to moving forward toward racial reconciliation – that’s hard for many of us to fully grasp sometimes.”
Dragonette says these challenges ultimately shape the expression of the Jesuit mission in the parish. “We’ve been really tempted to move forward too quickly at times, wanting a checklist of ‘to do’s’ that will all of a sudden make us into an antiracist parish. But we’ve learned that it’s just as important to take the time to build relationships and fully understand everyone’s experiences when it comes to building a more equitable parish.”
She continued: “Social ministries are a balance of accompaniment and proactivity. You want to make progress, you want to keep moving forward, you want to make a difference now. But to do any of that, you have to focus on relationships. In this sense, we’re learning that the best way to make a difference is through extended efforts over time. Yes, having a checklist and a plan is important – but working collaboratively gets us farther.”
This idea has become the heart of social ministry at Saint Francis Xavier College Church: a careful blend of love and action that makes a difference. Dragonette recognizes how her work inspires others and how their work, in turn, feeds into a greater narrative of advocatory love that spans the world over.
“Seeing how our work has grown through new partnerships gives me hope,” she says. “It gives me hope that all of us, in all our corners of the world, with all our different efforts, are combining into something that is making a major difference. It all adds up, and for me that’s the most heartening aspect of my work.”
Dragonette shares a brief story: “One day someone from the community, someone that one of our volunteers had helped, walked up to me. They said, ‘I can tell you people actually care about us.’ And for me that spoke to more than just how great our volunteers are. It spoke to the Jesuit charism of finding God in all people and places, which is something we should all strive to do.”