Ignatian Spirituality Project receives 2019 Martyrs Award
Loyola University Chicago has selected the Ignatian Spiritual Project, an organization headquartered on a quiet block of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, as the 2019 recipient of the Martyrs Award.
Each year the Martyrs Award commemorates a faith-based individual or organization that champions social justice issues and serves marginalized communities. It was created in 2015 to continue the legacy of the eight Salvadoran martyrs who were killed in 1989 for speaking out against the government and advocating for the poor. The award includes a $25,000 grant and is presented annually in November in conjunction with Ignatian Heritage Month.
From the start, the Jesuit priest, Bill Creed, had the animating objective to reach people recovering from addiction and/or suffering from housing insecurity in a way they weren’t typically reached. For that population, basic resources (shelter, clothing) are available to access. Establishing the capacity to accept help, though, is much harder. To tune their internal engines, Creed thought to employ the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, written by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540.
Founded in 1998, ISP operated out of Creed’s residence (and pocket) for nearly a decade; for additional reach, the Jesuit leaned on friends in other cities who were conversant in Ignatian spirituality. Tom Drexler, a volunteer, became ISP’s first executive director two years later. “I’d facilitated retreats hundreds of times, mainly to people who could afford them, who had disposable income and disposable time,” Drexler says. “I thought how cool it would be to bring that experience to someone who could never think of going on a spiritual retreat.” Ignatian spirituality—when properly taught—allows for “movement towards greater and greater freedom,” according to Drexler.
Wherever ISP operates, volunteers on the ground work with local transitional housing providers to identify potential retreatants. Their targets must be 60 days sober, at minimum, and working through a 12-step program. They also need to be comfortable listening to others and sharing their own—often traumatic—stories. Each retreat is held at a retreat center, somewhat removed from the city, where the physical space and natural beauty are conducive to reflection and meditation. Every participant gets the privacy of their own bedroom. A handful of facilitators—typically three or four ISP veterans—leads the program.
While each weekend is distinct, they tend to start with introductions and the Ignatian Daily Examen, an exercise that asks for reflection on their day and God’s presence in it. A witness will deliver a personal anecdote, inviting the group to consider similar fears they’ve struggled with or overcome. Subsequent conversations can be heavy, but attempt to create vulnerability for the participants, before God and one another, and to ensure people feel commonality and dignity.
Thanks to an anonymous infusion of resources in 2006, and through consistently admiring word of mouth, the number of cities with an ISP presence has surged over the past decade, from eight to 29. (Dublin, Ireland, opened an outpost this past summer.) In 2018 alone, the organization hosted 2,000 participants on 235 retreats, in dozens of memorably distinct retreat centers. An army of 800 volunteers keeps cost low; ISP’s shoestring operating budget sits just below $1 million annually.
It’s their ambition, though, to grow the institution’s reach both wider and deeper. Within the past year, ISP launched a pilot leadership program called Ambassadors of Hope, in which seven former retreatants receive training in pastoral ministry and public speaking. Like Brown, these are folks who successfully bore witness and were “hungry for more.” ISP has also started the difficult work of evaluating their own effectiveness. With the help of Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Urban Research and Learning, they’ve designed the framework for a longitudinal research study that would measure their alumni’s spiritual growth, a crucial but necessarily squishy metric.
Recognition from the Martyr’s Award, as well as the accompanying $25,000 grant, will go a long way towards sustaining these ongoing projects. “Loyola University Chicago is honored to present the Martyrs Award to the Ignatian Spirituality Project for their deep and dedicated work,” said Dr. Jo Ann Rooney, president of Loyola. “The Ignatian Spirituality Project illustrates how our movement toward serving each other, and the active search for God in all of life, can create a space for healing and grace to enter.”