As the only Catholic and Jesuit university in West Virginia, our mission emerges from a conviction that a faith-based institution can, and must, intentionally address the civic, cultural, and educational issues facing the place where it exists, in our case the rust belt of the Ohio Valley. This contemporary expression of the historic public purpose of American higher education adds the dimension of service as an articulation of the Catholic faith and the Jesuit tradition to be men and women for others. Our faith-based institution can, and must, serve an area that historically has been “mined” in terms of natural resources, its people, and its way of life to serve those outside the region. The ongoing degradation of our region has resulted in poverty, waste, and increasing cycles of hopelessness—socially, economically, and intellectually.
In their 1975 pastoral letter on powerlessness in Appalachia, “This Land is Home to Me,” signed on our campus, the Catholic bishops of the region emphasized the focus of who we are and who we serve, grounding us in the scriptures and calling us to service. We are called to support “the goal which underlies our concern ... fundamental in the justice struggle, namely, citizen control, or community control. The people themselves must shape their own destiny.” Our mission to educate the children of Appalachia for life, leadership, and service, the basis of our founding more than 50 years ago, compels us to consider how our students and our graduates can shape the destinies of their communities when they leave our campus. The university, one of the largest employers in an economically depressed area, functions as a significant financial and human resource, both on campus and in the larger community.
Grounded in the gospel we serve and the faith we profess, our first service is with and among our students and the education we provide them. It is an education, though, with a clearly articulated purpose: to find God in all things, always to do what we do for the greater glory of God, and thereby to integrate our faith with actions that promote justice. These values, drawn from St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, permeate our campus life. Not only do we preach the words and profess the concepts, we also make strong efforts to practice the precepts. From community involvement to service-learning classes to presentations on campus by distinguished men and women of public and religious service, we provide practical and faith-focused means for our students to make practical their classroom experiences.
What can you do to provide an education that is Christian? Live your mission; articulate your faith; provide opportunities for your students, faculty, staff, and administrators to understand their purpose and service in light of your mission; and live the great commandment to “love God and neighbor”—on and off your campus. Let your light shine.
Joseph R. Hacala, SJ, is president of Wheeling (West Virginia) Jesuit University. Formerly, he served as executive director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and as special assistant for faith-based outreach at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.