Salt of the Earth

By: Katherine Marshall

October 17, 2008

Jesuit schools around the world have educated an amazing array of world leaders and citizens and are renowned for their excellence and discipline. That is true of places like Georgetown University--but also, around the world, in very poor communities "where the asphalt ends."

The Fe y Alegria (faith and joy) movement began 54 years ago in Venezuela, at a time when the Catholic church was grappling with how to respond to the reality of the poor in the developing world. Today Fe y Alegria educates well over a million children in thousands of schools in 17 Latin American countries and, most recently, in Chad. It's a remarkable story. 

Fe y Alegria began with a group of university students looking for ways to help people living in a slum neighborhood in Caracas. They started a school run out of someone's house. The idea took off and the system grew organically, in a topsy-turvy fashion, spreading from country to country. Its proponents adapted to different settings, and joined in various partnerships with public and private actors. Generally, the schools became part of the public school systems with salaries of teachers paid from government budgets but with management provided by a branch of the Jesuit Order. 

Today, the thousands of Fe y Alegria schools--preschool, primary and secondary--can truly be termed a movement. Besides formal schools, the group runs adult education programs, uses distance learning by radio very creatively, and presses for quality vocational training. Fe y Alegria programs are marked wherever they are found by a commitment to high-quality education in a framework of well defined values. In Bolivia, a country rife with educational inequality, especially for its majority indigenous population, it educates 6% of all primary school students. 

Father Jorge Cela, a Jesuit priest who heads a Federation of the Fe y Alegria system (based in the Dominican Republic), was in the United States recently to shine light on both the work of Fe y Alegria and the critical objective it shares with all United Nations members - ensuring "education for all". 

Cela starts out with the proposition that not only is education a fundamental human right but so is excellent education. In the 21st century, every citizen has the right to live in an educated society. In Latin America, the world's most unequal continent, with deep social rifts, that means that the whole society shares the responsibility for education. Government cannot do it alone: public and private actors, secular and religious, need to work together. 

Visiting Fe y Alegria schools is an inspiration because, in the darkest places, violent neighborhoods where bodyguards are advised, laughing children study in schools that sparkle with cleanliness and energy. The values underpinning Fe y Alegria draw from Christian teaching but that's not what is most compelling. It is a far broader commitment to excellence and to respect. 

Father Cela ended his Washington talk with a parable. Salt, he observed, is essential for life, but only if it is applied properly. Apply too much and food tastes salty. With too little, the flavor is bland. Ideally, salt brings out the underlying flavor, the best qualities of the food. Fe y Alegria schools, a minority in all the countries where they operate, aim to bring out the best in the heritage and culture of the societies where they operate by building on the best of the core values that hold the society together. 

Salt in ancient times was a vital and precious commodity, needed not only to lend spice but to preserve and heal. That explains why metaphors about salt come up in many religious traditions. The New Testament reference to "salt of the earth" in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount suggests qualities of nobility, humility, and grace. 

The special "salt" of Fe y Alegria is its deep commitment to the most vulnerable and its explicit focus on values. It's refreshing to witness these issues discussed without bombast or pretense. And it's a salt we need today as much as ever.

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Salt of the Earth