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Serving Outside the Church Walls: Eleven Years After Graduating from the Institute for Leadership in Ministry

Reflection by Joanna Thurmann ILM ‘02

In 2012, I graduated from the Institute for Leadership in Ministry (ILM) and immediately entered the Diocesan Advanced Lay Leadership formation program leading to my commissioning as an Advanced Lay Leader in 2016.  Simultaneously, I pursued a master’s degree in Santa Clara University’s Graduate Program in Pastoral Ministries, graduating in 2018. Those years of study gave me a solid foundation in scripture, church history, theology, and more. Still, it was Catholic Social Teaching that most deeply stirred my conscience and directed my path.

During our graduation ceremony I addressed my ILM class saying, “The journey is not over. We recommit to charity and justice because as long as a fifth of the world falls below the poverty line and there is suffering in our own neighborhoods, we cannot rest. We must continue to speak up for the dignity of every human person, but especially the most vulnerable. The Church is not these walls. It is out there; amidst the brokenness.”

Personally speaking, I have done most of my ministry beyond the church walls. For the past 16 years, I have participated in leading annual immersion trips with the Tijuana Ministry. In one of the poorest areas of North America, we have built over 60 homes to replace the makeshift shanties located just 10 miles south of the US border. Additional projects in Tijuana have included constructing a community center for an AIDS clinic and a school for children with disabilities. We’ve also offered outreach programs for children, youth, and mothers.

Back in San José, my ministry to the incarcerated includes communion services, bible study, prayer, and working to bring the light of Christ to an otherwise dark and desolate place. For the unhoused, I have cooked meals, cleaned mobile showers, collected donations, and distributed coats and tarps with various groups.

I grew tremendously by journeying with people experiencing poverty in Tijuana, ministering to the incarcerated, and serving the unhoused. Over the years, further community advocacy for me has grown to include urging county and city officials to press for long-term solutions and affordable housing for Silicon Valley’s growing homeless population.

I bring these stories with me when I give retreat talks and teach ILM classes. Too often we forget that the real presence of Christ started with the historical Jesus who ate with the lepers and the outcast. I hope my first-hand encounters of Jesus on the margins serve to invite others to meet Him out there, too.

Such boots-on-the-ground discipleship has been its own path of formation. My lived experience as a white, middle-class, hi-tech professional with a mortgage was more like that of the rich man than of Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke. I needed to overcome implicit bias, learn humility, and share in the suffering of others.

The Church has always been ‘out there.’ Tertullian, an early church father, noted that the Romans who observed the early Christian communities would often exclaim, “See how they love one another!”  That’s how the Church must be seen today - acting, serving, and loving because justice must always accompany charity.  We must be Christ to a broken world. To do that, we must continually breach church walls.

Joanna Thurmann founded The Gandhi Team, an unaffiliated group of Catholic ministers dedicated to teaching non-violence as a means of personal and social change. They received a city commendation in 2018 for their service from then mayor Sam Liccardo. Joanna works in the tech industry and is an advanced lay leader in the Diocese of San José. An alumna of Stanford University and Santa Clara University, she has two adult children, and her home parish is St. Julie Billiart. In her free time, she enjoys gardening and outdoor projects.

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