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Jesuit Father Phil Cooke
Fr. Phil Cooke, SJ: A Call to the Priesthood and the Poor

By Becky Sindelar

April 22, 2015 — Jesuit Father Phil Cooke has been working with the poor for a long time. It’s been nearly 30 years since he spent three weeks serving the inner-city poor in Kansas City, Kansas, as a senior at the Jesuits’ Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Missouri, but the experience was transformative. “It was like, this is my call. I found God there and God found me there,” he recalls.

Over the years, he’s worked with the poor and gangs in Chicago and Los Angeles and with at-risk youth on Native American reservations. A ministry of presence or mere theological reflection is not enough; Fr. Cooke has been searching for better ways for the church to respond to poverty. He is no longer content just to accompany the poor. For Fr. Cooke, breaking the cycle of poverty calls for action.

That’s how Fr. Cooke found himself with a fellowship as the Jesuit Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society (CSTS) to learn more about utilizing social entrepreneurship to aid the poor. Through his work at the center, he recently launched his first workshop to teach staff members of Catholic social ministries how to address social problems in an entrepreneurial, innovative and sustainable way.

Fr. Cooke on his ordination day in 2008.

Growing up in Kansas City, where the priests at his parish seemed distant, Fr. Cooke found the Jesuits at Rockhurst High different. “I saw the Jesuits as human and normal — they could have had families and made money and they were smart and had a passion for Christ and social justice. And I thought, if they’re normal and I’m normal and they can do this, then I guess I can do this.”

Fr. Cooke continued his education with the Jesuits at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where his interest in social justice, liberation theology and Central America grew. After graduating with a philosophy degree in 1989, Fr. Cooke spent two years working with the Mayan people in Guatemala, teaching, building churches and administering a program for orphans. He arrived there on Nov. 8, 1989, and eight days later six Jesuits and two lay women were murdered in El Salvador by the military. Fr. Cooke saw the Jesuit vocation take on more meaning: courage for social justice and Christ in the midst of chaos in Central America. 

In 1991, Fr. Cooke returned to the United States, first working in campus ministry at Loyola University Chicago, then with gangs in Chicago and finally teaching at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois, before joining the Society of Jesus in 1996.

Much of Fr. Cooke’s ministry as a Jesuit has been on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. As a Jesuit in formation, he taught for three years at the Red Cloud Indian School and then returned to work as a pastor on the reservation for three years after his ordination in 2008. "I fell in love with the Lakota people," says Fr. Cooke. "Their resilience throughout their history has inspired and guided me to face adversity within my own life. It was the Lakota and their deep spirituality, the sweat lodge, Sun Dance, yuwípi (healing ceremony) and those who practiced Catholicism that taught me an incredible reverence and humility for God. So much of my priesthood is rooted in what the Lakota have taught me." 

Fr. Cooke with kids on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

However, while working on Pine Ridge, Fr. Cooke also found people who were dependent on government welfare. “There was horrible poverty because the government with their handouts reinforced the idea that the Lakota people couldn’t do it on their own.

“Not asking people to reciprocate in some form — so they can bring their own gifts, resources or labor in exchange for needed resources — denies the dignity and potential of the human person,” Fr. Cooke says.

He headed to the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California, for his Licentiate in Sacred Theology in 2012, studying the question of how to break the cycle of poverty.  He saw social entrepreneurship as a method, so he joined the staff of SCU’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society, which aims to use innovation-based entrepreneurship in service to humanity rather than solely for profit, such as a program in Uganda that produces and sells passion fruit while training rural girls to manage an agribusiness.

“What I found [at the CSTS] were all these social entrepreneurs who were committed to social justice by bringing clean water filters to Africa, computer and job training to Muslim women in India and alternative energy sources to people worldwide living off the grid and making it economically sustainable,” says Fr. Cooke.

Fr. Cooke (top row, far right) with St. Patrick's Choir in West Oakland, California. He has been a member of the choir since 2006.

Fr. Cooke began his fellowship at the center with the goal of implementing social entrepreneurship principles to Jesuit and Catholic social ministries. “The idea is to help them think more entrepreneurially so to achieve economic sustainability so we don’t have to always chase large amounts of money when we’re working with the poor, and we can break the cycle of the dependency so the people can do the work themselves,” he explains.

Giving Catholic Social Ministries a “Boost”

Fr. Cooke held his first Boost program for Catholic social ministries in Nicaragua last month. The three-day workshop of core business lessons helps early-stage social entrepreneurs learn business fundamentals, improve their strategic thinking and articulate a business plan that demonstrates impact, growth and long-term financial sustainability. 

During the workshop, which included 14 organizations and about 30 participants, Fr. Cooke helped get the attendees thinking about economic sustainability. By the end of the Boost, the organizations have the strategies and materials to grow their enterprise in a financially sustainable manner and apply for the funding and capacity building programs they need to grow.

Fr. Cooke (right) with participants from his Boost workshop in Nicaragua last month.

“We want to help ministries develop a sustainable business model based on social impact, not based solely on profit for the sake of profit,” he explains. For instance, staff from Catholic Charities in Estelí, Nicaragua, attended the Boost with a business plan to begin a program for impoverished women who lack access to quality health care. With the mentoring they received at the Boost, the staff realized that with a business plan steeped in financial sustainability and social impact, not only could they start one clinic over the next seven to 10 years, but they could actually start two clinics within three years and eventually 15 to 20 clinics over seven years. 

Fr. Cooke’s Boost was the first one geared specifically toward Catholic organizations committed to social justice ministries. In his workshop, he targets three Catholic social teaching principles: dignity of the human person; a preferential option for the poor; and subsidiarity, which says that human affairs should be handled at the level closest to the affected people.

JITA Social Business Bangladesh Limited is an example of a social enterprise participating in the Center for Science, Technology, and Society's Global Social Benefit Institute Accelerator. JITA Bangladesh established an Avon-like sales business that employs women to sell consumer goods to other women. 

Fr. Cooke also says he uses the Jesuit term “magis” in the workshop, in the sense of trying to create, with the help of God, new ways to get the poor to help get themselves out of poverty. “So the magis here is the creative thinking of finding new ways with God to eradicate poverty that dehumanizes the person,” he says.

Through the Boost program, Fr. Cooke says that, while it might not be “the” way to address the needs of those suffering a dehumanizing poverty, he has found “a” way in which he believes he can assist the poor in their struggle for justice and liberation.

Fr. Cooke celebrated Mass prior to the Boost in La Garnacha, Nicaragua, a community rooted in social entrepreneurship.

Fr. Cooke is excited about the future of the program; he’s planning another Boost workshop for this summer in the Philippines. He notes that before he was a Jesuit, he used to take students from Loyola University Chicago to Central America just to see things. “Now I’m going down to actually teach the people to teach themselves how to break the chains of poverty and injustice, which violently entraps so many of God’s children worldwide.

"I have always been asking myself how best to work with the marginalized and suffering in the world. Through my work at CSTS, God and my colleagues are teaching and showing me the way. I could not ask for a more joyful life!"

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