Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine has famously said that he was forever changed by his nine-month stint in 1980 as a volunteer with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. No wonder the Jesuit Volunteer Corps motto is “Ruined for Life.”
That vision has sometimes been dimmed as Kaine has navigated our political process, with its outside role for powerful corporate elites, but the idealism of his youth has not been extinguished. Indeed, it promises to illuminate his candidacy, the presidential contest ― and, perhaps, even the democratic process itself.
“I was a 21-year-old first-year student at Harvard Law School. I was racing through my studies with no clear thoughts about what to do,” the Senator has recalled. “A ‘still small voice’ urged me to take a year off to figure it out.” He wrote to Jesuits who had taught him in his suburban Kansas City high school, but who now were working in the Honduran town of El Progreso. At that Jesuit high school the faith of his childhood had matured into a call for service to others, “the North Star: the organizing principle for what I wanted to do,” as he said at the rally introducing him as the vice presidential candidate, adding, “I knew I wanted to do something to devote myself to social justice.”
In El Progreso Kaine discovered that his “recently-acquired knowledge of constitutional law was pretty useless, but the experience of working in my dad’s iron-working shop was actually kind of helpful, so I trained teenagers to learn carpentry and welding, and they helped me to learn Spanish.”
He was seared by the political and economic oppression that he witnessed. As one of the Jesuits, the late Jerrell “Patricio” Wade, told The Washington Post in 2012, “Tim saw a system where very few people dominated and had all the money and power.”
The young man found the witness of those he met under these circumstances to be nothing short of heroic. “The people humbled me with their generous friendship and lives of deep faith,” he explained in a 2015 essay for The Richmond Times-Dispatch. As for the Jesuits, he noted that they “became my role models at a time when I needed direction. My 30-plus years as a civil rights lawyer and elected official have been built on the foundation of what I learned in Honduras.”
Thirty five years later, as United States Senator and former Governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine revisited El Progreso. He toured the school which, in his words, had grown to “a bustling campus of 300 young men and women learning welding, carpentry, culinary arts, electrical engineering and other professions.” And yet “this still-poor country,” he noted, “now has the highest murder rate in the world,” even as these young people still, in his words, “want to build a future for themselves and their country — where escape is no longer necessary.”
As the running mate of the former Secretary of State, however, Kaine made no mention of her support in 2009 of the controversial coup that ousted the elected president of Honduras and arguably made conditions worse. And the Senator, like Secretary Clinton ― and unlike her erstwhile presidential rival Bernie Sanders ― has made his own compromises with the moneyed elites that increasingly dictate our political priorities, as with his support of the corporate-drafted Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he only recently disavowed in the face of overwhelming criticism from the Democratic base ― not to mention the general public.
But the Senator’s heart seems, at least in part, to remain in solidarity with “the least of these”. On that 35th anniversary visit to El Progreso, he recalled that the highlight of the Mass was
the homily that included a reading of a pastoral letter from Pope Francis, our Latin American Jesuit shepherd, challenging each community, parish and person “a ser islas de misericordia en medio de un mar de indiferencia” — to be islands of mercy in the midst of a sea of indifference. There are so many reasons to succumb to indifference. But the world needs “islands of mercy” everywhere, from the poorest barrio, to the altars of our churches, to the halls of government. I celebrate my friends in El Progreso for teaching me, then and now, this simple and beautiful truth.
It has been rightly pointed out that Kaine’s Spanish-speaking ability will help the Democratic ticket with Hispanic voters. What has been overlooked, however, is the fact that Kaine can appeal to the only religious voting block that is not leaning toward either Clinton or Trump: white Catholics. After all, his is a life informed by his faith.
And as the El Progreso experience taught him, his faith’s Greatest Commandment is “Love God, Love Your Neighbor.” Not that anyone fulfills this fully ― and not that the Catholic Church hasn’t had its share of failings ― but that “love is the measure by which we will be judged,” as Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day put it.
The call to love is one that Americans of every spiritual viewpoint long to hear, especially now, with most Americans alienated from both presidential candidates and, increasingly, from the democratic process itself. What we need is a broad social movement to combat the outsize role of money in politics.
In fact, most Americans support this cause, and as vice president Kaine would have the potential to be its advocate in the White House ― if, that is, he listened to that “still, small voice” that, so many years ago, had prompted him to take another daring but rewarding leap. As Father Wade put it to The Washington Post, “Tell him that he needs to stay faithful to the principles of justice.”