ALLOUEZ — Rachel Westenberg remembers sitting on her father’s lap during a JOSHUA (Justice Organization Sharing Hope and United for Action) bus trip when she was only 6 years old. Today, Rachel is the organization’s community organizer.
“Great gifts passed along,” she said about the influence of her parents, Mike and Ann Westenberg.
JOSHUA is a coalition of faith communities in Brown County that works on social justice issues and community building. Rachel also works with RUTH (Responding with Understanding and Hope), the social justice organization in Manitowoc, and is a member of the community council for St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter in Green Bay and active at St. Matthew Parish in Allouez.
“I run the task force meetings, provide feedback to our board and work with our core teams within the different congregations locally,” she said about her community planner responsibilities. “I try to keep up with everybody.”
Rachel also partners with other social justice organizations. She works closely on regional activities with Stephanie Gyldenvand, community organizer for ESTHER of the Fox Valley.
JOSHUA leaders gathered on Feb. 6 for an assembly on “Faith, Values and Race.” The organization focuses on key issues affecting the community.
“Currently, we are working on immigration and prison reform, as well as mental health,” said Rachel. “We are branching out. In April, we are having an environmental justice gathering. It’s something the religious leader caucus called forward. It had a lot to do with the pope’s encyclical (Laudato Si) and other religious figures coming forward and saying this is something we need to get serious about.
“We like to be an avenue of education as well as advocacy,” she added. “We are working on having a public forum on human trafficking. Homelessness in Brown County is also a huge issue.”
Rachel values the opportunity to connect with people of other faiths.
“It’s very interesting to see what I’ve always known as Catholic social teaching reflected in faiths with other values,” she said. “It’s really interesting to have those conversations with people about core values; what ties us together and causes us to act on an issue.”
Rachel said that many of her core values were formed through youth service opportunities. She participated in Young Neighbors in Action, which took her to other parts of the country.
“I remember going to Cincinnati. Washington, D.C. was a great experience,” she explained. “We actually were able to sit down with our legislators and talk to them about some of the things we had seen, not only in our community, but in the community we were working in that week. Last year was my first year back as a chaperone. I made the trip with a group from St. Matt’s. Being in a minivan for eight hours with teenagers is fun.”
A trip to Haiti two years ago also stands out among her service experiences. Rachel traveled with members of Hands and Hearts for Haiti, including Kay Schumacher of St. Matthew Parish, after helping the organization with its communication efforts, including their website.
“I remember being able to talk to the village people and asking them what they wanted,” she said. “I had no idea it would play such a big role in my life. It was such a change of thinking for me, actually asking people how we can help instead of, ‘Here’s something for you.’”
Rachel’s office at St. Matthew is located between the offices of Mike, her father, longtime director of religious education at the parish, and Fr. Bob Kabat, pastor.
“They are a wealth of information,” she said. “I am so blessed to have both of them, as well as my cohort in the Fox Cities (Gyldenvand). I grew up here. I was baptized and made my first Communion in the old church and was confirmed in the new church. I can remember being in middle school at St. Matt’s and coming over and sitting with my dad in his office because I didn’t like recess.”
Her parish involvement includes singing in the choir, directed by her mother, Ann.
“I think I’ve sung in my mom’s choir ever since I could walk,” said Rachel. “I love coming to Mass when the choir is singing. Every first and third Sunday. My mom takes the percussion instruments away from me and my dad pretty often.”
Rachel encourages people to get involved in justice issues. All gifts and talents are needed.
“Whether it is data entry for people who have turned out to an event or a public speaking role at one of our forums, your talents are definitely needed and can be utilized,” she said. “We welcome anyone and everyone.”
Rachel has discovered a love of politics through her work with JOSHUA and RUTH. She plans to go back to school to study political science and wants to run for public office in the future. In the meantime, she will continue to organize and attend meetings and make and take calls from other organizers, leaders and legislators.
“I don’t know how many other people can say that they actually live out their faith by what they do,” she said. “That’s something that every day I am so thankful and blessed to be able to do.”