TOWNSHIP — Dan Toussant says he was raised as a “typical Republican white man” who didn’t have to worry much about issues of race, injustice or privilege.
From a devout Catholic family, he attended Our Lady of Peace School, Central Catholic High School, and Boston University.
“I was raised to be a Wall Street guy,” he said. “I read the Wall Street Journal when I was in seventh grade.”
But new friendships and exposure to people who didn’t fit her demographics served to change Toussant’s perspective.
“I was kind of a hybrid,” he said. “Up until this year, I’ve voted for as many Democrats as I’ve voted for Republicans. I’ve always been interested in social justice things. But when we invaded Iraq, it’s what did this to me. I mean, I knew it was a lie; weapons of mass destruction; it was just a lie orchestrated by the government.”
Years later, Toussant, who attended mass every week at christ the servant parish, became one of the founders of the Stark County chapter of Pax Christi, a global Catholic organization for peace and social justice that focuses on issues such as military spending, nuclear weapons, climate change and racism.
Formed by a group of French Catholic lay people in 1945, Pax Christi is based on four principles:
1. Christian nonviolence at personal, community, national and international levels.
2. Disarmament, demilitarization and reconciliation with justice.
3. Economic and interracial justice.
4. Human rights and world restoration.
The group, which began in March, meets on the third Wednesday of every month at Christ the Servant Catholic Church at 833 39th St. NW.
Toussant said this was the first chapter of Pax Christi in the Diocese of Youngstown. You don’t have to be Catholic to join.
Toussant said he was a longtime admirer of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who started Pax Christi USA in the 1970s.
“To me, he’s a real leader, but there are very few in the church,” he said.
A loyal reader of the National Catholic Reporter, Toussant says he also studied the life of Catholic activist Dorothy Day, whose granddaughter, Martha Hennessy, visited Walsh University and the Joshua Casteel Catholic Workers’ Home at Alliance in 2014.
In 2020, Hennessy was arrested and sentenced to prison for breaking into the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia during a protest against its stockpile of nuclear weapons.
A quiet defender of peace
“I have long been a quiet advocate for peace, but as I mentioned, I read the National Catholic Reporter every day and I read the Bible,” he said.
Toussant said he also follows the activities of peace activist Kathy Kelly, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who has been repeatedly arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons facilities.
“I knew she was there a bit and opposed the war in Iraq, but she was also very active in Afghanistan because she is convinced that those who are most affected by the war , it’s women and children,” he said. “So, honestly, I’ve always been a little nervous about Pax Christi because they’re so adamantly opposed to war. Violence and resistance to evil in the Martin Luther King-Gandhi mode is a way of to have troubles.”
In May, Tom Fox, former editor of the National Catholic Reporter, and his wife were arrested in Kansas City, Missouri, during a peace demonstration.
“It’s like the government is always afraid of making heroes out of people who oppose the war,” Toussant said.
But Toussant said he was not looking to go to jail. Instead, the new chapter is looking for ways to make positive differences in the local community. Before the pandemic, Toussant was part of a contingent that helped organize twice-weekly masses for young offenders at Indian River Youth Prison in Massillon, which were led by Sister Kathleen O’Donnell.
“We wanted them to know they were important,” he said. “You did a lot more listening than preaching.”
He also worked with now-retired social worker Bev Jordan and the Community Support Network, who encouraged him to “do something” consistently, which helps build relationships and build trust.
“I have been a benefactor all my life”
At a recent meeting, the new chapter welcomed the Reverend Edward Brienz of Youngstown, founder of Cafe Augustine, which hires and trains ex-criminals and other underemployed and homeless young adults, and provides them with rental housing.
“We try to love our faith and we have to make a difference,” Brienz said. “It’s a chance for people to renew their lives without being stigmatized. I consider it a privilege to be in a ministry like this. We are a front line for people of good will.”
Brienz noted that the Pax Christi meeting was dominated by older adults.
“It makes perfect sense that people on the front line have a few gray hairs,” he laughed. “At a certain age, you start sifting through what is essential in life.”
Members then discussed how they could support the ministry in Brienz and local reintegration programs.
John Cihon said he joined Pax Christi because his parents raised him to be caring.
“I’ve been a benefactor all my life,” he said with a smile. “I was also inspired by John F. Kennedy. You have an obligation.”
Sister Karen Bernhardt has long been involved in groups and ministries aimed at helping the most vulnerable, including human trafficking.
“My heart is with social justice,” she said. “What is happening in our world and in our country is quite significant.”
Betty Jaronski said she joined Pax Christi because she “wanted to be part of something that was happening”.
Toussant said he believes one of the reasons organized religion is in such turmoil is the lack of authenticity in its leadership and its efforts to protect the church hierarchy.
“That’s not my definition of the church,” he said. “I believe that where a Pax Christi Chapter forms, a community of believers wants to do something for the people. I think true faith is designed to build. To build a sense of brotherhood and community…if you want to understand how to build bridges with people, Pax Christi is a band that can do that.”