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Great Empathy & Compassion: The World Of Mrs. Jennifer Lystrup

(illustration by Nathan Hertzler) From their first days on campus, students at Christian Brothers are encouraged to participate in service opportunities. Some of us dread it, others embrace it. But few of us truly commit our lives to it. Religious Studies Teacher Mrs. Jennifer Lystrup is one of those individuals. In her position as a teacher of Comparative […]

(illustration by Nathan Hertzler)

From their first days on campus, students at Christian Brothers are encouraged to participate in service opportunities. Some of us dread it, others embrace it. But few of us truly commit our lives to it. Religious Studies Teacher Mrs. Jennifer Lystrup is one of those individuals. In her position as a teacher of Comparative Religions, Social Justice, and Christian Morality, she strives to cultivate a more just and service-driven community. Students who make their way through Mrs. Lystrup’s class are often struck by her intense and topical teaching.

I met Ms. Lystrup as school let out on a Thursday afternoon. She greeted me, but asked me to wait outside her classroom momentarily while she spoke with a student. I obliged and shortly reentered to begin our conversation. Her classroom was especially plain — on the walls were just several student-made posters showcasing symbols of major religions. A Christian cross hung on a large blue poster at the back of the class, flanked by similar ones for Islam, Aboriginal, and Pagan faiths, among others.

She sat at her desk in the corner of her room, surrounded in turn by a myriad of posters. Many of them were also religious, one in particular featuring a cross section of the Vatican and another with Celtic art. Behind her hung an image of an ancient Egyptian temple and near the window was an image of her flanked by signatures and well wishes from her former students. Beside her was a bookshelf full of various texts, as well as a table with stacks of her students’ completed work. She smiled cheerfully as we began to talk, first focusing on how she came to find her vocation. Mrs. Lystrup expressed immediately that a life as a teacher was not what she initially anticipated. 

“It really wasn’t my intention to be a teacher,” she explained. “In the beginning, my hope was to be an artist, and be successful at it. That didn’t work out, and Plan B was to teach.”

“I’ve been here almost twenty years, so I think I’ve taught every single religious studies class that’s been offered, even the courses that have gone away,” described Mrs. Lystrup. “One of the reasons I like teaching comparative religions is because I think that people underestimate religion and how important it is to others in the world. I think it’s important to have a good understanding of more of the connections. We have more connectedness than disconnection.” 

Mrs. Lystrup became motivated to pursue such principles at a young age. 

“Social justice has just always been a part of me ever since I was little. I remember being very little, and my family and I were in a car — my brother and sister, my mom and dad — and we were driving and we drove by this area just down the road, and it was kind of a run down area, this little house by itself, it was all run down. And I remember seeing kids my age, and it just struck me. I couldn’t intellectualize it — I was little, but I knew that there was something different. And that’s sort of always stuck with me, and I try to pay attention to that throughout my life.”

Mrs. Lystrup’s activism went through several distinct stages. Over the years, she lent her time and energy to several different causes before finally finding what she was passionate about.

“My first protest happened when I was eighteen years old, and I was protesting ‘no nukes’. I used to sing. I raised some money for homeless, did a little concert for that. Nothing big, but it was fun. [I] just always did little things, and that culminated in paying attention to homelessness, making a film off of it, just paying attention to the disenfranchised, the marginalized,” she says.

Additionally, Mrs. Lystrup expressed a want to help those in different ways than she has done previously.

“I just kind of want to do things for people who are quietly having to deal with their own issues, so right now I’m doing some baking for the Ronald McDonald House and the parents there. I can’t imagine what that would be like, to have a child that’s sick and to have to relocate and be there and not have healthy food all the time or just have some homemade goods.”

Mrs. Lystrup expressed to me that she is by no means done with service.

“Maybe five or six years from now after I retire, I’m thinking a lot about food justice, and how I can keep that spirit alive of feeding people and maybe trying to do that on a larger scale. It’s in the works.”

“A Big Issue”

But of all the things Mrs. Lystrup has been involved in throughout her life, it is her work with the homeless by which she has been most affected — “it’s a big issue” she told me plainly. Anyone who has had Mrs. Lystrup for Comparative Religion or Social Justice knows of her many stories of the impoverished people she has met. Her stories of the homeless are eclectic and extremely affecting.

“I went to Wind Youth [Services in Sacramento] because they had a small program for trafficked youth, and someone [there] said ‘you should talk to this guy named Sonny because he does a lot of outreach and he could probably put you in touch with individuals who have been recovered or have been on the streets and trafficked'”

 “I just sat down and had this incredible conversation with him and he said; ‘why don’t you come out with me’. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘maybe you should start meeting the youth that are out on the streets that are really struggling. The homeless youth that have been dropped through the cracks, basically.”

Over time, work with the homeless became a frequent activity for her. As Mrs. Lystrup continued to grow closer to those she met on the streets, she also began to question the commonly held notions on homelessness.

“Every day I got to know people — [Sonny] helped me earn their trust. I took photographs, I talked to them, heard their stories, took closer looks at organizations that were helping homeless. What were they really doing? Were they really reaching the goals that they wanted to reach? And what defines homelessness and what doesn’t? That went on, I would say, for probably a good five years.”

“I met a lot of people.” Mrs. Lystrup said.  “I met a young man that I really loved named Paul. He was just a really kind young man who’d been homeless, grew up homeless, grew up in a tent, and was one of the few young people I’d met that actually finished high school. He really, really wanted to do something with his life, but he didn’t have the skills to really know how to do that, and he was just so used to being on the streets that that was just who he was. But he was really kind, I brought him to school a couple of times to meet the students in Social Justice, and they were really drawn to him as well.”

“Unfortunately, he had a lot of things happen to him in his life, and he had a very difficult life, and he ended up taking his life,” Mrs. Lystrup says, pausing, trying to find her words. 

“That’s pretty difficult,” she says. “Pretty hard.”

She spoke to me about a young man she met on the street who was an alcoholic and another addicted to meth and trying to get off the drug but having difficulty. In her classes, she speaks of even more people, of those who are coerced and trafficked, sometimes across the country. About those who she has met who have been on the streets for decades, who have grown used to living in tents or have tried to take care of each other despite circumstance. And about those whom she has seen during their first days being homeless, those who are sure they will not be on the street more than a few days. But as Mrs. Lystrup described to me, it is the homeless youth she meets around Sacramento who have had the greatest impact on her. 

“I think you look at these young people out on the streets,” she tells me. “They have incredible potential, and it just gets lost.”

Beautiful Youth

It was this connection with homeless youth that compelled Mrs. Lystrup to make a film entitled Beautiful Youth

“When I see homeless people, it doesn’t matter if it’s young or old — I just see beauty in them, even when you see them at their worst,” she says. “I have seen them at their worst and still manage to see that — especially in young people, there is that spark.” 

But telling this story posed its own challenges, primarily the fact that Mrs. Lystrup had up until that point never tried to make a film.

“I had never picked up a camera in my life,” she says, “I started out with a former student [Mackenzie Long ’11]…It was a very rough film, and it was just interviewing homeless youth; what was your life like, what were the circumstances, that sort of thing. It got shown at the Crest Theater at the Sacramento Film Festival, [and] it won best attended. And that was kind of nice, but I kind of felt really overwhelmed. ”

When the film was screened, a question and answer period followed, in which Mrs. Lystrup brought together some of the homeless youth she had spoken to for the project. The event ended up lasting longer than the film, and Mrs. Lystrup told me how struck she was by the discussion. 

“There was one man — I was shocked — what he said was ‘you have actors up there because they’re too well spoken to have been homeless or to be homeless’. And they were homeless. And that was wild, to look at individuals and say ‘you’re too well spoken so there’s no way you can be this’. It’s kind of crazy. But it was a success for sure.”

Since then, Mrs. Lystrup has contemplated going back to film.

“I wanted to make more film, and in the back of my mind, I have all of these ideas, but I never felt confident holding a camera.”

“Great Opportunity”

In particular, people have the tendency write off the destitute as having allowed their situation to happen to themselves.

“I think a lot of people look at homeless and say ‘they made their choice’, and they don’t look at what’s behind that choice, they don’t look at what put them there,” the homeless advocate says. “I met a young woman who, honestly, her mother left and her father sexually assaulted her. So what’s her choice? She felt like nobody heard her. Certainly there were services that could have helped her, but she didn’t know that. So she went out onto the streets instead, and she prostituted herself. And that was her self-worth.”

“But you can’t look at someone and say they’ve made their choice and that’s that. You have to look and see that person and what had to happen to get them to that point. And I always, frankly, look at anybody that is in dire situations and just think they’re there by the grace of God. It could be me, and I hope no one would walk by me and make judgement.”

When asked what other service she has undertaken in her career, she speaks of the work she has done abroad, primarily an affecting experience she had on a service trip in India.

“I did Vandu Paru in India, which is a Venaver for the teachers, and so I went to [the city of] Tuticorin and actually was teaching in one of our [Lasallian] schools there. It was a really incredible experience, but I also got to experience a little bit of India and occasionally sneak out and explore the streets. The comparative poverty — it’s different.”

She stops and pauses again.

Finding her words, she tells me that “poverty is poverty, but we have more structures set up, I think, to help people who are impoverished than over there, and there’s a whole philosophy where individuals believe that’s karma. Not everybody obviously, but we have better structures set up to help than over there. It was sometimes very difficult to see.”

But as Mrs. Lysturp expressed to me, the gravity of the experience did not fully resonate with her until she returned to the United States, specifically when she continued with her regular outreach.

When I came back, I continued to work with homeless. It was really difficult for me to do at first because of what I saw over there. But then you do have to realize — poverty is poverty. You just have to be present to it. I have to be present to it.”

“This school has provided great opportunity for me,” she tells me, as our discussion shifted again, this time to how Mrs. Lystrup teaches and what her time at Christian Brothers has offered her with. 

“I just try to be open, and so when I teach, for some students, it’s not their style, but I try to be open: ‘this is what I experienced — does any of this resonate with you. And have you seen it in your life?’ So I feel like I’ve had a very supportive community in terms of…social justice, and the ability to go places and really experience it. I’m very grateful for that.”

Mrs. Lystrup then explained how she tries to inspire students when teaching such difficult subject as those Social Justice presents.

“What I want to impart on students is that it’s a big world out there and don’t close your eyes to it. There’s a lot of need out there. And no, not everybody is gonna get their hands dirty in all of this stuff, but do something. Contribute something.”

A More Inclusive Community

Up until now, I had asked mostly about what I knew Mrs. Lystrup was comfortable with sharing. Her many experiences with the poor all around the world are well known at Christian Brothers, and in some cases, well documented. But I wanted to see what Mrs. Lystrup thought of our community. I asked her what she thought was the biggest social justice issue Christian Brothers was facing at the moment. In my head I expected she would be diplomatic about it, and I watched her pause again, patiently thinking of an answer. After a moment, her response came to her.

“I’ll be very honest,” she told me. “I think we, meaning everyone, [need to work on being] a more inclusive community. There are issues with race, I think there are issues with antisemitism. I think that there is a need to have more training about what is inclusive, what is diversity. We are working on that, but it needs to be more.”

Mrs. Lystrup elaborated on how she saw the problem manifesting itself, but more optimistically, on how she hopes it could be remedied within our community.

“I have to say, it is frustrating when I hear students say ‘oh, it’s just a joke’. It’s not. And that type of stuff does not fly in the real world. And so part of my job as an educator is to sit and have these conversations, and some students don’t like it, and some students I think listen, and maybe there are some students who have a wall up, and hopefully there’s a crack and that they hear it.”

“[Social Justice] needs to be everywhere. One of our core principles is social justice, and you can do social justice in good academics. Everything else can fall under that umbrella.”

A Great Deal Of Joy

After having spoken for almost an hour, we had discussed decades worth of service to the community and Christian Brothers. But it didn’t seem right to focus only on this aspect of Mrs. Lystrup’s life. Her outreach efforts certainly are not all-encompassing to her, even if they are integral to her character. I asked Mrs. Lystrup if she could tell me what she enjoyed outside of everything we had discussed. Simply, what made her her.

“I love to paint,” she began with a smile. “I used to paint a lot more than I do now — I had a couple of shows. I do like photography, I like to say I’m terrible with a camera, but I’m good with a still camera. I get great joy doing road trips. Anthony, my husband, and I trip a lot and go on back roads. I’m not into freeway culture. The world is so beautiful.” 

Beaming, she continued, and a whole range of passions and hobbies quickly became clear.

“I get a great deal of joy, it sounds silly, out of baking because I like to feed people. I love my cats, and my daughter of course. Mostly I think I like traveling, and I just like… turning the radio on, listening to some good music, and just driving. Honestly, I love the coastal area of Northern California, it is amazing. Trinidad is one of my favorite places. I like the cold ocean, and just the green background.”

This exchange struck me. As a student it is always odd to see a teacher out of their element. We often learn to associate our teachers with the subjects they teach or the anecdotes they share in class. We find it difficult to disconnect that from the reality that they still have things they enjoy on their own time. In Mrs. Lystrup’s case, our conversation has shown me that she is not only a talented teacher, but a fascinating and multi-faceted individual. It also brought new meaning to something Mrs. Lystrup told me earlier in the interview about her relationship with Social Justice. When I asked her how she thought her views on Social Justice influenced her teaching, she answered quite frankly.

“I don’t know, does it? Does it influence how I teach? It does, but it’s just part of my life experience, and so it seems very natural just to talk about these issues and who we can be as people. And I don’t know if that impacts students or not. I think everybody has their own path and they have to figure it out, but I hope that they at least hear some of this and try to connect to their life.”

It additionally explained a statement Mrs. Lystrup had made about how she perceives teaching Social Justice. She does not see the course as needing to be something as regimented as the other subjects students encounter, but rather as a course where learning includes developing opinions and having a growing passion for the subject.

“I don’t know how to grade social justice. I can grade on tests and things, but I get more satisfaction from listening to what you have to say. You have a lot to say, and we need to listen to that more,” she says. “I want to talk about the things that are important to you all.”

Mrs. Lystrup volunteering her time, doing community service, and teaching about Social Justice concepts is simply her way of expressing that desire to be an advocate for others. It is a passion of hers — one she wants to pass on.

Natalie Leclerc (’19) has known Mrs. Lystrup as a teacher and through her moderation of the Pride Club. She expressed similar feelings of admiration for Mrs. Lystrup’s love for the subject.

“She is the perfect teacher to teach Social Justice. Her dedication to her students and her fellow person is remarkable,” Natalie described. “She teaches the same way she leads: with great empathy and compassion.”

As my interview with Mrs. Lystrup began to wind down, I started to pack up my belongings to leave. Right before I shut off my recording device, she made a comment that sums her teaching up rather nicely.

“I really do appreciate this — I think there are so many more teachers that have a lot to say,” she said humbly.

She pauses again for a moment before going on.

“I guess I feel like a lot of times when I teach, I do try to teach from the heart.”

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