University is a dizzying experience. As a student, you are constantly inundated with tasks, ideas and people competing for your time and energy – and this year that comes with added fears and complications from COVID. When I was studying, pursuing justice often felt like another thing added to that list.

Like many of my friends, I first explored social justice theologically when I came to university.  Although I loved getting involved with volunteering, campaigning and serving on the St Andrews Just Love committee, I also remember feeling really overwhelmed by how complicated the pursuit of justice can be. So, as a place to start, here are a couple of questions:

Who needs help?

Injustice is the product of broken relationships within God’s once fully whole and just world. This brokenness pervades societies, the environment, families and political structures. Partnering with God as He restores these relationships is part of our personal and collective worship to Him. 

James says it pretty clearly: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27). James positions us to ask a very simple question: who is in distress? Or, even simpler, who needs help? 

Throughout my four years studying at St Andrews, I lived with multiple people who struggled with their physical or mental health. At the time, answering the ‘who needs help?’ question involved opening my bedroom door and looking across the hallway. However, I often became so overwhelmed learning about the magnitude of global injustices, such as human trafficking or persecution, that I would overlook the needs of those closest to me. With COVID restrictions imposed or looming, this is the perfect time to really examine and respond to the situations of those who are close to us. 

At the same time, the threat of COVID has only intensified the suffering of our global neighbours living in poverty and oppression. To fully answer the ‘who needs help?’ question, we must persistently keep ourselves informed on situations of injustice around the world and continue praying for them.

What resources do I have and how can I use them?

Just as our former question requires perception of the world around us, these latter questions require perception of ourselves. Determining ‘who needs help?’ only remains simple if we define the parameters of the help we can give. These parameters shift according to the time, energy and financial restrictions we have, and according to what God may be saying to us specifically. What gifts, resources, time and insight do we have? What don’t we have that we should leave to someone else?

In my first year, Just Love St Andrews organised a Mean Bean campaign, where you commit to eating only porridge, rice and beans for a week, to get a small insight into food poverty. I loved being part of the Just Love community, feeling personally challenged, and getting involved in the fundraising of that campaign. Two years later, we repeated the same campaign, but my health situation had changed. This time I really struggled but persisted out of determination that I wouldn’t let my health hinder my pursuit of justice. 

My motivations got mixed up: I started categorising acts of justice by how ‘successful’ they seemed, rather than as personal acts of worship. My parameters had shifted, and I was no longer the right person for pursuing justice in that way – and that was totally OK. To engage in social justice, we must make personal sacrifices, but these should always be prefaced with self-awareness. ‘Self-care’ is a trendy phrase these days, but it is an essential component of building sustainable, whole-life pursuits of justice.

Alternatively, God often uses our pursuits of justice to challenge and grow us. Although I tend to find event organisation deeply stressful, I (ironically) joined the Just Love committee as the Events and Campaigns Coordinator in my fourth year. I realised that I had the resources and time to give, and I felt God growing my capabilities. I loved thinking creatively and planning new events which would help people engage in different and memorable ways. Ultimately, God defines our parameters, even if we think we’d be more comfortable somewhere else. 

Even with my small peak into graduate life, I see that the most sustainable pursuits are those which are personal, responsive to our surroundings, and use the resources and gifts which God has already given us. 

Ema Nightingale is a graduate of St Andrews and was part of the 2019-2020 Just Love St Andrews committee.