It's About Us, Not Him

09/29/2015 12:40 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

It wasn't until I saw the picture of Pope Francis through the window of his plane, preparing to depart, that it sunk in how hard the man had worked during his brief trip to the United States. Of course, with all the people wanting to meet him, and hear their issues on his lips, it would have taken a lifetime to meet our expectations. Still, Pope Francis spoke to so many different audiences, and delivered so many different messages that it will take some time to process the trip.

As someone who is Jewish and has spent two decades working closely with Catholic priests, sisters, and lay people in the pursuit of social justice, I found the experience of being in Philadelphia this past weekend thrilling. It wasn't just watching the Pope express his emotions, but seeing the joy on people's faces, that was so moving. And it wasn't so much the words, as the "loving gestures" - the beckoning to five-year old Sofi, the reaching out to hold the hand of an inmate - that made my heart melt.

People in the media and politics have already begun totaling up the box score on what the Pope said or didn't say during the trip. He spoke forcefully about climate change, raising the issue higher on the American agenda. He deftly reframed religious liberty as part of the larger need to respect difference. He underlined the need for the Catholic Church to create more space for women, and to let go of comforts to minister to the most vulnerable. He reinforced the momentum building to reform our failed criminal justice system to reduce the number of people behind bars.

But it is a mistake to see Pope Francis as an advocate for policies we may support or oppose. His theory of how things change is not that he speaks and politicians respond. This is not a "your wish is my command" approach to social change. He wants people to create change, and he wants those most at the margins to lead as protagonists of their own liberation. This is about people who are closest to the pain of injustice organizing to change the structures that deny them dignity.

The Pope provided Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic, with clear moral guidance on the most important issues we face as a society. Through his words and gestures, he pointed us toward the structures that are denying people dignity and offending God's will.

The Pope's role is to wake us up, to set our hearts on fire and focus our minds on the gap between what we profess and how we've organized our society. Our role is to act. The Pope has done his work in America, now we have to get to work.

I work for a faith-based network that helps people put their values into action to fight racism and poverty, and it has been exciting to see how many people want to walk in the footsteps of Pope Francis. We just kicked off 40 Days of Faithful Action to channel the energy from the visit into local campaigns to make our communities more inclusive. For example, many people are organizing local campaigns to get their cities and states to shift funding from prisons to schools and jobs, and to end contracts with private corporations that profit from, and lobby for, more people being incarcerated.

On Friday evening, as the Pope arrived in Philadelphia, I stood with 300 clergy and people of faith outside the city's Federal Detention Center. We carried signs that said: "We See You." As we prayed and heard stories from people with family members detained and imprisoned, we began hearing tapping above us. At first people were confused, but as the tapping on the windows increased in unison, we realized that the men and women inside the detention center were responding to being seen, and had joined our prayer vigil. Many of us were moved to tears, as we experienced the Pope's request to us that we see each other as brothers and sisters.

Tanti Martinez was there with a picture of her son Mario, who died this summer in the Santa Rita jail in Alameda County, California. Tanti believes that her son died because a private company, Corizon Health, responsible for health care at the prison, ignored three court orders to provide him with surgery. She is leading a grassroots campaign to make her county end its $250 million contract with Corizon.

The tapping that we heard at the detention center in Philadelphia is a reminder that Pope Francis is knocking on each of our doors, not asking us to follow him or anyone else, but to talk to each other, find our voices and organize together to be heard.