When Joanna Arellano was a little girl, she wanted to become a nun like Mother Teresa and dedicate her life to caring for the poor. Nearly three decades later, Arellano is a student at Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, where she is combining her passion for justice with her spirituality.  

“My dream is to help ground justice movements through spirituality,” said Arellano, an online student in GRE’s master’s program in Christian spirituality and the daughter of immigrant blue-collar workers. “When organizers aren’t spiritually grounded, it can easily lead to burnout. The more that we can center [spirituality]… the more that people can see their work as an extension of their love for God, the Earth, and people.”

Reimagining the Catholic Church

Arellano is a first-generation Mexican American from Little Village or “La Villita,” a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. Her mother, a former public school cafeteria worker, often took Arellano and her three sisters to labor union protests and marches, where Arellano learned how to advocate for social justice. 

“My mom modeled what it means to fight oppression with your community. That planted so many seeds about how I see the world,” Arellano said in a Zoom call from her home in Chicago, where she attends her Fordham classes remotely. 

Two men and three women smile for a group photo.
Arellano with CSPL co-founder Gabriel Lara; her mother’s best friend, Teresa; her mother, Armida; and her husband, Michael

Over the next decade, Arellano combined her Catholic spirituality with her passion for workers’ rights at several organizations, where she coordinated communication efforts and managed funding. Among them was the Archdiocese of Chicago. 

“Seeing both the light and the shadow of the church helped me form connections with like-minded people. We reimagined a church where we center the voices and experiences of Catholic people of color, launch campaigns to improve neighborhoods, hold people in power accountable, and talk openly about the systems of oppression that affect us,” Arellano said. 

She was inspired to co-found the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, a nonprofit that teaches faith leaders how to engage in local social justice campaigns related to gender, class, racism, and the environment through the lens of Catholic spiritual and theological traditions. 

While developing CSPL’s curriculum, Arellano considered what she learned from Fordham. 

Three men and one woman standing and smiling next to each other
Arellano and her husband, Michael Nicolás Okińczyc-Cruz, GRE ’18, with GRE faculty at the 2019 International Academy of Practical Theology Biennial Conference in Brazil. Photo courtesy of GRE

“In our CSPL training programs and workshops, we use a lot of Ignatian spirituality and contemplative imagination, including works that I’ve read about in class,” said Arellano. “I’m also going to lead a program that looks at mystical texts and see how we can apply and ground them through a racial, gender, and class analysis. I attribute and credit all of that to Fordham.”

Her Fordham studies have also helped her with her full-time job as a press strategist for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where she assists affiliates with their strategic communication and teaches domestic workers how to share their stories with the media. Arellano said it was a Fordham pastoral counseling course that strengthened her skills in deeply listening to the domestic workers that the alliance serves. 

“When they share their stories and vulnerable moments, you really need to discern how you move that conversation along and also help people who feel like they’re stuck in a repetitive trauma story cycle. The skills that I learned [from Fordham]helped me deepen how intentionally I listen during my spokesperson prep sessions with leaders,” Arellano said. “My mom was one of the spokespeople for her union, and I knew how transformative it was for her to share her experience in the media, especially when it’s tied to a call to action and to demand change. I’ve seen the transformation of working with domestic workers who felt really shy about sharing their story, but then through building trust and working with them, I’ve heard members say, ‘You can put me in front of 10,000 people, and I still want to share my story.’” 

A woman wearing glasses and a gray blazer stands in front of a dry erase board with writing on it.
Arellano teaches Dominican University students about community organizing at a CSPL event.

Dear Catholic Women of Color

Arellano enrolled in GRE in 2018 to strengthen her spiritual life and identity as a Catholic woman. Her thesis paper will examine how Mexican-American Catholic women can fuel their faith by drawing from indigenous practices. 

“I come from a Mexican family and a line of women who worked closely with herbs and had a great reverence for the Earth and the elements, and I want to honor the indigenous lineage that I carry. But we’re also Catholic,” Arellano said. “My thesis will focus on how we can deepen our relationship with our [faith]and our ascended ancestors while thinking about the gifts that Mother Earth offers us through plants and the elements.” 

Arellano, who is aiming to graduate in February 2022, says she’s grateful for her time at Fordham. 

“I never imagined I would be in a theology program that is so prestigious, warm, and welcoming, where it’s constantly challenged me to be better … where I feel like the dean is actively recruiting more women of color to be theologians, more professors who are people of color,” Arellano said. “I wish I had a megaphone and could say to any other Catholic woman of color, ‘If your heart desires theological training and formation, your first thought should be Fordham.’”