Lois Harr Takes Center Stage At Agape Latte

by EMILY HOLLAR & PETE JANNYContributor & Asst. Sports Editor

The first Agape Latte of the semester took place last Tuesday night in Jasper Hall Lounge with a good turnout from the college community. Agape Latte has become a big hit at the college over the years, giving students a chance to take a break from their studies to participate in an event conducive for fellowship and goodwill.

Prior to the signature faith-based talk of every Agape Latte, students and administrators get the chance to socialize over the provided coffee and snacks. The speaker for this occasion was Lois Harr, who has worked at the college as an Adjunct Professor in the Religious Studies Department and as the Assistant Vice President of Campus Ministry and Social Action for the past 22 years.

Speaker Lois Harr begins her riveting story of one thing leading to another. EMILY HOLLAR / THE QUADRANGLE

The title of her talk was “One Thing Led to Another: An Organizer On De La Salle’s Quad” in which Harr reflected on specific life experiences that helped lay the foundation for her commitment to social justice advocacy. The talk ended after 35 minutes of riveting storytelling from Harr.

Harr opened up her talk reminding the audience that despite what societal voices try to tell you, life will not always be fair. As a young girl growing up in the Bronx, Harr was forced to accept the reality that adversity is unavoidable no matter who you are. For example, one of the hardships that Harr and her family repeatedly had to endure was the lack of access to heat and hot water during the winter months.

Having witnessed firsthand the evolution of the Bronx, Harr can truly appreciate the Bronx we live in today.

“I don’t want to say the South Bronx used to look like a war zone, but it kind of did,” Harr said about the degeneration of the South Bronx in the 1970s. “There were blocks where there was just rubble and burnt out abandoned buildings.”

Outside of her own personal struggles, Harr began to think about how life wasn’t fair for many other types of people as well.

“I thought the riots in Newark weren’t fair; I thought the war in Vietnam wasn’t fair; and that women and minorities weren’t treated fairly,” Harr confessed.

It wasn’t until her high school years at Cardinal Spellman High School that Harr started to realize her intolerance for the lack of fairness in society was essentially a form of “social justice.” Before then, it never crossed her mind that those two words best described her frustrations with the world.

“I went through high school and I had this idea about fairness but what I didn’t know was that maybe what I was thinking about was social justice,” Harr said. “I had never put those words together before but I think that’s what it was.”

After high school, Harr went through a stretch in her life in which she lost connection with her faith. It wasn’t until seeing all the good work that the church was doing to rehabilitate the South Bronx in order for her to recognize the void she created by losing her faith in the first place.

“I finally saw the church in social action in fighting for justice so I had faith that was lost and then found,” Harr said of the inspiration she received by witnessing the recovery efforts in her community.

Harr would go on to attend Fordham University where she received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. While at Fordham, Harr began to develop an interest in community service. In 1973, she enrolled in a community service class that formed out of a rare partnership between Manhattan and Fordham. This class allowed her to directly contribute to the beautification of the South Bronx.

Born and raised in an Irish Catholic family, Harr found herself going to church at the same parish throughout her childhood years. Back then, religious worship was largely intertwined with social life, which meant families like hers spent most of their time around those who attended the same parish as they did. All the while, her husband grew up only a few blocks away from where she lived, even though they never crossed paths as kids. The chances of them meeting each other were very low from the start anyways, considering her future husband’s family belonged to a different Catholic parish.

“If you’re a Catholic from way back yesterday and you were from different parishes, it felt like you were from different towns,” Harr said.

It wouldn’t be until after graduation that Harr would meet her husband John Reilly. Other than the fact that she was about to enter into the biggest commitment of her life by marrying Reilly, this relationship also led to her eventually working at Manhattan College due to Reilly being an alum of the school.

Before finding her way to Manhattan, however, Harr still had to realize her vocation in life. That transformative moment came as an organizer after college when one day she felt called by God to devote her life to religious studies and education. Her choice to pursue a career in religious studies eventually led to the opportunity to work at Manhattan in 1997. In addition to her involvement with campus ministry, Harr was also hired to teach an experiential learning class at Manhattan. Twenty-two years later, Harr is still going strong in fulfilling her roles here on campus.

“I encourage everyone to answer when you are called because you will get calls,” Harr said. “Try to say yes when that moment comes.”

One of Harr’s claims to fame in the beginning of her tenure at Manhattan was her role in the establishment of a New York City public school on campus. The middle school opened in the late 1990s and was housed on the first floor of Hayden Hall until it found its own space elsewhere in 2008.

In the beginning of her career at Manhattan, Harr began to help oversee the development of the LOVE Program. Her most memorable LOVE trip was an emotional visit to Loredo, Texas, which lies on the southern border. The central purpose of this trip was to learn about and help those seeking asylum in the United States. The highlight of her trip was a special encounter with a six-year-old refugee named Abby whose quality of life seemed to be deteriorating right before Harr’s eyes.

“A girl named Abby walked into the door of a room full of donated clothes for children that was very modestly organized by sex and size. She looked disheveled and her hair was dirty and hadn’t seen a brush in a while. She looked at it like it was Macy’s at Christmas time and said ‘una falda’, which means a skirt. All she wanted was to wear a skirt instead of the dirty leggings she had on. We looked all around and found a matching Mickey Mouse skirt and top. Later I walked in the toy room and I saw this girl whose hair was nice and shiny. I also noticed her skirt was Mickey Mouse print and I said, ‘Abby?’. She looked up and smiled at me with a doll in her hands. She looked really beautiful because she is really beautiful,” Harr described.

Harr’s reflection on her time spent at the border did not fail to catch the attention of those in attendance. Junior Natalie Lanzi was able to relate to Harr’s experiences through her own past volunteer work.

“I loved her talk about volunteer work at the border,” Lanzi said. “I’ve done my own volunteer work in Haiti and that is something that meant a lot. I feel it has that effect on just about everyone.”

Others such as sophomore Tavianne Kemp were able to come to the conclusion that social justice can be achieved in a variety of ways.

“Social justice can be anywhere,” Kemp said. “I’m a math major and I want to use math to make the world a better place.”

One thing Harr made clear was that even though you may not know what the future holds, every part of your journey in life is a sign of where you are going.

“I don’t know what’s next for me. I’m not sure. I know that figuring out what you’re supposed to do is best when it comes from your past experiences,” Harr said. “One thing I do know is that one thing will lead to another.”