Journalist for Justice
Joshua McElwee packed a lot into his four years at Catholic University. The honors program student majored in politics and had three minors — theology, philosophy, and peace and justice studies.
He had several internships on Capitol Hill and served as a leader in both the Washington, D.C., chapter and the CUA chapter of Pax Christi, a group that brings the Catholic perspective to issues of peace and social justice.
“I came to Catholic University originally because of the D.C. location. I had an inkling toward public service,” says McElwee. “But during my time there I started thinking about a career that would involve the Church and peace and justice.”
No one was surprised when McElwee committed to a year of service following his 2009 graduation. But what came next wasn’t exactly part of the master plan. McElwee joined the staff of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) as a full-time staff writer in August 2010.
His reporting and feature writing have earned him several awards from the Catholic Press Association (CPA). And last year he was a finalist for the Religion Newswriters Association magazine news religion reporter of the year.
“I hadn’t planned on a career in journalism. But now in my third year at NCR, I can honestly say I am right where I am supposed to be,” says McElwee.
After graduation, McElwee, a Chicago native who grew up in California, moved to Kansas City, Mo., to spend a year in residence at Holy Family House, a Catholic Worker community.
Holy Family House is one of many such communities across the country that follow in the model of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who founded the first community in New York in 1933.
Described by Maurin and Day as places to live out the works of mercy, each community focuses on different tasks, usually catering to the needs of their surrounding areas by providing food, clothing, or just a kind ear to listen to those in need.
By signing on for a year at Holy Family House, McElwee agreed to live simply in the same community as those he was serving.
“One of the most important elements of the ministry is to be present. It’s amazing how that shapes you. You become connected to the people you are serving. They are your friends. You learn from them. You become equals and that is a great foundation for working toward social justice,” he says.
While at Holy Family House, McElwee took an internship at NCR, which is also based in Kansas City. “I was given an opportunity to try some entry-level stories,” he says.
He had no formal journalistic training. And he admits his writing was “a bit wooden.”
NCR’s publisher Tom Fox took an interest in McElwee. “He helped me work on how to serve the story and the reader better. He showed me that the key thing as a journalist is to strive to be fair. That’s our duty. We have to ask the questions for all the people who don’t get the chance to ask questions,” he says.
McElwee proved to be a quick study. In 2012, he was awarded a first prize with co-author Fox for investigative news writing.
He won a second prize on his own in the same category for his coverage of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who was found guilty for his role in protecting a priest authorities said was a threat to children.
The CPA judges called MeElwee’s writing a “very detailed account of a difficult story. Went beyond the surface in a measured, balanced manner.”
McElwee says, “This was an extremely difficult topic to cover. I had followed the story since it unfolded. This bishop meant a lot to the community. People were hurt. So I asked the questions and told a fair story.”
Also in 2012, CPA awarded McElwee a second-place honor for best personality profile and an honorable mention for best feature writing.
McElwee spends his free time continuing his connection with Holy Family House. He now lives a block and a half away, but often spends his weekends there. Between his involvement with the Catholic Worker movement and his reporting for NCR, he says he believes he is achieving the goals he set as a student at CUA — to serve the Church and to work for peace and justice. “Independent Catholic journalism is very, very important to the Church. I’m proud to be part of it.”
Photo credit: Eloisa Perez-Lozano
Favorite Spot on Campus: “Marist Hall, looking out onto campus, especially at sunset.”
Favorite Spot in Washington, D.C.: “U Street. It has a nice feel to it. It’s integrated. I liked getting coffee at Busboys and Poets.”
Memorable Teacher at CUA: “William Barbieri, associate professor and director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program. He really helped me develop my understanding and interest in peace and social justice.”
Hobby: “I’ve been studying the history of Kansas City. They call it the ‘Paris of the Plains.’”
Being a New Alumnus: “I feel grateful for the time I had at CUA — and jealous of those still in the midst of it.”
Last Book He Read: “Cloud Atlas. I was amazed how the writer wove all those story lines together.”