When he was five or six years old, Eric LeCompte accompanied his parents to church and noticed the face of a suffering person in the sanctuary. He asked his parents who it was, and his mother told him it was Christ, the Son of God. His father added that we’re all children of God, and Eric decided something: if that was what happened to the children of God, he didn’t want to be part of it.
Today, Eric is the executive director of Jubilee USA, an interfaith network of more than 650 religious groups working to address the structural causes of global poverty and inequality by advocating for debt relief for impoverished nations. A country’s resources, once liberated from debt payments, can be used to fund essential services like education and health care. Eric is, by all accounts, very much involved with the suffering he saw on the face of Jesus.
“If one of us is suffering, we are all suffering,” Eric says. That is indeed what happens to the children of God. And suffering, in all its myriad forms, is something he describes in the simplest terms: so many of us don’t have enough. Eric’s advocacy for the poor is based on the Jubilee year of the Torah—the fiftieth year when debts were forgiven, the enslaved liberated. These are the kinds of practices, Eric believes, that ensure we all have enough, because for many of the world’s most impoverished people, basic necessities like health care and education could be much more accessible if nations weren’t spending so much capital on debt payments. In Jubilee economics, Eric says, “We all have enough. We provide for each other and we’re protected from having too much.”
That striking choice of words—that the wealthiest of us need protection from having too much—seems at once radical and absolutely true. It brings to mind all the warnings about the perils of wealth in scripture, and also the work of social scientist Brené Brown, whose research indicates that the opposite of scarcity is not actually abundance but simply, as Eric says, enough.
In Jubilee economics, we all have enough. We provide for each other and we’re protected from having too much.
There are numerous videos on the internet in which Eric talks about his work. He is middle-aged, with close-cropped black hair, a prominent nose, and slim, black-framed glasses. In one video he’s on an English-language Chinese network, talking about the Greek debt crisis with the businesslike demeanor of an expert. In another he is reading from prepared remarks at a UN hearing with the same measured, professional voice (and, it seems, wearing the same suit). In a more recent, pandemic-era Zoom conversation with a Jubilee USA member church, he’s affable and animated, smiling and talking with his hands.
This last video is one of a few places where he discusses his childhood impressions of the suffering Christ. I ask him about this, and about what changed in the intervening years. He is quiet for so long that I pull the phone away from my ear to see if we’ve been disconnected.
“I think what changed was starting to really understand what it means to be part of the children of God, and understanding what it is to see others suffer, and feeling that suffering,” he finally says. Where as a child the pain of others overwhelmed him, as an adult Eric chooses, each day, to turn toward those who are suffering.
Growing up as the oldest of four children in a working class family on the South Side of Chicago, Eric has his own personal experience with deprivation. “As a child, there were times when my parents were out of work, when our family did not have enough. And certainly that has been an incredible influence on my life, to ensure that all people have enough.”
“My parents struggled to get Christmas gifts for us for a couple of years,” says Laura Scanlon, Eric’s younger sister, though their mother helped organize Christmas toy drives nonetheless. Both Eric and Laura remember it as a normal part of life for their parents to look out for people less fortunate than they were, despite their own situation.
Laura describes Eric as an additional caretaker: “We were his little people,” she says. Given that he’s an older brother to siblings 6, 8, and 11 years younger than himself, it’s easy to imagine that a role looking out for others might come naturally to him.
Eric’s youth in Chicago did afford him some opportunities—he attended an elite Catholic high school on the South Side, and was positioned to be the first member of his family to attend college. By this point in his life, though, the sensitivity to suffering that had caused Eric to be so struck by the crucifix as a child had become a preoccupation that led him to forgo college and instead join the Catholic Worker Movement in Rochester, New York.
“I decided that college was not the next right step. I was trying to understand inequality and this idea of us all having enough,” he says.
“My parents were like, ‘You wanna do what?’” says Laura.
And it was in Rochester in the ’90s, serving meals, running an AIDS hospice, living daily with the hungry and the homeless, that Eric began to understand more deeply what it is to see others suffer and feel their suffering. He traveled to Central America and began to “touch the wound around the developing world,” as he describes it, meeting farmers struggling under a violent dictatorship in Guatemala. His sense of calling began to shift—not only to accompany those who are suffering, but to solve the challenges causing their suffering in the first place. It was this shift that made him decide that college made sense if it could help him engage with the causes of the suffering he saw, and he eventually attended Saint John’s University in Minnesota.
Eric says his sense of calling didn’t materialize in any particular moment, but over a lifetime of daily prayer. For years he carried a copy of a sermon he heard preached while he was a student at Saint John’s. It was a sermon delivered by now Abbot John Klassen about the martyrs of Algiers, monks who served the local population in Algiers for years before they were killed, knowing each day the risks they were taking. Eric puts the message of the sermon this way: “The great sacrifice of the cross is not faced in just one moment. The great sacrifice comes after bearing small daily crosses, taking small daily risks and sacrifices that prepare us for greater action, greater risk, and perhaps the greatest sacrifice, of our lives.”
In what was perhaps a small risk in its own way, Eric spent last fall at the Collegeville Institute as a resident scholar, studying the Benedictine Virgil Michel and attempting a sabbatical. Jubilee USA had become a primary organization leading the response to the Covid-fueled global economic crisis and things were busier than ever, but Eric says he felt duty-bound to that principle of the Torah so enmeshed with Jubilee—that on the seventh year, there’s rest. He wanted to live in his own life what he advocates on a global scale.
The great sacrifice of the cross is not faced in just one moment … [but] comes after bearing small daily crosses, taking small daily risks and sacrifices that prepare us for greater action, greater risk, and perhaps the greatest sacrifice, of our lives.
It’s one of several ways in which Eric emerges as a unique figure, even among those who share his concerns. “A lot of us feel the way Eric feels, we think the way he thinks, but we don’t do what he does,” says Don Ottenhoff, executive director of the Collegeville Institute, who remembers getting this sense of Eric while reading his application to become a resident scholar. “He’s an exemplar in that regard for many of us who sit back and say, ‘Well, yeah, these are really big problems, and somebody should do something about them, but it’s gonna be difficult to do.’”
Despite the enormity of the challenges and the power of the entities he engages, Eric and Jubilee USA have managed to secure $130 billion dollars in global debt relief thus far. He says the problems are daunting, certainly. Engaging with the most powerful people in the world, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to intimidate him. “At this point, because these issues that we’re wrestling with are so significant, there isn’t a table or room that I feel I don’t belong in,” he says.
By way of explanation, he talks about a time during his years at the Catholic Worker when, at the age of 18, he stood in front of a judge, charged with a felony for an act of civil disobedience. It was “property transformation,” he says, a term that definitely sounds like a euphemism for vandalism. It turns out he “transformed” a welfare office with his thumb and some indelible ink, leaving fingerprints on the walls to protest the government’s fingerprinting welfare recipients in what Eric considered an unacceptable criminalizing of the poor.
“Ultimately, I didn’t fear those particular consequences or repercussions from those actions, just like right now I don’t fear going into a room with Janet Yellen and seeing her as my equal.” He does, however, still pray before every meeting.
The source of his undauntedness isn’t difficult to parse. “My motivation comes from my faith,” he says simply. It is faith that tells him the children of God are connected: if one of us is suffering, all of us are suffering. Perhaps it was the choice he made to cultivate throughout his life that initial sensitivity to Christ on the cross that has allowed him to imbibe a truth ungrasped by so many of us who follow Jesus: In Christianity, there is no authority like the authority of the suffering.
At this point, because these issues are so significant, there isn’t a table or room that I feel I don’t belong in.
Eric LeCompte is a subverter of expectations. He is, Ottenhoff says, idealistic without being an idealist. “Eric isn’t a stereotypical to-the-barricades social justice warrior. He’s all for social justice, but he’s not that. He’s very pragmatic,” says Ottenhoff. Archbishop Roberto González of San Juan, who has worked with Eric for several years securing debt restructuring for Puerto Rico, says that Eric is a humble person, but “in the best sense of the word, not in the sense of being submissive but in the sense of being assertive, being aware of one’s gifts and of one’s commitment to helping countries free themselves of these shackles of indebtedness. He has a deep sense of commitment, and that frees him to be himself and speak that truth with respect.”
One might imagine that whatever convictions lead someone to commit their life to alleviating global poverty would also drive them to work constantly, but as Eric’s time at the Collegeville Institute can attest, this isn’t the case for him. Of note to many is Eric’s dedication to his wife and children: “He dedicates every evening to his family,” says Archbishop González.
“He always shows up,” says his sister Laura. “No matter how busy he’s been or where he’s been, if something needs to be dropped to attend to family things, he’ll be there.”
It also might be typical for the passionate convictions that drive Eric to breed single-mindedness and inflexibility, but again this doesn’t describe him. Congressional Quarterly named Jubilee USA the last-standing bipartisan coalition in Washington. Archbishop González described accompanying Eric on meetings both at the Trump White House and with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of congress. “I’ve observed that both sides listen to him and he has their respect,” he says.
“Whether it was George W. Bush in the White House, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or Donald Trump, and now President Biden, Jubilee USA and I have always had an open door,” Eric says. In an era when so many of us hunkered in our respective corners, Eric LeCompte has continued his work out in the open and across the aisle.
“I think Eric just has a peacemaker spirit about him,” says his sister. “He has an ability to listen to all sides. He may not agree, but, he’s trying to internalize that there’s not just one way to understand the world.”
Of all the elements that make Eric such an unusual figure as a crusader for the poor, the most surprising might be his relentless, pragmatic optimism—his ability to grasp the depth of suffering experienced throughout the world and at the same time press forward with joy at incremental, imperfect solutions. He has voluminous data on suffering ready at hand. The number of children in the United States currently experiencing hunger (20 million). The percentage of children living in poverty in Puerto Rico (60%). How can someone live with these numbers ever before them and accept the slow, incremental change that this world offers?
“I think the only way to move forward is one step at a time,” he says. “Some of the very big ideas that we’re moving forward now—those ideas have taken decades of work.” He will wrestle with the intricacies of the global financial system, the G20, the International Monetary Fund, knowing that all the minutiae, the dry details, the tendrils of policy, can add up, in the end, either to suffering or to liberation. “Sometimes this takes weeks,” he says, “sometimes a decade, but with a reliance on God—all will be well, all is possible.”
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Anne Rowthorn says
Thank you for this inspiring story of the work of Eric LeCompte. He truly lives out his Christian values and is an example of what one person, on fire with God’s justice and love can do. Sure wish we had been residential scholars with him!