Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib: Why I am giving up elected office and joining the Jesuits

Washington State Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib at a Defend DACA rally in Seattle on September 5, 2017 (Photo by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons) 

Earlier today, I announced that I will not be running for re-election as Washington State’s lieutenant governor and have decided to enter the Society of Jesus. This decision follows two years of careful and prayerful discernment.

But because that process has been almost entirely private, I realize that this will come as a major surprise to my constituents and supporters. Many will be wondering why someone who has spent the last eight years climbing the political ladder and who has a not insignificant chance of acceding to the governorship next year, would trade a life of authority for one of obedience. I want to take a moment to discuss this decision as well as to express my profound gratitude to all those who have helped make these eight years in elected office so successful and rewarding.

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I was elected as state representative in 2012, state senator in 2014 and lieutenant governor in 2016. My reasons for running for those positions and my priorities in office were firmly rooted in Catholic social teaching, which places the poor, the sick, the disabled, the immigrant, the prisoner and all who are marginalized at the center of our social and political agenda. I knew from childhood what it was like to be excluded for being a blind kid from an Iranian family, and I have tried to use the power I have been given by the voters to ensure that we move urgently toward that day when no one will feel left behind or left out in our society.

I have felt a calling to dedicate my life in a more direct and personal way to serving the marginalized, empowering the vulnerable and healing those who suffer from spiritual wounds.

That is why, as a legislator, I introduced legislation to establish statewide paid sick leave and why I sponsored the Washington Voting Rights Act to make our elections more equitable. And that is why I made access to higher education the top priority in the office of the lieutenant governor and why I am thrilled that through the legislation we have authored and the programs we have launched, we have removed obstacles to college for countless Washingtonians who will be the first in their families to even contemplate pursuing post-secondary education.

But over the past couple of years, I have felt called to a different vocation, albeit one that is also oriented around service and social justice. I have felt a calling to dedicate my life in a more direct and personal way to serving the marginalized, empowering the vulnerable, healing those who suffer from spiritual wounds and accompanying those discerning their own futures. For me, this is rooted in my faith in Christ’s Gospel. But my desire to encounter something greater than myself by walking with the poor and abandoned of this world will be familiar to those of many different spiritual traditions. I have come to believe that the best way to deepen my commitment to social justice is to reduce the complexity in my own life and dedicate it to serving others.

I have also come to believe that, while we certainly continue to need people of good will to serve in elected office, meeting the challenges our country faces will require more than just policy-making.

I have come to believe that, while we certainly continue to need people of good will to serve in elected office, meeting the challenges our country faces will require more than just policy-making.

People are in dire need of spiritual support and companionship. From our throwaway culture that treats workers and our environment as disposable to a new generation of young people eager to change the world but struggling with unprecedented anxiety, alienation and other mental health challenges to the fear and isolation we are all experiencing as a result of the coronavirus, this is a time when we need to ground ourselves in the wisdom of those who came before and cultivate new forms of wisdom forged in the fires of our present moment.

The Catholic Church has wrestled with difficult social and moral questions for 2,000 years, and while I can be as impatient as anyone when it moves too slowly, I know from personal experience how much we can all benefit from a moral vocabulary that insists on the dignity of each and every person. And I also know that, in this time of consumerism, distrust and polarization, many Americans are longing for an encounter with the transcendent, the joyful, the loving.

I experience that consolation myself every time I speak with my role model, the Rev. Mike Ryan, the pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle. And because God is big enough to speak to us through many different traditions, I felt it when I had the unique privilege of meeting with and learning from the Dalai Lama last year. How could I resist the opportunity to participate, if only in a small way, in the life-giving work of spiritual renewal that our world and these times so desperately need?

Jesuits are known for their dedication to education, particularly higher education, for their philosophy of finding God in all people, cultures and things, for their advocacy for a more inclusive church and world and for serving as spiritual directors rooted in the contemplative practices of Ignatian spirituality. And now Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, has brought these values to his leadership of the global church and, in so doing, inspired a generation of Catholics to re-engage with their faith. At this point, it is too early for me to know where my life as a Jesuit will take me, but I am confident that it will involve teaching, intercultural and interfaith dialogue, advocacy and spiritual accompaniment.

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Finally and most important, I want to thank all of those who made it possible for me to serve the public in elected office—all the volunteers, donors, staff and colleagues who have accompanied me on this journey. I treasure our shared accomplishments more than I could possibly reduce to writing here. Elected office and government service are deeply noble pursuits, and the people I have worked with have only deepened my respect for our form of government. Thank you for what you have done and what you will continue to do for our country.

I ask you all to keep me in your prayers as I travel this new road; you will, of course, be in mine.

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