Covenant House CEO and 60 Minutes Correspondent Launch Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Lecture Series

October 7, 2019

Find joy, gratitude, and hope in the unlikeliest of places was one of the messages shared by Kevin Ryan during the first of four lectures he will give at St. John’s University during the 2019-20 academic year.

Mr. Ryan, President and Chief Executive Officer of Covenant House International, has been selected as this year’s holder of the Vincentian Chair of Social Justice, and the theme for his lecture series is “From Homelessness to Hope.”

Covenant House, founded in 1972, provides housing and support services to youth facing homelessness and operates in 31 cities throughout the United States, working with an average of 80,000 young people each year. Among other programs, Mr. Ryan has shepherded the “Sleep Out” Movement, in which supporters sleep outdoors to experience the harsh reality of homelessness, while raising funds to benefit Covenant House programs.

During the talk, which took place on October 3 in The Little Theatre on the University’s Queens, NY, campus, Mr. Ryan was joined by his close friend, 60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson, who also serves on the Board of Trustees for Covenant House. Mr. Dickerson previously hosted the CBS News program Face the Nation and co-hosted CBS This Morning. The pair titled their discussion, “60 Minutes on Covenant House,” and enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion touching on many subjects including: their individual faith journeys, contributing to a better world, and life in the public eye.

“Darkness falling” is how Mr. Ryan described his earliest experiences at Covenant House. He added, “I felt the walls closing in.” A young graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, he joined the staff after being inspired by the work his future wife did with the organization’s chapter in Louisiana. He quickly realized that despite the best of intentions, he had a lot to learn.

“I was increasingly aware of my own great fortune, and the graces that had lifted me up to the moment I was in; but I was also now deeply aware of the fact that there were so many young people in this world who were literally dying because of a lack of care and support.”

Mr. Dickerson’s journey to Covenant House came through his late mother, Nancy Dickerson, a pioneering journalist who was CBS News’s first female correspondent. His mother became heavily involved with the organization after she retired, and helped open its Washington, DC, location. Building off what she started, and possessed of an intense desire to serve, Mr. Dickerson found himself drawn to the organization and quickly became friends with Mr. Ryan.

“Seeing Covenant House in operation is the most amazing thing,” Mr. Dickerson stressed, adding, “It’s special to see light projected from inside somebody out into the world, and you come across that more in Covenant House than almost anywhere I have been.”

Describing his first Sleep Out experience, Mr. Dickerson observed that he met scores of individuals, especially young people, who were intensely dedicated to Covenant House. “Everyone there was just doing their thing,” he said, “but their thing happened to be this amazing act of grace and gratitude.”

There is an “overwhelming obligation” that comes with the gifts he has received, Mr. Dickerson asserted, noting that the joy and gratitude he feels for his life is a feeling that scores of his fellow human beings will never experience. He observed that he is drawn to people who represent God’s grace to him. “That puts you in touch with a better version of yourself.”

“I worry about our world not having enough spaces for grace to shine,” Mr. Ryan added, noting that the Vincentian tradition of introspection and reflection was helping him spread the word about Covenant House through the platform of these lectures.

He noted that while there is often a great deal of toxicity found on social media, it has also validated his faith in young people. Its most important use, he said, is “opening people’s hearts to the deep possibility that every single young person, if surrounded by an inspiring circle of love, can really achieve.”

Before Mr. Ryan’s talk, he spent time during a special luncheon with approximately 20 St. John’s students, listening intently to each of their personal stories and hopes for the future. As the students shared their goals and aspirations, Mr. Ryan enthusiastically suggested how they might best pursue them. Many students were already engaged with non-profit organizations or had hopes to start their own.

Senior Kendra Patrick wants to work with incarcerated youth in the future, and the Communication Arts major was impressed by Mr. Ryan’s genuine eagerness to engage with every student he met. “He obviously looks to have a relationship with everyone he works with,” she said.  “He knows their needs and their stories, and that encourages me to have the same relationship with the people I will serve.”

Government and Politics major Ariel Metayer experienced homelessness herself and is passionate about causes that relate to social justice. She was excited to discuss the possibilities Covenant House might offer students suffering from housing insecurity with Mr. Ryan. “Hearing him speak was so invigorating,” she stressed. “I really identify with the Vincentian Mission of service, and he reminded me why I do what I do, and what we should all be doing.”

The work of St. Vincent de Paul, who founded the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians) is very similar to the mission of Covenant House, observed Rev. Bernard M. Tracey, C.M., Executive Vice President for Mission at St. John’s. “The initial work of St. Vincent was care of the foundling children abandoned on the streets of Paris. This work is not unlike that of Covenant House, who care for the youths of a different era.”