Close Encounters: A skeptic discovers the spirit of community life

As a student at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., I did not exactly immerse myself in the world of campus ministry. No faith-sharing groups, no retreats. To be honest, I had an aversion to that whole world, which is a bit ironic, considering that I am now working toward a master’s degree in theological studies and have an internship as a graduate chaplain at Loyola University Chicago. I have grown to understand that ministry comes in a lot of different, sometimes unexpected forms. And in my experience, community, paired with an open mind and open heart, has always been at its core.

Growing up in Tupelo, Miss., I was one of just a handful of Catholic kids in my high school. I did not come from a staunchly religious family, but I went to church and religious education classes mainly because Catholicism was the faith tradition of our family. While not initially very knowledgeable or insightful, I kept finding myself explaining elements of Catholicism to high school friends. Somewhere along the line, this stirred my own curiosity and caused me to be more reflective about my faith life. Our parish youth group was a natural place I turned to for nourishment.

The youth group was faith-focused, but it was not only about catechesis or having Bible studies. No one in our group, including the leaders, pretended to know all the answers. This was something I liked, because it encouraged a more genuine questioning process. While we did run across many answers to our questions in class, we found answers mainly by hanging out with one another, having fun and being kids together. Luckily we were blessed with dedicated leaders who wanted to be involved; together we formed a tight-knit community. This community may have been small, but it sparked something inside that helped steer me in a new direction.

I went on to Spring Hill, where I studied theology, philosophy and history, the classes that fascinated me the most. There I began to grasp what was unique about a Jesuit education. The more classes I took, the more I noticed that my mentors and professors encouraged an open and discerning approach. Rather than proselytizing, they encouraged exploration and critique, not just of the subject matter but of policies and politics, of culture and even of the church. It was empowering and humbling at the same time. The more I learned, the more I came to realize I had a lot to learn.
Almost directly after graduation, I got a call from a Catholic school in Vicksburg, Miss., where I went to teach high school theology the next year. My girlfriend, meanwhile, had signed on for a year of service with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest and was living and teaching on a Native American Indian reservation in Hays, Mont. Hearing the stories about her experiences with the four pillars of J.V.C. (social justice, spirituality, simple lifestyle and community) awakened a desire in me to have the same experience. So I applied to the program myself the following year.

Service for and With Others

When you enter into a commitment of service, you have a tendency to dive in, hoping to turn the world upside down and fix everyone’s problems. But what you soon find is that it is not always possible, nor is it really up to you. As a Jesuit Volunteer in Portland, Ore., I learned again that even with the best of intentions, I still did not have all the answers. What a beautiful realization it was!

Immersed in my work community as emergency services coordinator at St. Andrew’s Catholic parish, I was forced to shed my preconceptions about poverty and the people whose lives it affects. I learned that poverty is a multifaceted problem that involves more than economic oppression. People living in poverty sometimes have to overcome the mental oppression of a society that has cast them aside. In my work and daily interactions with clients at St. Andrew’s, I began to realize the meaning of ministry.

As much as I wanted to, I could not wave a magic wand to turn people’s lives around. We could often help out with food or clothes, deliver a mattress or provide financial assistance so that a family could keep its lights on for another month. But sometimes all I could do was be present to people in need. They show up; you listen to their stories and try your best to show you care.

Simple openness to another human being, I came to realize, is the foundation of any community and the foundation of ministry. It is recognizing the transformative power of being a part of something bigger than yourself. This idea not only manifested itself in my daily work as a volunteer but also at home through living in community.

I never would have dreamed of keeping chickens in the city, or of finding a way to harvest rainwater for our garden, or of cutting back on meat for social justice reasons while living on my own. But community living and being open to new people and new ideas had a way of broadening my horizons. In our Jesuit Volunteer community, my six roommates and I not only supported one another, but also challenged one another. Of course, life with seven strangers together in the same house had its ups and downs. But when we approached decisions and activities together with openness of heart, nearly anything seemed possible. The community elevated each individual. We could not have done that on our own, or if we had insisted that as individuals we had all the answers.

Today as a graduate chaplain, I work with many students of varied social, ethnic and spiritual backgrounds. Now more than ever I realize how important it is to apply what I have learned through my Jesuit education and Jesuit Volunteer experience. I try to remember that in order to build a real relationship, you have to be open and meet individuals where they are. It is within such honest encounters that the Holy Spirit works itself into our lives and transforms our hearts.

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