It’s spring break time; do you know where your college age children are? If they attend a Catholic college, there’s a decent chance they’re among the thousands of students who are spending it on an immersion trip to any number of communities in need around the globe.
Over the next few weeks, while 1.5 million students descend on Florida and Texas and spend upwards of a billion dollars to drink and party, the Alternative Break Immersion programs sponsored by schools across the country are taking students to places like Camden, N.J., Harlan, Ky., and Pine Ridge, S.D. While there, they build and repair homes, work on Indian reservations, learn about sustainable agriculture, help single mothers…. The list is endless.
At Jesuit universities, these are not considered service trips but immersion experiences, in which students learn from our neighbors outside of insular college campuses. For a week, students are exposed to aspects of life that most of them will never encounter. Some might even have their lives transformed by who they meet and what they experience.
When I hear of the constant hand-wringing about dwindling religious affiliation among millennials, I have mixed feelings. I understand the anxiety, but I also believe it distracts us from seeing a much bigger picture—and a much larger opportunity.
If you’re involved in ministry to young people, a frequent question is some variation of the following: “How do I get my son/daughter to go to church?”
The answer—much to the despair of the questioner—is almost always: “You don’t.”
The question itself is understandable but the wrong one to ask. A better question would be, “Why are our pews emptying out of young adults while these immersion trips—as well as campus-based service learning and community service programs—are filling up?”
It is a failure of our collective imagination not to see a religious impulse at work in millennials. “These trips provide powerful, incarnational experiences for students in ways that traditional worship sometimes doesn’t,” said Susan Haarman, the Faith and Justice campus minister at Loyola University Chicago. The reality is that incarnational experiences on any level are unusual for students who live highly buffered existences, grounded in tenuous digital “connections” and disembodied, often anonymous online conversation. Immersion programs force students to move from conversation to concrete encounters, sometimes with profound results.
“For many millennials, personal experience is sacrosanct,” Haarman said. “They blog and post videos on their YouTube channels, etc., but the personal, human, unfiltered encounters on these trips are feeding a deep need that media-saturated students sometimes can’t articulate.”
Our hypertext world deals in abstractions that inevitably crumble when faced with someone or something real. In this post-textual environment, authenticity, lives of service and the pursuit of justice speak a language of faith that is far more persuasive than mere words.
It is a language that Pope Francis speaks fluently. “Someone recently mentioned that the image of the pope caressing a severely disfigured man’s face said something far more powerful about compassion than all the encyclicals in the world ever could,” said Michael McCarthy, S.J., executive director of Santa Clara University’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education. “Young people who might not expect enlightenment listening to a homily encounter Christ on an immersion.”
What began as conversation has moved to concrete encounter and now must be understood through contemplation. It is an undeniably transformational Catholic moment.
Haarman believes that this teachable moment applies to both students and the parishes we hope they might come back to. “Often when students return from an A.B.I.,” she says, “they read Matthew 25 and say, ‘I’ve seen Christ hungry, fed him and, most important, been fed by him.’”
If these students ever choose to pass through the doors of our churches in the future, they will remain only if they recognize that what goes on inside our church walls bears some tangible relationship to what is happening to the least of our brothers and sisters outside them.