On October 27, I had the great privilege of giving the keynote address at the 5th Annual Friends of the Newman Center dinner at West Chester University, where I served as Associate Director from 1993 – 2004. Although I spoke from notes, here is (mostly) what I said . . . asides excepted. Enjoy!
Tonight’s liturgical readings call us to gratitude, which is fitting, because whenever I think about my eleven years here at the Newman Center, gratitude is the first and last and primary thing that I feel. (Also amazement at how I ever managed to work past 10:00 five nights a week for ten academic years, when all my life I have wanted to be in my PJ’s at 9:00—and now often am!)
There are so many memories in this building, but for the sake of time I promised myself that I would stick to things that happened right here in this room. Liturgical things, certainly, like celebrating the Easter Triduum with so many exceptionally well-trained liturgical ministers, and recording our choir CD, Go Make a Difference. I also remember great service events, like schlepping heavy grocery bags filled with donations for our Thanksgiving outreach. And of course there were fundraisers, like the Great Newman Center Garage Sale, and the BINGO nights when Sara Marks and I worked this room on ROLLER BLADES. (That was before this lovely new floor, obviously.)
But my deepest gratitude, when I think of the Newman Center, is for the opportunity to walk with so many students as they grew in their relationship with God. If there’s a better job description, I don’t know what it is.
In the first chapter of my book, I use the analogy of a complicated sunrise. Not the sunrise of a perfectly clear day, when the sun simply pops over the horizon, nor a completely overcast day, when you can’t even tell when it’s up. Complicated sunrises are those days when you can see the sun’s progress only by its dramatic effects on the clouds. Here’s what I wrote:
I love a complicated sunrise for the same reason I love my job in college campus ministry. Just as the sun is rendered more beautiful by its effect on the clouds, God’s glory shines most clearly when it touches the shadowed parts of people’s lives.
A timid student begins to glow in the warmth of a faith community. Foggy lack of direction gives way to the illuminated path of a discovered call. God’s healing power touches broken places—disappointments, abuses, failures, betrayals—and renders hearts stronger than they were before. People in pain discover that the darkness in their lives does not have to stay dark, and when God’s light reaches those troubled crevices, they are transformed from sources of shame into radiant signs of the divine.
Morning arrives in its own way for each one, as clouds give way to light. I am grateful each time I am awake to see it.
One of the things I am most grateful for–and miss the most about this place–is the hunger that Newman students have: to know about the faith and to grow in friendship with God. This seems to be true of Newman ministry nationwide. I am 53 years old, and I’ve spent 44 of those years in some kind of educational setting, but West Chester is the only secular school I’ve ever been affiliated with. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through grad school, and since leaving here I’ve been at Gwynedd Mercy University. Obviously I’m very happy with my own Catholic education (clearly it got me to a good place) and I love where I am now—I so admire the charism of the Sisters of Mercy, their commitment to critical concerns, and the integration of all that into the curriculum and the life of the University. But Newman ministry is special because students at a place like West Chester often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. You go to class and encounter an atheist professor who thinks you’re stupid for being Catholic, and then you head back to your residence hall to deal with the fundamentalist Christian roommate who thinks you’re going to hell for being Catholic!
That’s why it’s so important for there to be a place like this: a safe space where you can be part of community that helps you learn and practice an adult Catholic faith. Not the faith you had when you made your first Communion at age seven or when you were Confirmed at age 12, and not the faith of your parents, but your own, owned, adult Catholic faith. And that is why it is so important that we do this ministry very well.
When I left here and went to Gwynedd Mercy, I knew that the ministry settings were different, but I had no idea how much they would be two totally different jobs . . . that I would go from being, essentially, an associate pastor, to being a college administrator. One of the challenges of being a college administrator was learning to do assessment—a huge task in higher ed. Over and over again I was asked, “How do you know that you’re being effective?” I came kicking and screaming to the world of assessment, once even telling my boss, “Do you know how I’ll know that I did a good job? When I get to heaven and look around and see who else is there!” That’s a joke, of course. But the truth at the center of it is the wisdom contained in that prayer often attributed to St. Oscar Romero but actually written by Bishop Ken Untener: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds that have been planted, knowing they hold future promise.
Campus ministry is about planting and watering and weeding and cultivating and fertilizing; it is not about harvesting. The harvest comes later. Much later. Because how holy you feel on the morning after a retreat–or even how well you can articulate your faith on the night before graduation–is not nearly as important as the way you live your life after you leave this place. The difference that we want to make in students’ lives is for the long haul. So how do we know if we’re doing a good job?
Well, one of the answers is, stick around. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, which means that some of my original students are bona fide middle-aged people now. I find that one of the blessings of Facebook (though we know its evils as well) is how it has enabled me to stay connected to alumni. When I see the careers you have chosen—how many of you are in ministry, or social work, or counseling, or some other helping profession—and I see the kind of people you are choosing as your life partners, and the remarkable children you are raising, and how profoundly you are navigating life’s challenges—I know that this work has borne fruit. And we’re not talking raspberries and strawberries, here, but whole orchards of long-lasting fruit!
Many of the stories in my book were set during my time here, but there’s one in particular that I want to share with you tonight, because it describes an encounter that continues to bear such fruit. This took place during Project Mexico X, in January of 2005. (At that point I was already working at Gwynedd Mercy, by the way, but Fr. Sam hadn’t found a successor for me yet, so I got to go to Mexico one last time.)
This is Chapter 18: Finding God in Forgiveness
Tim was so sick. We were in Mexico City for our annual service-immersion experience—eight college students and two campus ministers—and on the final day, Tim went down hard. Perhaps it was the water, but more likely it was the way he had hurdled the language barrier with the men in our host family by eating every food they dared him to, no matter how spicy or unidentifiable. Twenty-four hours before we were due to fly home, our host grandmother, Inocencia, took Tim to the doctor, who gave him a shot of something and instructions to continue the injections every six hours.
At 2:00 a.m., twelve hours before flight time, Inocencia got up to give Tim his next shot. But we couldn’t find the syringes! We searched frantically, and even woke up Tim’s roommate, Mark, to ask if he had seen them, to no avail. Since Tim was so sick and flight time so close, Inocencia asked her son-in-law Luis to drive her to get more syringes at a twenty-four-hour pharmacy some distance away.
Luis’s car had barely disappeared around the corner when Mark stumbled sleepily into the kitchen. “Is this what you were looking for?” he asked, holding up the missing box. Apparently, he had decided to be helpful and pack the communal suitcase a few hours earlier, and had thrown in everything he thought was ours—including the syringes.
Now the wait began. This was before cell phones. We had no way of contacting Ino and Luis, and they were gone for a very long time. Mark sat at the kitchen table looking just as miserable as Tim. Our students adored this host family, and the realization that his careless mistake had sent these dear people out into the city in the middle of the night weighed on Mark terribly. Finally, the door opened, and as they walked in, Mark guiltily held out the box, braced for their reaction.
I was watching their faces, and what I saw was amazing. There was not even a fleeting trace of annoyance. There was nothing that suggested they were glad we were leaving in eleven hours. There was only laughter, and giving Tim his shot.
By breakfast, Tim was much better, but Mark was still a mess. “I can’t believe I did that,” he said. “They were so good about it. How can I ever repay them?” I told him what I knew to be true: he couldn’t. “Mark, you have just experienced the kind of utter forgiveness that most of us only get from God. All you can do is be grateful, and remember this feeling the next time someone offends you.” Mark is a police officer now, and recently told me he frequently recalls that lesson.
So much human forgiveness is partial, grudging, or conditional. No wonder we have a hard time imagining the fullness of God’s mercy. Isn’t it ironic that the only way to catch a glimpse is to stand in need of it?
This is how our God works. Mark made an innocent mistake—as we all do from time to time. He could have blown it off, and forgotten it entirely. Or it could have lingered as an embarrassing or even shameful memory. But instead—because he was in a place, in a community of faith, where someone could help frame that moment in a spiritual context—it became an enduring lesson.
And not just for himself. As of this morning, according to Amazon’s report, Mark’s story has reached 27 states, including Florida, Texas, California, and Washington.
The Lord has done great things for us. We are filled with joy!
We may never know the impact that our ministry has in people’s lives. But every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we get to take a stroll in the orchard.
Thank you, and God bless this Newman Center community!