Getting Our Feet Wet

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Spring 2011
– PDF version –

I admire our young whistleblowers. I am not referring to corporate moles or people who want to snitch on other people’s errant behavior. I am speaking about the young volunteers in our parish who are trying to tell us that so many situations in life need changing. These young students and many other twenty-something believers are finding their true vocations among suffering people.

These faith-filled followers of the gospel are blowing the whistle on the fact that so many people are starving for nourishing food, genuine companionship, available housing and affordable health care. These vocations are rooted deeply in the belief that God is still healing people and that everyone deserves at least the basics of life. Because these vibrant young people believe in the love of God, they are speaking out about the apathy, prejudice and lack of faith they find within the church today.

On October 17, 2010, the Church of Canada and all of our ministries in the Congregation of Holy Cross celebrated the canonization of Brother Andre Bessette, CSC. His legacy to our religious community is one of profound healing and hospitality among the sick and marginalized.  On that morning during Eucharist here at the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon, two young people spoke about how their lives have been changed volunteering and ministering among God’s forgotten flock.

Taylor hobbled up on crutches to the microphone. He spoke deliberately, with great strength even though he had broken his leg in a bicycle accident. He told us that he has been volunteering here since he was fourteen years old. Taylor arrived here as a shy, skinny junior high student struggling with many personal issues. He has remained at the chapel volunteering because he has found his voice and purpose in life. Taylor now is a senior at the University of Portland and envisions his future tackling issues of poverty both locally and globally. He also served migrant worker camps while attending high school. He traveled to Kenya last year to explore environmental issues and now wishes to operate an orphanage in Kenya after college. His words on that day of celebration seemed so piercing and hope filled. He reminded us that faith lived out in this parish has profound meaning.  I felt such great gratitude for what God continues to reveal to Taylor and his response to people in need.

Valerie approached the microphone next feeling homesick for our community. She traveled from Chicago back home to Portland for the weekend to celebrate Saint Andre with our parish. She served as a staff member here and misses her hands-on work.  Valerie now attends the University of Chicago pursuing a degree in social work. She believes the link to real personal and social healing is through serving people surviving poverty. She connects Andre’s life of healing and hospitality with the vision and purpose of Dorothy Day.

I am so inspired by Valerie’s faith. Valerie told us that she was received into the Catholic Church as a senior at the University of Portland. One of her defining moments of faith was standing in a line for free health care during college. She was so afraid of being identified as “poor.” While she was standing in that line she was reading a book about Dorothy Day’s life that explained the concepts of human dignity being revealed by God’s love. It was a true moment of insight and conversion for Valerie. Her deep desire to serve people surviving homelessness and mental illness was born.

I reflect on these young vocations of love and service as we enter into the Easter season.  The Fourth Sunday of Easter in particular point us into the direction of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. On this Sunday we traditionally pray for the next generation of church vocations. There is much fear in the church today about the decreasing numbers of vocations to religious life and priesthood. People blame parents for not inviting children into traditional vocations while other people blame the sex crimes of the clergy for dwindling numbers of young men considering seminary. Some people blame a new liberalism while others blame the new conservative trappings of religious life.   There seems to be human blame in all directions, while Jesus is inviting young people to discover new roles as servants of the Shepherd.

Taylor and Valerie have entered the gate of Jesus through their own suffering. Jesus has welcomed them into a vocation of dedicated service that will last for years to come. These vocations are so genuine and honest, so faithful and solid. I am humbled as a priest that members of this generation continue to guide me into the Shepherd’s gate with their lives of integrity and purpose.

Valerie shared with me after the celebration of Saint Andre that she remembers standing in our lobby during one of her first weeks at the parish. One of her duties was to welcome people through our red doors for the various services we provide such as food, clothing and hygiene products.  She remembered that her feet were wet from riding her bike to work that morning in the rain. As she welcomed people she realized that everyone’s feet were wet, except the shoes of homeless people were squishing water. She realized she was called by God to offer dry socks. She then told me that she prayed she would have enough faith to offer shoes. Valerie then realized that she would need more faith to get people housing so they do not have to sleep in the rain. After visiting the parish for Andre’s celebration, Valerie realized that she could imagine healing large enough now to end homelessness.

Entering the gate for any believer to care for the shy sheep means dealing with messy situations. Walking through the gate also demands tremendous faith. These hands-dirty vocations of our young people show me that Christ is still inviting people into the life of passion, death and resurrection. I see the red door of our parish building being the eternal gate of welcome and hospitality, the entry into the sheepfold. I see shepherds of young people relating to people lost among the briars of prejudice and selfishness and forgotten among the wealthy and well deserving.

Valerie and Taylor know their sheep. The sheep also know their voices. These two vocations are authentic because both Taylor and Valerie have known suffering, personal loss, fragile egos and hurtful relationships. People suffering poverty respond to Valerie and Taylor because they do not hide their need for God or their own personal loneliness and poverty. They are leaders who are one with the sheep.

I long to get my feet wet in service alongside these new vocations. They hear the Shepherd’s voice with clarity and purpose and teach me to persevere. I want to work among Taylor and Valerie and others who believe that faith will heal people and that working together will someday bring homes for everyone to protect them from the rain.

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