The transforming experience of serving
Each year, for the past three years, two or three young men and women came to live in community with three Brothers, sharing meals, prayer, celebrations, and conversation – in the Christian Brothers Volunteer Community, New Orleans. The volunteers served at Operation Helping Hands and shared the experience with the Brothers. They also brought their friends home for long dinner hours filled with good food and conversation that had to bridge an age divide of 40 and even 60 years!
The search for meaning
What Brothers and volunteers had in common was a search for meaning for their lives. For some it included deep, even life-long commitments, to a Catholic faith life. But all were committed to living out their conviction – religious or not – through service, together with others who shared a similar goal and orientation. While the Brothers worked with at-risk youth, the homeless, or schools, the volunteers went out to rebuild homes and lives. In doing so, they were transformed.
The meaning of discipleship
Discipleship has been defined as being “with each other, for each other.” In every year, among the young men and women who came to share the hospitality of the community of Brothers and volunteers, one could sense commitment and camaraderie. One also realized the friction, frustration, and differences that beset people living closely together even when pursuing, maybe especially when pursuing, a great mission. For a full year volunteers laboured in difficult working conditions among the needy and impoverished, often with inadequate tools, in great heat and humidity, in stress-filled situations, and at times with little thanks. It was a great test and a good one for young men and women who by birth, parentage, and education would always be, in practical terms, privileged. That they could move away from comfort and privilege to live radical simplicity and give themselves with love and respect to those they served was remarkable. In their service to the poor, elderly, and handicapped, it seemed they intuitively knew what Jackie Robinson said: “The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity.”
The meaning of home
One’s home contains more than one’s possessions. Samuel Clemens understood this with sensitivity not unlike that of his neighbours downriver in New Orleans. Of his home he wrote: “Our home was not insentient matter. It had a heart and soul, and eyes to see with, and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benedictions. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out in eloquent welcome—and we could not enter it unmoved.”
Eager to serve, and respectful of those they came to help, the volunteers gained an appreciation of what home meant to the people of New Orleans—home not merely being structures but shared history, culture, food, music, family ties, and a joy and appreciation for the gift of life in New Orleans that is unfathomable unless one spends time, real time here. The people of Operation Helping Hands never became so involved with the practical and utilitarian that they forgot the spirit, romance, and humanity of the individuals and community they served.
Homes rebuilt, lives transformed
Robert Wicks once said: “In the circle of grace, respect is at the heart.” Respect for the people served, for their fellow servers, and for the work was the hallmark of the circle of grace that enveloped OHH. There were no tests for the volunteers except willingness to work with others. There were no requirements for those helped except need. The result of the work was 200 or more homes rebuilt but this has wrongly been touted as if the only success of the program. Living in community with some of the volunteers gave one a wonderful chance to accompany and witness the real success – the transformation of lives among those served and those serving.
Driven by love
With patience and humility, muscle and grit, wit, grace, and good humour, they served Christ present and appealing to them in the poor. This was an eloquent witness to the Brothers since it is the charism of the Founder of the Brothers, Edmund Rice. OHH exemplified the theme of the present Pope’s first encyclical, DEUS CARITAS EST: “The Christian’s program —the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus—is “a heart which sees”. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly...Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free. . . . Those who practice charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
A unique experience
Vincent, Caitlyn, Kyle, Catherine, Ryan, Nick, Haley, Molly, and Allison chose OHH for service and the Volunteer Community as their community for a year. The hope for them and others is that they can find the time to ponder – to wonder, rejoice, weep maybe, and seek meaning from that unique space of time and circumstance in this place of contradiction and grace. Along with many frustrations came insight into human and social problems, a new understanding of the plight of the poor, racism, and sexism. Volunteers also experienced the art of living, the music, food, and culture of a truly unique place. And they experienced courage, grace under pressure, and exquisite and moving expressions of gratitude for their work and presence among the people of God in New Orleans. What a marvellous context the year of OHH could be for those discerning their future. Now, what will they do with this marvellous experience?
Operation Helping Hands rebuilt a lot of houses and, equally transformed attitudes and lives. These lives include homeowners and families who could reclaim a little of their heritage and have a base from which to enter the future. The lives of the volunteers at OHH were also transformed – not only through their labor. What did the volunteers’ experience of their co-workers tell them about themselves? They have a unique experience now of government structures, charitable organizations, Church, and – for some – religious orders. What is the response they are called to? How will they use the graced opportunity of Operation Helping Hands to make new meaning for their lives and the lives of others?
We have three young men for this coming year – two Iona College graduates and one from Catholic University of America. Two will be rebuilding housing for the needy and the third will work at Café Reconcile where the late Brother Joe Fragala ministered.
Christian Brother John Casey
July 2012 – adapted from the June 2012 Province Newsletter of the ERCBNA
See also “Crossing a continent…” August 2011 – enter the word Orleans in our SEARCH slot.