I knew after my sophomore year that I was not going to want to hop right into my career. As a psychology major, I was sure I didn’t want to go to graduate school right away, and I wanted to challenge myself right out of college.
The Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) recruits college graduates to work with and transform Catholic school classrooms across the country. The skills learned are supposed to help develop teachers who will go on to service some of the most under-resourced Catholic schools in the country (though not all teachers go to under-resourced schools). In addition, teachers live in community, which is supposed to spiritually, professionally, and socially support teachers throughout their two years.
It sounded like the perfect service opportunity after college for me. Teaching would be the way I would both give back to society, and challenge myself personally in the next two years to come.
My alma mater had a send-off ceremony for graduates who were choosing to do service instead of entering the traditional workforce. I listened to inspiring speeches about what passion and service looked like eagerly and I left the ceremony feeling passionate, zealous, and a little nervous for the two years of service to follow.
At my school, San Juan Diego Catholic High School in Austin, Texas, I rarely revisited the idea of my life as service until I led my junior morality class through a discussion about the Catholic Social Teaching framework of the Two Feet of Love in Action. The first foot is social justice, which removes the root causes of problems and improves social structures, and the second is the foot of charitable works, which meets the basic needs of individual people. This was done in conjunction with the idea of Christian love and service.
As we had our class discussion about the topic, one student asked me, “what service do you do?” I mentioned a couple of things I had done in the past, but I was struck by the abrupt reality check.
I thought to myself ‘what service have I done?’ I could not patronizingly tell my students that my service was teaching them, but I couldn’t name anything else I was doing at that time of my life — at least not in terms of putting Two Feet of Love in Action.
“Am I doing enough?” I thought.
This past year I moved to Chile as part of the ChACE 16 (similar to my Alliance for Catholic Education program) cohort in Santiago. I have enjoyed continuing to teach high school English at Saint George’s College. Throughout this year, amongst the homesickness and the transitioning period to my new context, I was tempted time and time again to ask myself ‘am I doing enough?’
Three years after I left the send-off ceremony to begin this work, I was at a particularly low point. Social media continued to show me how much I was missing from home: the graduations, the births of family members, birthdays, weddings, even the fabulous spring weather.
Meanwhile, I seemed to be having trouble at work, I felt particularly estranged from my family and friends, and the weather was getting colder. Moreover, I had very little direction about where my life was heading.
I had the opportunity during this period to watch Fr. Greg Boyle’s Laetare Medal Address at the University of Notre Dame 2017 Commencement Ceremony. A social justice leader and founder of Homeboy Industries, he spoke about compassion and going to the margins.
“The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins…” he said, “but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”
I frequently re-watched and re-read this address because it helped me see my life and current world in Santiago through a different lens. Nearly four years of “service” teaching later, it finally hit me.
I was not “doing enough” because our ultimate call extends beyond what we do for others. The more important question then is whether I see myself in kinship with the students, parents, faculty, and staff I have been blessed to encounter in these three-and-a-half years teaching.
In fact, this shift in perspective conveyed so eloquently by Fr. Boyle is how I challenge myself to view every opportunity I have to interact with not only those at the margins, but also those in my daily life — from my students to my family and friends to strangers on the bus.
Living a life of Christian service can begin with your family, friends, co-workers, or any person you encounter on any given day — standing beside them at their margins, wherever they struggle. Standing with people despite their disagreeableness, short tempers, pride, and falseness isn’t easy. I’ve found that it is much harder to walk with someone than it is to ‘do things for them.’
But, fortunately, every single person, no matter their current situation has a choice to live in kinship with those around them.
Christian service does not end here, however. As I stand with those closest to me, I realize I am also called to seek those who are not always close to me, at the margins in which they stand. I’m thinking of the poor or others who may be quietly struggling, and are sadly forgotten by many. I will not pretend that I have pushed myself to the margins enough, but I am earnestly trying.
Fr. Boyle says in his speech that we find joy at the margins; this is true because as Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel says, “Joy…always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”
I believe we encounter joy at the margins because, in walking in kinship with others, we demonstrate the profound truth that they are loved (even in the face of a great sorrow or difficulty).
I don’t need a ‘send-off ceremony’ to feel passionate about my life as service because the ceremony should be every day when I wake up. My service is not in how much I do for others each day, but rather how much I share in sincerity with those around me: strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike.