Last week when one of our students tweeted, “My bowl turned out so much better than I hoped!” several of us at CRSM knew exactly what she was talking about.
Our Campus Ministry office was originally the second floor landing for a back stairway. It’s an oddly shaped affair slightly bigger than most other workplaces on campus and is increasingly called into service for all kinds of gatherings because we have simply run out of room. There is something fitting about Campus Ministry being in a space designed for heavy traffic. Campus Ministry is consistently one of the busiest places at CRSM precisely because it represents the intersection of faith and action. With that in mind, it was simultaneously appropriate and incongruent when, two weeks ago, I found myself seated at a folding table in the Campus Ministry office with eight other students painting ceramic bowls.
If, unlike me, you have painted ceramics before then you know our bowls had a dull white, rough finish and the paint colors were all muted pastels. Despite this lack of vibrancy, students threw themselves into the task of painting whatever they liked on the bowls. Some painted hearts, some flowers, or stars, or various other geometric designs. Some decided to simply use one solid coat of color on the outside and another on the inside. Others applied strategically sparing splashes of different colors here and there. One student worked on an elaborate, mosaic-like pattern that resembled stained glass.
All the bowls were so different but all were conceived and produced with great care. As we focused on our works of art, the students shared small talk of the week ahead and the weekend past, occasionally teasing one another, or joking self-deprecatingly about their creations. Of course, I grilled them a bit on their college aspirations, too. But amid the banter, there were long intervals of silence and concentration. At times it seemed like a kind of communal prayer: a small group sitting in silence, facing one another, surrounded by a mix of religious pictures on the wall and dozens of photos of CRSM students engaged in community service activities.
Our project was part of the Empty Bowls movement, raising awareness of domestic and international hunger through art. One of our science teachers came up with the idea and voluntarily organized the whole event. With materials donated by a local ceramics studio and personal expressions of beauty donated by our students, the entire project culminated at a potluck soup dinner last Friday in our “caf-a-chap-a-gym-a-torium.”
Climbing the front stairs up to the dinner, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Smells of soup wafted over to the check-in table where guests purchased their dinner tickets. Entering the dining area, guests were immediately confronted by a table full of shiny, smooth, and incredibly colorful bowls! These were the same bowls painted two weeks earlier but they had been fired in a kiln that transformed them into absolutely beautiful pieces of art waiting to be filled with soup.
As part of the ticket price, participants chose a bowl to keep and use for their dinner. Other bowls were reserved for a raffle. The money raised went to Feed My Starving Children, a local non-profit where CRSM students volunteer regularly. All those bowls the students worked so hard to create were donated for the event.
So there we were at CRSM on an evening in Lent enjoying one another’s company with a variety of home-made meatless soups and hand-made precious bowls – students, teachers, friends and family sharing a meal together – all with the purpose of caring for others less fortunate than us. As tough as some of our families have it, our students know others who are much worse off and they are doing something about it – using their hands, hearts, and minds to make the lives of others better.
For a moment during dinner, I felt something I hope everyone has a chance to feel sometime in their lives. Seeing so many wonderful young people doing something as mundane as eating together and yet also realizing that this meal was the result of a whole series of selfless acts, the room sparkled with a vibrancy far beyond just the beautiful bowls. In that moment, as people laughed and ate and shared, I sensed God’s presence – God actively at work in our world through these young people, young people shifting the focus of their lives from me to we, young people being persons for others.
Because of economic conditions in Waukegan and North Chicago, society assumes this place has nothing to offer or, even worse, generalizes that crime and homelessness and unemployment reflect the character of the people living here. Our neighborhood is misjudged as rough, dull, and empty but like the bowls, something beautiful is happening here. It’s just hard to see.
Little things like a Lenten dinner in solidarity with the hungry may seem insignificant but social justice events like this one are happening all the time at CRSM. As they continue, it is the equivalent of firing the whole community in a kiln of faith and action. One day, just like the student tweeting about her bowl, we will all be surprised by a future brighter than we ever hoped. That future is coming; as surely as Easter follows Lent, it’s coming. I see it in those bowls. I see it in our students. Their best… our best is yet to come!