September President’s Pen: Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive.

Even though it is astronomically already autumn, up until just a few days ago it still felt a whole lot like summer and, with COVID driving people outdoors, it’s been a very lively September.

That certainly holds true for Cristo Rey St. Martin.  For the last seven weeks, students are coming back to class once a week under our hybrid schedule.  Although at only a fraction of pre-pandemic volumes, our hallways and cafeteria are filled with sounds of young people continuing their studies and friendships and even some extracurricular activities.  Additionally, although about 50% of our staff and 25% of our faculty are still 100% remote, the building has more people in it now than it ever has since March 2020.

Who would have thought that a 4-person meeting in a vacant classroom with extra distancing would be enjoyable? And yet, it is a relief in many ways to simply have some modicum of live, human interaction.  The virus is still here; we can’t let down our guard, but we can interact and see one another and have some semblance of real conversations instead of staring at a screen full of boxes that happen to be people we work with and care about but who, for all practical purposes, might as well be on Mars.

Witnessing signs of life is life-giving.  Hope is often found more in the little things than in one giant event.  With more than a little creativity, we found a way to hold our annual Elevate event in the parking lot with lots of distancing, picnicking to live music.  For a brief moment that evening, it felt almost normal: hearing live music and seeing old friends – even if from a safe distance – was reassuring, and the idea that, someday soon, the ability to see one another smile instead of wearing a mask, the chance to hug and laugh and really be together was somehow closer to becoming a reality than it has been for a very long time.

Our students have been eagerly signing up for small, controlled community service opportunities.  Several seniors went to the Northern Illinois Food Bank to pack food and distribute it.  In a couple weeks, CRSM will host a drive-thru food distribution event in our parking lot and expect hundreds of people to benefit.  The Morton Arboretum donated nearly three dozen trees to CRSM and came out to plant them with about 30 students and ten staff members (divided into multiple smaller groups) to plant them. Digging big holes to accommodate the trees is pretty strenuous any time but I dare you to try it while wearing a mask!

Our science teachers purchased some Monarch chrysalises earlier this month and, while we were hoping some students would see the butterflies emerge, it happened pretty quickly – mostly over a weekend.  It is still a miracle of sorts to see a cocoon on Thursday and come back on Monday to find a fully formed butterfly.  A couple days after the mass emergence, we held a release party with several students near our school garden behind the building.  Lots of giggles and a genuine sense of awe and wonder accompanied our group as students reached into the soft cages and encouraged the monarchs on their way.  Forgive me for drawing an obvious analogy but seeing the students release those butterflies reminded me that we, too, are sending our students off into an unknown world with both confidence and trepidation, praying they will prosper and find their way despite so many uncertainties.

There is a prayer attributed to the Salvadorian martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero that ends with these words:

 We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

So, here we are, finding our way in a new and unfamiliar reality – using our collective creativity to find what works best.  Bonded by faith in one another and our creator, we are looking forward to a better future that will and must be of our own making.

The theologian, author, and civil rights activist Howard Thurman wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

There is new life at CRSM despite the pandemic and there is renewed hope in the future because our students are studying and working and planning for a better one.  With masks, and a hybrid schedule, and trepidation about their own health and that of their families, our students are learning and “coming alive” for a world that desperately needs them.