By Daniel Karlovich, Hope College '15, Engineering Major
During Spring Break this year I was blessed to go on the Hope College Immersion trip sponsored by the Saint Benedict Forum to Chicago. With 10 other Hope students and two adult mentors from St. Francis de Sales Parish in Holland, Michigan I lived and worked at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels alongside members of the religious order Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago. It was a powerful and blessed experience for us all.
During the course of the week we learned to live simply like the Franciscans. A significant part of the trip was spent doing simple tasks such as cooking and cleaning. We quickly learned from the sisters that even such “boring” chores take on great meaning when done with joy and love for Christ.
We also ventured into the community in which we were living. Inside one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Chicago, we spent a few hours every day at the local YMCA with the children in their after school programs. Helping teach a junior class at the local high school, a school with a 67% dropout rate, was particularly powerful for many of us. We also visited a Catholic school, Cristo Rey, and learned about all the wonderful work they are doing to help underprivileged children get a good high school and college education.
All these great things were secondary to what the trip was mainly about. The trip was about self-reflection, learning what it means to live as a Christian in a broken world. It was here that the trip made a lasting impression on me.
I don’t think this trip was easy for anyone. We all were blessed by our experiences, but it wasn’t comfortable. It was a week of both great joy and great sorrow. Joy seemed to just flow from the sisters and it influenced our whole week in our work and in our relationships with each other and the people we met. What a contrast to the pervasive sorrow caused by the poverty and violence that was so prevalent and normal in the neighborhood and in the lives of those we met. Living for a week in an area of so much violence and poverty made all of us ask questions of ourselves and of God that we perhaps had never asked before.
What were these questions? We questioned what purpose was there to come into these people’s lives for a week and then leave. How could we change anything in so short a time against such overwhelming odds? We also questioned ourselves, where are we in our own spiritual journeys? Where is God in our lives?
Some of these questions are easy to answer. Immersion trips are aptly named because we really do not go to help others. We cannot change anything in a week. We go to learn about ourselves and to deepen our own understanding and love of God. In this aspect, this trip succeeded. Some of us left hopeful despite all the struggles. Others left frustrated. It wasn’t the frustration that comes from failure, but the frustration of struggling with a hard question that taxes us spiritually and mentally, but which always leaves us better for the struggle.
For me, being in the midst of so much violence and poverty left me feeling more hopeful than I have in a while. Despite the conditions of the neighborhood, I found so much good there. All the residents we met were loving and welcoming. The kids were a constant joy to be around. The YMCA employees worked tirelessly to get the kids off the streets, to do their homework and have a hot meal. And, of course, there are the sisters who are respected and loved within the community, doing everything with so much abundant joy and love for God. I realized that despite the evil in the world there are so many people who go about their lives humbly and lovingly in the midst of suffering, helping those in poverty both spiritually and physically.
It is always good when facing hard questions to draw on the wisdom of other godly people. In the car ride home one of the girls, like the rest of us still struggling to come to terms with all we had experienced, read a reflection on St. Veronica. The message was clear, “sometimes all we can do is wipe the sweat from someone’s brow as they suffer” (Kerry Weber, Mercy in the City).
Before the trip we may have said we went to help the poor, but we are wiser now. Like St. Veronica, the best we could do was to wipe the sweat from those in pain as an act of love. The real change came in our own hearts.