OLLU Encuentro: What do I want to do with my life?
By Carol Baass Sowa
SAN ANTONIO • Our Lady of the Lake University’s second summer Encuentro High School Theology Institute, funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., brought 55 students (26 high school seniors and 22 OLLU student mentors) to the campus June 11-16 to explore vocation, service, prayer, faith traditions and spirituality in art and culture. The high school students, selected through a nomination process, hailed from Providence High School, Holy Cross High School, and the parishes of Our Lady of Guadalupe, San Juan de los Lagos, St. Jude, St. Mary Magdalen and St. John Berchmans.
Among the presentations was one by Father David Garcia, in his role as senior advisor for clergy outreach for Catholic Relief Services, promoting solidarity for the poor and vulnerable in the developing world. A priest for 42 years, he is also pastor at Mission Concepción and director of the Old Spanish Missions.
“You are reaching an important part of your life,” he told the students, “and that is: What do I want to do with my life?” Their week at the Encuentro would give them ideas for this, he said, in the context of a values-based framework.
It is not enough to say, “I’m going to be richer than Bill Gates and that’s it,” he said. Such an ambition should have the intent of using one’s wealth to make a difference in the world by improving the lives of others, so that there are fewer starving and more who are able to get an education, to ensure a better life for themselves. “It’s all connected,” he added.
Catholic Relief Services, he explained, is the official agency of the United States Catholic Church for overseas relief, development and help. In our name, they are working with about 100 million people in 100 of the poorest countries in the world, who may be dealing with an earthquake, hurricane, crop failure or refugees trying to save their lives in an ethnic conflict or civil war. “Solidarity means we are connected with every single person in the world,” he said. “It means I care about others, even if I will never meet them.”
Images with titles flashed on a screen to prompt recollection of a specific homily, sermon or talk that had affected them. The topics included human trafficking, abortion, immigration reform, healthcare, food insecurity, homelessness, wealth distribution, racism, natural disasters relief, climate change, international poverty-focused assistance and proclaiming the Good News to the poor.
Individual table discussions were followed by sharing with the group. One student told of a speaker earlier that week, who recalled that in his early years it was not expected anyone from his part of town would advance to higher education. “If you were a Mexican,” he said, “you didn’t go to college. It was vocational school.” This encouraged an Encuentro student to speak of continuing her education and likewise inspiring others to succeed.
One young woman remembered her mother talking about abortion and honking in support of protesters outside a Planned Parenthood center. She wondered if becoming a lawyer might enable her to be of help in this area, to which Father Garcia added the suggestion of joining a volunteer group that provides emotional support to pregnant young women at Seton Home, who have chosen to keep their babies, though often abandoned by their families and the babies’ fathers. “Sometimes giving a few hours can make a difference,” Father Garcia told her.
Immigration was a hot topic. “We each had our own opinion on how it should be approached,” said one young man, “Some of us were more lenient and others were more ‘follow the law.’” A show of hands indicated the majority had one or both parents who had emigrated from Mexico, with a couple coming from Central America. Father Garcia related immigrants come to the United States for better economic opportunities, to flee gang violence and for a better life for themselves and their children, including education.
He reminded the students that “once you get an education, no one can ever take that education away from you” and urged them to learn the lessons of their parents’ lives, so the world can be a little better “for you and those who follow you.”
A student pointed out the dilemma of having family or friends who are undocumented. Even if they came to escape the violence back home, it is against the law for them to be here and they face harsh penalties. “It is really hard,” he said, especially when families are split up. This led another student to note the need to become involved in reform and making things better, “until you eventually achieve something that’s closer to justice.”
Regarding immigration reform, Father Garcia noted the U.S. bishops have stated it is wrong to tear families apart. “The law is the law,” he said, but the bishops are saying “the dignity of the human person comes first.” He added, “It is important to see God in another person, especially in another person who is in need.”
One young man commented on not judging the homeless, relating how a sermon at Mass inspired him to buy a hamburger for a homeless man. After circling the block and seeing the man dividing it into quarters for his children, he went back and bought them a full meal. An older attendee’s thoughts were of growing up in a time of institutional racism. They could drink at any water fountain, she said, but institutions fostered a systematic cultural oppression that was a form of racism. People had to speak up and take action to change this.
Congratulating the students for beginning to come to grips with serious issues, Father Garcia observed that all were complicated. “They are all kinds of shades of grey,” he said, “and all of us have a role in responding to all of those issues.”
He recounted his CRS trip to Ghana, whose people are the poorest in the world. The average income is $1.25 a day, meaning most cannot afford to eat every day and children in families must alternate days they can eat. Women in one village of subsistence farming had banded together to form a small savings group, contributing what little they could each month to an account from which, in turn, each drew a loan to invest in a new money-making endeavor to increase their income.
A woman whose mud hut Father Garcia visited had invested her loan in producing honey and beer, realizing enough sales profit to send her children to school and, for the first time in her life, do something special for herself. She had purchased red nail polish and painted her toenails. “That’s human dignity,” said Father Garcia. “Remember, God created all of us equally and we are all responsible for each other.” This thought was underscored by exploring the parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches that everyone is our neighbor.
Pope Francis has spoken of the three false cultures of materialism, he noted: the culture of comfort, in which we see everything as existing solely for our comfort; the culture of waste, in which we use something, then throw it away with no thought for the environment; and the culture of indifference, in which we ignore other peoples’ suffering and needs.
Today, said Father Garcia, 21,000 people in the world will die of hunger. Six million children will die this year from avoidable poverty-related causes. People whose immune systems are weakened by starvation cannot fight off disease, and medical help is unaffordable or unreachable. The poor also do not have resources to overcome natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes or human-caused ones, such as civil wars or ethnic conflicts. Forty-five million people are displaced in the world today, he noted, and 45.8 million are in some form of modern slavery.
“All of us are responsible for everybody,” he said. “Our humanity ties us to each other.” CRS programs we can participate in, to this end, are the Rice Bowl in Lent, in which contributing a few coins or dollars means someone in another part of the world can eat that day; and Fair Trade, which eliminates the middle man, so those who work the hardest can make a decent life for themselves.
Queried as to what they had learned that day, one student summed it up best. “There are other people to consider,” she said. “Not everything is about us.”