In February, I went on a retreat designed for my seniors. I was on the team having been on other retreats at my school. I gave a talk about growing in your faith. A few friends afterward requested I share the talk. While some of it might be repetitive if you have read the other posts about Ecuador, it is the story about how I have gotten to where I am in my faith today and how much it means to me. The picture with the talk is of my good friend Briana Murphy. She introduced me and my talk before I gave it. Afterward I chose the song “Indian Moon” by State Radio to play for reflection.
Last semester I was in class and in the midst of doing an assignment I came across Denzel Washington’s 2010 commencement speech to the graduating class of Penn State. And he said one of the most inspirational things I have ever heard in regards to starting your life. He said,
There is no passion in playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. I’m sure in your experiences in school and applying to college and picking your major and deciding what you want to do in life, I’m sure people have told you, make sure you have something to fall back on, make sure you have something to fall back on honey, but I never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward, so that way I know what I’m falling into.
This talk is about growing in your faith. I did not want to give this talk. I wanted to give a talk, but when looking at the options, this was not my number one. I circled it saying I would be interested. The reason I didn’t want to give it was because let’s face it, as a senior in college; it is hard to be questioned about faith. It is sort of like being asked what your plans are after graduation. Not many of us know yet. While some of us are fortunate to have a plan for what happens after May 12, the day we graduate if you weren’t sure, some of us just don’t know. And I think the same can be said for faith. Some of us are fortunate to know what it means to be a person of deep faith. Some of us have had the defining moments in our lives that dictate who we are or how we act when it comes to faith. One of the questions I was asked to think about was how I have taken leap of faith. So I had to think back, back to August of 2008, where along this four year journey have I taken my leaps of faith.
I feel confident saying that I am a person of deep faith. I was raised in a very strict Roman Catholic family. It just happened to be my path. When you grow up one way and are introduced to others, you perceive them differently. When we come to college, for the majority of us, it is our first time living away from home, with new people, with new lifestyles. Our parent’s spent 18 years molding us and teaching us and now we are in a place where we are constantly bombarded by different living styles and tendencies. But one of the biggest differences I noticed in tendencies was when it came to faith. I remember the last week of August in 2008 when we all were freshmen, moving to school and I had this awesome realization. No one was going to wake me up on a Sunday and say time to go to mass.
I look back and chuckle at stupid Nicholas, but at the time I thought it was awesome that no one was forcing me to go to church. But something that dawned at me at this young age was that none of my friends really had any perception of being excited about not going to mass. We had all been raised in our faith lives differently. The strangest was when I became very good friends with a girl who was an atheist. But despite not believing in any kind of God, she taught me a lot about my faith. Her and I were very close and occasionally faith would come up in conversation. I would ask her how she could be an atheist and she said the same thing I would say if someone asked me why I was catholic; it’s how I was raised.
When coming into college, how much do we do that is really of our own accord? How much do our lives just relive the tendencies that our parents taught us? There were a lot of different things that sparked my interest in reconnecting to my faith. But to reconnect, I had to start taking leaps of faith, doing something with blind belief that in the end it would be for the best. My first leap was going on Start 1 retreat. Chris Cirilli, my roommate of today four years convinced me to go the spring of our sophomore year. I agreed since he and my other roommate Joe Grivers were on the team. Part of the structure includes confession and I remember spending most of my time talking to Father, at the time brother, Dinh who was supervising the retreat. I shared with him how forced I felt in my faith. He said it was good I didn’t involve myself right away, had it been to appease my mother that I was going to mass on Sundays, I couldn’t say I was a strong person of faith. I was doing it for the wrong reason. He did not push me, he just said, take your time and don’t be a stranger.
The next leap was going on Start 2. This retreat is about focusing on your own relationship with God, focusing on the things that hold you back and how to let them go. I had a long talk with the head of Campus Ministry James Rizza about things that I held onto, bad things, and he said don’t worry about it, believe it or not you have a lot to learn about life experiences and soon enough, you’ll learn to let them go. After that I finally felt like someone had flipped a switch. I finally felt my own connection. And I decided to not let go.
I knew I needed to take that next leap of faith. I filled out an application and quickly found myself as a part of the Camp Min Core Team. In choosing my focus area, it was pretty easy. I wanted Start 2. It had given me a second chance and I wanted to give that chance to someone else.
It is human nature to want recognition. When I was on start team a year before I gave a talk and was told by multiple individuals that it was inspiring and I loved that feeling. I wanted to inspire again. But this time it was much different. By the end of the Start 2 retreat I felt like I hadn’t inspired or taught anyone anything. I felt like I had failed at my job. After three months of preparing and hard work, it seemed to end so abruptly. But at the end of the retreat we had a passing prayer. My good friend, our junior helper Ashley was on the retreat. She had just been rector for Start 1 and had some experience with what I was feeling. She said thank you to my wonderful partner Colleen Harrigan and I because she knew how much behind the scenes work went on and how very few people see it. Her comment got me thinking. I spent three months with my partner working to put this whole retreat together and only we knew it. And that made me finally get it. I was serving God selflessly.
Now I have to admit something. At this point I had taken many leaps of faith, but it took a lot for me to wake up and realize the differences that I needed to make in my life. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been stupid. I’ve had horrible judgment. I’ve been an ass. I’ve been inconsiderate. I’ve been drunk. I’ve been careless. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been angry. And I’ve been a drunk a few more times. How many of us can say we haven’t experienced any of these instances while in college? And for a long time I held such a grudge against myself. I judged myself. I hated myself.
In reflecting on what to say in this talk, I read, “Some of the saints share the fact that often times before they came to a leap of faith, they experience a dark night of the soul, a time when they seemed to be going nowhere in their faith. Sometimes it is the crises of life that serves as the springboard for faith,” I found this statement very relevant to my life. About a month ago, I visited a therapist. I had been having a really difficult time dealing with something and felt like I needed to talk to someone, a professional. After talking to him for a little bit he said what I was hoping he wouldn’t. He told me I was suffering from depression. My first reaction was naw, that’s ok. Let me explain why he was saying this.
The first week of January this year, I found myself taking the biggest leap of faith I have ever taken. I found myself in Duran, Ecuador on my second SEND mission trip. Similar to my mindset before Start 2, I was not prepared to learn so much. My first SEND trip was in South Dakota living on a Native American reservation. Some of you who have been on these trips with me might be able to attest, when you immerse yourself in these different worlds, you see a lot of poverty and start to become desensitized to it. You begin to have a certain expectation. But Ecuador was different. I went down thinking I couldn’t do much in a place like that, because of the invisible barriers, the language barrier, the racial barrier and social class barrier. I went down thinking I couldn’t learn something. I went down thinking I would be desensitized. I went thinking I couldn’t be touched. I was wrong on all three accounts.
I could go into the details of the trip, talk about all the beautiful people we and the extraordinary places we visited. But I’m not going to. I’m going to tell you three stories from the trip that slapped me in the face with a few realizations.
Remember how I said I thought I couldn’t do much because of the invisible barriers? Well on the third day, this thought was proven wrong. I visited a leprosy house and after 45 minutes of talking to the most caring and sweet people I have ever met, I found myself dancing with this sweet little blind leper woman named Mercedes. She was a little bit of a player because after I stopped, she moved right on to Zack. After that we visited a school called Nuevo Mundo where we met a woman named Patricia who built this gorgeous school on swamp land and after asking her questions about her work she wanted to ask us about ours. She asked if any of us had intention of being a teacher. Just a few hands went up and she gave us a look. She said that we were all to be teachers. If we had the privilege of traveling to Duran and experience life amongst the people residing there, we had no right to not teach about what we saw. She told us if we were American, had an American passport, had an American college education, there was no reason for us to fail and no reason for us to not do anything about the problems that we were seeing. The last stop of that day was to a school called Chicos de Calles. This was a school for boys living on the street, either homeless or abandoned by their families and they were brought to the school told that if they did well, they would be trained to play soccer. After a tour we were asked if we wanted to join in a soccer game with the boys. We jumped in. It happened to be raining that day so if you can picture a huge field consisting of nothing but mud and about 30 Ecuadorian boys and us running back and forth, just trying to score, just sharing in the fight to defeat the other team.
Dancing with a blind leper woman, being bluntly told that I have no right to let social injustice pass me by, fighting through blood, sweat and tears to work with people who couldn’t understand me and who I couldn’t understand to achieve a common goal, my belief that the invisible barriers would prevent me from being able to do anything, was immediately proven wrong.
My next belief was that I wouldn’t learn something I didn’t already know. On the second day, we went to an afterschool program called Manos in a town called Antonio Jose Sucre. This community known as ASJ was built on trash. After 30 minutes of driving by tattered homes and monstrous piles of trash, we came to a stop. Our guide named Julia told us we had arrived.
We all stood in front of a massive concrete wall with a tiny gate door. I walked in first and looked around and what caught my attention was raised concrete in the ground over to my left. I walked over to see a pool. It was empty. At first I was surprised to see a pool at all. Then I let out a depressing laugh to myself because it was just one more sad sight. In the midst of all this heat, a swim sounded amazing, cold water or not. But even though it was built for such a use, it sat there empty. Until Julia walked up and proclaimed, “Oh God, the kids are going to want to go swimming today.” I quickly became confused. She said it in such a tone that can be related to by any camp counselor. When they know their kids are going to love a new activity, but the second they see it’s available to them, they go crazy making the counselor’s job harder. But I didn’t understand; the pool was empty. What were they going to go swimming in? I did a double take and starred into the empty pool. It wasn’t exactly empty. There was about an inch of collected rain water resting at the bottom.
Everyone knows that phrase, optimists see a glass half full, pessimists see it half empty. These kids saw an inch of water in a large concrete hole as a swimming pool. I saw it completely empty. What does that say? That moment quickly would be one that would change me forever. Because while I still was hesitant to believe Julia that these kids were going swimming, the second they got there it felt like I was defending a celebrity from screaming fans. Except these screaming fans were a bunch of tiny children who just wanted to go swimming in an inch of water. They were sneaky too. When we said no they took their shoes off and threw them in the pool. Then their excuse was they needed to get them. It was not hard at all to say go ahead, because the second their bare feet hit the water, they were filled with happiness. Thinking I couldn’t learn something new in Ecuador was just proven wrong. How could I ever be unsatisfied or take something for granted again?
The last thing I thought was that I wouldn’t see something I hadn’t seen before. Again, I have done service trips before, I have seen poverty. There comes a time where you become desensitized to it. You don’t think you can see something and be as shocked as you were the first time you had a service experience. I was so terribly wrong. The very first day we were there our guide Billy told us we were going to an after school program called Semillas. The Rostro volunteer named Molly came over to explain what was happening and told us that she would split us into groups to help facilitate the kids in each area.
My group had about 10 little ones in it. We were given a book to read to the kids and then gave out paper and crayons. Molly came back over to check on us. She asked how we were doing and we told her that despite the language barrier, we were surviving and doing well. She explained how all the kids wanted was attention. This was the only place they really got it. I looked over to see a little girl sitting on a bleacher alone. She was in a pretty little dress and was just sitting with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands starring at a little boy who was running in circles in front of her. The little boy was tiny, neither had shoes. I asked if I should get them to come over and join the group. Molly said, “It’s ok, we kind of let them do their own thing”. I asked why. She told me it was a difficult story.
She explained that there were three of them. The tiny boy was 2, the little girl was 7 and they had an older brother in the homework room who was 9. The older sister and brother took care of the 2 year old because they had no family. I asked her to explain and she said that was it. They have no family. They have a mother that stops in once maybe twice a week and drops off a little bit of food. But the three of them are alone the rest of them time. When they would come to Semillas, the 7 and 9 year old would take turns doing homework and watching their little brother. Then afterward, they would walk home, in the mud, without shoes, make dinner for the little one, sometimes they got to eat and go to sleep. Then do the same thing the next day.
I fought back tears hearing this. But Molly continued on. They usually do not let kids under the age of 5 to come to the program because they keep it as constructive as possible but these three little ones they made an exception. Especially what had happened a few weeks before. I asked what had happened. She told us that a 7 year old and 4 year old were in the exact same situation. About 3 weeks before our arrival, the older brother was making the younger brother dinner and a fire started and burnt down their house and the two neighbor houses. The 7 year old got out.
The 4 year old did not.
The gut wrenching, heart breaking, tear jerking scene I found myself in can’t really be put into words. It is something that I can’t fully relate to you or explain. But it certainly proved me wrong when I thought I wasn’t going to be emotionally touched on this trip.
In the few weeks since I’ve been back to America, I’ve been stuck in this funk. I remember getting back to school and just feeling alone. I felt disconnected from everything and everyone around me because it seemed like no one could understand what I had just seen. I just didn’t know how to handle it. It became most apparent to me when I was at a party one of the first weekends back at school and my close friend Jeremy that had been with me in South Dakota and Ecuador and who will be co-leading a SEND trip with me to Washington DC sat next to me. We were reminiscing about our trips and he asked, “Do you ever just feel depressed, that we are sitting here, in a warm apartment, drinking beer, laughing with friends and then you think about all the people we just lived with and became close with, and they are still there. They are still suffering. We left the suffering, but they are still in it.” It sounds depressing because it is. But it was the happiest I had felt since I had been back to school. The concept of feeling alone finally seemed to drift away. The therapist I spoke with asked if I wanted anything to help me through it and I said confidently, I’m not that kind of guy that needs something to get me through depression. And he told me that was fine, but this was not something that was going to go away by just ignoring it. So I told him I was giving this talk and he said use that. Let that be your drug. Let that be your vehicle.
All of my experiences have come from taking a leap of faith. It all comes back to serving God in one way or another. And while I can’t literally make you feel the heartbreak that I felt while in Ecuador, I can say to you the things that I realized upon coming back and the things that seem to just make so much more sense.
We are going to graduate soon. We are going to be out of college. We are going to lose touch with people, people we probably refer to as close friends. We will find that we can’t just skip work like we skip class from time to time. We can’t drink excessively because it’s the weekend. We can’t say “next semester” anymore. There is no more “3 strikes and you’re out”. We are not going to be able to be young and reckless and make up excuses because its college. We are going to lose that bubble. And that is ok. Because if there is one thing every leap of faith has taught me, it is putting things in perspective. The problems we thought were problems in college are going to become meaningless. The things we get angry about now are going to seem petty when we are trying to buy a house or raise a family. Why do you get angry? What do you define as a problem? I’ve learned to put things in perspective. And I think that is what God would want. Because while he sees the things we see as suffering in our lives, he sees the suffering of the whole world. And like I was told in Ecuador, we have no right to be angry, we have no right to do nothing about the injustices of the world, we have no right to fail. I’ve grown to learn that in the end, it truly is what we do with our lives from the day Prez Chez hands us our diploma that matters. We have the power to change the world, why linger on what has already passed.
My song is about having that one rock for you to fall back on in life. I chose, like Denzel, to fall back on my faith, you might choose differently. Whatever it is, let that be the only thing you look back on, because in 3 months it should be the only thing we ever look back on, everything else is waiting for us to fall forward.