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Home Was Where the Hard Was

Mattie, a student at Berea College in Kentucky, worked at Casa Juan Diego this summer as an intern. She reflects here on her experience.

The greatest gift that Casa Juan Diego gave me was the ability to walk out of Mass with the inescapable opportunity to live out the Gospel.

The life I have lived up to this point, as a student, has meant that “home” is the place I share with my family or with another student, meals are taken in the small community of my family or friends, and my “to-do list” is driven by things like homework, household chores, or spending time with  the people I have chosen to be part of my inner circle. I have volunteer experience; my parents were wise enough to impart to my siblings and I hearts oriented toward service. But that volunteer experience was always something I stepped outside of my context to do. Organizing clothes at my hometown clothes closet, collecting donations for foster children, starting a summer reading club and library – these were projects scattered throughout my high school years. Obviously they came second to the commitments of school. Often, the importance of recording service hours was emphasized for my resume’s sake. Week-long service trips were typically reserved for the summers, when school caused no conflict.

It has been difficult to volunteer in college, especially during the pandemic. It would be misleading to say that there have been no opportunities; one can always find a fellow student in need of encouragement, and campus ministries often offer spaces designed specifically for students to give their time, talent, and treasure. But one must balance these possibilities with the reality of assignments, deadlines, and academic expectations.

Such is the way I have always thought of serving in relation to my daily “pressing tasks”. Service was relegated to a lower rank on the priority list. But stepping into Casa Juan Diego was stepping into a new way of seeing service and daily life.

Casa Juan Diego was an extended stay on an endless “to-do list,” and oftentimes it felt like being pummeled by the ocean waves of childhood beach vacations; but being present to serve and to respond with compassion and mercy – at least that option – could no longer hide underneath other tasks and obligations. I had come with the (perhaps overconfident) intention to expend myself, and the Lord was going to grant me ample opportunity to do so.

I remember one Sunday this summer, the Gospel reading was from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark. The priest began, “Jesus and his apostles were in a crowded and noisy place, and they did not have peace and quiet even to eat.”

“Sounds like Casa Juan Diego,” I thought to myself with a self-satisfied chuckle. The priest continued: “So Jesus told the apostles, ‘Come away with me to a quiet place to rest awhile.’”

I breathed deeply. “Wow … That sounds beautiful. Yes, I want that Lord.” I said it with a smile, thinking to myself how much I deserved that after a month and a half of being needed from morning to evening, seven days a week.

The Gospel continued: “But the crowd saw them leave, and recognizing them, decided to follow them. People left from all the towns and villages and arrived before them.”

I shook my head. It sounded exactly like Casa Juan Diego. There were always people asking us for various things, we never had a moment to rest. I anticipated Jesus’ response; surely He would become exasperated and try to avoid the crowds. But He didn’t.

            “When Jesus got off the boat and saw the large crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

Those words rang in my ears, their echo eventually making its way into the hollowness of my heart: “He had compassion on them.”

I knew this story. But this time, I heard it differently. Jesus’ reaction surprised me. I was ashamed. Jesus responded in compassion despite His exhaustion, despite having other plans. After prayers of repentance and tears shed at my misunderstanding of gospel-inspired service, I was overwhelmed with a profound gratitude and a recognition of the grace it was to know that I was going to walk out of Mass and be able to put these convictions to the test. It was literally waiting for me when I got home.

Yes, I do mean home. Despite not sharing it with my family, Casa Juan Diego was home. After Mass, I would go back and eat lunch with our guests, some of whom I had only met the day before, few of whom spoke my “comfort language” of English, but I was going to eat lunch at home. And in this home, I had no homework waiting for me; I had nothing but time to discover the beautiful hearts and resilient spirits that God had placed with me as housemates.

God had made it easy for me to make good on the ambitious intention I had in my heart to serve. It was not an easy task for me to make good on that intention; if anything this summer confronted me with my own overconfidence and naivete. When I failed, the next day, probably the next hour in fact, would bring an opportunity to try again.

Casa Juan Diego gave me more opportunities to live out my faith than I could possibly ever avail myself of – the gift of leaving Mass with a conviction. upon my heart, knowing its fulfillment awaited me at home.