With the Occupy Wall Street movement in the headlines, many people are debating the nature of oppressive systems, inequality, and whether positive change ever really materializes - or, at least, on a significant enough scale to counteract the obstacles to peace, prosperity, and justice. In fact, the nature of the protests themselves seems to provoke passionate responses about the manner in which things change - whether the protesters ought to elect leadership, or a set an agenda or objective; whether they ought to form a political lobby, etc. And many of the people posing and wrestling with these questions, as well as participating in the protests, are college students.
College may not always be the time when people settle on a lifelong career path, but it is a formative time of critical thought, discernment, and access to vast amounts of knowledge about the world and how it works. I recently visited an undergraduate theology class at Seattle University to talk about mission and the work of Maryknoll, and I could see this enthusiasm for knowledge and purpose. These students had been studying St. Francis of Assissi, Catholic Imagination, and the ways in which faith is lived practically in the world. My presentation focused on helping these students clarify the meaning of mission in the modern context, and to engage with the work of Maryknoll.
I was inspired by their enthusiasm for the call to witness Christ's love to people in need, with a focus on dialogue, solidarity, and mutual respect. It was clear to me that, in seeing the work of Maryknoll overseas, they were bridging the world of ideas and ideals with practical realities. Here were examples of what people were doing in answer to their faith, and what these students could do in the years to come. I could also tell through their comments - on the clarity of Imminence in the work of Maryknoll, on the connection to St. Francis, on the appreciation for the view of mission as being directed by God and not ourselves - that many of these young people already longed for this real-world connection to the baptismal call.
When I was in college, I too longed for this connection. This longing guided my decision to join the Alliance for Catholic Education and to volunteer teach in low-income schools. One such school was located in Brownsville, Texas, a border town of primarily Mexican immigrants and first generation US citizens, and few native English speakers. The one bookstore in town, a tiny shop in the mall that sold only popular works - closed a few years after I left. Recently, a family member sent me an article about the Brownsville School District's struggles in helping students to reach proficiency in reading, an understandable challenge when students rarely even spoke English outside of the classroom, let alone read it. A mother whose son struggled in reading embarked on a quest to find him help. Unable to find any, she co-founded the Brownsville Reads Task Force in 1996. Working with the school district, the Brownsville Reads was able to reverse the trend of illiteracy in the district within a generation, despite the barriers of poverty and language.
For me, this may be one of the strongest commentaries on instituting change, possibly due to my close connection to the subject. I recently heard a response to the common despondence about how long it can take to institute meaningful change, which basically said this: a plant takes as long to grow as it takes to grow. Even my speaking at Seattle University took time. I met the professor last year, and then seemingly out of the blue was invited to speak to her class. After the session, a few students stayed behind to ask more questions. One said that she was in the nursing program, and wondered if she could work in that field as a lay missioner once she graduated. One encounter may have changed not only the course of her life, but of the many that she may serve. Similarly, I recently found out that a woman that I volunteer-taught with in Birmingham, AL, now lives and teaches in Mombasa, Kenya. And my own encounter with people in need in the US South eventually led to my work with Maryknoll.
To some, good people doing good work may sound nice but lack the scale to effect real change. In a sense, this is true if not coupled with attention to policies and practices that hold people back and hinder the pursuit of justice. However, because of good people doing good work a single life may be changed, or a whole generation of English-language learners in South Texas may become literate. It takes time, it takes patience, but change does come.