AS A DOCTORAL STUDENT in the religion department at Syracuse University, I sometimes find myself getting sucked into all the usual angst that can go with graduate school: What should my dissertation topic be? Am I in the right classes? Will I be competitive in the job market? As a Brother of the Sacred Heart, on the other hand, my primary concern is that my academic work sharpen my awareness of the needs of the world and better poise me to meet those needs, not to build a good résumé.
|BROTHER Patrick Cousins, S.C. at Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation of Arizona, where he takes student volunteers on hikes during service projects.|
Brotherhood at its core is intensely practical: We are men trying to serve God by serving humanity. That service can take any number of forms, and often very everyday ministries, but beyond the bounds of our jobs, being available to respond when needs arise is a major part of our lives. To my mind each of those responses is brotherhood made simple.
The ministry of the doorbell
Most summers I try to spend a few weeks at a mission parish run by one of our brothers in the middle of the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Going out there for the first time as a college student 15 years ago was an integral part of my discernment to enter religious life. Being able to do good for people, live simply in community, and really pray honestly about my life with other people was the kind of life I was looking for when I first went there, and that’s what I found with the brothers.
Admittedly it’s mostly for selfish reasons that I go there now. The brother who lives there, Brother John Hotstream, has been a great friend of mine for a long time; I love the geography of that part of the country, and it’s the kind of place where a little help can go a long way.
Quite a few groups from high schools and parishes all over the country do week-long immersion trips there in the summer, so whenever they are around I help keep their time moving smoothly: cooking, driving groups to work sites, working with students. Even though we get a lot done we do it at a humane pace: prayer over the daily readings together before breakfast, a few hours of work, lunch with whoever shows up at the mission, time for a little siesta, and another couple of hours of work before dinner.
Brother John calls the activities there the “ministry of the doorbell”: Whatever people need done, he helps to the degree that he is able, and every day brings something different. Some days that means chopping firewood for the grandma down the road who still uses a wood-burning stove but can’t chop wood anymore. Other days it’s helping someone put up sheetrock, or fixing a fence, or taking a neighbor to the hospital. Sundays we prepare liturgies and spend the morning visiting with parishioners, and when groups are around we may give them a taste of the local life: hiking down Canyon de Chelly National Monument, watching a local woman weaving a Navajo rug, joining in a song-and-dance.
This past summer I spent three wonderful weeks there, and in addition to the usual round of work I did a few minor repair jobs around the mission itself: replacing a faucet, shampooing the carpets, installing a screen door. None of those little jobs took much know-how (although a little more know-how with the screen door wouldn’t have hurt!), but they were what was needed at that moment. Brotherhood made simple.
Here in Syracuse my community lives down the street from a community of young people who are volunteering for a year with the Conventual Franciscans in Syracuse. A few months ago one of the volunteers who works at a free clinic run out of the Franciscan parish in town called me during dinner and asked, “Do you speak French?” A patient who speaks only French had just come to the clinic, and the person who usually translates wasn’t there that day, so the doctor couldn’t communicate with her. My French is a little rusty, but I figured I could probably make it work, so I drove over to the clinic and met the patient—a lovely woman from Niger named Adamah.
|TAKING A BREAK from planting cypress saplings in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana—part of the reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Katrina—are Brother Patrick Cousins, S.C. and Syracuse University student volunteers Kristin Girouard and David Gay.|
I’m still keeping in contact with Adamah, and because some of the brothers in my local community teach English to refugees and recent immigrants, I am trying to connect her with that program so she can start learning English. There was nothing special about any of my time with Adamah, no skills required except a little bit of French, but it opened the door, I pray, to making her transition to a strange country a little easier. Brotherhood made simple.
Doing good made easier
Every winter break the Catholic Center at Syracuse University offers a trip to New Orleans to do hurricane relief work. This year the pastor was looking for a few “old people” (that is, old enough to rent a car) to help facilitate the trip. Because I grew up just outside New Orleans, I was going to be there anyway, so I was happy to help.
Around 20 students from Syracuse spent the week at Camp Hope in St. Bernard Parish, working on houses and helping to redevelop the ecosystem in our little corner of southeast Louisiana. In the week we were there my group planted somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 cypress trees. Because I know the city I played tour guide, which entailed everything from chauffeuring students around town to introducing them to the local fare: beignets and muffuletas, king cake and crawfish. This response to a call to serve involved nothing more complicated than driving a carful of students and knowing how to shuck oysters, but it helped the students have a richer experience and made it easier to do the good we hoped to do. Brotherhood made simple.
A passion to serve
These are a few examples from my own life, but each of us brothers has a similar collection of stories about the ordinary ways we all try to be there when people are in need, because that’s what being a brother is all about: being consumed by a passion for the coming Reign of God.
The single most often quoted part of my community’s Rule of Life is: “To be a member of the Institute today is to believe in God’s love, to live it, and to spread it” (no. 13). That’s what brotherhood is about, at its heart: at once utterly simple and utterly elusive, the task of a lifetime that we all only barely begin.
For most of us our call to service takes shape in a privileged way in schools, but our desire as brothers is to be at that place where the cry of the poor meets the ear of God, whatever form that might take. One of our retired brothers spends his days doing maintenance and repair work for a community of sisters who run a nursing home. Another brother has taken groups of students to Zambia every summer for the past few years to do service in one of our schools. Several of the men in my house teach English to refugees. All are rooted in the same call to meeting the needs of the world, and that’s what we all share as brothers, no matter where we live or how diverse the ways we serve.
Of course you don’t have to be a brother to find ways to serve people, but if you are one, service is going to be front and center in your life. It’s that simple.