I am a brother to 2,000 college students
I kept hoping they would soon hunker down for the night, but—reflecting on it as I tossed and turned at 3 a.m.—I considered: Why would they? After all, this was their first time away from home, living on their own with hundreds of other college freshmen. Who could blame them for feeling free from the shackles of parents and curfews? It was only natural for them to push the limits, stay up late, and explore a world dominated by 18 to 22 year olds. With their music pulsating through my apartment walls and loud conversations running past my door, I suddenly understood how far I had come from living with a mature, placid group of brothers who turned out the lights at a decent hour! After 26 years as a Marist brother, living in community began to take on a whole new dimension for me.
DURING MY SIX YEARS of visiting college campuses as vocation director for my religious order and, before that, during my more than 20 years as a high school teacher, I had occasionally heard young people warmly mention particular campus ministers who lived in their college residence halls and served as mentors, spiritual advisors, counselors, and friends. Little did I know that I would end up a few years later becoming one of them, but the seed had been planted.
It didn’t take my dormitory neighbors long to learn that, like it or not, their new neighbor was neither as young nor as enamored of loud music and late-night parties as they were. Relying on my pastoral “persuasive” skills, the trademark of teaching brothers everywhere, I soon became known as Brother Mike, someone who was living in the residence halls for them and with them as their brother. As the volume of their music waned, the bond of a relationship grew. I’m not a stranger to them anymore.
The college students are definitely intrigued by my living among them. As I regularly eat in their dining hall, listen to their dreams and concerns, attend their floor meetings, pray with them at various campus Masses and services, walk the roads with them, and even shiver outside with them during those rare middle-of-the-night fire drills, they have begun to make the connection that I am truly here for them.
Three years into life as a residence hall campus minister at St. John’s University, I am a real part of the students’ college experience. I’m a member of their community. I’m able to not only give whatever gifts I may have, but to receive some surprising gifts as well from the staff and students with whom I live.
One ingredient of traditional religious life is that its members live together. What religious community inherently values is something that the larger world is striving for as well: a sense of peaceful, shared interdependence, each member respected and cherished. My experience of more than 30 years of religious community life is clearly welcomed in a college dorm. Young people today seek community. They are interested in integrating essential communal values into their lives as best they can, and they seek out mentors to help in this quest.
For example, in religious life you are taught to pray; to balance work, recreation, inner peace, and rest; to study; to relate to others and serve others. When you embark on living among 2,000 college students sharing residence space, these values are in high demand. Ultimately they become the glue holding the whole enterprise together.
In my role as mentor, counselor, friend, and—due to my age, I would add—surrogate parent, I spend many late hours listening, confirming, and challenging students’ thoughts, goals, and behaviors with those essential values of community.
I also try to educate this population, through word and example, about what a religious brother is—a man consecrated by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and dedicated to working with others as their brother. Most students, I have realized, don’t know the difference between a brother and a priest, whose primary role is to preside over the sacraments.
Working through differences
Often students will come in to just say hi, and, within a few minutes, they’ll present some issue that has been on their minds. Take Katie, for example: a young woman from an upper-middle-class background who, as a college freshman, suddenly found herself sharing a room with two other young women of very different cultural and economic backgrounds. Katie hadn’t bargained for a mix like this. In the usual territorial quests inherent in most roommate squabbles, Katie was desperate for a room change. After following the proper protocol, she found that the house was packed, and no other room was available.
She was quite angry and upset but kept her frustration well-hidden for weeks. She came to my office one night “just to say hello,” and, within one minute, she was crying. I asked Katie what she really didn’t like about her situation. Initially she said it was sharing the space but—as she talked—she sensed it was something deeper. She had never before associated with anyone so different from her.
As I listened, I appreciated my previous experiences of religious community where we brothers challenged each other and worked hard to accept differences among ourselves. The result was that we were indeed enriched through diversity and understood better how we were all complementary.
Allowing these experiences to guide my thinking and shape my words, I helped Katie see how she hadn’t given the situation a fair chance. When I sensed her openness to this possibility, I suggested another meeting of all three roommates. She agreed to make one more effort.
I contacted the resident assistant for her floor and asked for another mediation session. This occurred the next day, and what was true in my religious community was certainly true for Katie. Because she was willing to see life from her roommates’ perspectives, eventually she became great friends with them and is now, two years later, a resident assistant herself. She has not only grown in tolerance and respect but is now an agent for these values among the students on her floor.
Sharing the richness of community life
Many brothers from my Marist community, interested in my enthusiasm for this college campus ministry, have trekked to St. John’s. I appreciate their concern as well as the expression of our brotherhood. Because of my strong commitment to the Marist Brothers, I remain in regular contact with them and am a presence at our province’s celebrations and meetings.
I’ve often said that I am sharing the richness of our community life and values with a wider population. I take great pride in attempting to live in the spirit of our province’s patrons, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The virtues rendered by a family offer young adults the necessary elements of mature development. Through my loving, accepting, challenging, and directing, these young people, who are away from their regular families, can form a spirit of family at St. John’s.
Following God’s lead
As I reflect on these past three years, I’ve never considered myself to be venturing out on my own or to be separated from my community roots. For sure, religious life has always had individuals who moved beyond the “cloister walls,” mostly because they sought to bring the riches of their community to a place in need and because they believed they could benefit others.
In my own case, the challenge of ministering to college students initially caught my attention, but it’s the communal experiences of my life that have helped me be effective in this ministry. This dimension of religious life complements the unique needs of college students living in a dormitory. Clearly today’s world still welcomes the faithful creativity religious life offers.
Maybe I’m at St. John’s University to learn once again, as I did 30 years ago when I was a novice about to be professed, that as long as I am alive, religious life is alive, and as a brother I will be led by God to those who most need a brother in their lives.
My experience at St. John’s teases out the truth of those two beliefs. Almost every day brings an opportunity to “be a brother” to the students here and to share what I know about community living. May many more young men hear and respond to the call I once heard. Our world needs brothers.
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