How I satisfied my hunger to make a difference

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What’s next? Where am I going? Who am I becoming? How will I make a difference in this world?

Seeking answers to big spiritual questions like these can feel exciting and scary, inspiring and overwhelming. Questions, decisions, and dreams fill young adulthood—that time after high school and college through the first real career. Studies, relationships, and travel expand the ideas we have about ourselves and our universe, and we look forward to sharing the best of ourselves with the world. But, somewhere between college and the first career, we can find ourselves stumbling through . . . at best.

While in school many of us feel connected to people through the natural rhythm of classes. We find community naturally among our peers who have similar interests and are drawn to the same activities. We relish the opportunities a learning community provides. Outside of college, we can feel lost in the world because we may not have easy access to organizations that can connect us with peers. And, if we haven’t learned already how to work with people older than we are, we need to learn how to negotiate with the intergenerational world.

Not a teen . . . not an adult.

In January 2005, Time magazine coined the term “Twixters” to describe a particular type of young adult emerging in our generation. Research shows people are reaching developmental adulthood later than previous generations. The years 18 to 25 and beyond have become a life stage of their own: a period of transition between adolescence and adulthood when people aren’t kids but don’t feel like adults yet either. During this time we are waiting and imagining how we will achieve the dreams we have for our lives. We are between—moving out of our parents’ home and finding places of our own. Many of us are looking for communities that will spiritually sustain us, and we are trying to discover who we are in a world that no longer caters to our emotional, spiritual, and developmental needs as did our college and high school environments. We want to find ways to integrate our education, values, spirituality, and work.

Unlike previous generations, which seemed to accept whatever work they needed to support their marriages, children, and pursuits, young people today, I think, are expressing a desire to live integrated and creative lives from the beginning of adulthood. We want our careers, family, and friends to give us meaning and purpose. We want to find balance and live less frantically than our parents did. It just doesn’t seem enough to have a good job and a nice family; we also want our lives to complete a mission—to be in right relationship with the global reality of the world.

Young adults like me who are inspired by the liberal arts and the Catholic social justice tradition value human experience, the common good, and environmentally sound living. We’ve developed a social conscience and are looking for ways to live it out in the fullness of our lives. Learning about the world through a Catholic lens, we have cultivated a desire to contribute positively to local and global communities.

Community counts
When I was a junior in college, I went on a justice learning and outreach trip to Selma, Alabama. Each day we would volunteer our service, and each night we would pray and reflect together on our experiences. While we learned about the civil rights movement and how the long history of segregation and discrimination impoverished a race of people in the American South, we watched the Persian Gulf War explode on TV. We talked about nonviolence and how we would try to live differently; how we could whittle away at the dominating political, economic, and social systems through ordinary, personal actions. We grieved over the horrific testament of cruelty and greed displayed on television.

For weeks after we returned from that trip, a group of us would meet Sunday evenings in one of our dorm rooms to continue praying and reflecting on the experiences of our trip. Over music, pizza, and popcorn, we planned our futures. We talked about how we wanted to do great things with our lives, how we wanted to influence the big social, political, economic, and church systems. This time with my friends was rich in meaning and purpose, and its memory continues to call me to live with integrity and intention.

After college some of my friends went to graduate school, some went to the Peace Corps, while others simply found a job to support themselves. I found a job teaching high school. My memories of those deep conversations with my friends reminded me of how important it was to find a community of spiritual support. I felt its loss, and I knew that somehow I wanted it in my life again.

I knew I wanted to be part of a community that manifested the values of its faith. Eight years ago I decided to take a courageous step and seriously consider vowed life with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Four Sisters of St. Joseph had been part of that college trip to Selma, Alabama, and I remembered how much I had in common with them. Through continued exploration I realized that these sisters are a community that always asks how to bring possibility to places that reek of impossibility, how to bring healing to systems that inhibit growth and destroy life. In the Sisters of St. Joseph I found a community that had a similar view of the world.

We want to make our mark
Every day in my work ministering to young adults, I meet people who are searching for communities and places where they can live their lives with meaning. I meet young adults who possess a deep goodness that nags at them to make a difference in the world. Two years ago at a national conference, I met a friend from college. When I told her I was a Sister of St. Joseph, her joy for my decision revealed her own desire to find a “community that is congruent and relevant.” In college she dedicated herself to the principles of social justice, but now she struggles to find a faith community that inspires her commitment. She longs for a community that acts according to its values and engages in issues that matter.

For me, religious life has given me that community. It has offered me generous time to discover and embrace who I am and who I am becoming. I live grounded in the wellspring of God’s love. In this life I simply have to show up and trust that the best of me, the divine love within me, will come through.

Living religious life is an opportunity to be part of a strong, positive, and just voice that has influence in social, economic, church, and world situations. For instance, since 1985 the Sisters of Saint Joseph have enjoyed designation as a United Nations Non-Governmental Organization, and since 1999 they have been accredited through the Economic and Social Council. Through these memberships we not only receive information about what is happening at the U.N., but we can also contribute grass-roots responses, make written interventions to U.N. conferences, and provide statements on any U.N.-related topic. Through our community’s justice commission and working groups, sisters and associates also consider and work on these issues at a local level.

Wisdom freely offered
Living in a religious community has also given me the wisdom of intergenerational experience and perspective. To talk and pray regularly with older women with many experiences in work, ministry, education, travel, and relationships is a marvelous benefit of community life. The treasure of wisdom available at my fingertips is deep and rich. When I need help seeing the long view of a situation, someone is ready with stories, laughter, and insight. Religious life has a lot to offer people trying to live with intention and spiritual depth.

In my ministry I meet many young adults searching for the answers to big spiritual questions. Through retreats, learning circles, and other programs, I build relationships between young adults’ experiences and dreams and the rich spiritual tradition and vision of my community. That deep goodness that nags us to make a difference in the world is as ancient as the love born at the beginning of creation. It is the love of God that dwells deep within, urging us to create life and possibility wherever we go.
Sister Jill Underdahl, C.S.J.
Sister Jill Underdahl, C.S.J. is the co-director of Celeste's Dream Spirituality Center for Young Adults at Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province.




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