Moving Beyond Stereotypes

So often we are very critical of young people. We accuse them of being self-centered, narcissistic and amoral. Unfortunately, there is a case to be made about young people not being generous or courageous.

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So often we are very critical of young people. We accuse them of being self-centered, narcissistic and amoral. Unfortunately, there is a case to be made about young people not being generous or courageous.

Too often we get stuck on the dark side and don't acknowledge or even celebrate the goodness that we see, not only among our young, but also among people in general.

Recently I presided at a Catholic Mass at St. Louis de Montfort Church in Sound Beach. It was their weekly 12:00 noon service. The church was filled to overflowing, eight hundred strong. Two hundred of those gathered were junior high school students preparing for Confirmation, the final phase of their adult initiation into the Catholic Community.

What was impressive about that gathering was their positive energy and their attentiveness. These young men and women have committed themselves to a somewhat rigorous program of religious formation. There have been some serious demands on their time, especially at a time in life when teenagers are being pulled in ten million different directions.

Among this group of ordinary junior high school students are a community of young men and women who have committed themselves, not only to a defined course of religious study, but also to many hours of community service. As a group, they have committed themselves to thousands of hours directed at reaching out to their local community.

Some will do the minimum and even attempt to beat the system. Others, the majority, will sincerely make an effort to make a difference. Many of these students will give more than the required number of hours of service. For some, volunteerism will become a regular part of their life, the living of their faith.

What impressed me that Sunday, besides their numbers, was their focus, their energy and their courage. These are difficult days for us as a nation. To see these young men and women stand up and be counted is refreshing. They don't have to belong to anything, least of all a faith community. Nonetheless, they have elected to become adult members of their local Catholic community.

Why, you might ask? After years of ministering in that community, I know why. It is thanks to the powerful example of the adults who worship there. They clearly lead by example. It is truly a church community of the people. I am fortunate to be a part of their worship community every weekend.

Every February, a group of college coeds from St. Michael's College in Winooski, Vermont, make an eight hour journey to Port Jefferson. These college students are a part of a larger group of students who give up their winter break to do ministry and service each year. For fifteen years, these college students have joined my ministry and enriched it for a week.

This year the six students were sophomores and juniors from all over the country. They were very excited to participate in this live-in experience. They spent their week interacting and working all over our campus in every one of our projects. They lived, ate and prayed in our main house. They spent hours in the shelter among the homeless, hours working at Montfort House and St. Louis de Montfort Academy. Two of the students were very interested in addiction and attended a number of recovery meetings.

At the end of every day, we spent at least an hour processing their experiences. They were amazed at how people from every experience welcomed them. They also expressed how they came with certain expectations and impressions and left with other impressions.

Probably their most powerful experiences were at Pax Christi among the homeless. One young woman could not stop talking about an elderly homeless man she met. He had come to the shelter just before the heavy snows settled in. Prior to Pax Christi, he had been living along the railroad tracks in a box. The cold weather had become intolerable.

The student was amazed at his story. He was a decorated World War II veteran. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he received a college education and was somewhat successful. Unfortunately, mental illness set in, he detached from the world and got lost in the cracks. This young lady talked and played cards with him for hours. Until his connection with her, no one had ever seen him smile.

Their most touching encounter was her last night with him. They again talked for hours. When it came time to say goodbye, she felt like she was saying goodbye to a grandfather she never knew. He filled up with tears, as she did. They hugged and he told her it was the first time in forty years that anyone made him feel like he mattered.

Those college students were a wonderful example of service to all of us who met them. Their generous spirit was refreshing, but more importantly was their openness to change.

They came to Port Jefferson with a set of attitudes about the poor, the needy and the troubled among us. They left with a different set of attitudes. They were challenged to move beyond the stereotypes we all struggle with until we take the time to get to know people.

As they prepared for their long journey home to Vermont, one student said he hoped their time among us was helpful. He expressed how he was enriched in ways he could never put into words.

Those six college coeds will never fully know how deeply they touched so many. Because of the people they are, their "hanging out" for a week made some very wounded, broken people feel like they mattered.