Of course, I first want to congratulate you all, for a lot of things – congratulations for four incredible years at an outstanding University, for giving of your heart and your mind to this place and for leaving your mark on Creighton, for making a commitment to wherever you will be serving and living next year, and an early congratulations to walking across that stage tomorrow and into next chapter of your life.
Three years ago I was in your shoes… preparing to graduate, saying goodbye to my friends, and anticipating the next year of my life that was ahead of me. And even for someone who truly, truly loved where she attended undergrad, I couldn’t help but to be excited and eager for post-grad and my upcoming move to Appalachia, where I would begin serving and living at a non-profit, home-repair organization, Nazareth Farm for the next year or however many of my life.
I know that there is a wide array of feelings about graduation tomorrow in this Church this morning and what’s to come, but for our time together this morning – let’s not focus on all those details right now – let’s focus on you, on who you’ve become, and where you will be serving and living next year.
I took the time to look up all of the different organizations and places that each of you will be journeying to soon and not to my surprise, there was a lot of overlap between all of your organizations and programs, some aspects that I specifically want to point out now: Working with the poor and vulnerable, living a simple lifestyle, living in an intentional community with others, moving somewhere you’ve never lived before, living on a small monthly stipend, living with people you’ve haven’t met yet, engaging in communal prayer/reflection on a regular basis, perhaps doing things that you’ve never done before, advocating for those on the margins, practicing solidarity, working for justice, and so on.
Some of these things that I just named that so many of you will be experiencing next year have become counter-cultural – like instead of living a very independent lifestyle, you’ve chosen to either live intentionally with several others or work with and surround yourself with people who are very different than you or come from different walks of life than you. Or you’ve chosen to live a simple life with a small stipend versus jumping right into finding a job with the best starting salary possible (aka, sorry mom and dad). Or your responsibilities or placement next year may ask of you to do things you’ve never done or experienced before versus choosing a path that is very comfortable and less challenging.
Needless to say, each of the paths that you have chosen for post-grad are unique and I believe they will exercise your hearts and minds in ways that you never imagined. As you all enter into this time, I do have some wisdom to share that I hope will be relevant and useful for your futures.
Whether you are going to be living within an intentional community next year or intentionally working with a specific population, community is going to present and perhaps community is one of the elements that drew you to your program or organization. So with this, I encourage you to try your best to open your heart to the next community that you are about to enter into and ask that they to be open to you as well. This is going to be the first time in awhile that you’ll be fully immersed and a member of a community that isn’t Creighton University or doesn’t consist of Creighton students. I encourage you to open your mind to how community will look different and is practiced differently outside of what you have experienced these past four years.
When I graduated from the University of Dayton and moved to Nazareth Farm, I learned very quickly that when you say yes to community, you also say no to a lot of other things. At times, it was a learning curve for me to be ok with what community looked like at the Farm versus how it used to look at Dayton, but it also widened my perspective and I constantly began to witness to how differences between people and cultures reveal love and God more fully.
If the community you are living with or working with was anything like mine, you’ll learn that there is no end to the ways in which community can be practiced. So when my community had to wake up at 6 am every day and head out to our worksites, we would jump in one of our trucks, drive through the windy country roads in the mountains, and turn down the dial on the radio until there was silence. No matter how exhausted we were or if we kept wiping the tired from our eyes, we talked to each other. Community became long truck rides full of conversation, questions, learning, growing, laughing, crying – being present to one another. Because of this, conversation became one of the most fruitful types of prayer for me. I encourage you to practice and embrace community when it is offered, even when you’re tired.
My next piece of advice is…
2. The willingness to say, “I don’t know.”
Chances are, at some point you may be asked to do something that you totally have no idea how to do or even where to begin. It could be a new responsibility of yours, working with a population you are unfamiliar with, or leading a group of people on something that you are not an expert on. There can be a lot of pressure right out of undergrad to appear as someone who knows what they are doing and has it all together – especially when others are watching or looking up to you. So with this, I challenge you to not be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
Saying this phrase often gets pegged as a sign of weakness, but I believe saying “I don’t know” shows more strength than pretending or giving the impression that you do. It shows honesty and vulnerability in a very distinct way. Not to mention, it also shows someone’s willingness to learn from those around them and not feel the need to be the expert.
When volunteers at the Farm asked me how much home repair experience I had before joining staff, I very honestly looked at them and said, “Well, I played Sims growing up all the time.” And then I didn’t say anything else, because that was the truth! When a crew of volunteers arrived at one of my worksites for the day and I was introducing the tasks and goals for the project at hand, I always made a point to say that we are all volunteers here. Sure, I was a staff member and volunteering for a year or so and they were volunteers for a week. Regardless, we were all equals, all human, and because of that, there would be times, especially with home repair, that we would potentially run into a situation that required critical thinking, problem solving, and not knowing the answer right away. And even by the end of my time at the Farm, as well-seasoned as I felt with my home repair skills, many of the homeowners we worked with in Appalachia were very talented and skilled. They cared for their homes and their land in such a beautiful way. And so I cherished those moments when our homeowner would come outside and join the work crew or teach the volunteers how to build something. It wasn’t about me or having all eyes on me for advice or what to do next, it was about all of us and being men and women for and with others. Sometimes the expectations that are the hardest to live up to are the ones we place on ourselves. So, I challenge you to be open about what you do know and what you don’t know.
3) Living a life of service and love
As you ease into this next year of life and you begin to think about what it is going to look like, what your days will consist of, where you’ll be living, who you’ll be spending your time with… my advice is to try your best to not worry or think too much about a deadline on how long you are going to be in this program or living in this place…
I don’t mean that should anticipate committing to several years of service or discernment versus just one because I know some of the programs and the places you all will be heading to soon technically do have a set timeline on a calendar or a minimum amount of years to complete – but try not to worry too much about that timeline on the calendar, because what you are about to do isn’t just about next year – it is about all of your years. I encourage you to look at every year of your life as a year or service, not just next year, but every year. Every year of your life is a year of service, of love, of journeying with God, of community, learning about yourself… all of your years, especially these ones at Creighton, have also been years of service and love and community. I encourage you not to put boundaries or deadlines in your mind on your experience. Let this experience be whatever it needs to be for you and don’t worry about the pace that everyone else is moving at. I encourage you to be present, stay present, and view every year of your life to be a life of service and love for others and for God.
So based on that, my last piece of wisdom to share is…
4) Focus on the next right step
Regina Brett, an author that I came across during undergrad wrote this book about taking the next right step and she offered up an image to consider: a car driving across the country at night. She simply stated, “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This philosophy applies to life, too. The headlights on our cars shine at most 350 feet, but even with that much light you could travel all the way from Nebraska to California if you wanted. But you only need to see enough light to get moving. You only need to focus on the next right step.
When you arrive to your new placement, program, or organization, let this next step of your life be whatever it needs to be for you. Try your best to rid yourself of expectations and just let yourself be there – let your heart be there, your mind be there, and be present to it all as much as you can each day. Sometimes post-grad volunteering and religious life gets romanticized – that it’s going to be this awe-inspiring time in your life where so much revelation is pouring in and everything is eye-opening. In reality, it is okay if some weeks are seriously difficult to get through. I won’t sugar coat it at all, there were some very challenging times when I was living and serving at the Farm. So with this, I challenge you to remember that even when the current situation isn’t getting better, you can. Trust in your strength to let things go and make room for change and growth. As tempting as it is to wonder about what you’ll be doing next after your current commitment or what this is all leading to, just focus on the next right step – if you need time to get accustomed to your new situation – take that time, when you’re overwhelmed by something – find a way to let your mind breathe, if someone is venting to you who is hurting – listen to them. Each day during this next year or so, you’ll take steps that will eventually lead to major change or transition.
But for now, just focus on the next right step. Pay attention to how you feel and what is in front of you, and you’ll make the whole trip that way. Find those new ways to support and nurture your calling in life. Open your heart to community and ask that they be open to you. Say “thank you” to your parents because not all parents are cool about their children not jumping straight into grad school or a job, or maybe your parents still aren’t sure if their cool with this – thank them either way. Practice humility and gauge when it is time to ask for help, live every year of your life as a life of service for love, for God, for others… and throw your heart into whatever you do and jump in after it.
Have a nice flight, Jays.