The school theme this year is “Encounter Community, Encounter One Another, and Encounter God.” The theme calls us to pay attention, rather than just going through the motions of the day. We need to listen, instead of rushing ahead to judgment. We should seek to understand others before we make our decisions. We need to see who is asking us for help or care at a particular moment. We are called to practice this awareness of the world around us, and it starts with viewing the events of our day as a series of encounters.
In order to immerse ourselves in this theme, all CRJ staff members took part in some community service work on our first day of staff orientation. What better way to encounter the community than to work at various places in the city which could provide us opportunities to meet new people and help out where we could. Some performed a neighborhood clean-up, while others spent time working with guests at food pantries. All of these opportunities represented time we dedicated to getting to know our community, one another, and God better.
My small group was assigned to work at the Coggs Food Pantry at 12th and Vliet. My role consisted of welcoming and assisting visitors to the food pantry in getting their food items from the shelves and loading them into bags. The first person I assisted was there to get the essentials. Since everything was free, I naively thought he would pack his bags full. We got to the canned vegetables and the visitor declined to take any. I asked if he was sure he wanted to pass on the healthy, canned vegetables. He immediately responded, “Yes, they are too heavy to carry on the bus.” I hadn’t considered how a mode of transportation could affect someone’s diet.
That small realization stuck with me. I don’t have to limit what I take from the grocery store because I am unable to get my groceries back to my house. Yet, the gentleman I helped does. I wondered what the impact of that over time could be on his health? What about the impact on those he lives with? I also contemplated how else was he limited because he relied on the bus? It’s these types of realizations that are the hallmark of encounters. When we bring people from different life experiences together, we can learn from one another, begin to understand each others’ experiences, and ultimately care for one another.
As a Catholic and Jesuit educational community, we naturally enter into the complexities of the human experience and have the opportunity to encounter one another. Our school brings together people from across our city, including our students, staff members, families, corporate work study partners, donors, our alumni, board members, and many others. On a daily basis, Cristo Rey facilitates so many opportunities for meaningful encounters and relationships. However, if we are too busy to recognize, to care, and to reflect on our experiences then we may miss the daily invitation we have to see how God is ultimately at work through others in our lives. It all starts by paying attention to something that can be as small or seemingly insignificant as canned vegetables.