For a small but increasing number of faithful Catholic students, spring break is coming to mean much more than time off: It is a time for generosity and self-denial.
Students at such schools as Christendom College, Ave Maria University, Catholic University of America and the University of Dallas are going not to Fort Lauderdale but the Dominican Republic, not to Daytona but the Bronx.
This year, Christendom’s director of missions, Mike Brown, reports that 16% of its students, 58 in all, will spend their break doing mission work in the Dominican Republic, assisting the Missionary Servants of the Poor of the Third World in Peru, and helping the homeless with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx.
“Every year, I am impressed with the generosity of our students,” said Brown, who teaches philosophy at the college. Students sent to the Bronx will replace windows at a homeless shelter and accompany individual friars to minister to the homeless on the streets. In Peru, they will do catechesis with the children in dozens of mountain villages. In the Dominican Republic, the students will do a physical project by day and host Bible study for children in the evenings.
“There is a retreat atmosphere,” said Brown, with time set aside daily for Mass, prayer and reflection. Only a small element of sightseeing is provided: In New York, for example, there will be time to see Broadway shows.
Brown confirms that a significant number of students find the experience to be “life changing.”
“They find Christ in the poor,” he said. “They return with a commitment to find a way to serve in their career and in volunteering.”
Ben Scrivener, a third-year political science major at Christendom who hails from Davidsonville, Md., spent last year’s spring break in the Dominican Republic. He said the week was “life changing.”
To pay for his first trip, he raised about $1,500 — a third of that from his home parish, Holy Family, and the rest by means of 30 appeal letters he sent out to family and friends.
Scrivener was part of a contingent of 25 from Christendom sent to Banica, a Dominican town on the Haitian border, where the Arlington, Va., Diocese has maintained a mission for 20 years, supported by the Medical Missionaries, a Virginia-based lay group.
Along with a medical clinic, the diocesan mission to the region has built a school, and it was here the Christendom team labored for five days, under a very hot sun, upgrading the outdoor kitchen with a concrete table. “As well, we repaired fences and built latrines,” said Scrivener. On the weekend and after work, they “hung out” with local families — which is where the life changes came into play.
“The families all work very hard, and they don’t earn very much. They don’t possess very much at all in the way of material things,” said Scrivener. “They are very smart in how they use what they have — and also very generous. That’s what hit me, and it took a couple of days: that I want to live my life in a way that isn’t all about material things; that I want to put myself in a position always to help others.”
While there, Scrivener met a Christendom graduate who was finishing an eight-month work stint in the Dominican Republic arranged by the college. Scrivener hopes to be able to duplicate that.
Scrivener plans to go on another trip next year, but this year he could not raise the needed funds.
Conversion of Heart
Interest in mission work is growing at The Catholic University of America as well, according to Liz Skora, a third-year media studies and psychology major. “They are so popular we’ve just gone from one trip to two each spring break.” This year groups of 20 students will travel to Jamaica and Costa Rica.
Skora went to Costa Rica on an end-of-year mission trip. The work included maintenance and repair jobs on the parish church and trips to neighboring villages to share the faith with young children. “They surprised us with how well informed they were. They are so impoverished in the material sense, but they experience their faith on a deeper level. Faith and family is everything for them.”
Skora returned from Costa Rica with a desire to simplify her life and to do a year of service after graduation. “I definitely feel we made an impact in the short time we were there. I want to see what difference we can make over a year.”
Ave Maria University in Florida maintained a mission program during spring break until last year, says Megan Vilardi, a student who also works in the campus-ministry office. Vilardi is planning to go into youth ministry, but is now considering combining that with mission work. This year she organized a mission club that will carry on the tradition by sending 10 students to northern Florida to work with Habitat for Humanity.
Last year, Vilardi spent her break in Nicaragua, helping at a Managua orphanage on top of the capital city’s largest trash heap. “It shocked me — how they lived,” she said. “But it changed my life when they showed me the love of Christ. They had nothing, but they were giving everything back. You don’t need money or possessions to live in good relations with one another.”
Catholic students at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln have the mission bug, too. Thanks to the organizational efforts of the Newman Center and St. Thomas Aquinas Church, they can choose from seven domestic destinations, ranging from New York City to the nearby Winnebago Tribe. While overseas trips cost students between $1,000 and $2,000, Nebraska students need to raise only $130 to $180 each.
Sixteen students from the University of Dallas will venture to Joplin, Mo., to help the victims of last year’s tornado during their spring break. Before they go, students will get crash courses on the social teachings of the Church and on conflict resolution, said missions director Denise Phillips. They will also be asked to reflect on what they might learn from the people they will be helping.
“When they are there,” said Phillips, “each night we will give them a theme and ask them to journal on it.”
“What happens is there is a conversion of the heart,” she added. She recalled one student commenting, after one recent spring break volunteering with Mexican workers, “I thought immigration was a political issue. But these are human beings.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.