Just over two years ago, I packed up my car, said goodbye, and left Birmingham, Alabama, my home for two years during my time in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program through the University of Notre Dame.
I remember the sunny, humid days that signaled summer’s arrival and my own departure, a final meal with my fellow housemates who had also been teaching in Birmingham and participating in the ACE program, the rush to clean our house so that it would pass our landlord’s inspection, and the Tetris-like puzzle of packing my belongings of two years in my not-so-spacious car.
Even more vividly, I recall my last day of school with my students abuzz with summer joy and carelessness (though more quietly expressing concerns about what they would do and where they would be during the summer break). I remember my last Mass at the parish and saying goodbye to that community, which also overlapped with my school community. I remember my surrogate Birmingham mothers wishing me well, telling me to keep in touch, and reminding me to visit. I remember saying goodbye to them with bittersweet emotions, sad to be leaving my students, their families, my school community, my parish community, but happy and excited to be starting a new endeavor, a new program in Philadelphia. I remember faces, smiles, sounds, and parting words.
One of the ACE program pillars, similar to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) and many other service and mission-based programs, including the program I would be helping start in Philadelphia (ACESJU), is community. Community has many definitions, but I like to think of it as a group of people coming together over an authentic desire to love one another by being present to one another. This presence can take many forms – simply sitting as a companion to another person, listening, conversing (in both serious or light matters), performing acts of service, or by forming bonds of relationship through activities, sports, etc… that allow one to share a bit of oneself while receiving a bit from others. While I certainly struggled (and still do) in authentically forming community, I have consistently realized that the community I formed in Birmingham was one of the most powerful expressions of it that I have encountered in my life.
“Community has many definitions, but I like to think of it as a group of people coming together over an authentic desire to love one another by being present to one another.”
As I drove my car down the driveway of our Wonder Lane house (yes, that was the name of our street), I had a strong, somewhat unexpected, feeling of guilt. Over two years, I had become a member of the Holy Family community, or the “Holy Family Family,” as folks liked to say. Sometimes with great challenge, other times with natural ease, I had done my best to enter into what the ACE program asked me to enter into – community. And now I was leaving. Just as I felt that I was a part of something, something truly big and loving and special, I was leaving.
I have struggled with these feelings over the past two years. But I have learned to better identify and deal with what I first thought was guilt. I go back to Birmingham around three times a year to visit my “Holy Family Family,” not because I feel I have to, not because I feel that they need me, but because I am still a part of that community. When tornadoes ravaged Birmingham, particularly neighborhoods from which many Holy Family student and parish families lived, I went down to help clean up, to visit, and to try and raise some money for relief aid. And I realized in my heart that I was doing it because if something similar happened in my hometown in Pennsylvania (and people can testify to how much I love NEPA), I would do the very same thing. Sometimes we have to leave. We see this in the very life of Jesus. But if we hold our communities in our hearts, we do our best to follow Christ and to be love and encourage love in others.
Over these two years since leaving Birmingham, I have learned something very valuable. Community is beautiful and powerful. It is God and living and breathing. Love incarnate, so to speak. Though not always perfect, I am fortunate and blessed to be a member of communities. I must dedicate time, energy, love, and presence to participate in those communities. I will not find another Birmingham or another “Holy Family Family,” but this doesn’t mean that I cannot find community again. Previous time spent in community, whether in a service program or not, should never be an excuse to avoid new communities, new experiences, and new opportunities to love and see God. The best way to give witness to my communities, including my “Holy Family Family,” is to love and be open to new love. I like to think this is what we as people of faith are about, and what programs such as ACE, JVC, and ACESJU are about. Ultimately, I believe it is what God calls each of us to, through our own unique invitation to participate in community.
Michael O’Connor recently concluded his time on staff with the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph’s University (ACESJU), a post-graduate teaching fellows program that serves urban Catholic schools in Philadelphia, and is preparing to begin doctoral studies in Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College in Fall 2012 . Originally from Kingston, PA (in a region fondly referred to as “NEPA”), he received his M.Ed. from the Alliance for Catholic Education Service Through Teaching program at the University of Notre Dame while teaching middle school for two years in Birmingham, AL.