As many do during school vacations, a friar stationed at Siena College traveled during a recent break, accompanying students on a service trip. Here, he describes his experience while in Central America from Feb. 20 to 28, getting to know local residents, appreciating God’s creation, and thinking about “sneaky Jesus.”
The early morning noises outside my room in late February reminded me that I was worlds away from Siena College. The barking dogs, squawking chickens and summer-like heat were all too close and real. On the next cot in the darkened room lay my good friend, Joey Connelly. We had a long history that began many years ago at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J. He was a young high schooler working in the parish and I was a newly-ordained priest. Our many funny memories about life in the parish with friars Michael Carnevale, OFM, and the late Jude Murphy, OFM, kept us laughing until we cried.
Now, our lives were much different. Joe, a former volunteer at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia and a Siena graduate, was now working for the Center for Global Education and Living In Managua, Nicaragua. He was facilitating the service trip sponsored by Siena’s Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy. And I was the chaperone for 15 students who were eager to make a difference in the world and to maybe learn something about themselves.
Doing God’s Work
Of the many interesting and inspiring people we met, undoubtedly the one who captivated the group’s attention most was Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of “Dead Man Walking.” Sr. Helen is a board member of the Batahola Center in Managua, Nicaragua, a neighborhood community center founded by a sister in her community, and where we tutored English and participated in various outreach programs helping women and children. Sr. Helen shared her intriguing story of being a religious sister and what happened when she became too comfortable and complacent believing she was doing the Lord’s work.
“I had blinders on,” she recalled. “Just when I thought everything was great and as it should be, Sneaky Jesus stepped in and showed me something else.” It was while she was living in the St. Thomas Housing projects in New Orleans and working with the poor that she received a letter from an inmate on death row asking for help. “I was perfectly content helping my neighbors get their GED when unexpectedly Sneaky Jesus stepped in, to show me something else…”
Sr. Helen’s animated stories and southern mannerisms kept the Siena students on the edge of their seats. They — we — were inspired by her life of faith and her passion for justice. She advised us to treasure this special time of grace and to be open to what God might be inviting us to do and to be.
We took her wisdom to heart as we continued our travels of service immersion in Nicaragua. Our days were full and long. Whether we were tutoring English at the Batahola Center, playing with schoolchildren at Villa Quadelupe — a settlement community that evolved from a dump — or learning about the work of Café Sonrisas and Centro Social Tio Antonio, one of the first cafeterias in the Americas that trains and employs people with various disabilities, the hand of Sneaky Jesus continued to lead the way.
Halfway through the week, we traveled to the small mountain village of Sontule, about two hours from Managua. It has an organic coffee farm set on a beautiful scenic mountainside that captures the magnificence of God’s creation. The host families graciously welcomed us into their humble homes and fed us with generous portions of rice, beans, soy, tortillas, fried chicken and plantains. We earned our keep by painting the nearby school inside and out.
We concluded our time in the mountains by giving thanks in the best way we knew how. After a sumptuous meal and a short walk under the starlit sky, we returned to the small cluttered room dimly lit by a flickering candle. With a howling nighttime wind outside, we slowly gathered around the table once again. Young and old, students and farmers, Americans and Nicaraguans — we gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. The differences and distinctions that separated us no longer mattered. As one family of faith, we offered our prayers of praise and thanksgiving in Spanish and English and recalled Jesus’s command, “when you do this … remember me…”
Before returning to the States, we enjoyed a final day at Lake Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake ideal for swimming and relaxing. Once again, the wonders and beauty of God’s creation captured our attention as we shared our last hours together on this grace-filled trip. Many of the students admitted they weren’t quite ready to return just yet.
The impact of our many rich experiences and people had begun to set in. Like Sr. Helen, many in the group admitted, that they, too, had been living with blinders on. Some were now considering the possibility of returning to Nicaragua to work and possibly live for a short period of time. Others were questioning if they were in the appropriate major and if they were being called to something else. One student admitted to feeling guilty for having so much and for “taking it all for granted.”
It was apparent that the hopes of Sr. Helen were coming true. This treasured time of grace had pushed everyone to reconsider what God was calling us to do … and, to be. Sneaky Jesus obviously wasn’t quite finished with us just yet.
— Fr. Sean, a native of Albany, has been stationed for nearly two years at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., where he works in the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy and serves as director of the college’s mentoring program. Sean also helps at the local county jail and with parochial ministries in the area. He professed his final vows as a Franciscan in 1997 and was ordained to the priesthood the following year.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at email@example.com. The newsletter’s previous seasonal reflection, by Stephen Mimnaugh, OFM, was about World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
- “Mission Trip Opportunities Expand Through the FMU” — July 21, 2015, HNP Today
- “Siena Welcomes New Chaplain and Leaders of Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy” — Sept. 29, 2014, Siena.edu
- “Remembering Brothers, Treasuring Friendships” by Patricia Leyko Connelly — Nov. 21, 2012, HNP Today
- “Carnevale Center Opens with Mass and Dedication by Bishop” — Oct. 24, 2007, HNP Today