CSC Events

The call to service: discovering our roles in the human story

By: Megan Black, Class of 2009

May 19, 2018

Notre Dame Service Send-Off
Transcript of Remarks

Good afternoon! What a privilege to be here with you and your families on such a special weekend.

Being here is casting my memory back to my own commencement in 2009, which ended with me alone in a car on a six-hour road trip back to my parents' house. I was a wreck. I missed everything about this place. I remember that I played a Whitney Houston album on repeat and bawled the whole way home.

And then two months later, I began my year of service.

I volunteered with a residential group home called Mercy Home for Boys & Girls in Chicago, a Catholic agency run by the Archdiocese. I committed to practice simple living with an intentional community made up of myself and 13 other new college graduates. We lived onsite at the agency, in a thermometer-shaped apartment, and we served young boys and girls who lived there because their home environments were dangerous or unsustainable.

It was a really hard year. Buy me a drink sometime and I'll tell you all about the many things you get to learn about yourself when you share a living space with thirteen other people. But as challenging and enriching as living in community was, for me the hardest and best things I learned came from the people I served.

At Mercy Home I was assigned to work with the high-school-age boys. I had several boys on my caseload, which meant that I was their primary counselor and advocate. And I surprised myself by being pretty good at my job. I knew how to lay down boundaries, I wasn't easily intimidated, and it wasn't hard for me to connect with the guys. I would go home and listen to my community members talk about how they struggled in their programs and I would just sit back and tell myself that I was killin' the game.

But about halfway through my year I got a new guy on my caseload. He was a boy from Somalia named Abdi who was seeking asylum in the States. He was a really sweet young man who connected easily with the other staffers in my program, so I knew he'd see how hard I was rooting for him, how I was on his side, how awesome I thought he was and we’d be golden.

But I took him on a walk for our first meeting and he was very distant, almost incommunicative. I unleashed the full force of my considerable charm and I barely got a peep out of him. This happened for three days in a row.

Finally, I went to my coworker, Sam, and told him I was having trouble connecting with Abdi and I didn't have anything to write for my upcoming report. To my surprise, Sam started rattling off all kinds of things that Abdi had shared with him—remarkable details about his six-month journey all by himself from Somalia to South America and eventually his border crossing into this country. About the family that Abdi had left in—Somaliahis parents and siblings and the uncle who had paid to smuggle him out of the country after extreme violence struck his hometown. How Abdi’s faith was really important to him but he didn’t know how to practice it around the other guys in the program.

I couldn't believe it. All of the things I had been trying to drag out of Abdi for days he'd instead been sharing with Sam. When I asked Sam why Abdi wouldn't talk to me, Sam said that he felt uncomfortable with me because I'm a woman.

This was really hard for me to accept. I stewed on a feeling of rejection all night long. I thought about bringing it up to my community members, but I didn’t want them to think that I was suddenly struggling at my job.

The next day I confronted Abdi in the common room of our program. I told him that I had heard that women made him uncomfortable and that this personally offended me. I told him he'd never make it in this country if he couldn't understand that women were equal to men. I unloaded all of the half-formed feminist arguments I had in my arsenal before I ran out of breath. And as I was catching my breath to unload another volley, he tried to say something about how his practice of Islam had specific understandings of the roles of men and women . . . but before he could finish that statement, I had caught my breath again and launched into round two of my diatribe, which included me very angrily telling him that his Islam was wrong.

As you might imagine, my relationship with Abdi did not go anywhere productive. He shut down completely. From that point on, I had to lean on my coworkers to make sure that Abdi received the support and resources that he deserved, because he didn’t have any trust with me.

I'm sharing this story because in the years since that particular failure, I've come to understand three very important things about this kind of endeavor that I wish I understood better when I was sitting where you are.

But I'd first like to name a framework for understanding them, which is that completing a year or two of service may seem typical of a Notre Dame student, but is actually a fairly subversive and radical choice. Almost everything about how we are raised and educated in this country—even at a place like Notre Dame—is intended to turn us into producers and/or consumers within this society, not servants to its margins. We are told that if we produce or consume enough, that the world is ours to shape to our liking, that we are the protagonists of the human story. And our gift to the world, we are led to believe, is to help others overcome their problems by becoming more like us.

But service—in any of its many forms—invites us into a different relationship with our society, a relationship that I've come to understand and appreciate deeply for the ways in which it has transformed me as a person and shaped my career, and for the potential it has to also transform us, as a people.

So point number one: a year of service is about cooperation, not competition. Nobody wins, earns a superlative, or graduates summa cum laude from their year of service. There are no exams, commissions, or bonuses for volunteers. I failed to engage the counsel of my community members because in my mind, I was competing with them. But you will not be measured for individual success; you will instead be held accountable to your values and ideals, to the way in which you help shape and nurture your community. This requires a different kind of strength and intelligence than the one that gets us through college, the kind of strength and intelligence that practices trust and transparency, seeks companionship, and thrives on humility and generosity.

The second point is related. We must learn to look for stories of abundance rather than deprivation. The truth is that I went into my volunteer year expecting to help out, which is a polite way of saying that I thought I would help fix a problem I thought afflicted a community that I’d never even encountered. Let me say this one more time: I went into my volunteer year expecting to help out, which is just a polite way of saying I thought I could help fix a problem I had diagnosed in a community I’d never even encountered.

And this meant that when I ran into a problem with a person in that community, my instinct was to help him out by fixing what I decided was his problem. But in my hurry to correct what I experienced as Abdi's deprived understanding of gender, I missed out on encountering his courage, resilience, and the spiritual practices rooted in his deep faith that helped him endure a harrowing and painful migration journey.

The communities that you will serve may not look beautiful to your eyes, at first. They may indeed have prevailing public narratives of pain, struggle, poverty and violence, but more often than not that is the story that outsiders tell. Look instead for the stories of generosity, hope, courage, resilience, and faith that exist in abundance in communities at the margins.

And while we are talking about stories, my third point is actually an invitation, an invitation to be a particular kind of storyteller. I'm going to lean on my Notre Dame English degree to help articulate it. One last little lecture, but you're technically still in college so this is ok.

In literature, we’re all familiar with the concept of the protagonist, the main character of the story, and the antagonist, typically the villain or adversary. Less well-known is the concept of the deuteragonist—literally the second actor—the person in relationship with the main character. Sometimes the deuteragonist is reduced to a sidekick, but generally they get a fleshed out narrative as an important—but not the primary—character in the story.

I obviously wasn’t paying attention when they were teaching narrative tropes in college, because if I had I might have avoided making the mistake I made with Abdi. Going into my year of service, I believed on a deep gut level that this year had to be about me—a test of my experience, my aspirations, my gifts, what I had to offer. And because I internalized this, I made myself the protagonist of nearly every encounter I had at Mercy Home, and that meant that a lot of good people were often cast as antagonists. My community members were hard for me to get along with because they didn't try to understand my perspective. It was Abdi who had failed to connect with me, not the other way around.

I wish I had instead embraced the role of the deuteragonist and allowed my story to be encountered and told as a part of a bigger story. Being a secondary character is not an insult or consolation prize. It doesn’t mean that we are unworthy of being protagonists. Rather, accepting this role invites us to acknowledge that the world contains mysteries that we cannot resolve. That God has plans for us that are outside our ability to comprehend. It’s an opportunity for us to honestly assess our place in the story that is being told right now about all of us, about who we are as a people, as humans. And it’s actually kind of a relief, because eventually you may realize, as I did, that sometimes we’re just not great protagonists on our own.

My story isn't really all that interesting. But Abdi's was, if I could get my own ego out of the way long enough to hear it. The story of fourteen people trying to live together in a thermometer-shaped apartment—that's a good story. More than 100 brilliant graduates with the world at their fingertips who choose to live simply, among intentional communities, in service to the margins of human society—that's a hell of a story.

Congratulations, graduates. You have made a radical decision to live according to values and convictions that we are much deprived of in this world these days. You will rely upon and be accountable to the communities you are joining for the rest of your life. And your stories—as protagonists, antagonists, and deuteragonists—will shape what it means to be a Notre Dame graduate for many years after this one.

May God favor you with the Spirit of cooperation, grace abundantly, and an offering of humility.  

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