Whenever I hear Ryan say his night prayers, it often has me thinking of Loyola and all it stands. Ryan, my three year old grandson, knows the Prayer of Generosity by heart. (He also says by heart the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, the Eternal Rest, and the Now I Lay me Down to Sleep. Am I bragging? Oh, yeah!) His mom, Vanessa, Class of 1998, not only taught him the Prayer of Generosity but is also helping him to live it.
When the word generous or generosity is used, it is often thought of in pecuniary terms. But we at Loyola know better. Generosity means being generous with our time, our words, our heart, our blessings, our compliments, our kindness, our Christian charity, our treat people with dignity, respect and justice…. You get what I’m saying.
We are taught to serve, to give, and to labor without asking for any reward. When we do this with a cheerful heart, we praise God and we become missionaries with very little effort.
And laboring, and giving, and serving is what Loyola students did in 2002 when a volunteering opportunity came for us to serve in Belize, a program still active at the school. Only graduating seniors can participate, and it is the experience of a lifetime. We left New York with a temperature at 50 some degrees and were welcomed in Belize by a 101 degree heat and 90% humidity and no air conditioning. That year, we painted, swept, (rats’ droppings), scrubbed, and rebuilt what is now an AIDS center for children with Aids. Another year, when our suitcases were searched at the airport and the agents saw the toy transformers and all the things we brought, they wanted to tax us, but we explained that the transformers were tools to teach the little children about the Resurrection. “Oh, you must be missionaries,” they said, and let us by. We ate the local food as we saw the scurrying rats and roaches go from building to building. We built, from scratch, what we would call “a shed” - a tin roof, 10 by 10 plywood structure resting on cinderblocks at its four corners. No electricity, no gas, no plumbing, no water - hence, no kitchen, no bathroom, no amenities. A roof over a family’s head, a home to call their own, a “castle” to the poorest of the poor. The teens labored in the heat unceasingly, (with no facilities in the area), until the structure was completed. When the “house’ was turned over to the family, they were overjoyed and blessed our students. We were missionaries without realizing it, for we did it for the love of God and for the “least of His children.”
It was through one of our alumni that Loyola was introduced to Belize. After graduating from college, Loyola students have volunteered to serve others, either as members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps here in the US or in the Jesuit Volunteer International Program, committing two years without interruption, in putting into practice the Prayer of Generosity, so dear to St. Ignatius.
Neither the heat of Central America nor the coolness of North America deter Loyola students. Some teens from the choir headed for the snowy Adirondacks to sing for a nursing home. An Episcopalian church was kind to offer their multi-purpose room and they slept in sleeping bags on the floor in the multi-purpose building. They brought ecumenicalism and good will as they sang their praise to God, and then entertained, chatted, and played with the seniors. They realized ‘old people’ were actually fun to be with and giving of themselves wasn’t so bad.
But the first act of generosity I remember at Loyola was a concert that the students organized in the gym in 1969 for the people of Biafra. They charged admission and all the money collected was given for that cause. Remember those big folding platform tables that were stored in the old unused showers in the jug yard, the ones we put up for Talent Night and took down the following day? Those were the same ones that were used at this concert. Those tables have long since gone, but the hard work in setting them was rewarded by the fun we had and the memories we made.
Memories like the big maroon and gold van that Loyola received through an act of generosity. We lost no time in putting it to good use. We hitched a trailer, put all our luggage in it and off we went to Kermit, West Virginia. A group 15 students volunteered to help the nuns in in their ministry within the mining community. When we arrived, we were struck by the poverty we saw in our soil: run down mining homes with old newspapers glued to the walls to cover the holes and chipped paint.
We did a bit of everything: we put manure around orchard trees; removed sawdust from a mill so the heavy saws could be run; excavated ditches for irrigation; plastered walls; and chopped wood for an old couple’s wooden stove. We slept in sleeping bags in a common room, we ate simply, including what the teens called, ‘Bambi burgers’, (deer hamburgers). On our last night there, we had a barbeque with the local teenagers. One teen was joining the army, another was going to Cleveland to be a bricklayer, and others were searching jobs elsewhere as a way of escaping poverty. Our teens opened their hearts, wished them luck and gave them Loyola t-shirts as a way of saying that they had come to understand and cared.
The poor and the disenfranchised are always at the core of Jesuit social justice. In the early 1990’s a group of students decided to do something for the homeless that they themselves could do. They got together on a Saturday morning and prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They bagged the sandwiches in brown bags and hopped on the subway bound for Tompkins Square Park. There, they distributed the bags to all the homeless they met. And that’s how the ‘Brownbaggers’ got its name. This program is still in existence today and is very popular with the present students. Then as now, the kids are moved by the gratitude they receive from these strangers. A blessing returned.
Another act generosity saw our kids at a homeless center on 81st Street between Lexington and Third. They prepared a complete meal at the school using the cooking equipment that we had in the old Commons. They brought the food over to the center, almost at a run, so that it would not get cold. We did it for a full year. It stopped when the center closed. But other programs at Loyola continued other types of service. We have had canned food drives, toy drives, clothing drives, and we continue to have them. One year, we collected combs and tooth brushes for the prisoners at Ryker’s Island. Personally, I am ever thankful for the $1,000 raised when the earthquake devastated Northern Italy in 1976.
Today the volunteering program has evolved. There are at least ten volunteering activities the student body can be a part of at the school. Whether it’s helping a next door neighbor or a neighbor across the sea, all carry the message of Jesus and St. Ignatius: to look after the most marginalized in our world.
Father Curry would always say at Mass, “Let us pray for those who cannot even dream of the comforts that we have.” And so we do, and thank God for all our blessings. In His generosity, God wants us to have “our daily bread” and to be happy, and we come to realize that we are the most happy when we give and help others. We don’t have to think hard on how. God sends us oodles of different signs and opportunities. But often, unless they hit us on the head, we are oblivious to them. The trick is, as my wife often says, is to be open to hear His word and see His signs.
What are we doing to put into practice St. Ignatius exhortation to be generous, to serve, to give, to fight and not heed the wounds, to labor and not ask for any rewards?