Emmanuel Ruiz recalls memories from his childhood when he would walk the hallways of St. John’s Bread and Life with his mother for one particular reason: to be one of the kids receiving gifts as part of the service center’s annual Christmas event.
Fast-forward to summer 2017 and helping ensure that the food operations in the same familiar Bedford-Stuyvesant program are running as smoothly as an assembly line is a familiar face. This time he’s a rising high school sophomore volunteering behind-the-scenes with Faith and Service in the City, a Vincentian Leadership Institute for High School Students offered by St. John’s University, Jamaica.
Sacrificing one week from their summer plans, 10 high school student leaders, some from the Rockville Centre Diocese, but most from St. John the Baptist parish, Bedford-Stuyvesant, answered the call to be bold when it comes to learning about their faith, courageous when it aligns with their actions and willing to serve the greater Brooklyn and Queens community.
In its inaugural year, Faith and Service in the City is a program that invites high school students to experience a week living in a university residence hall and explore Catholic teaching with a Vincentian touch, in an effort to grow their faith and leadership skills.
“I’m definitely going to take back a more open mindset,” said Ruiz. “Let’s say I walk by a homeless man, I’ll definitely be thinking this man is probably going through something a lot harder than just being homeless. He may have contracted an infection. He may actually not have a single place to go. He may have no one to talk to, so maybe I can do my best to give him food or give him money to use.”
Dr. Joann Heaney-Hunter, associate professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University, conducted the pilot program. Her hope is that the students would get a sense of their vocations as baptized Catholics.
Living Out Baptismal Call
“They’re very young, they’re too young to be making decisions about where they’ll be heading in their lives,” said Heaney-Hunter. “But they can know what it means to be a baptized Catholic and how we can live out our baptismal call, not only in the world but in their schools, in their parishes, in their homes. I also want them to get a sense of St. Vincent’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian, that we find Christ in every single person, especially the poor.”
The program began Aug. 6. Family members were invited to share a meal with the cohort and faculty. After saying their goodbyes in the residence halls, the students had social activities to complete.
After a campus-wide scavenger hunt to find the missing pieces of a poster-board puzzle, students reconvened at St. Thomas More Church on campus. The ice-breaker activities allowed students to familiarize themselves with one another.
Every day included social activities, group projects, and theological reflection and prayer time. Guiding the students through such complex topics were faculty members from the university’s theology department.
Professor Chris P. Vogt accompanied students during day five, the service project at St. John’s Bread and Life. He said he wanted to help them with lessons that would allow them to put more “texture into ideas” when it comes to theological virtues such as mercy, solidarity and hospitality.
“I think the most important thing is to cultivate this sense of ‘how can I grow as a leader?’ said Vogt. “I think the questions we encourage this week will keep them thinking in high school, in college and in their lives. This program fosters a ‘who am I becoming’ and ‘what am I doing with my life?’”
From learning about Catholic social teaching and social justice, the program also focused on putting faith into action. On day four, the group went to the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan to get a sense of the immigrant experience in New York City. They explored the small tenement homes of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s to work in the clothing textile industry.
“It was interesting to learn about how everything started,” said Adam Daouphars, who attends St. Peter’s H.S., Staten Island.
“It’s just nice to know how they lived back in the day because we take everything for granted.”
Yet the experience also brought to mind some of their own rich cultural traditions.
“I could relate to the part when they celebrate Sabbath and they all gather around and say a prayer,” said Dahlia Romero, a rising junior who attends Progress H.S., Brooklyn. “I was thinking about when we celebrate. I’m from Mexico. We have this tradition, Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, how we all gather together and pray upon the loved ones that we lost and pray to them to guide us and protect us.”
On one of the final days, as the students mustered what energy was left after a late-evening trip into Manhattan to give food and clothing to the homeless, they were about to embark upon inter-religious dialogue.
They visited a prominent Hindu temple in Flushing. It was, for many of them, the first time they set foot into a Hindu temple. First up was experiencing south-Indian food as a group.
“It was actually a good experience to try their food,” Kayla Abreu said. “It was also good to hear different information because when you go to different churches, they tell you so many different things about how they worship God so, it was pretty intense.”
On the final day, family members attended Mass on campus with the group. The students performed skits, sharing the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man parables, as a small glimpse of the lessons learned in the week.
For Adam’s mother, Lucy Rosa, it was her first time on the Jamaica campus. She was excited for her son’s journey ahead.
“I knew that this experience would give him something different from life that he sees and that he hears,” said Rosa. “From what he told me, going to the soup kitchen, getting clothes to the poor, I know that he learned a lot. He’s a good kid because he’s a caring kid. He’s been a very loveable, huggable, child since little.”
As a single mother, Rosa also knew the impact of being around a community that fosters leadership through the eyes of compassion.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, he was 12 years old, and it scared me,” she explained. “But I knew that if God wanted to take me, I couldn’t stop Him. It is what it is. I was just worried about Adam because of his age and not having Mommy around, but Mommy is here and still teaching him and he learns from a lot of people. I’m not the only one.”
It Starts With Faith
Timothy Sullivan, a college sophomore, accompanied the teens during the week.
“When I was in high school, in Cathedral Prep, I didn’t know much about the Vincentian charisma,” said Sullivan. “So coming to St. John’s was the first time I was exposed to it. This week really got me to help people, to actually be exposed to the Vincentian charism, to actually learn more about faith through service, and learn more about St. Vincent De Paul and seeing God in the poor. These kids were excellent, really great people and I can’t wait to see what they do in the future.”
Faith and Service in the City, a Vincentian Leadership Institute for High School Students
Opening Ceremony and Social Activities
St. John’s Bread and Life
Closing Ceremony and Mass
St. John the Baptist Church Faith-filled Family