To celebrate my 50th birthday, my sister, brother-in-law and their three kids took me on vacation for two weeks to Alaska. It was a wonderful summer vacation, with spectacular scenery and memorable moments. Midway through the vacation, my sister Mary Beth, her husband, Dominic, and I had the opportunity one night to sit and talk about the kids and the future. Mary Beth, a lawyer, was concerned that her children were too removed from the daily challenges facing the world’s poor. We talked about various ways to help the children appreciate all that they had and their responsibility to share their gifts and talents. We also realized how difficult this would be to achieve, given the environment in which they live.
I talked about my experiences on the Navajo Indian Reservation with the students I teach at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and how this immersion project opens their eyes to reality and deepens their faith and commitment to social justice. My sister wondered if the Franciscan sisters there would ever allow a family to spend a week on the reservation as volunteers.
A month later my sister announced that she had been talking with the sisters at St. Mary’s Mission in Tohatchi, N.M. Not only could they accommodate our family; they could take up to 15 people for a week. My sister is both a dynamic personality and often a catalyst for others. She began to talk about this experience not only within the family, but also to her friends in their community. Some thought it was an interesting concept but not for them, and others believed she had lost her mind. By January she had signed up not only the six of us, but also a music teacher and a school psychologist from their local elementary school, Kris, their teenage baby sitter, an officer at Mellon Bank, the executive director of a nonprofit organization, an accountant, a dentist and an information technology professional.
The end of July came, and with great coordination we all arrived at Albuquerque International Airport around the same time, loaded ourselves into two large S.U.V.’s and began the two-hour drive westward toward Gallup and St. Mary’s Mission. At the reservation we were greeted by the sisters. Many of our fears dissipated when we saw the hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling, where we would spend the next week. It was rustic but quite comfortable. The fun began when the coordinator informed us that there was a water shortage and often the water just stopped flowing. We fell into complete silence, with looks of fear on our faces—it was 97 degrees—when my nephew Andrew blurted out: “This is great, I hate showers.” At that we let down our guards and laughed.
Each day began with the group gathering on the porch of the hogan to watch the sun rise over the mountains. The sunrises in this place were magnificent. We then had Mass in the traditional hogan chapel with the sisters and some of the Navajos from the reservation. Since the pastor was off on vacation, I was the official priest for the mission. The daily liturgy became our focal point. We shared reflections after the Gospel, and it was here that we allowed our faith not only to be nourished but deepened.
On the feast of Martha and Mary we talked about the difference between “being” and “doing.” We realized that we all came to the reservation as Marthas. We asked, what will we be doing? But as the days progressed, we came to see that being like Mary and taking the time to look into the hearts of others and seeing their needs allowed us to realize the importance of just being.
Yes, we did accomplish things. The first day we had a bingo game for the children on the reservation, for which the prizes consisted of school supplies and books that we had earlier sent to the reservation from New Jersey. By the end of the day, hundreds of books had been given away. In addition, the construction crew got the new food pantry trailer ready for business, the painting crew finished painting the church, our I.T. expert fixed and updated the mission’s computers, and the cave dwellers—those who worked in the clothes pantry—reorganized the entire operation.
But the real work came when we accompanied the sisters into the various canyons to deliver food to the sick and the elderly. It was here that we began to understand the importance of just being present for others.
Driving into Coyote Canyon with the sisters, I realized that much of the reservation is like a third world country. Resources most of us take for granted, like electricity, water and sewage disposal, are scarce in some places and sometimes entirely lacking. At each stop we met many of the elders, and I had the privilege of anointing some and giving a blessing to others, as well as to the livestock. I was becoming Franciscanized.
Those we met lived ever so simply, but their faith and their hospitality both energized us and inspired us to rethink our priorities. Berta, who was in her late 80’s, took us to see the sheep that she had just finished herding. These were her prize possessions; and while they were modest by our standards, they were worth their weight in gold to her. I watched my nephews and niece look around the homes of those we visited—no GameBoy, no PlayStation and often not even a television set. Their eyes bulged and they said nothing, but it was obvious they were thinking. At each stop we prayed with our new friends and often sang.
The nights were spent sitting on the hill watching the sunset or just sitting on the porch of the hogan watching the lightning storms in the east—a splendid light show to behold. In the midst of this magnificent beauty, the lack of morning showers and the rustic living all seemed to fade into the distance. I wondered if we were not in many ways like the early Christian communities. We were a diverse lot racially, ethnically, religiously and socially; yet there was a common thread that held us together. That thread was our faith and our commitment to be better people and to work toward a better world, in which all would be treated fairly and justly.
Our discussions at night seemed to arise spontaneously. I would often sit back and just listen to my family and friends talk about the experiences of that day, whether it was in the traditional Navajo sweat ritual they did as a group or how they were touched by someone they had met. Together our eyes were opened to the needs of others, and we learned from our hosts not only about the sacredness of each person’s life from the beginning until the end but the importance of looking into the hearts of each person we meet and seeing what they need rather than what we think they need.
Our journey ended the following Saturday, the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola. Everyone arrived at the hogan chapel for Mass at eight in the morning. Nancy, our music teacher, played the flute, and our songs seemed to reverberate around the mission compound. Here we were: Native Americans and visitors, Franciscan and Jesuit, lay and religious celebrating the feast of St. Ignatius. As the music continued I thought to myself that Ignatius would have been quite pleased with this diverse group of faithful people. For the reflection, I talked a bit about the life of Ignatius.
All of a sudden others began talking about “seeing God in all things” and having a better understanding of the Ignatian ideal of being “men and women for others.” Finally, my nephew Nicholas, who had been uncommonly quiet most of the week, said, “I learned that it is not what is on the outside of a person that really matters but what is on the inside—in the heart. You just have to take the time to look and find what is there. You know, we really are not all that different from one another, so why don’t we just treat each other as equals.” As I gazed around the chapel at that moment, I knew from the expressions on the faces of my friends that something significant had changed in each of us.
Yes, the dream my sister had of helping her children understand more clearly the importance of their faith and the need to care about others and treat them with dignity and respect was slowly becoming a reality. Her children learned not only by what they experienced on the reservation, but by having the opportunity to live with an extraordinary group of individuals for a week. The first day at Mass Sister Mille had said, “Nicholas, Andrew and Michelle, you may not realize now what a great gift this trip is for you, especially having the opportunity to live with this group of people, but one day you will, and it will be a memory that will serve you well for a lifetime.”
Perhaps my sister’s dream will become a paradigm for others. For those willing to consider a “volunteer vacation” next summer with your family and friends, I can practically guarantee it will be an unforgettable, richly rewarding experience.