Four years of college, a degree later, and I somehow find myself back in the bustling halls of high school. It’s a Friday night and I am driving an eight passenger white van down the 101 with fifteen-year-olds screaming in the back. This is the kind of moment I dreaded when I thought of a year of service. The screaming kids, the old van with hand crank windows, and my foot on the gas, but it is this moment that made me feel truly like a campus minister.
It’s because of mega vans like this one that all of our retreats are made possible. The freshman just shared an amazing meal together at a senior’s home and my ability to transport them was the crux in making this shared meal a reality. There lies a sanctity at a dinner table. It is a time and place for us to be in one another’s company, to be rejuvenated by food, and to experience the peace brought about by a community founded on love. The older I grow, the more I realize why the Gospel emphasizes meals as a place of encounter. Jesus broke bread with the people he thought deserved the most attention. It was a way of showing His love.
On this Friday night the power of a meal was once again shown to me as these teenagers who were strangers but hours ago jabbered along like old friends in the back seat. Quick as can be we turn off the 101 onto the 33 north and pass through the Los Padres National Forest. The teenage small talk pivots to stories of evacuation and fear during the Thomas fires not even a year past. The kids trade stories back and forth about being woken in the middle of the night, fleeing homes, and living out of hotel rooms. I am instantly reminded how great humanity is at hiding its pain. These children who smile and greet me every morning with an excited “Hi Miss E.,” hold lots of pain and hardship underneath the surface. My job as campus minister is to journey alongside these kids as they work through this pain.
In Matthew 18, Jesus reminds us “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” These teenagers remind me that even as we grow older and become more mature, that it is never too hard to find joy like we did as children. Just three weeks at Villanova Prep has exposed me to Chewbacca robes, dodgeball fights, homecoming proposals, and chicken tender sandwiches. The most I’ve laughed in my time in California was watching a bunch of 18 year olds try to referee dodgeball games. Their joy spread throughout the entire gym, and an event that seemed unnecessary to me became a highlight of the weekend. I feel grateful for them reminding me how joyful singing to songs in the car can be or how competitive a water balloon toss should be.
Whether it is driving students to sustainable local farms, to trailheads for hiking club, or retreat centers, I’ve grown to love the time driving up and down the 101. The hills on my left and ocean on my right echo Gerard Manley Hopkins words, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Three weeks in and Ventura truly feels charged with the grandeur of God. The beauty of these people and the landscape serve as daily reminder of how blessed I am to be here.
Ventura, CA 2018-2019