In the midst of a first-year student’s hectic first day of Orientation, there is a short but very intentional half-hour break. After a day of excitement and anticipation, students and their families gather in the University Chapel for a reflective pause.
The evening reflection is purposeful and ecumenical, explained Robert M. Donius, vice president for University Ministries. The students and their families have a moment to slow down and quietly consider their day as they are invited into silent meditation.
“Reflection is a value; everyone has to find a place to be quiet,” he said.
That value of reflection is one of the anchors of the university’s new Center for Community Engagement, which is providing the framework for sustaining a campus culture that focuses on supportive learning environments, student engagement and the Franciscan value of service to others.
Establishment of the center affirms St. Bonaventure’s commitment to promoting student-centered learning. It also is a natural progression inspired by the Lilly Endowment-funded Journey Project, established in 2003 through a five-year, $2 million grant.
The center, led by Larry Sorokes, is the central coordinating office for student-learning opportunities and off-campus endeavors involving community outreach. That means it will be an entry point for students seeking volunteer projects, service opportunities, internship placements and/or community-based learning courses. But beyond the structural framework is the goal of creating opportunities for students to embody core values from within the university’s Franciscan spiritual tradition.
“We not only have a variety of volunteers and service activities, but what distinguishes us is the emphasis of reflection on personal experience, social action and an attentiveness to the principles of Catholic teaching,” said Br. F. Edward Coughlin, O.F.M., vice president for Franciscan Mission at the university. “Our increasing emphasis on both reflection and social analysis is the way in which we hope we are opening doors to great growth in their spiritual lives.”
For some college students today, traditional religious beliefs form the core of their spirituality. Others are actively exploring spiritual questions and issues.
“The reality is an incredibly significant number of our students have little faith formation and sense of tradition. Today’s college students are finding their way spiritually and humanly through very different paths than even the generation of their parents,” said Br. Ed. “For a lot of them, oftentimes it is the engagement through service that begins to awaken or re-engage them.”
Transformative Service Trips
For freshman Franceline Demosthenes, working at the St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia during midterm break “was the best experience that I have ever had in my life.”
Motivated by her faith to volunteer, Demosthenes was among a group of students who participated in the Franciscan Center for Social Concern’s October service trip to the Inn, where they helped serve 400 daily meals, assisted with a clothing drive and delivered Sunday meals to guests at their homes.
The Franciscan Center for Social Concern (FCSC) undertakes experiences with the marginalized through regional and national trips. Upcoming service trips in February and March include St. Francis House in Boston, St. Ann Catholic Outreach Center in Kingstree, S.C., and Franciscan Collaborative Ministries in Syracuse.
“This goes back to Saint Francis serving the leper. We want to help the students to identify with Franciscan values and how we reach out to others, particularly the marginalized,” said Sr. Suzanne Kush, C.S.S.F., director of the FCSC.
She also strives to helps students reach inward. During the reflection periods following the service trips, Sr. Suzanne said students have a moment to step back and think about what they experienced. “It helps them to get to know themselves, what their strengths are and the challenges in their lives.”
“I think students have a real desire to be of service,” added Sr. Suzanne. “It’s important to make opportunities available to them. If we’re talking about education, we’re talking about educating the whole person and how they see themselves and others.”
St. Bonaventure students welcome service opportunities connected with academic programs. Political science students spent a weekend in Utica, which is a United Nations Resettlement City, to witness how a city accepts refugees. The students met and heard stories of people from East Africa, the Balkans, Vietnam, Myanmar and other parts of the world.
Sociology students from St. Bonaventure and Siena College teamed up Oct. 2-3 to help the efforts of Operation Dignity, a national movement to restore dignity to those buried in old and abandoned psychiatric hospital cemeteries. The event included a Friday evening panel discussion at St. Bonaventure followed by a Saturday work detail at a cemetery that holds the remains of approximately 1,000 former residents of the now-closed Gowanda Psychiatric Center.
During Christmas break, Fr. Robert Struzynski, O.F.M., from Mt. Irenaeus and faculty member Dr. Anne Foerst led an annual service trip to Jamaica, where they served alongside Sr. Grace Yap, an Allegany Sister of St. Francis.
A Welcoming Presence
Even though she didn’t have any faith formation growing up, student Caitlin Veri didn’t have qualms about attending a Catholic university. She felt comfortable on her first visit to campus.
At her Syracuse high school, Veri avoided conversations with friends about religion. “I never felt connected to God or spirituality,” she said. But she began to feel a connection with the first Mass she attended during Orientation. When a friend invited her to attend Mass her freshman year, at first she was uneasy, “but I soon felt a sense of peace and warmth.”
Veri found herself frequently attending Mass. And last year as a sophomore she joined the university’s Music Ministry team. As a drummer, “I loved the music,” Veri said.
This year she made the decision to join the Catholic Church and will be baptized, accept the Eucharist and be confirmed this spring. She is grateful that her growth at St. Bonaventure has been both academic and spiritual. “I feel I was drawn to be here. I was meant to be here. The ‘Good Journey’ is not a line. It was put into practice in my life,” she said.
Before he came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, Anouar El Younssi had never had close contact with people of other faith traditions. Before coming to America from predominantly Muslim Morocco, he had never been to a church. A summer internship at the university-run Warming House provided a window for El Younssi to look at and experience the Catholic faith while deepening his own spirituality.
“This internship made it possible for me to experience the beautiful realm of spirituality from a fascinatingly different angle. This was actually the first time when I contemplated and prayed to God within a Christian environment and with Christian folks,” said El Younssi, who is an Arabic teaching assistant in the Department of Modern Languages and a graduate English student at the university.
“Being a Muslim, I found the difference extremely appealing and interesting. I loved crossing religious frontiers,” he said.
“I remember one Friday when we drove to Mt. Irenaeus for a reflection session with other interns and a Catholic priest and right after we finished, my Christian friends drove me from there to the mosque in the village of Allegany so that I could attend my Islamic Friday sermon and prayer.”
As the university welcomes a more diverse population, the University Ministries team reaches out to students to help connect them with local faith communities.
“We have a couple students who have joined the (Olean) synagogue, we have a number of Hindu students, and we have a handful of students who go to Friday prayers at the Islamic Temple,” explained Donius.
“While many students have not been churched or taken an intentional pause, there are many who have come with great intentions of exploring their faith here. A growing number of students have found their way to daily Mass here, as well as on weekends. The Evenings Away at the Mountain and our men’s and women’s retreats are always popular,” added Donius.
Sparking Interest in Faith
In its second year, the S.P.A.R.K. ministry continues to welcome St. Bonaventure students of all faith traditions to a ministry that offers weekly fellowship, prayer and discussions.
The Rev. Daniel McKee, adviser to the group, said S.P.A.R.K. brings forth the metaphor of “a wayside inn along our journey.”
The Students of Prayer, Action, Reform and Knowledge group gathers at the Thomas Merton Ministry Center each Wednesday for a middle-of-the-week respite. This fall, the students have welcomed faculty and staff members to come tell their faith stories as a way of engaging students in their own spiritual search. “Stories are narratives in how we make sense out of life. Those are the ways in which we gather,” McKee said.
“It’s refreshing to hear someone else’s story,” said Chelsey Rashid, a junior from Warren, Pa.
“A lot of students have questions about religion in general,” said Rashid. “Others are very strong in their own faith and enjoy sharing their traditions.”
Students don’t often ask what faith tradition a participant is immersed in, but want to know how that person approaches life.
“They want to know ‘What do you do in a crisis? How have you been hurt? Do you have doubts?’” McKee says.
McKee has questions, too. Such as “Where can truth emerge for this generation? Why should they trust the church, politicians, the economy? Personally, I want to be there for them. I find hope on a Wednesday night,” he said.
Warm Meals, Warm Hearts
In addition to individual students who are drawn to the mission of the Warming House, director Trevor Thompson welcomes the integration of the Warming House experience and academic experience. A number of faculty members who teach The Intellectual Journey, Catholic Franciscan Heritage and University 101 ask their students to assist at the Warming House as a way to engage in the Franciscan mission and ministry of the university.
In the School of Business, faculty members John Stevens and Kathy Premo utilize the Warming House as a bit of a learning laboratory for students in their Organizational Behavior courses. Students put their textbook components of organization behavior — planning, organizing, leading and controlling — into practice. The business students are split into groups of five or six and are responsible for planning a meal at the Warming House on a given day. The students are evaluated on their preparation, quality of the meal and teamwork, as well as their hospitality to the guests.
“The neat thing about this experience is it operates at a number of different levels. Some (students) think about the business aspect. It gets into the human side of life, becoming more aware of people in your community you may not know. Then, on a personal level, you connect with the guests and you get a richer educational experience,” Stevens said.
By design, experiential learning is deeper that what is found in a textbook.
“We’re moving beyond the Warming House as a place where we’re doing charity work. It’s a place to engage complex social issues, an opportunity to move beyond abstract knowledge to a more powerful opportunity to feel and see real-world situations. We’re trying to grow the Warming House as a place … showing we’re a partner in the community,” said Thompson.
That community includes St. Bonaventure University faculty and staff, who take care of meal preparation and serving at the Warming House one Sunday a month.
Christopher Stanley, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Theology, helps coordinate the Faculty/Staff Day.
“In my case, my reading of the gospels says being a follower of Jesus means being engaged with the poor and needy. Assisting at the Warming House has been important to me for many years,” he said.
Athletics Director Steve Watson and his family began volunteering at the Warming House last year. “We started doing the Faculty/Staff Day last year and really enjoy it. It’s been especially good for my kids. It helps them better appreciate the things that we sometimes take for granted.”
Joining Watson and his wife, Ann, at the Warming House are their three children, Abby (14), Allison (11) and Jackson (8).
“This is a nice thing for us to do together. It’s pretty cool to watch Jackson serving food and Allison working in the kitchen. They actually enjoy cleaning when we’re done serving the food. Abby’s room at home is usually a disaster area, but when she’s at the Warming House she is the first one to pick up the mop to clean the floor or grab a rag to wash dishes. I think they understand what they’re doing and why it’s important. Doing it together as a family makes it even better,” Watson said.
Dan Breheny, ’07, said many of his experiences at St. Bonaventure contributed to his spirituality and to who he is right now, the Warming House being very much in the forefront. “It strengthened the very things I had believed in and had not yet acted on,” said Breheny, who is the senior volunteer coordinator at the Regional Food Bank in Albany.
“I can see that I have been given and developed certain skills and they are best used when I am passionate about the work I am doing. For me, my experience at St. Bonaventure, the Warming House, and many others have helped me shine a light on what I am passionate about and what my vocation is.”