August 7, 2014 by Alex Johannigman
The amount of wisdom, life experience, and spiritual and intellectual growth that I gained during my year of service at Christ in the City is comparable to the amount of water someone could gain by drinking out of a fire hose. It was completely overwhelming. Summing the lessons up into one post would be impossible. Even breaking it up into 2 would be tough. So today I’m going to begin a series of posts titled “Moral of the Story,” inspired loosely from a segment of one my favorite cartoons, Animaniacs, and their “Wheel of Morality” gag where Yakko ended the episode by reading the “moral of today’s story” to his siblings Wakko and Dot.
Let’s begin with the first moral of my missionary year: We need community.
Everybody does. You. Me. Them. Everybody.
Living in a house with anywhere between 8 and 30 other people at a time has shown me just how much you gain by having a community that knows you intimately. When you spend a lot of time with another person, you start to become very aware of that person’s weaknesses, but also his or her strengths. You begin to recognize that each person is a totally unique soul who contributes to the flourishing of your community in a unique and valuable way. You discover the things that make that person happy, the things that frustrate them, their pet peeves, their passions, their wounds and scars, and how they relate to others.
And after you realize that you know almost everything there is to know about another person, you start to discover that they know just as much about you as you know about them. And boy is that uncomfortable. It forces you to accept your own shortcomings and work to improve them. You recognize your own sins much more easily when you see them through the eyes of another person.
Community life gives you an incredible opportunity to give and receive fraternal correction. As uncomfortable as it has been to be told by a missionary brother to get my act together on multiple occasions, those were also moments where I grew in maturity, self-awareness, and responsibility.
Your community often has a keener sense of your shortcomings, but they can also identify your gifts more thoroughly than you can. Giving affirmations within a small group of people is a staple of Catholic retreats in high school and college. They’re a great opportunity to recognize the gifts that you’ve seen in the people you’ve spent time with during a weekend, but because you’ve only known the other people in your group for a day or two, they tend to barely scratch the surface of a person.
At Christ in the City, we had a similar tradition of giving affirmations on a missionary’s birthday. But what made these much more meaningful was that the other missionaries, rather than knowing you for a day or two, have known you for 1-10 months by the time your birthday rolls around. I was blessed to have a birthday during the final month of my missionary year, which meant that my affirmations were based on nearly a year of serving together, eating together, doing chores together, and going out and having fun together. I was amazed at the gifts that were mentioned during my birthday dinner, some of which were gifts that I didn’t realize I even had until they were described by someone else at the table. Because I got to hear these affirmations from others, I am now able to pursue positions in my career and in future ministry opportunities that rely on those strengths.
Community life was often described as the “preschool of love” among CIC leadership because it also taught us how to love at a deeper level than had ever been required before. I learned that love often requires sacrifice and discomfort. It often took the form of doing someone else’s chores for them because they were on a trip or were sick that day. It meant saying something uplifting to brighten someone’s mood when they had a bad day, even if your day wasn’t so hot either. It meant fulfilling your obligations and responsibilities not because they were asked of you, but because you knew that by doing them you would be making life easier for the rest of your community. It meant being proactive in finding ways to help someone else when they were in need. It became much clearer that love without sacrifice isn’t real love at all, and that if we truly care about someone else, their joys become our joys, their sorrows become our sorrows, and their needs become our needs.
The need for community wasn’t just something I saw expressed in the life of my missionary community. I also witnessed it on the streets. A vast majority of the homeless population forms communities among themselves, finding material and emotional support from others who are in a similar state of life. For them, community isn’t just a source of greater fulfillment and self-knowledge, it also becomes necessary for survival when you need someone to watch over your things when you sleep, or to help take care of you when you become sick.
I was also told several times, especially during my final weeks, that I helped improve a lot of people’s lives just by being present in them. Many folks living on the streets rarely experience true, self-giving love, which is something we hunger for as humans. We were made in the image and likeness of God who is love and who is a community of persons. God models perfect love through the giving love of the Father, the receptive love of the Son, and the fruit of that love, the Holy Spirit. And by our nature, we desire that same love in our own lives. As a missionary, I was blessed beyond what I deserve to have the opportunity to give that love and provide that community to my new friends who longed for it yet rarely experienced it. And through that, I got to see just how badly a healthy, loving community is needed in the life of every single person that has ever lived.
“And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:12
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