Eleven weeks and a seven-and-a-half hour drive later, I find myself back in North Carolina for a much-appreciated week vacation before heading back to school. It’s been a great summer and a great first assignment in Camden, NJ, and there is a lot to take with me to my studies. Here are just a few things that I will take with me as I continue to be formed into a Franciscan Friar:
Of the many highlights of the summer, one of my favorite experiences was teaching a Bible class on Wednesday evenings. Let me be clear: this was not a “Bible study” as is common at churches. What I wanted with this class was to give the average parishioner an academic overview of the Bible so to empower him/her to be able to read, study, and pray with the text appropriately. Over eight weeks, I spanned a couple thousand years of biblical history in order to set the historical context out of which each text was written, highlighting the social and political events that greatly influenced the people of God. My bold guarantee when advertising the class was that, once completed, one would be able to open the Bible to any page and have at least the basic tools to know the context of the passage, and thus, an appropriate interpretation.
While the content of the material was something I personally understood, I had never taught it let alone organized the material into eight comprehensible sections. Could I even fill up an hour of material for eight weeks? Did I have enough knowledge of the Bible to synthesize it or field questions beyond the text? Turns out I could and I did, and I had a great experience doing it. The material will obviously need to be refined and updated as I take more courses in Scripture and theology, but it was very encouraging. My hope is to build on this experience with other adult education courses: church history, liturgy/sacraments, Catholic Social Teaching, and Franciscan history/studies.
Confidence to Preach
In a similar vein, I was given the opportunity to preach regularly this summer: twice a week at daily mass and two Sundays (the texts of which can be found here and here). While I had had a little experience preaching before this summer, this was actually my first time preaching at a daily mass, something surprisingly different, and more difficult, from a Sunday homily. For starters, it has to be very short and to the point. In a daily mass homily, there isn’t enough time to develop more than one point, and even with that point, not a lot of time to do it. What can I say in 3-5 minutes, that isn’t just fluff or sentiment, to really draw people into prayerful reflection today?
Another difficult aspect of daily masses is that they happen, by definition, every day. Unlike Sunday homilies that take all week to develop, these reflections must be churned out each and every day. The plus side for seasoned priests is that the shortened length, casual nature of mass, and repetition of readings makes this very easy to be done quickly and mostly off-the-cuff. For me, having never had this experience, I found the experience to be a bit laborious at times, especially the Monday after preaching Sunday. Ugh… what am I going to say?
It is that tiny little bit of pressure, the regularity of preaching no matter the readings or context, that really helped my confidence in the long run. At first, I was very nervous and tried to memorize every word of the “perfect homily” I had written; by the end, I had a few notes jotted down and was able to speak a bit more extemporaneously. The other factor in all of this was that I preached bilingually each mass (and I don’t speak Spanish!) Although I was only reading a translation in Spanish, being able to stand in front of people and speak in a different language made preaching in my own that much easier.
Boundaries Between Work and Home
One of the potential drawbacks of living in Camden is that the friary is attached to the parish offices: 1st and 3rd floors are friars only, 2nd floor is parish offices. This creates a difficult boundary issue to navigate. Are people allowed into the friary portions, and if so, at what times? How do I “get away” from work if it’s only a few feet away? Do I have an obligation to be present ALWAYS? These are difficult questions for sure.
Here’s one example of an uncomfortable situation I faced this summer. I had been working really hard without a full “day off” in a week or so and was pretty tired. I decided I was going to take the day to just relax, prayer, and watch a movie. Nothing special, no vacation or excursion, just a recharge day. I didn’t want to go anywhere, just relax. Naturally, I get a call 20 minutes into the movie, “Hey Brother Casey, sorry to bother you, but one of our volunteers never showed and we have a student here and I’m the only adult. I can’t be here with him alone. Would you mind coming with me and we can drop him off at his house?” Was I really going to say no? Of course not. Well, there goes 45 minutes of desperately needed recharge time.
As someone devoting my life to the service of others, there is never an opportune time to take off. There will always be someone to help, and I will inevitably feel guilty for taking time for myself. I think the key is to set clear boundaries for doing so. Set a designated time or day off and publicize it to the ones being served: “If you want me to be my best to serve you at all other times, please respect this time for myself.” The other thing is to keep clear physical boundaries between work and home. At school this is tremendously difficult because my bedroom is my study room. In Camden, I can only imagine how difficult it is for the pastor to sleep in the same place where hundreds of people need him daily. As best we can, we need to set boundaries.
Take a Walk
While there are probably fifty more things I could reflect on, I’ll end with the one that I will most clearly take with me as I go back to Washington, D.C.: a walk. What I mean by this is not exercise, not a way to calm down, not breaks in study. What I take from Camden is their walks of subtle evangelization.
More than two years ago, the church was a part of a peace walk to end violence. At 6:20 that Wednesday, two parishioners left the church to catch up to the marchers and were mugged. That’s right, on the way to the peace march. In response, the friars have made it a point to walk the streets of their neighborhood every Wednesday at 6:20 for more than two years, missing only Christmas and Fourth of July.
They do not carry signs, nor do they pray the Rosary. Nothing about them is calling attention to violence or injustice. All they do is walk up and down the main street in their neighborhood, in habits, each and every Wednesday at 6:20. What I love about it is that they are a regular, vision presence in Camden. People recognize them and look for them, and for those that do not know them, they strike up conversations about who they are and what they’re doing. It is the story of Francis and a young brother: walking through the city one day, they went through the marketplace, side streets, and fields, not saying anything about Jesus. The young brother, disappointed, said, “I thought that we were going to preach today.” Francis replied, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!” It is my hope to do this always, of course, but to also make it a regular practice back in our neighborhood in D.C.