It’s that time of year again! Midterms are finished and spring break is here! Is there any sweeter time for a college student than this? A full week with no classes, no assignments, and no worries at all. Pack the bags and head to the beach!
Or so I wish. Turns out that graduate students don’t have quite the same experience of spring break as undergraduates. Midterm exams are finished, but term papers are looming, assignments are piling up even as I type this, and as a friar, I still have ministry and house responsibilities to take care of. Vacation isn’t exactly in the cards… Ugh. This real world stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!
So what does a friar in formation do with no school and slightly fewer assignments? If you’re Dennis Bennett, ofm and myself, you spend a long weekend at a parish staffed by the friars to gain ministerial experience and to get away from the house (it is important that everyone know my reasoning is absolutely in that order…) And what an experience it was.
Given the weather in D.C. this winter, I knew that our destination was going to be south but would have been happy with any of our parishes. Eventually, we settled on Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, NC. Located in a traditionally poor part of the area, the influx of professionals into the Research Triangle and to well-renowned universities such as Duke and UNC, coupled with the large growth in Latino population all over North Carolina, has developed the city and parish into a vibrant, diverse place to minister. The church has six masses on the weekend (four English, two Spanish), runs an elementary school, is involved in many social justice initiatives in the area, and cares for the needs of a couple thousand families in two languages.
So what could two theology students do in just a weekend? Our main duty was to preach at all of the masses. Dennis preached in English on Saturday night and both Spanish masses on Sunday, and I preached at the three Sunday morning masses. Besides the valuable experience of preaching in a parish setting to hundreds of people (Dennis preached to over 1000 at the 1:30 Spanish mass!), I absolutely loved the opportunity to speak with parishioners before and after mass. That said, Sunday was a tiring day. With the exception of 30 minutes for lunch and an hour break in the afternoon, we were at the church greeting, smiling, standing, celebrating and preaching from 7:15am until 6:30pm. But what a joy! (I would choose that every day over writing theology papers!)
On Monday, Dennis and I took the opportunity to get to know the area a little, taking in the sites, sounds, and especially tastes of the area. We started with a tour of Duke University, a gorgeous wooded campus with Gothic buildings throughout. The chapel was incredible, to say the least. By then, it was time for lunch, and being in North Carolina, that meant finding a place to get BBQ. For anyone who has spent time in the south, you know that this can be a contentious issue. Vinegar-based, tomato-based, or mustard-based? All I have to say is mustard is objectively disgusting and vinegar is used for cleaning. But whether or not you accept that Western-NC BBQ is the real BBQ, you’ll accept that Dennis and I needed to walk a bit more to burn off some calories. It only seemed fitting to us, having seen Duke, that we should also see UNC to compare. Dennis was no convinced, but I liked UNC better. Sure, the gothic buildings are nice, but the diversity of styles and overall higher energy of UNC was much more appealing. There was more to see, more to do, and I didn’t feel like I was stuck in the 19th century.
And having spent over an hour walking around a very hilly campus, we felt that we needed to eat some more food. Again seeking something particular to the area, we found ourselves at a dairy farm twenty minutes into the country eating fresh, antibiotic and hormone free ice cream, sitting in a rocking chair overlooking miles of farmland. When in Rome, right? By this time we had eaten our weight in unhealthy (but delicious) food and walked a marathon, and it was time for us to head back to the house for a bit of rest. (I would like to remind you that it is our spring break, so keep your judgments to yourself!) But not for long! For soon it was dinner time and it was off to meet a high school friend of mine in downtown Durham at a hole-in-the wall burger place. Burger, onion loaf, french fries, and a beer, and we were now on heart attack watch, but man did it taste good! Good friends and good food are two things that keep friars going!
And “going” we did. After dinner, it was back to the Church for an event we were putting on: “What’s it like to be a friar in the 21st century?” Hosted by Dennis and I, we attracted twenty men and women from the parish (not bad on just one day’s notice!) to join us in prayer and story-telling for an hour and a half. While there were only two men potentially interested in a vocation, the whole group was excited to hear about our lives and could not ask us questions quickly enough. At an hour and a half, thirty minutes after we were scheduled to finish, we finally had to cut off the questions. With a little bit more notice and a larger room, we could have found ourselves speaking for three hours, they were so interested! But after everyone had left for home, our night wasn’t quite finished. No, in keeping with the running theme, Dennis and I headed out once more to meet a friend from college, this time for a local beer and a night of laughs. The following morning, we woke for prayers with the friars, went to the school mass at Immaculata, and headed on our way back to D.C.
All in all, the weekend had everything one could ask for: God, the people of God, good food, friends, time to rest, and an opportunity to share this wonderful life with others. There were no palm trees or sandy beaches to be had on this spring break, but I have to say, there was a lot more of what truly satisfies on this trip than in years past, and I wouldn’t trade it for a second.