May 16, 2014

Reflection / Briana Stewart

Remember, in life, ‘nothing is as it seems’

Briana Stewart“Nothing is as it seems.”

Confusion was the only reaction I had when Father Dustin Boehm, chaplain for Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis, spoke those words during a talk on my recent senior retreat.

I thought to myself, he must be wrong, maybe forgetting to add a disclaimer at the end of the comment, like “most of the time” or “frequently,” but no.

Instead, he continued to look at each of us intently and repeat his phrase until it echoed in my mind even when the week had passed.

At first, I didn’t understand what Father Dustin was saying, but when I went on spring break in late March with a school group to Tennessee, I no longer heard a paradox but a statement of truth.

This year, I decided to go on what is called Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a trip where a small group of students travel somewhere inside the country to do service for others.

A few months ago, our trip leader, Mr. (Joel) Hubert, briefed the 14 of us about what we should expect to see in Tennessee. Although he didn’t give us much information then, the only word that clung to my memory was “Appalachia.”

I immediately logged on to Google and typed in that sole word to see what I was going up against. Not to my surprise, I was greeted with pictures of poverty that I have grown to associate with the Appalachian region. My excitement for the trip grew even stronger.

“I’m really going to be in the mountains, feeding and clothing these people. I can make a difference this week. I will have a life-changing experience.”

Those thoughts filled my mind until March 29, the first day of our break arrived. After a six-hour haul to Noris, we all settled in, anticipating the day ahead.

A change of attitude

Disappointment. That was all I felt as the sun set on our first day of service on this supposedly “life-changing” experience.

I could feel the emotion creeping inside of me when we were driving to our destination earlier that morning.

“This area is much too nice and populated.” “It’s almost cleaner than Indy here.” “This retirement home even has gardeners!” Those thoughts came to me throughout the day. Disappointment.

Why do these people at Samaritan Place—who can afford top security in their building, three square meals a day, and separate bedrooms for everyone—need high school students from another state to rip wallpaper off their perfectly fine walls? Where is the poverty?

The start of the next day wasn’t much different, and my friends felt the same way.

I remember thinking that this would be a complete waste of time, that tearing paper and sanding walls were things I could have done in my town, my house. I didn’t need to travel this far to experience the joys of building maintenance. After a few deep breaths and an attitude change, things started to slowly go uphill at Samaritan Place—especially during shift two on the third day.

We had all begun the second phase of wall repair which was sanding, undisputedly the worst way anyone could spend their free time. Everyone was covered in white dust, choking on the air, and silently wondering, “When will our break come?”

Finally, Mr. Hubert called us into the main room to discuss plans for the rest of the day when one of my friends and music aficionado, Anthony Ryback, spotted the old, wooden piano and sat down on the worn bench. Soon, everyone was gathered around him requesting songs, singing songs, or making up words to songs.

It attracted some of the residents who had been milling around and talking to us throughout our time in the sandy halls. They too joined in our impromptu concert, singing as we sang, laughing as we laughed. It was the first time on the trip that I was genuinely surprised. Father Dustin’s words floated back into my mind, “Nothing is as it seems.”

I had been going through the day only looking forward to the night, but as I stood around the piano, laughing with my old and new friends, I felt joy in being at Samaritan Place. I realized, finally, that this trip is what you make of it, your life is what you make of it, and if you decide to live for happiness, your days will be bliss even when they are ordinary.

More ‘aha’ moments

Mr. Hubert told us on Thursday afternoon that there would be adoration at St. Joseph’s, the quaint church next to our temporary home. It had been another long day of work at Samaritan Place and, honestly, I just wanted to stay in. But I knew I wouldn’t, so I headed down the wooden stairs to the little church.

Our group was somehow filled with musicians like young ukulele prodigy Anya Andrews. She volunteered to play some tunes as those who were present, even some people from the Noris community, revered the Eucharist. It took longer than I would like to admit to finally focus on God, but when I did, it was another “aha” moment where nothing was as it seemed.

I was suddenly caught up in the beauty of the simple church, the sweet ukulele sounds. The sun streamed through a large window, passing through a clear cross and reflecting off the gold monstrance, casting a warm glow throughout the gray church.

I glanced around, hoping to find someone in as much tranquil awe as I was, and found a woman sitting on the other side of the church. The soft smile on her lips and the mistiness in her eyes told me she was experiencing the same emotions.

As I returned my gaze to the shining altar, feeling so much peace and happiness, I smiled. The music continued to float through the air, making me feel completely calm, completely relaxed.

‘The love in the room was astonishing’

It was our final day at Samaritan Place. I couldn’t believe it, but I was sad to leave all those people. Some of the residents really stood out to us, like sweet Barbara, feisty Cletus, and the always joking Jimmy. Mr. Hubert told us that we would be stopping early for a surprise—I was ecstatic because we had to sand walls again and you know how I feel about that.

We gathered around the piano again, until we were ushered into the dining room. All the residents sat there, waiting for us with cake and lemonade and open chairs. The director of the home stood up and gave a small speech about the work we did, and how much all the residents and staff appreciated it.

Again, I was hit with the realization that what Father Dustin said to us 36 seniors the week before held true. I came into Samaritan Place with a crummy attitude, thinking that changing the walls doesn’t do anything to help anyone. I was wrong. It did help these people. It made them happy.

After enjoying the refreshments, it was time for pictures and goodbyes. The love in the room was astonishing, something I won’t soon forget. When we left on our two small buses, Barbara and Jimmy stood outside bidding us farewell, and Barbara cried even more.

We drove away feeling like we left a family behind, promising ourselves and each other that we will write to them and come back during the summer. As we turned the corner out of the parking lot, many of us had tears in our eyes, too.

Finding paradise in unexpected ways

I scrolled through my Instagram, looking at all the pictures of people in Florida, Mexico and other tropical places. All I saw were beaches and bikinis, sand and tans.

Normally, I would have been envious of all those people who were basking in paradise. But I didn’t feel jealous of my classmates. I went to Tennessee with 14 other students and four teachers to help people. I rode in a school bus to a church instead of a plane to a resort. I spent most of my days with people over the age of 70, not 17.

My experience was not normal, but it was extraordinary.

I found my beach sanding the white walls of a three-hallway rest home.

I found my sun sitting in adoration watching the light burst through the windows and hearing the Hawaiian vibes come from the strings of Anya’s ukulele.

I found my paradise surrounded by friends as I helped people who needed me.

Nothing was as it seemed, but everything was as it should have been.

(Briana Stewart, an intern for The Criterion, is a senior at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis.)

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