When Motivated by Love…

Matt O’Donnell, Chicago, IL
Community of Sant’Egidio | February 7, 2017

… anything is possible, except maybe finding a more original ending to this quote. I have been sitting here for a few minutes now, trying to think about a funny, quirky, memorable way to finish the title of this post. I decided to run with the cliche because I wanted to be sure I wrote something today – the 49th anniversary of the Community of Sant’Edigio.

I have known the Community for only a year, but I can feel the momentum and love of the previous 48 years behind me. One of the actions of the Community that resonates the most with me at this time is the Humanitarian Corridors project.

It is a shining light in this time of negativity and fear towards refugees and immigrants. This program has three main goals:

  1. Reduce refugee and immigrant fatalities due to dangerous passage across the Mediterranean.
  2. Reduce human trafficking caused by the exploitation of those desperately seeking to flee their war-torn homelands.
  3. To grant vulnerable people legal entry on Italian territory with an opportunity to apply for asylum.

If you are looking for a way to help immigrants and refugees, I urge you to consider donating to the Humanitarian Corridors project. All it takes is a small gesture. A donation, sharing this post, or even using the hashtag #humanitariancorridors. While there is currently uncertainty in the United States about immigrants, it is important we help countries whose borders are open to safely accept refugees. Italy is one of these countries.

We often forget that small actions are extremely important. One small act can lead to another small act. And many small acts lead to one great result. We also forget how important the motive behind these small acts can be. One man acting out of hate can compound over time to create mass movements of fear and exclusion. One man acting out of love can compound over time to create mass movements of love and peace. Today I think of one man who 49 years ago decided to act out of love. He began with himself, his love for his fellow man, and no more than a few friends. Today, Andrea Riccardi continues to act out of love each day, and I am thankful that he does. The Community and Andrea are have shown us all what is possible when motivated by love.

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Pope Francis’s Christmas Homily.

Matt O’Donnell, Chicago, IL
Community of Sant’Egidio | January 31, 2017

It has been a little over a month since Christmas. As a Chicagoan, it means that my mind is now firmly set on June 1st, the date I can feel confident there will be no more snow (for at least a few months). As an employee in corporate America, it means that as President’s Day draws near, so too does the drought of three-day weekends (Memorial Day you can’t come fast enough). And as a Catholic, this time usually means that the “warm and fuzzies” of the Christmas spirit have faded away and I likely will not yet think about Easter until I see my first fellow Catholic donning their ashes on Ash Wednesday.

This year, though, I made a note. I wanted to make an effort to not let Christmas slip away so easily. I hope to do this by holding onto a message from Pope Francis’s Christmas Eve homily. I set this as a goal for myself because the messages we hear every major Christian holiday are not meant to be left in their respective holiday seasons. They are meant to be lived out during the year. They are not meant just for Catholics. They are meant for all of us.

Below is the YouTube video, with English translation, of Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It starts playing at the beginning of Pope Francis’s homily. My hope is that those reading this blog post take the time to listen to and read his homily. I hope you are able to find something in it that resonates with you: a message, a theme, a new way of thinking. I hope you find something that you will carry with you beyond the holiday season and into the year ahead.

For me, this was when Pope Francis said this about the birth of Christ:

“He appears not in the splendor of a royal palace, but in the poverty of a stable; not in pomp and show, but in the simplicity of life; not in power, but in astonishing smallness. In order to meet him, we need to go where he is. We need to bow down, to humble ourselves, to make ourselves small.”

As I get older, I notice that my faith, and how I interpret it, is constantly evolving. In high school, I may have interpreted the words above to mean that I must humble myself before God, that God manifested himself in the human form, so that he may guide us. Although I can still see merit in that view, my current views are a bit different. I now read these words and think that God does not appear in the splendor of being a deity that is separate and apart from us. Rather, he appears in the simplicity of life, which is within all of us. He can be found in the astonishing smallness of the person who sits next to you at work. He can appear as a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, or an atheist. God can be American, Italian, Iranian, or Japanese. As corny as I may sound, I think this is an apt message for where we find ourselves today. We need to be reminded to humble ourselves in front of each other so that we may see the good in each other. So that we may see God in each other. It is not easy to do this. It takes courage. When we act in fear, we puff out our chests and isolate ourselves. It is a natural instinctual reaction that we have to protect ourselves. This leads to division and disarray. If we humble ourselves, and quiet ourselves, if we go to one another, and meet one another, maybe it just might feel a little more like Christmas year round.

(English Transcript)

Sunday mass and tuna salad.

Hot cider and crisp air; my soul is soothed and chilled.

What a glorious paradox.

I bop along crowded Central Square sidewalks,

on this first Sunday of Fall.

Squeezing my paper cup between my fingers, I

anticipate the joy of rejoining my friends,

the reverberation of hallelujahs, the choir of

‘Amazing Grace’ at Cambridge Rehab.

I realize on this walk, with my mind I talk,

and bounce my thoughts off the ruffling of leaves,

squirrels scampering away from bicycles, and

pitter-patter of pages flipping on benches:

that beyond the glory of my hot cider,

greater than the ruffling of gentle wind

soaring through my grey parka, is the glory

of my friendships with the elderly.

See- as Autumn marks the departure of

budding leaves from their branches,

mustard seeds of compassion are planted

in a Sunday mass at the nursing home.

Within the casings of the mustard seed,

miniscule and timid in its being,

love is abundant and profound.

What a glorious paradox.

I put down that delicious cider,

tug on the hand of my old pal, Al,

and listen like an eager child

to the highlights of his week,

chocolate sprinkles on vanilla ice cream,

a decent entertainer in the day room

and a warm tuna salad with some extra mayo

(Al’s favorite lunch).

“I’ll see you next week”.

Walking along those same Central Square sidewalks,

my bop is less of a bop, but more of a stroll .

I notice a family reading on the damp grass,

and a circle of intellects, on cell-phones and laptops

giving into the temptation of capitalism, of

apathy and failing to connect.

I slowly sip the last of my cider, inching

the paper cup to my chapped lips.

I smirk- my hands carry the scent of piping cider,

and tuna salad

(Al’s favorite lunch).

Ash Uss, Boston MA
     Community of Sant’Egidio | October 4, 2016

Thirst for Peace: the public role of young people for peace, dialogue and development

20160924_malawi_carcere_santegidio_1It took place in Malawi, in Blantyre, at the College of Medicine,  the First National Day of the Communities of Sant’Egidio present in the various universities of the country. The Community of Sant’Egidio has been present for many years in the academic world of the small sub-Saharan country. Young people commit every month in the visit to the elderly who live around their campus and organize fundraising iniciatives to help prisoners in prisons. In the big Prison of Makande, near Tchoda, it was recently held a luncheon organized by the Community of the Sciences and Communications for 336 prisoners (see photo).

500 hundreds young people  participated in the Day  from different colleges to reflect, in the light of the “spirit of Assisi“, on the role of young college students in the construction of a culture of living together and the attention to the poorest. Jane Gondwe, coordinator of the DREAM Centre in Blantyre, Illustrated the path of the DREAM program in Malawi remembering “the dream of raising a generation free from AIDS burden” and the great “opportunities for all, in a globalized world, to do something for the  Resurrection of Africa “.

It fell to Keegan Mwanguku, coordinator of the Community of Sant’Egidio of Blantyre, to introduce the 30 years of the “Spirit of Assisi”, retracing the salient features of a journey that led to the historical  signing of the peace agreement  in Mozambique and to  the presence of Pope Francis in Assisi for the 30th Anniversary of the Prayer for Peace.

 

Father Ernest Kafunsa, Parish  priest in Blantyre, invited the young people not to be carried away by the “myth of success at all costs” and to look around to find out the cry for help that comes from many elderly,  children and prisoners in the country “, which is small, we think we know it and instead it escapes  us because we do not know to stop. ” The meeting was concluded by Professor Denis Mwaungulu, judge of the Supreme Court of Malawi, who focused on the need for Malawi and for the whole of Africa, to grow a civil society that show and realize the values of honesty and of selfless dedication to the public good. The magistrate recalled the biblical figure of Joseph who, “though not the Egyptian found in Egypt a public role, he became a good leader because he was a spiritual and deep person.” The conference concluded with an invitation to all to organize  moments of prayer for peace open to all student in their own colleges.

Give one’s life for the little ones and for peace: the Memory of William Quijiano

william_e_vincenzoToday is the 7th anniversary of the death of William Quijano, a young man of the Community of Sant’Egidio in El Salvador who was killed at the age of 21 in 2009 because of his work in the School of Peace with children in a difficult periphery of San Salvador.

The entire Community of Sant’Egidio unites itself, together with our brothers and sisters in El Salvador who today celebrate a prayer in his memory.

His story is one of someone who surrounded by violence does not lose hope, who in the face of fear conquers it, and overcomes violence with peace.

William, whose friends called him Samy, was born into a very poor family that, after the death of his father, moved to ad Apopa, about 15 miles out of the capital; one of the most violent neighborhoods in Central America. He was a normal kid who loved to play soccer and went well in school; he enrolls in law school, but later has to stop studying in order to work and support his family.

Ad Apopa was marked by daily violence – William wrote in one of his journals that his neighborhood, “had become extremely violent, one death after another; without a social conscience to support people.” In fact, the turn of the century in Latin America was a time of discovery; a time when narcotics were introduced and the youth’s angst expressed itself in the form of violence.

And so were born the maras, a gang that attracts a generation of uprooted, poorly education youth who have no clear prospects for the future. They assert themselves by submission and terror, but give respect to those who follow them and an identity to those who seek it.

The response of other Central-American countries to the phenomena of a growing gang culture was predominantly repressive. Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura were two anti-gang movements that, beyond their strong statements against the maras and several arrests, did very little to end violence. Perhaps what was lacking was not a hard had, but a helping hand – a hand to guide young people before it was too late.

The Community of Sant’Egidio in these year was primarily concerned with teenagers and children at risk. Quickly realizing that the issue at hand was that of lacking something to belong to and a father/ leader figure, the Community quickly opened the School of Peace.

The School of Peace was a free after-school program  that supported children and teenagers in their scholastic success while proposing a new future; a healthy and peaceful future. It was a school, but more importantly a school of peace, of coexistence, of respect for the other and for one’s self. For many the symbol of the dove – on a shirt or on a hat – replaced the tattoo that marked affiliation with the mara. 

William met the Community in 2005, at the age of 16. The Community, which had started in San Salvador was at the time taking root in Apopa. William transmitted his sympathy and joy to everyone he encountered. His joy and communication was very important for the Community of Salvaor. After her visit to Rome in 2006, William returns to Apopa full of energy, enthusiasm, and matureness. This year marked a great change for William; a deeper development of his dream for the young of Apopa.

William began to speak to everyone about his dream. His dream that Apopa change, that it become like Bambular – where the presence of the School of Peace over many years managed to silence the maras. To William this was the miracle of Sant’Egidio – a miracle that must be replicated elsewhere. This was the “social conscious” that William wrote about – a conscious that he hoped would grow in every child and help them avoid the violence that surrounded them.

William’s work became civil work when the government offers him to be part of the equipo de promodores sportivos – Team of Sport Promoters. A team who in the eyes of the government, was supposed to offer minors a way out of the maras – giving them another path to take.

The children that William touched had hearts saved from the maras and more free and open minds. This obviously became an issue for those who instead wanted to assert mara control over the young of Apopa. Maybe someone put William in the spotlight: it was necessary to teach a lesson to those who had dared to act as a competitor to the dark and violent power. Or maybe the mechanism of evil acts without a purpose; out of boredom, as a bet, or envy.

Regardless on the night of September 28th 2009, William was fatally shot. He died that night shortly after arriving at the hospital.

William’s death is surrounded by mystery. In fact, it was never discovered who shot him on that night, simply that they were two individuals from the areas.

What we do know is that the dream of William, a young son of Sant’Egidio in El Salvador, continues living. His life, even though tragically cut short, pushes us to believe that it is possible to build a different Latin America; an america free of the nightmare of the maras. In the existential periphery – as Pope Francis would love to say – of Apopa, William was a testimony of a different world, a work founded on human and peaceful values.

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Living out Joy Day by Day

Living out Joy Day by Day

Luisa Banchoff, Princeton, NJ
     Community of Sant’Egidio | September 3, 2016

What do we mean when we say that something “makes” our day? I often find that it only takes a friendly smile from a fellow student on my way to class, a shared laugh with another person, or a trusted friend whose patience and attentiveness is the perfect remedy to a difficult problem I’ve been faced with on a given day. In instances like these, the presence of another person – however brief and superficial the interaction with them may seem – lifts me out of my routine, which is all too often framed by a stress-infused list of uncompleted tasks. When I open myself up to the moment and allow myself to mirror the other person’s smile or laugh, my other tasks cede ground to the immediacy of the present. The connection offers me a small happiness, and in doing so it helps me realize how my happiness is tied up with other people. Our lives are far more interdependent than we might initially realize.

As I return to my college campus this fall and gear up for senior year, I look forward to instances like these – indeed, from past experience I know that these small moments of happiness can be a deciding factor in how my day shapes up. But what if there was another way of having my day be made, one that depended less on discrete happy moments and more on a steady foundation of joy?

This is the joy I experienced in the Community of Sant’Egidio earlier this year, when I studied abroad in Berlin, Germany. My experience in the Community there began with several discrete memories – my first time at prayer, my first visit to the School of Peace, my first dinner with friends from the Community. Looking back on my journal, these days are early to spot – my entries always begin with exultations of glee accompanied by a copious amount of exclamation points. Over time, however, it became clear that my experience could not be easily reduced to happy moments or happy days – and not just because there were so many of them. Rather, those months in Berlin were infused with an intense joy, even on those days that lacked specific moments of happiness. The joy was not just an emotion. Gradually, it became a way of seeing the world around me. Every interaction became the opportunity to practice joy by opening myself up to others, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and reaching out to people I would not otherwise speak to. In short, the embrace of the Community’s friendship empowered me to navigate each day with a warmth, openness, and ambition to be kind that I had never before known I was capable of.

It all began on a single day: April 12. I hurried into Heilige Familie, the church in Prenzlauer Berg where the Community has their prayer every Tuesday evening. As I headed towards a pew, I was immediately comforted by the familiar icon resting on the alter. I had first heard about Sant’Egidio two years earlier, and last summer I’d spent two months in Rome with the Community. So even in this new city, I felt like I was returning to a familiar and cherished place. After prayer I was greeted with about a dozen warm handshakes and hugs, and I began the long process of learning the names of the Community here – names that would come to mean so much to me. They are Tobi, Musia, Ludwig, Maria, Majd, Alexander, Xenia … and so many more.

April 12 ended with a family dinner with five new friends at a local Italian restaurant. It was the first of a series of wonderful days, followed by Friday, April 15, when Musia invited me to the School of Peace in a refugee home at the edge of the city. Soon the individual days gave way to weeks and months of joyful, hilarious, and fulfilling memories. One day stands out in particular: May 28.

May 28 began with a groggy cup of tea and an ambitious plan. Musia and I sat at the small table in the kitchen of her apartment, breakfasting on the last slice of bread in the loaf. We had already called Majd to go over the day’s excursion: we were to meet outside the refugee home around nine, then pick up “our children,” six girls from the School of Peace. From there we would first take the bus, then the S-Bahn (Berlin’s citywide railway), and then the tram before arriving at our destination. After downing the last of our tea and gathering ourselves, Musia and I headed out, somehow already quite tired. Little did we know how happily exhausted the day would leave us.

Our trip to the refugee home culminated in a bus ride through Falkenberg, a quiet and unassuming corner of the city far from the metropolitan center. Just around the corner from the bus stop, the refugee home came into sight: a building composed of shipping containers stacked three stories high. As we made our way past the entrance, we were greeted by a wave of children’s voices whose energy defied the fact that it was a Saturday morning. One after the other they launched themselves at us – Somaiye, Mahdiya, Sara, Yasemin, Mohadissa. And Nazanin, the oldest of the bunch, whose calming effect on the other girls made it hard to believe that she was just twelve. Since Nazanin had been unable to go to the School of Peace’s summer camp two weeks earlier, Musia had promised her a weekend excursion with her sister Yasemin and several other kids. Our day was to be the fulfillment of that promise – and so much more. After checking in with the girls’ parents and confirming we’d be back around four, our troupe headed out to the bus stop, each of us hand-in-hand with two girls.

I could write an entire blog post lauding Berlin’s public transportation system – it is truly wonderful – but that’s probably because I had so many fun experiences playing games with the kids from the School of Peace while riding the tram or S-Bahn! Today was no exception. With patty-cake, charades, and pictionary (using air instead of a notepad), we quickly passed the hour-long trip – and managed to get some fellow riders to crack a grin at our cheerful antics. By the time the tram rolled up to our stop, I too was laughing quite a bit, filled with an energy that came more from the kids than from the tea.

We had arrived at the Freizeit- und Erholungszentrum, better known as the FEZ (pronounced faytz), a massive recreational center and park situated in a large stretch of woods in the east of Berlin. It boasted a fully functional mini-railroad that ran a loop around the park, an indoor swimming pool, an artificial lake with inflatable boats and a floating stage, and playgrounds all around – one of which we bolted for as soon as we passed through the gates. While Musia went to get our tickets, Majd and I cheered on the girls as they took turns on the large metal slide. We did a lot of cheering that day – we cheered each other on when we found ourselves in a precarious wooden boat contraption, pulling on a rope to get ourselves across the artificial lake. We cheered when we figured out how to navigate the small inflatable boats on the same lake (something I was no good at; were it not for Nazanin and Mahdiya rowing alongside me I would have surely been stranded!). And we cheered when the girls got a personal picture with Theo, the FEZ mascot, a funny blue blob that appeared to be a dinosaur/blueberry hybrid. (Turns out he’s an inkblot!)

Theo’s timing was perfect – we had wanted a picture with him all along, but the day was already winding down and soon we’d have to be back on our way home. Yet we were not leaving just yet – Theo would make sure of that. Hand-in-hand with Yasemin and Sahra, he led us to the steps in front of the floating stage and motioned for us to sit down. Musia, Majd, and I looked at one another hesitantly – didn’t we say we’d be back by four? Hadn’t we promised the kids ice cream before then? Yet before we could rally the troops, Yasemin had jumped up and eagerly grabbed Theo’s hands. Music was playing and she was determined to dance. She shrugged off her pink backpack and joined hands with Theo for “Come On Eileen,” spinning around and laughing with the biggest smile I’d ever seen on a kid’s face.

Watching Yasemin dance, the joy of the day crested within me. What could be more beautiful than this girl’s carefree smile and gleeful laughter? What could better make my day? Right then and there, I felt as if I had been offered a rare and striking glimpse of clarity: there was no more fitting place in the world for me at that moment but on this step, in this park, with these friends, on this day, May 28. My joy was not merely a result of Yasemin’s smile, nor was it reducible to a single event from the day. It was much more due to the fact that I had gotten to know Yasemin over the past weeks: I had gotten to know what it meant for Yasemin to smile the way she was just then. I had begun to grasp how the foundation of a joyful life is built on constantly being in relationship with others, growing with them through challenges and triumphs alike.

And, as Yasemin herself recognized, joy is magnified when it is shared. Before I could muse for too long, she grabbed my hand. Soon Mahdiya, Mohadissa and I were dancing with her, Theo, and another girl who had been watching eagerly us from close by.

As with many of my memories from my time with the Community in Berlin, the intensity of the joy I felt at that moment refuses to be easily forgotten. Musia, Majd, and I would recall Yasemin dancing to the tune of “Come On Eileen” many times over in the following months. (And I won’t soon forget the taste of the chocolate ice cream that Musia and Majd had snuck off to fetch while we’d been dancing!) Of course, many details of May 28 have faded in the time since then. Yet the consistent, outward-moving joy that Sant’Egidio fostered in me through my friendships with Nazanin, Sahra, Majd, and Musia – to name a few – was a constant source of comfort and empowerment for me even on difficult or unhappy days. With deep gratitude and joyful energy as my default, I felt that even the simplest of actions on the most ordinary of days could reflect the life-giving call of the gospel.

Saying goodbye to Nazanin and Mohadissa, Yasemin and Somaiye, Mahdiya and Sahra, and dozens of other friends was one of the unhappiest tasks I’ve had to face in my life. Yet I hope to return to Berlin again soon. Until then, I am searching for ways to incorporate Sant’Egidio into my life, such as starting a group on my campus. And though they are an ocean away, I know that my friends in Berlin are not so far from me. I call upon them every day when I make an effort to recognize the countless sources of joy in my life – those from Berlin, my school, my home, and everywhere where I have friends who have changed my heart. I know they will continue to make my day for many days to come.

And I know I will never again listen to “Come On Eileen” without reliving the joy of May 28.

 

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Unscripted: How I Met the Community.

Unscripted: How I Met the Community.

Matt O’Donnell, Chicago
Community of Sant’Egidio | August 26th, 2016

It’s late August. A time occasionally referred to in the film industry as a “dump” month (elegant phrase, isn’t it?). A month where studios release, in a large quantity, films that they were contractually obligated to produce. Typically, these films are of a much lesser quality than the blockbusters from earlier in the summer. It can be a real downer because it means that the malaise of summer winding down is starting to set in, and we are still about two long weeks from conference play in college football. So, at a time when entertainment is sparse, the days start to shorten ever so slightly, and families prepare for yet another year of school, I thought I would try to provide some relief by sharing the story of my trip to Rome earlier this year.

I’ve told this story to several friends. Many responded by saying how “cool” or “awesome” it was that I had successfully flipped an emotionally and financially bankrupt situation into something positive. But of these reactions, one really stuck with me. It was, “wow – that’s like something out of a movie, man.” And when I thought about it, the way that I came to meet the Community of Sant’Egidio did seem to have some of that Hollywood magic. Not because it was glamorous or extravagant, or because of anything that I did, but because – well I don’t want to give it away in the opening credits. You’ll have to keep reading:

The story starts like many of our favorite romantic comedies – with love lost. I had been seeing someone for the better part of five years. We got along well and really enjoyed being around each other. When she found out last October that she would be spending the first half of this year in Rome, I immediately purchased my ticket and began planning a three-week trip to see her in February. However, two months later, around Christmas, we had decided to go our separate ways. It was really difficult but before I could reflect on what happened, I knew the first step was addressing the expensive elephant in the room: my round-trip ticket to Rome.

What would I do for three whole weeks in a country where the best I could do to communicate was speak some Spanish? I couldn’t do it. I would be by myself, miserable, for three weeks. I told myself that I had to cancel the trip. Canceling the hotels was easy, but the airline was a much more formidable opponent. So I concocted a story that stretched the truth a bit and called this airline during one of my lunch breaks. Now, for all the fine people who labored as my educators throughout the years, you know firsthand I was very creative when it came to where my homework assignments had occasionally and mysteriously vanished. But I stood no match for Debra from United whose argument was, “I’m sorry sir but you bought a non-refundable ticket when you had the option to buy a refundable one.” Damn Debra, you’re good – now, I have to go.

At this point, I pivoted my thinking. I had to. I was going to make the best of this trip and use the next seven weeks to figure out how. So I got to thinking. What would I do once I got there? What is something I always enjoy? Well, that one was easy – helping others. From Polar Plunge to coaching high school Mock Trial (shout out to Cristo Rey Chicago, we’re winning it all this year), I always enjoy helping others. I thought about a story I read in The Slight Edge, a book my good buddy Ben recommended. The essence of the story is a six-degrees of separation type thing. If I remember correctly, the man in the story wants to start a business in Germany, so he constantly asks about Germans. Eventually, he met someone who knew someone else that knew Germans. So what did I do? That’s right, ask about Italians. Who knows any? Who? Where? How? What do they do? And sure enough, someone knew some Italians. Not only did they know Italians, but they also put me in touch.

I started the next chain of connections. I e-mailed Father Bob Maloney, a friend of my friend. He connected me with his contact, Gianni. Gianni e-mailed me back and put me in touch with Paola. We scheduled a time to speak on the phone and we made plans to meet at a Saturday evening mass at Santa Maria in Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome. Finally, Thursday, February 11th arrived and I got on the Blue Line after work to go to the airport. That was it. I was off. Not a clue as to what the next eighteen days would hold. And that’s the part of the story that feels the most cinematic. I was alone, lost, and unprepared. But I was willing to seek out grace and friendship and I was definitely challenging myself to accept them both if they came my way. When I met Paola that night after mass, she welcomed me with open arms and spoke to me as if I was an old friend. The next day she picked me up and we went to celebrate mass in Primavalle with some elderly and intellectually disabled friends (or as they are more aptly in Italian called gli amici, “the friends”).

The rest of my time was day after day of meeting wonderful people and encountering life long friendships. Friendships with Paolo, Gabriella, Natasha, Odair, Fernando, and Zeger. Friendships with Gabriele, Gianni, Monica, Arnalda, Rafaela, Giulio, Mauro, and Elena. People who gracefully pulled me through the obstacle of the language barrier. Like the time I kept calling a baby a nuotano (which literally translates to I swim) instead of a neonato (newborn). People who surrounded me with love and made me forget any sadness I had brought with me. Like when I found out upon arriving that my apartment was four blocks from where the person I bought my ticket for was staying and that to get to the Vatican I had to walk past it (definitely the stuff of a romcom, right?!). And people who taught me that you are limiting yourself if you view helping others as service work. Like when I met with the amici for the last time before my return journey to Chicago and realized that this was not a service trip, but a trip that provided me with dozens of new friendships. Friendships on the other side of the world that had only been waiting for me to take the first step.

And that is what the Community has meant to me since I’ve returned to Chicago. It has taught me that, yes, service is great because it pushes us to share our time and talents with others. But friendship is there too and like the air we breathe it is something we all have within us. To me, Sant’Egidio is not a service group. It is not a “church group” or set of rules on how to live your life. It is an invitation to friendship. An invitation that is addressed to everyone and only asks of the recipient that they share this invitation with others. The actions of the Community show this every day. From working with the Italian government to bring refugee families safely to Italy through the Humanitarian Corridors program, to the march through the Jewish quarter in Rome in remembrance of the deportation of the Jewish people in the thirties, to the D.R.E.A.M. project that fights AIDS and malnutrition in Africa, and to the yearly Christmas lunch celebrated simultaneously each Christmas Day in the communities around the world. Sant’Egidio welcomes everyone as long as you are willing to accept love and friendship and peace and share it with others.

That is why starting a Community in Chicago has become important to me. Most days I am proud to be a Chicagoan, but there are many days I am not. I fear that the violence and tragedy that happens on a weekly basis has become so commonplace that we are numb to it. But I know that with friendship and patience we can change that. We can curb the violence and shine a light on so many positive and wonderful people and things that go on in this city on a daily basis. The fact that the outside world views Chicago as an extremely violent city just provides us with an even greater opportunity to be a profound example of change. As one of my American heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously said during a 1957 sermon, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” To me, friendship is the primary vehicle through which love travels. To me, this is what the Community of Sant’Egidio offers us all. Even if I can’t establish a group that can stand on its own, I think an important start is to change how I act, and do so by inviting all I encounter into a friendship.

So, if you ask me, yeah they could definitely make that into a movie – one in which I would obviously be played by either Leo DiCaprio or maybe even Tom Crusie. But in all seriousness, when I look back on this experience, it shocks me how blessed I was to have had it. The experience was one that I could not have foreseen – it was completely unscripted. And that’s the beauty of it. All I had to do on my end was look. When I opened my eyes and looked, I found friendships. I found love. I found peace. I found hope. It reminds me of one of my (fictional) heroes, who once wisely said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once and awhile, you just might miss it.”