by Rosa Altomare, Campus Minister
It has been one of the most sacred experiences of my life to work with students here at Cabrini. As Campus Minister over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to watch students grow in their relationships with themselves, with one another, and with God. Ultimately, I believe that relationships are the heart of our work in Campus Ministry. We work to assist students in self-discovery and growth by allowing them a safe place to be vulnerable, be brave, and expand their comfort zones. An important goal that we have is to uplift students by highlighting their unique gifts and talents. We aim to help students realize that they are inherently precious to us, to God, and to one another.
Of all the programs that we run through Campus Ministry, the Search Retreat is closest to my heart. The retreat is designed to help students lean into vulnerability. It does this by creating a space free from distractions where the main thing that they are asked to do is live in the present moment. Besides that, students are asked to share their most authentic selves with one another. What does it mean to be your most authentic self? I think it means to remove the masks that we usually wear. This means letting people know that we do not have everything figured out and knowing that it is OK to not be OK. My job allows me to accompany students on their journey into self-awareness. I watch them discover pieces of themselves that they had kept hidden. I watch them love parts of themselves and one another that they had deemed to be unworthy of love. The Search Retreat reminds students how deeply and completely they are loved by God. For some of the students, they may call God by another name or find the divine in people or in the natural world. Regardless, the retreat serves as a reminder that they are worthy of unconditional love, exactly as they are.
One of the most profound ways for the students to experience the Search Retreat is by becoming a student leader. As leaders, students are asked to reflect upon the moments in their lives that have been formative for them. Ultimately, weekly group meetings with the entire team of student leaders prepare them to share the most significant pieces of their stories with the future Search participants. For many students, preparing to lead the Search Retreat is the first time that they have verbalized certain challenges that they have faced throughout their lives. We reflect upon the fact that many of us keep our wounds hidden, because we feel like they will not be accepted by others. We feel like we have to be perfect to be whole, forgetting that we are already whole, though we are imperfect. As Campus Minister, I accompany students on the path to self-discovery and I watch them grow firsthand. They grow in maturity and in their ability to lead and empathize with their peers. They gain patience and understanding by simply listening to one another's stories. They learn that we find our purpose when we connect with others—they use their own stories to show student participants that no matter what they have experienced in life, they are not alone. I believe that leading this retreat allows students to live on purpose as they intentionally reach out to their peers, loving them just as they are. They aim to love in a way that mirrors God's love for us: without judgement and without condition.
In Campus Ministry, we aim to teach students not only about their own inherent value, but also about the value of every human person. We are meant to be living forms of God’s love in the world and to recognize God’s presence in all people. One way to experience this is through community engagement. For example, our PB&J Nights allow students to meet and converse with people who are experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia, while providing sandwiches that the students have prepared themselves. These nights are not only important because we are able to provide food to those who need it, but also because they help students to break down stereotypes surrounding homelessness and people who experience it. Before we go into the city, we ask students to list the words that they think of when they hear the word, "homeless." The words are always negative and make assumptions about how people found themselves without a home. By the end of the evening, students hear personal stories that show them how many ways people can lose their homes, often because of things that they cannot control. PB&J Nights also remind students of the dignity that every person has, regardless of whether or not he/she has a home. They help students put names and faces to an issue that is too quickly dehumanized. PB&J Nights allow students to meet people who are on the margins of society, who are villainized, and whose humanity is too often forgotten.
Through both the Search Retreat and PB&J Nights, students discover what is beautiful in themselves, and they discover the beauty of forming a community that aims to mirror God’s unconditional love.
This article was featured in the spring 2018 issue of Cabrini Magazine.