Sister Margaret Kerry shares her blog space with creative writer Mary Bergida. While Mary and Sr. Margaret were talking about beginning a local Catholic Writer’s Group in Charleston, South Carolina, Mary shared this Advent reflection.
“Let’s talk to that guy, the one leaning against the tree,” Miko motions toward a sprawling oak casting patterned shadows over the grassy plaza. My stomach twists a little. I remind myself there’s nothing to be afraid of. We’ve approached hundred of students over the past year. So far, even if they didn’t want to engage with us, they have been courteous, at the very least. Today is a typical morning for me on the University of Florida’s campus, during my five and a half years as a missionary.
FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) now has missionary teams on over 100 major universities and college campuses nationwide. While all teams share the gospel, at this time, my team of four missionaries at the University of Florida is known to be one of the most bold in its techniques. Missionaries from other campuses warn me: “Going out and talking to random strangers isn’t a good idea. People don’t want you to approach them. Your method doesn’t work.” However, our “method” actually seems to work.
Our approach: go onto campus several mornings a week, introduce ourselves to students at random, and invite them to take an informal survey. These surveys are points of connection to deeper topics about faith, God, the afterlife, and so on. These conversations ultimately area springboard for inviting students to learn more about God and Catholicism. The rest of our missionary week is packed with leading Bible studies and doing student mentorship — interactions that seem natural and safe. Even though I catch the jitters while venturing onto campus to meet more students, the results are consistently affirming and full of good-natured conversations, if not even “mini-miracles.”
Once, on introducing myself to a student, he tells me he had just said a prayer that God would send someone to talk to him. Another time, a girl shares how she had sat down in a random spot right before we approached, because a strange, strong urge told her to. And I’ll always remember the girl who breaks into a shining smile and exclaims she desperately needs someone to tell her about God. And there we were. I sense we are sent to the souls who need us.
That’s how I felt, anyway, up until the day we approach the student basking under the tree. My fellow missionary, Miko, and I walk through the scraggly grass. The student’s curly head leans against the smooth trunk. He puffs from a nub of a cigarette. He is an image of peace. As we approach, he glances up and welcomes us to sit beside him on the grass. Gladly he answers our survey questions, but then unexpectedly begins questioning us himself.
“What if I could give you thirty extra years of life?” he asks.
How unusual, I think.
He continues, “With what I’m working on in biology and science, I’m pretty sure, I will never die. I know how to extend my life forever.”
He tranquilly pulls out a wad of thin paper and tin of tobacco. “I roll my own,” he explains. I wonder why we have been sent to this relaxed, and perhaps high, scientist. One who seems to have no need of a Savior. In his eyes, he himself is a savior.
God, what do you have for us here? I pray silently.
Just then another student comes up, walking alongside his bike. A thick helmet is on his head, almost like a motorcycle helmet. He looms over us. He isn’t tall, but strongly built.
The scientist under the tree motions to us. “Chad, meet these guys. We’re chatting about eternal life.”
“Hey,” says Chad with a polite grin as he removes his helmet and grasps it under his arm. “Want to grab lunch?” he asks his smoking friend.
I figure the scientist and Chad will probably excuse themselves. We are probably finished here.
“I’m going to wait,” the scientist is saying and rests his head against the tree trunk again, puffs his cigarette. “They’re Catholic missionaries.” Again he motions to us.
Chad does not sit, but his shadow straightens.
Miko looks up at Chad, “So what about you, what do you think about the after life?”
Chad ponders a second. Maybe he hasn’t thought about it?
“I’ve thought about it a lot. I actually spent this past summer in Egypt with a mathematician.”
Was he trying to figure out a calculation for the afterlife? I wonder. Were will this conversation go?
Chad’s knees fidget a bit as he continues, “Anyway, the mathematician was working on a formula. It was supposed to prove the existence of God.”
“What did he discover?” prompts Miko.
“Nothing. He found nothing,” Chad’s words are sharp.
“What happened?” continues Miko.
Chad licks his lips, inhales, shouts, “Do we have to talk about this?”
The shout echoes in inside my rib cage. He’s yelling. The guy is yelling, I try to process. Is this what other missionaries were warning us about?
Chad is not finished, “I do not want to talk about this.” He’s raising his arms now and hurling his bicycle helmet. It propels and thuds in the grass, some feet from where I sit. It rolls like a bowling ball and stops, still wobbling side to side from the force.
My breath sticks. My eyes dart toward Chad’s bike. Will that come next? Should we just walk away? Or run? He still stands over us, empty-handed. No one speaks. I hear twittering birds, then Chad’s rough inhales and exhales, along with a pounding in my temples.
I glance at Miko. His eyes are on Chad. I feel so vulnerable, seated in the grass.
“Wow,” says Miko in a even, but feeling tone. “That sounds really heart-wrenching.”
I open my mouth. Nothing comes out.
“I want to believe,” there’s almost a moan in Chad’s voice now, “but I can’t.”
Miko nods to Chad.
The scientist under the tree just looks on, rolls another cigarette, and puffs. He does not offer his eternal life.
Exhaling heavily, Chad shares more about his disappointing venture in Egypt. Finally he says, “Thanks for being cool. Thanks, guys.” He steps forward and stretches his hand out to us. My shaky legs stand and I reach his strong grasp. Why is he thanking us?
Miko and Chad exchange numbers to continue the conversation over dinner later in the week. Chad moves over to his helmet, scoops it up, and walks his bike away toward lunch. I am relieved the encounter has turned out all right, but my blood still pulses quickly as we watch him reach the sidewalk and turn a corner of the campus.
I never saw Chad again, but I thought of our encounter with him often. Perhaps Chad was just as surprised by his outburst as we were. Maybe his contained feeling of helplessness had pressurized inside him, waiting for release. In that moment, perhaps he was able to see the longing in his own heart.
Now, seven years later, as I reflect on that afternoon, another thought comes to me. Perhaps I actually need to learn from Chad. Perhaps during my missionary years, so many of the other students we encountered, those who were so pleasantly polite, were actually tortured by disappointment, anger, or loss as well. Since moving on from missionary life to grad school and a secular academic career, I too have often experienced my own disappointments. While I haven’t traveled to distant countries, like Egypt, hoping to find God in an obscure equation, I haven’t always encountered God in the way I have wanted to. Perhaps now as God seeks me in this season of life, I also respond to Him with chill, impeccable politeness.
As the seasons of Advent and Christmas arrive, what if I choose, you choose, to offer the Infant Christ the gift of our honesty? That honesty may drag surprising results out of hearts. They may even rattle us. But the Infant Christ’s response may surprise us even more. He will say, “There is nothing to be afraid of. You were looking for me and here I am, coming as an infant, lying beneath you in the straw.” And perhaps as we enter into this mutual vulnerability with God, we will be able to grasp and recognize, as if for the first time, our true need for a Savior.
Copyright 2016 Mary Bergida
About the author: Mary Bergida is a creative writer and adjunct professor of English Literature. Her life has been a journey of moving clockwise around the United States. She is on her second lap through the east coast and resides in Charleston, South Carolina. She looks forward to this Christmas Season when her seven siblings will return from many corners of the globe to celebrate together the coming of the Infant Savior in their childhood home.