“South Carolina” is the answer to the question I’m often asked: How did I guy from Massachusetts end up a Jesuit in the New Orleans Province? The summer after I graduated college I worked at a summer camp in Western Massachusetts, where I worked with several young women from South Carolina. I think they were the first people from there I’d ever met. There was something about them, and how they spoke about the place that fascinated me. So, later that year, when I was applying to graduate schools, the rather strange possibility of applying to the University of South Carolina seemed a little less strange.
I know it might seem funny, but my decision to apply to USC was influenced by what might otherwise have been an overlooked “personal touch.” I was applying to grad schools from out of the country, and didn’t have a fixed address. The newest information catalogue was not available, but instead of sending me a form letter, or not responding at all, someone had taken the time to write me a personal note asking me to let them know what address to send the information to me, when it became available. Still, as the acceptance—and rejection—letters came in, my best offer was from Catholic University in Washington, and it seemed I was going there. But, I thought, I had nothing to lose in writing the other places I had been accepted, and seeing if they had something more to offer. I got only one bite. USC offered me a teaching assistantship, which was exactly what I was looking for.
So, South Carolina became the first place that I lived on my own, far away from home. My first friends were the other students in the program, many of whom I liked very much. But I also felt the pull of my spiritual roots, and started getting involved at the Saint Thomas More Catholic Student Center. There I met several friends who, though now we’re scattered all over the country, I still keep in touch with. I also felt another pull back to youth ministry, which led me to a local parish, and a deep, abiding friendship with a group of people who continue to be some of my closest friends. And, because they were “locals,” many of them having grown up in South Carolina, and because they continue to live there, which (sadly) I don’t, South Carolina is a special kind of home, which I try to get back to with some regularity. I write about my experience in South Carolina in my book, Already There:
“I enjoyed my activities at the university’s Catholic center, but I also felt God stirring that desire to give retreats to or teach high school students,as I had done in the past. I arranged a meeting with the youth ministry director in the parish. Remarkably, she already had six people who had volunteered to help that year. I was excited by the prospect of working with such a large team. She, on the other hand, as she admitted to me only some months later after we’d become close friends, had been prepared to suggest I try another parish, since they already had more help than they needed. But we hit it off almost immediately, and when I told her about my desire and my past experience, she couldn’t say no. A few years later, she was one of the first people I told of my decision to apply to become a Jesuit, and the first I asked to write a recommendation for me.
The result was a dream team of sorts. We eight became fast friends and quickly discovered how well our skills complemented one another’s in our work with the parish’s youth. The youth program not only grew and improved, but so did we, because of our care for the young people of the parish and each other. The total impact on my life seems disproportionate to the amount of time it lasted—only about two years. It was an experience of friendship and community I continue to cherish, I’ve carried the picture of the eight of us in all my moves since then, even though that experience could not be sustained. One man was in the army and was transferred, one woman got married and moved to another state, one could no longer find the time, and two of us felt called to answer the need for a youth ministry director at another parish.
Such times, such friends, are great gifts, even if, inevitably they can’t be beside us forever, let alone a few years. By drawing out the best from us, they directly contribute to our becoming what God desires us to be. These were, and continue to be, some of the best and most important friends I’ve had in my lifetime. When I was ordained a priest in New Orleans, after celebrating Mass with friends and family, my next stop was South Carolina. I needed to be with my friends there because, though I had gotten my training from the Jesuits, these were the people who had inspired and nurtured my gifts and my desires in such a way that being a Jesuit and a priest became a real option for me. There’s little coincidence in my mind in the fact that four of them were with me that day, listening to the same priest talk, when God placed the question in my mind, “Why aren’t you doing that?” In our work together, and in our care and love for each other, they had already, in a sense, asked me the same question.”