Orangeburg | Embracing the Future with Hope

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Brothers John Joseph Sterne and Bartholemew Varden

From its origin, a hallmark of the Orangeburg mission of the Xaverian Brothers was hospitality.  That hospitality occurred on many levels.  As the previous reflections have stated, especially those shared by the Brothers who were members of the Orangeburg community, that hospitality was exercised to the neighbors of the Brothers on Amelia Street ─ Catholic as well as those of other faith traditions; to the students from Claflin and South Carolina State universities; to members of Holy Trinity Parish; to the Redemptorist priests who served the missions of the County and surrounding communities; to the faculty of Holy Trinity School; to those who collaborated with the Brothers in their various ministries such as the Cooperative Church Ministries.  Brother Jerry O’Leary shared,

I really felt like we all connected with the people we served in our ministries, and our house was always open to them to share meals, prayers, celebrations. As time went on, more and more people were talking about “the Brothers” and “the Brothers’ house”… all felt welcome at the Brothers’ house.                          

An aspect of that hospitality was also availability.  Brother Rod Sulzer, who was also a member of the community, reflected on that availability to those who were in need and who would call the Brothers’ Residence on the phone or come to the front door looking for assistance.  Sometimes, Brother Rod, recalls, those experiences were humourous:

Answering the phone or the front door was usually a surprising adventure in itself.  When answering the phone, many times the caller would ask to speak with “Mr. Miah”.  Now one of the Brothers with us was “Jeremiah” and many people thought his name was “Jerry Miah” And that took some getting used to!!

Answering the door also was quite an experience sometimes. At first, people usually traveling would be told to go to the Brothers’ house to be able to get gasoline to continue their trip. The brothers had a deal with the gas station to put gas into the car with our OK and no money was exchanged at that point of time.  But would you believe, people would siphon off the gas and sell it!

Despite occasionally being taken advantage of because of their hospitality, the Brothers continued to be available and to live in solidarity with those they served.

The hospitality of the Brothers in Orangeburg also extended to students from Xaverian schools in New England.  Students from St. John’s, Shrewsbury (under the coordination of Brother Jim Connolly, who was then serving as campus minister at St. John’s) and Xavier High School, Middletown would occasionally do service trips to Orangeburg.  On those trips the students would live with the Brothers, participate in prayer and community life, work alongside the Brothers in their various ministries and become part of the presence and witness of the Xaverian Brothers in Orangeburg.

Michael Kelly was one of those students who participated in service trip while a student at Xavier in 1995.  Currently the Executive Director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, an independent agency of the State of Maryland which promotes cooperation among the City of Baltimore and local county governments in the Baltimore metropolitan area to solve common problems facing the region, especially economic development, transportation, infrastructure and the environment.  In reflecting on that service trip experience Mike writes:

The true value of a Xaverian education is not found inside the walls of a classroom, but rather in the opportunity it provides students to see the world through new eyes.  In the spring of 1995, during my junior year at Xavier High School in Middletown, Connecticut, I spent a week at the Brothers’ mission in Orangeburg, South Carolina as part of a service trip for students of XBSS schools.

I went on the trip to “do community service” with a seventeen year-old’s limited, but well intentioned understanding of what that meant.  What I came away with was a more complete understanding of the Brothers, their work, and what I could learn from them.  That week I learned the difference between doing work for a community and doing work withcommunity and I gained a better understanding of the Brothers’ motto, “in harmony small things grow”.  Despite being three white men from New York and New England, Brothers Fred, Paul and Jerry had earned a place in the Orangeburg community, not because of the work they did, but because of the thoughtful, intentional, and steady way in which they did it.

Mike attributes to his Xaverian education ─ not to mention the education he received at Loyola, Baltimore, and, of course the example of his parents ─ his commitment to work for the common good, especially on issues of community development and affordable housing.  In his current work, Mike frequently finds himself running into Brother Jerry O’Leary whom he first met on his service trip to Orangeburg.

The same sense of hospitality was exercised toward other Brothers who were welcomed to visit the community either as they were passing through on their way north or south, or just to escape some of the cold weather of New England and get a break in a warmer climate.  What visitors found was more than just a bed and breakfast where they could pull off the road and get a meal and bed for the night.  They discovered a warm, vibrant, welcoming community fully immersed in living the Xaverian Way.  They discovered a palpable sense of a community in mission.

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Brothers Jerry O’Leary, Paul Cullen, Jim Connolly, and Leonard Wojtanowski.

To embrace the future with hope is the third aim of the Year of Consecrated Life as outlined by Pope Francis.  “This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments,” Pope Francis writes in his Apostolic Letter, “but on the One in whom we have put our trust.”  He continues, “This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future. It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us.”

The St. Joseph Province opened the mission in Orangeburg as a sign of hope and a commitment to the future of the province and the charism of the Congregation.  At the time, there were fewer Brothers teaching in the province sponsored schools, and certainly those schools would have welcomed the addition of more Brothers.  Despite a growing number of senior Brothers and other pressing priorities for the Province when they gathered for the 6th Provincial Chapter in 1982, an aspiration of the assembly was to create a community that reflected the newly drafted Fundamental Principles and served the poor and marginalized.

At this time in the history of the Congregation, how are we as Brothers, Associates, Collaborators being called to incarnate the charism of Theodore James Ryken and the Xaverian Brothers in new or revitalized ways?

In his Apostolic Letter, where Pope Francis implores those in consecrated life “to wake up the world” he also recalls the kind of “alternate spaces” that consecrated Religious have created over the centuries.

He writes,

So I trust that, rather than living in some utopia, you will find ways to create “alternate spaces”, where the Gospel approach of self-giving, fraternity, embracing differences, and love of one another can thrive. Monasteries, communities, centres of spirituality, schools, hospitals, family shelters – all these are places which the charity and creativity born of your charisms have brought into being, and with constant creativity must continue to bring into being. They should increasingly be the leaven for a society inspired by the Gospel, a “city on a hill”, which testifies to the truth and the power of Jesus’ words.

At times, like Elijah and Jonah, you may feel the temptation to flee, to abandon the task of being a prophet because it is too demanding, wearisome or apparently fruitless. But prophets know that they are never alone. As he did with Jeremiah, so God encourages us: “Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jer 1:8).

As we embrace the future with hope, how are our current communities “alternate spaces where the Gospel approach of self-giving, fraternity, embracing differences and love of one another can thrive”?

How do our Sponsored Schools in the US or the social or educational apostolates we undertake in other parts of the world, especially in the developing world, serve as “alternate spaces”?  How can they further this call of Pope Francis and “wake up the world” by the way they incarnate the charism of the Xaverian Brothers?

In the Preamble to the Description of the Xaverian Charism approved at the most recent General Chapter of the Congregation in 2013, we find a description of how the Brothers, Associates and Collaborators can create such an “alternate space”:

We Xaverian Brothers, associates, and collaborators are a true religious family, striving to fulfill the spiritual aspirations that Theodore James Ryken had for his Congregation. Following the path of our Founder, we are called to live ordinary lives that give witness to God’s unconditional love.  We believe that the Xaverian calling is a way of being put in our place in the world, a place of humility and simplicity, from which we receive the grace to turn toward God, fall in love with God, and put ourselves in God’s service as followers of Jesus Christ. Within each distinctive life choice, we are further invited to attentiveness, simplicity, flexibility and openness to the common, unspectacular flow of everyday life. We unite ourselves to God through an integrated life of both contemplation and service. Through the Xaverian Way we are awakened by the Spirit of God to our own graced potential and freely offer that giftedness in service to the gospel.  Through our ministry, in particular among the poor and the marginalized, we work to help others discover their own uniqueness so they, too, may “share the love of God with the world through their own giftedness.” In a spirit of hospitality, we try our utmost to be approachable and available, as true brothers and sisters who welcome others and accompany them in the joys and sorrows of their lives.

Reflecting on how the creation of the Orangeburg community was borne as a sign of hope and commitment to the future, how can the description of the Charism we have embraced be a source of hope and a description of how we can live our charismatic identity today?

Brother Jerry O’Leary, in thinking of how his 16 years in Orangeburg informs how he lives today writes:

What I treasure now and am passionate about

I am  thankful that I still live in a community of Brothers.  Once again, just as in Orangeburg, the evening meal time is special for me with the sharing that occurs there and the evidence of mutual support.  During this year we have instituted a regular schedule of faith sharing get-togethers and I find them energizing (we previously had them only sporadically).  I really appreciate that we are a very welcoming community to all the Brothers who stay with us from time to time

I miss all the direct contact I had in Orangeburg with underserved people, and all our volunteers at the CCMO Center, but I love helping out each week at the Catholic Worker (Viva House) and St. Peter’s Learning Center and am thankful that I have made so many connections with the social justice people here in Baltimore.  Keeping in contact with them and also with all the social justice activity which I keep aware of through the internet helps to  give me a certain joy that there is some hope if there are so many good people working for that common good that God has in mind, even though progress isn’t immediately evident

Embracing the future with hope

I  think that our community life on S. Beechfield in Baltimore lets me be hopeful that there could be an opportunity for those Brothers who are able and willing to do so, to live in a community house where they can commit themselves to living as a Band of Brothers who will regularly share with one another how they are attempting to live their lives in a way that answers God’s call to lovingly serve one another and others in some way, and will reach out in whatever ways they can to the marginalized and poor.  The community’s outreach would have to be a bit more intentional than it is in my present community and it can’t be the same as my experience in Orangeburg because of our increasing age and changing times, but it could be a place where the Brothers’ presence would be felt, a place where all would be welcome, including other Brothers who come to visit.

We conclude this series on the Orangeburg mission of the Brothers by once again quoting the Holy Father:

This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future. It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us.

So do not yield to the temptation to see things in terms of numbers and efficiency, and even less to trust in your own strength. In scanning the horizons of your lives and the present moment, be watchful and alert. Together with Benedict XVI, I urge you not to “join the ranks of the prophets of doom who proclaim the end or meaninglessness of the consecrated life in the Church in our day; rather, clothe yourselves in Jesus Christ and put on the armour of light – as Saint Paul urged (cf. Rom 13:11-14) – keeping awake and watchful”. Let us constantly set out anew, with trust in the Lord.

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