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The Great Bridgebuilding of God

Joe Everett - ACE 26, Tucson

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"Catch only what you've thrown yourself,
all is mere skill and little gain;
but when you're suddenly the catcher of a ball
thrown by an eternal partner
with accurate and measured swing
towards you, to your center, in an arch
from the great bridgebuilding of God:
why catching then becomes a power-
not yours, a world's."

Besides providing a convenient title for this post, Rainer Maria Rilke's poem extends a not-so-convenient invitation — the same invitation that Jesus extends to us — "step outside your comfort zone, and follow me." To every person that says "YES" to teaching in Catholic schools around the country, ACE extends this very same invitation. In this way, ACE is fundamentally an invitation to participate in bridgebuilding. All too often, however, we believe that we are the only ones building the bridges.

When I said "YES" to ACE two years ago, I did so with the primary motivation to serve. I love serving others, and the chance to do so in a really meaningful way — teaching others — was such an uplifting idea. I was going to make a difference in the lives of students at an under-resourced Catholic school and help them bridge the education gap. I was going to help them build a better future for themselves. I was going to build bridges and have my students walk across them.

"Our students don't walk across the bridge made by us — rather, we walk across the bridge made by God to get to our students."

However noble these intentions were, I missed the bigger picture. While teachers are servants (this is true), over time I have realized that the teacher/student and servant/served relationship dynamic is not always that defined. ACE, fundamentally, is a call to enter into mutual relationship. Our students don't walk across the bridge made by us — rather, we walk across the bridge made by God to get to our students. We leave what is familiar to us, and follow God's call. As Fr. Greg Boyle writes, we are moving into "God's jurisdiction," which requires that we move out of our comfort zone, both physically and spiritually. It is a call to kinship.

Before ACE, and besides a semester of study abroad, I had lived my whole life in South Bend, Indiana. Relative to the location of my high school, I actually moved closer to home while attending Notre Dame. South Bend was home. Notre Dame was home. I could stay there the rest of my life. It was easy, and it was comfortable. And while one can certainly practice kinship in South Bend, the location, and my conception of "my brothers and sisters in Christ," was stagnant. Restricted.

joe_everett_5Saying "YES" to ACE and moving to Tucson, Arizona, scrambled that familiarity that I was so accustomed to. Now I had to build new relationships and try to fit in at a very new and different community in my school, our ACE community, and the wider Tucson community. It certainly did not come without struggle, especially when some of my first-year students began to view me as an outsider. I began to grow frustrated. "God," I would pray, "I don't think I am doing much good for my students. I am struggling to build these bridges."

But what God slowly led us to realize is that we are not merely sent forth to teach and change our students. Rather, our students teach and change us. Our ACE community, and the wider school and city communities that we grow to know and love, teach us and change us. It's mutual. Teaching is a two-way street — or rather, it's a bridge. In this way, the greatest responsibility a teacher has is to actually be a learner. We're not building a bridge to have our students walk across it — we're meeting our students on this bridge, engineered by a God who is changing us for the better through their witness.

I have learned so much from my fourth graders, my community members, and the wider Tucson area through my time in ACE, and have been changed by all of them for the better. They have brought me closer to Christ, who calls us to stand in kinship with all so that we may be one. As Fr. Boyle writes, "We are sent to the margins NOT to make a difference but so that the folks on the margins will make us different." In the same way, we are sent to our ACE schools not merely to make a difference in the lives of our students, but so that they can make a difference in ours. This is the bridge that God builds. This is a sacred mutuality.

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Ultimately, ACE calls us to trust in the "accurate and measured swing" of God, trusting that we have been placed exactly where we should be, and that we have much to learn from that place. God invites us to follow Him across the bridge he is building for us. But it's a hard "YES" to say. Following Christ and foregoing one's desires has never been easy, and leaving the comfort of one's home, family, and friends is one of the hardest choices to trust in. And yet, this is the great bridgebuilding of God — we hope, and we find, so much unforeseen beauty on the other side. 

"To lose the Earth you know, for greater knowing;
To lose the life you have, for greater life.
To leave the friends you loved, for greater loving;
To find a land more kind than home, more large than earth-"

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