Any Dominican Volunteer will tell you that ministry is not easy. As our mission statement dictates, a DV “searches for new frontiers for the faith.” We are asked to bring the light of Christ to the darkened corners of our world. Completing this mission in ministry placements while living in intentional community demands a form of relationship that is both deeply fulfilling and exhausting. It is something both awful and beautiful that few people experience in this lifetime.
In the quotidian routine, ministry can be very frustrating. It’s frustrating to feel like the people you serve are doing the best they can, and you are giving so much of yourself, but no one is “making progress” or “moving forward.” In my ministry last year, I saw many students work hard all semester only to remain on academic probation after a bad exam. I saw my students, despite being engaged in class, repeatedly neglect to do their homework. Most of all, I saw myself drag along as a first-year teacher, often in a panic about what the next day would hold. But in many ways, these frustrations are only setbacks; they are opportunities to remain hopeful and shine light. They are not the ache of true disappointment.
My first disappointment in ministry happened in January. Several of my students were absent from school for two days in a row. For some, this comes to be expected behavior, but for Nicole, it was not. I looked forward to seeing her in class again; I thought of her routine disorganization but otherwise friendly presence. The following week, I found out that Nicole’s parents were in a custody battle. Although her mom wanted her to stay at our school, her dad enrolled her in a school near his home, some 20 miles from ours. The previous Friday was recorded as her last day of school. I never knew she was leaving, and I never got to say goodbye.
Nicole was not the best or brightest student in my class. She often lost both her homework and her focus; her tests made me wonder if she heard anything at all in class. But Nicole might have had the biggest heart of anyone I knew. She never got angry or displaced her frustration on me, as many students did; I was even more impressed by this after learning about her challenges at home.
Nicole’s ability to love was shown to me distinctly only a few weeks before her departure, when we had a transfer student join our class after the Christmas break. Our new student, Camila, was cold, closed off, and adamant about not participating -- understandable defenses to a new environment. But Nicole brought her out of that, shining the light of Christ in the darkness, offering hope and love to Camila by offering to work together with her at the board. When I checked in on them later, Camila was writing, talking, and laughing. Thanks to Nicole, Camila finally became engaged relationally and a member of our class.
I wondered what Nicole would need to survive at her new school, and if anyone would reach out to her in the same way that she reached out to Camila. I prayed that she wouldn’t lose her spirit or her will to succeed. Most of all, I hoped that despite the difficult changes in her life, she would continue to shine her light.
In mid-September, Nicole stayed behind after class. After a few pestering questions from me, she broke down in tears, saying that our school was too hard for her and she couldn’t keep up. I talked her down, offering some solace, and tried to illustrate that our entire staff was on her side. I remember that moment as my first real experience of ministry at my placement. Nicole showed me what it meant to be vulnerable and to share in relationship. She made me realize that I have the capacity to bring hope to the hopeless and preach the good news of Christ in the smallest ways each day. I was able to shine some light into her life, but, if anything, I must thank Nicole for allowing me to witness to her.
To lose Nicole was heartbreaking, and one of my first lessons of love in ministry. I think of Nicole once in awhile, and her memory is tinged with the sting of never telling her how much she meant to me. This Christmas, I offer prayers for her and her family, so like the newborn Jesus, her light may shine to the world in the same way it shined in mine.
It is so easy for us to lose focus, to forget what really matters. It’s tempting to turn inward rather than continuing to reach out to others. Nicole did this so beautifully, and I hope I can honor her by doing the same. This Christmas, may we each share the light of Christ through our kindness, our hope, and our love.
Merry Christmas, and let your light shine!