The Philadelphia Service Immersion Program (PSIP) at SJU is a program I hold near and dear to my heart, and not just because it saved me a few hassles moving into my freshman dorm a few days early.
The early move-in program takes small groups of incoming freshmen to a service site in Philadelphia for three mornings straight (while using public transportation!)– the same site every day. In the afternoon, groups explore various fun places in Philadelphia, meet professors who take them on a tour of a Philly neighborhood, reflect on these experiences, and through these few short (but very long) days are allowed the opportunity to meet other freshmen and upperclassmen, and get accustomed to campus before everyone else.
Wow. That’s a lot.
And it is– but I think that this program is the best possible exposure to the culture of service and social justice at SJU that one could have as a freshman, because it is undergirded with love: love that each site or organization has for the people it serves, love that the upperclassmen leaders have for SJU, love that stems from the reciprocity of service. It’s incredible to witness these beginnings.
Among the laughs and the city explorations, we touch on more serious topics. Why are we here? What good is our service doing to this city and our world? What does it mean to exemplify social justice, and how is spirituality connected to that?
Those are some big ideas, and they can often leave heads swirling with newfound exposures and realizations throughout this week. As a freshman who participated in this program, it surely did for me. As a senior leader, I still grapple with these questions.
This year, my group and I served each day at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, a Jesuit-based high school in North Philadelphia that gives a college-prep, private school education to students around the city who would otherwise be unable to afford it. We met some of the freshman students at their “boot camp,” took pictures for their job placements, and assembled papers for the upcoming Signing Day– where each student will be placed at an entry-level job one day a week through Cristo Rey’s incredible work-study program. Though the students may come from different backgrounds than myself and others in my group, we were all able to connect so easily; my group began to realize that– high school freshman to college freshman– maybe we’re not all so different, after all.
At some point during our last day of service while waiting to take the Broad Street line and a bus back to SJU, a member of my group said, “So… we’re like a family. Like, brothers and sisters.”
Throughout the week he’d showcased his wonderfully dry sense of humor, so at first I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. But indeed, he was.
And that phrase echoed in my head for the rest of the day: “We’re like a family.”
Yes, friend. Indeed, we are.
But the thing is– we always have been. That’s one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about SJU, and is something that encapsulates the spirit of not only PSIP but our entire school community: togetherness. People are there for each other, simply because; no matter where you are on your journey, there will be someone, somewhere, to support you. This togetherness is shown in how we do service, how we answer questions without judgment, how we listen to one another in reflection, how we believe that everyone is respected and valued. We are together in all we do, because there is no reason on earth why we shouldn’t be.
As a senior watching freshmen slowly morph into the people that they are becoming, sheer joy spreads across my face when I see that they get it– that they, too, feel this inexplicable sense of community at SJU that complements the strength of family. Complements, because we’ve now formed our own home and our own family in the faces randomly placed in front of us.
I believe in PSIP because it allows 132 freshmen to get a head start on something that is so integral to the SJU community: being there for one another, like a family.
I believe in this experience because it brings us tighter together: knit in the fabric of community, woven in its fraying strings and knobbing knots and slipped stitches, we are all caught up in the messiness of being strings tied together, somehow. We are tangled in a weave of humanity, unable to un-ensnare ourselves from what knots us up, but instead become stronger because this mess of knots is held together by the simple support of the other strings. We are messy and frayed and perhaps not what we pictured, but we are together, and that is what matters.
This is the first time PSIP has had a theme (“Untying the Knots of Injustice, Creating a Solidarity of Love”), and it corresponds with Pope Francis’s devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots: a simple belief that God will untangle the messes of our world if we simply let go of our own power to do so.
I and my group have seen these knots present in today’s world: the knots of poverty, systemic injustice, food deserts, lack of access to quality education, and much more. We surely cannot untangle these knots on our own, but now we, too, are tangled up in this mess of beautiful humanity. Sometimes all we can do is be there to give support alongside the other entangled strings.
Though these knots often create problems, I believe instead that knots create strength. I believe that knots connect people together even more inextricably than they would be if no knots were present. I believe that in these entanglements there is love, there is support, there is greater stability in several strings crossing paths than simply one existing on its own.
It is this web of togetherness that is formed on PSIP, one that has been formed for the past several years. When we serve together, when we laugh together, when we eat together, when we reflect together, when we miss our bus and are stranded on a sidewalk for half an hour together, we are creating this community and are slowly tying the strings of our lives onto other people’s. We create these connections and slowly begin to realize that we have never, truly, been alone.
It is the knowledge of and wrestling with these knots that has formed me so deeply as a person for my three-years-and-counting at SJU, and it all began with PSIP. The chance to go deeper, to question, to explore every inch of myself has opened my eyes more and more to what purpose my life can hold. I have my own knots, yes, but we all do– and if we are tied together in this entanglement, we can somehow work to wiggle loose together and become free.
The PSIP program, while a witness to these knots of injustice in our city, is also a witness to this community created by the very same knots: a solidarity of love. Through human connection, through storytelling, through reflecting on who we are and where we’re coming from, we begin to build up this love not in spite of the knots, but because of them.
There’s a quote that circulates around SJU quite frequently about this kind of love– and it rings true for so many people, scattered in so many different faces and places on this campus.
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
– Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ
And though freshman year can be entangling in so many ways, I hope that my group has been exposed to that kind of love this week– because even through knots in my own college experience, and in the experiences of others I’ve met through service or otherwise, I’ve realized that love has tied into everything.
(P.S. I made a video documenting our week– watch it here!)