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The encounter between us

| Friday, September 22, 2017

“When we go into the street, every man thinks of himself: He sees, but does not look; he hears, but does not listen. … People pass each other, but they do not encounter each other.”  Perhaps this accusation is harsh. But perhaps it is also true.  It comes from a morning meditation of Pope Francis (“For a culture of encounter” on Sept. 13, 2016) and whether you regard yourself as Catholic or not, his words carry weight for all of us. Pope Francis accurately describes this attitude as the culture of indifference, and in its place suggests the culture of encounter. Fr. Joe Corpora effectively explains the latter as “an encounter between two persons. Not black to white, rich to poor, gay to straight, documented to undocumented, smart to dumb, but person to person. You have something good to give to me.  And I have something good to give to you.”

Pope Francis and Fr. Joe show us that we can learn from everyone we meet. I learned the truth of this seemingly trite adage this summer while at a children’s home and school in Honduras. While participating in the Center for Social Concern’s (CSC) International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP), I taught middle school math during the school day and supported daily life activities outside of school — helping kids with homework, taking them to the beach, playing soccer and cooking with them. I was the teacher in the classroom, but my students also taught me; I was the volunteer in Honduras to serve them, but I left not only having served but also having been served. The service I did was, as service always is, a two-way street; I received at least as much as I gave.

I intellectually agreed with the ideals of the culture of encounter before going to Honduras, but it was there that I most profoundly lived it. The encounter came in moments of humility when I allowed seven goals in one soccer game, with one slipping through my hands and two going through my legs, and the boys’ response to me was “We think you’re a good goalie — everyone has bad days.” The encounter came when I spent 45 minutes trying and failing to make a fire to cook dinner and a 15-year-old girl made the fire in 30 seconds. The encounter came when I taught and tutored and was able to help students overcome both math problems and a fear of those problems. The encounter came when I pulled one of my students aside who had been acting out in class, ready to chastise him, only to realize that what he most needed was someone who would love and believe in him. The encounter came when a third grader gave me a hug one day and told me, “Never forget that you are loved.”

We don’t need to travel to another country to learn to live the culture of encounter. It can be practiced anywhere and anytime. But I would invite you to consider ISSLP 2018.  Before applying to ISSLP, I did not think I would be selected, I did not think I could afford to not have a job or internship over the summer, and I did not think I was qualified to serve as a volunteer for eight weeks. Yes, the program is competitive, but it’s not only for people who started non-profits on four continents. Yes, I did not make as much money as I could have, but my ISSLP was a priceless experience I may never have otherwise had the chance to live. Yes, I was under-qualified, but we are all under-qualified for the task of serving other human beings. Nonetheless, the program prepares you well to go to another country, to live and serve in another culture, and to make a difference in the lives of others.

Allow me to clarify — during your ISSLP, you are not “changing the world.” You are not going to solve world hunger or bring world peace. But you will have the chance, every day, to embrace another culture, to embrace human beings who have inherent dignity, to meet them and to be met, to serve and to be served. You will have the chance to encounter a person. Why is the encounter with a person any less important than solving world hunger or bringing world peace?

The culture of encounter is a beautiful way to live life. As my ISSLP taught me, being fully present to others eliminates prejudice and borders and distills interactions to two people — no job titles, social standing or anything of the like looming between them — leaving a genuine encounter, person to person.  Imagine a Notre Dame, a country, a world where we live the culture of encounter. What if we were to stop, to slow down and look at every person we see, listen to every person we hear and recognize him or her as a human being with inherent dignity, whether the person is a king or a servant, a boss or a subordinate, a tenured professor or a prospective student whom we encounter? What if in every meeting with another person, we recognize that we have something good to give and something good to be given? What if we realize the potential of and live the encounter between us?

Matthew Heeder


Sept. 11

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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