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Mercy Works program promotes solidarity with South Bend

| Wednesday, October 16, 2019

While students are often involved with the Notre Dame community, fewer are immersed in the greater community surrounding the University: South Bend. Mercy Works, a collaboration between Campus Ministry and the Center for Social Concerns (CSC), is one opportunity for students to escape the Notre Dame bubble.

Christian Santa Maria, assistant director for retreats and pilgrimages in Campus Ministry, said that Mercy Works offers students the ability to do faith-minded service that has a tangible effect on people near campus. One of the special things about the program, he said, is that it functions as a kind of window into problems that students may never have experienced firsthand before.

“Maybe you don’t know much about, you know, people experiencing homelessness, or you don’t know much about juvenile detention centers or prisons,” Santa Maria said. “This could be a really great way to get your feet wet, and kind of explore what it is like to be part of this community.”

Mercy Works is a month-long commitment, and new groups begin service at the start of each month during the academic year. Groups consist of two to five students and spend two to four hours volunteering each week at their assigned organization. Because the program is founded in community, each small group also meets once a week to reflect on service, and everyone involved in the program has a reflection dinner at the conclusion of the month.

“Students will get a taste for the complexity of the issues that face us as Christians or Catholics today, and hopefully, they start asking deeper questions about their own spiritual life or about … a particular community or population that we’re working with,” he said. “And, in particular, how does faith invite them to ask these questions — not just about what they do, but who they are and who this is shaping them to be.”

Mercy Works focuses on integration with the South Bend community and works primarily with local agencies, including Chiara Home, DePaul Academy, Dismas House, Healthwin, Logan Center and Our Lady of the Road/St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker. Any student interested in volunteering is invited to fill out the Google form on the Mercy Works webpage.

While volunteering is an important part of the program, its initiative is not solely service, Santa Maria said.

“What Mercy Works hopes to invite the students to do is to understand that it’s not just about being a service provider and a service recipient,” he said. “It asks the question, how do we belong to one another? And how does our faith, through service, allow us to understand the meaning of solidarity and what it means to be brothers and sisters with one another?”

He said one student had been mentoring students for about three months when she came to him with a question. He said she was unsure, almost stuck in her service; she felt useless and did not know how to continue serving, because she believed it was not effective enough. Santa Maria said he encouraged her to just listen and not try so hard to solve problems, because listening fosters the community that Mercy Works tries to attain.

“I think in a school that often promotes solving issues, one of the first steps we are to do is actually listen,” he said. “Mercy Works is not about solving. It’s about walking with. It’s about solidarity. It’s about kinship. It’s about recognizing our relationships with people in our community. The purpose of Mercy Works is to create a culture of encounter where solidarity can happen.”

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