Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
December 21, 2009
Holy Spirit Meets Christmas Spirit
Father Mercredi High School students labour year long to bring Christmas to those in need
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
FORT MCMURRAY - Perhaps Fort McMurray is the Nazareth of our day. Condescending critics ask, "Can anything good come from there?"
Yet here, as in Nazareth, Christ proclaims a Gospel of healing grace for the skeptic soul.
The "skeptic soul" - that's you and I when we cast caustic suspicion on our youth.
"Spoilt, disrespectful, un-churched, barely Catholic" - these are some of the missiles we launch. Probably our own small, fearful, and frustrated lives are more at issue here than the youth we doubt.
The Gospel that heals this doubt is proclaimed by the students at Father Mercredi High School. Theirs are the beautiful feet bearing Good News (Room 15), more by graciously walking the talk than speaking it.
For 25 years they have built a community of service through a charity somewhat misleadingly named, Santas Anonymous.
On the outside, here's what it looks like:
In 2008 they prepared and distributed almost 600 hampers with a Christmas meal (turkey), clothing and interesting appropriate gifts for children.
This year, given the recession, they anticipate even greater need among McMurray's homeless, "house poor" and marginalized. Anyone in need is eligible.
Since 1985, they've helped 13,809 families (47,961 individuals, including 26,297 children) and used 86 km of wrapping paper for gifts.
Students both lead and carry out the project at a level of efficiency and organization that would be the envy of many a corporation.
The whole school, 1,200 students and staff, is involved, with a core leadership group of around 200 students. Healthy doses of prayer, fun, and community spirit accompany the whole process.
While Father Mercredi is the epicentre of the event, the students enjoy collaborating with the project's co-founders, the local Kinsmen and Kinettes. The Fort McMurray region - the other schools (from superintendent to caretaker), local businesses, radio stations, media, charitable groups, sports organizations, corporations - they're all involved. It's a McMurray event.
Students fundraise and gather gifts through activities ranging from a pancake breakfast, door-to-door blitzes, a "teddy bear toss" at an Oil Barons hockey game, the Santa Claus parade, canvassing local businesses, weekend campaigns at grocery stores in collaboration with radio stations - all creating a momentum of service and grace.
It all builds up to "packing day," the final Friday of school before Christmas on which a small army of volunteer drivers delivers the hampers.
In the weeks before packing day, some 300 volunteers are busy selecting and wrapping the gifts. (Potential recipients are discreetly referred to the organizing committee and any one can make a referral.)
PACKING DAY BLITZ
On packing day the whole school and volunteers gather in a gym lined with row upon row of hampers awaiting their final packaging and delivery. The place is a force-field of electrifying energy and it all begins with a liturgy in which grace leads to grace. Then, amidst the bantering enthusiasm only youth can muster, with the requisite Christmas music, like the launch of a Saturn rocket, the distribution of the gift hampers begins.
A noteworthy group in significant numbers is alumni returning from university and their married and work lives to help, especially in the last weeks and on packing day. They are welcomed like family.
At the end of the day, students and volunteers, tired but inspired, celebrate. Senior student leaders will pass the torch to those whom they've been mentoring. Planning and organization for the next year will begin in January.
The hidden partners are the recipients who, by graciously receiving the hampers, share the gift of their human dignity with the students.
That's what it looks like on the outside. On the inside, students express five recurring experiences in the project.
First, they gratefully share the grace they have received. "There is so much love (in this project) . . . and I know in my heart that this is what I was meant to do in the world, that there's a bigger purpose of why I am here, and that's to help other people and to give people what I have. . . . I just want to give that back to everybody" (Cassie Reid, Grade 11, involved since Grade 7).
Second, they find themselves creating a community of service. "When you come to a Santa's meeting, you see all the people there. You find the higher cause, the better reason to unite, to help the needy, to break those barriers (among high school groups). The love and commitment between everybody there, it doesn't matter who you are, even between teachers and students" (Liz Espejo, Grade 12, involved since Grade 5).
"It really shows that everybody in your school is really compassionate, like we all care about people. We believe in our core values. It's like we're a family - no one's left out" (Jenn Townsend, Grade 11).
Third, there is something sacramental about the project, it manifests God's presence. "It means a lot to see the students uniting for a greater cause - it's insane how much energy goes into this. It proves there's a greater being, there's a God; it just proves this world has a meaning" (Liz Espejo).
"I'm Catholic and I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for God. He's the One who created us and makes us want to do it - like what I have and want others to have - like it's 'Do unto others what you would have them do unto you'" (Ashley Stovall, Grade 11).
THE SPIRIT'S PRESENCE
Fourth, they experience joy, a sign of the Spirit's presence. "How could you not have fun? I mean you're with everybody who's putting themselves out to help others - because everybody's so happy. You're surrounding yourself with all these wonderful people who just like to laugh and have fun" (Jenn Townsend).
"Everyone is smiling, having fun; they get to choose presents they think the kids would like" (Ashley Stovall).
Finally, they are learning hope and service. "I wish that we would not have to have Santas Anonymous. You hope that everyone would be equal and that everyone would be able to support themselves" (Cassie Reid).
"You're learning responsibility, how to cooperate, what you can do in your community. You hope that all your life you can help with this kind of thing" (Ashley Stovall).
"You have to feel and see it and you have to take part in it because the lessons you learn (are beyond our classroom learning)" (Stephanie Knott).
Can anything good come out of Fort McMurray and our young people? The answer, of course, is "yes."
They are, after all, the "little ones" of whom Christ speaks, the ones to whom the kingdom belongs. Their service is balm, a tonic for our toxic skepticism.
They are doing nothing less than living the Eucharist, gratefully sharing grace received. And with Therese of Lisieux, Dorothy Day, and the dying country priest of Georges Bernanos - those prophets of our time - they are joyfully proclaiming, as only youth can, that "everything is grace."
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