BY ELIZABETH MACLEOD
I will start at the beginning; the beginning of a faith journey that would end up taking me places that I never would have imagined possible.
One New Year’s Eve, I found myself trying to figure out what I could do in the new year that would make a difference in my life. A real difference! I resolved two things. One, I would learn to use my microwave as more than a reheating appliance. Second, I would really investigate my faith and what I believed, not what someone else had instilled in me. I still only use my microwave for reheating leftovers, but I became a high school chaplain after graduating with a Master of Divinity from Seminary.
I began my faith journey as a personal one, but over time I realized that I was being led to use my gifts in a way that would open a beautiful and fulfilling life. I had always loved children, especially teenagers, and had a gift for speaking and listening to them. As I proceeded with my education, I was taught that in order to see where you are meant to be in life, look at the themes that are present. Young people were certainly a theme for me.
After I graduated, I spent many months trying to find a job and ultimately landed at a Catholic high school as a chaplain. The first thing I learned when I began my job was that I had been placed in mission territory. I had wrongly assumed that I would be in an environment that was very Christian. Wrong! The children and the staff were often just muddling through and many were not churched at all. They knew the gist of what being a Christian was, but their experience or understanding was often someone else’s. They sometimes couldn’t even articulate what they themselves believed. What I found was they believed, but often in their own way.
I embraced the situation and tried hard to introduce Christ to people in a way that I would like to be introduced to Him. It was extremely humbling and eye opening. This position ended up leading to a growth in my own spirituality that I could never have experienced in any other place.
These children, sometimes mixed up and confused, were simply trying hard to deal with the situations that they often had little control over (broken homes, abuse, poverty, shame, bullying, etc.). I realized very quickly that school was their safe place, their one constant in their life. My mission as a chaplain became to make sure that it stayed that way. I spent most of my time trying to teach compassion, kindness and acceptance by demonstration. My mantra became Ghandi’s words, “become what you want to see in the world”.
The greatest lesson I learned in my years in high school chaplaincy was to remember my own struggles as a young person and not expect behaviours that might be beyond an individual. I also learned that there is not a child I do not like, only behaviours that are difficult to like or condone. I learned to teach children that our words have consequences. I tried to teach children to make sure that the choices they made were in their own best interest and not to appease or be accepted by other people. My goal was to help develop young people who could make a difference in their own sphere of influence.
My former students still contact me often during times of difficulty. They remember me as the person who helped them before and so contact me to help them again. What a privilege! I have presided at funerals, been called to hospitals, asked to help counsel families through grief. I have also performed weddings, been invited to weddings, been at births and other special events. So many gifts in my life.
The most memorable encounter was at a homeless shelter. I was volunteering and noticed a young woman whom I had as a student. She was so excited that I remembered her that she went around the centre telling everyone that I was her former high school chaplain. I went home that night feeling like I had really done the job God had called me to do and proud that she felt no hesitation recognizing me even though she was in such an awful point in her life.
What did chaplaincy do for me? It made me a better person. It showed me that young people are looking at us to help them along the way without criticism and anger but with compassion and love. It made me a better mother to my child. It made me a better friend. Most of all it made me realize that when we follow the themes in our life and allow God to lead the way we can have the most amazing journey.
For anyone who wants to work with youth and might be hesitant, I encourage you try it. The youth of today are no different than we were. The key is remembering your own struggles and confusion during those early years. Remember everything you are today you had to learn along the way. Becoming a mentor for a young person is life changing.