By Claire McGrath
I’ve been very fortunate over the past three years to lead service trips for other students through the Office of Social Justice at Mount St. Mary’s as part of a leader development program called CORE. Although my official title is “CORE Leader,” in all of my experiences leading trips I’ve consistently discovered that I am in fact the one being led. As is the case for many of us (and, I’d imagine, college students especially!) in almost any type of experience in life, I often go into service thinking that I have answers, understanding, and wisdom, and come out humbled, with a new sense of how much there is that I still do not understand, and with the realization that I have something profound to learn from each and every individual I encounter.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, as I sat across from a woman I’d just met at the Frederick County Rescue Mission, which serves free lunch and breakfast to members of the community each day. I was there with a group of high school students, and I’d just sat down at a table to chat with some of the guests eating lunch there, expecting to engage in small talk about the food, weather, etc. Instead, I met Ana Maria. Ana Maria told me that her and her husband had been coming to the Rescue Mission for many years after she’d had to go on disability.
We talked about nothing in particular at first, but as Ana Maria began speaking about her love for her family, the tone of the conversation changed from casual and light hearted to something deeper and more profound. She talked about love as the source of all things—the most vital necessity, forming the basis for everything else in life.
Love is the essence of our faith. However, the love that God calls us to is a different kind of love than is portrayed in popular culture. The kind of love we are challenged to give goes beyond a “Valentine’s Day” sort of love—the kind symbolized by red roses and greeting cards and pink hearts that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy. The image of love that our faith provides us with is Christ dying on the cross, surrounded by people who hate him. This leads us to one of the biggest challenges of our faith: we are not called to love only those we love us; we are called to deeply, genuinely, and selflessly love the people who hate and hurt us. Christ didn’t love selectively; he died not only for his disciples, but also for those who handed him over to be killed.
Ana Maria told me that she had lived in what she called “the ghetto” for her whole life and had seen a lot of angry people. Anger, I think, is one of the most difficult conditions to respond to. When people are happy, we rejoice with them. When they are in despair, we sympathize. When they are confused, we offer advice. But how do we respond when anger causes people to lash out, to hurt the people around them? Jesus taught us to love our enemies. But how can we love those who have caused us to suffer? How can we ignore the hurt created out of anger?
Ana Maria told me that all of the anger that she has witnessed was born of pain, of suffering—of a need for love. Loving enemies will never be easy, but if we begin to see our enemies not as angry, hurtful people, but as people who are suffering, who feel unloved and forgotten about, then suddenly everything changes, as they become more human to us. We see them not as cruel and heartless, but as people who deserve and need love.
Loving enemies cannot be done from afar, or without risk, because it requires us to make ourselves vulnerable, to open ourselves up to feeling another’s pain, to understanding another’s suffering. When we see past anger and instead focus on its source, we can give the love that that person so desperately needs. Not that it will be easy—but when we truly see others for who they are and strive to understand their pain, we will be able to recognize what it is that they are crying out for, and we can fill in those voids with love. As Ana Maria put so beautifully, it’s this filling in the cracks with love that takes away pain and anger and that serves as a source of life. And to think that I believed I was the leader that day.