It is astounding to note how one week can play such a crucial part in your life and be so impactful. For most of us, we are bustling around day to day from our jobs, classes, or other obligations that take up so much of our attention and time. As students at the University of Minnesota, this is even more evident as we try to balance a variety of activities in our already packed schedules. With spring break passing, many students took the week to go down south and relax without the worries of school and left their responsibilities in Minnesota. Instead of scurrying to the warmth, however, 16 students along with 3 mission leaders from Saint Paul’s Outreach (SPO) ventured off to Anchorage, Alaska to serve on a mission trip.
Upon entering Anchorage and being astounded by the beauty every day, you couldn’t help but notice the immense peace that was radiating from every angle of the city. However, starkly contrasting to this beauty was the overwhelming amount of people who were out on the streets, without homes, and sometimes without knowledge of where they would find their next meal. It was an eye-opening experience to witness such beauty and tragedy juxtaposed in such an overpowering way. Though difficult to witness these hardships, I was encouraged to know that we were helping to alleviate some of these problems throughout our week in Anchorage. While on our trip, we had the opportunity to work with three different places, with the help of Catholic Social Services. These included Claire House, Brother Francis Shelter, and Beans Café.
While at Claire House, a home providing shelter and meals for homeless mothers and their children, we were able to spend a few hours each day with the children. Though the ages ranged among the children, we were all able to match up with a few of them to create relationships, giving us the opportunity to make them feel loved and comforted. No words can describe the feeling of seeing these tiny little faces light up when we walked in the door. Though they were shy at first, by the end of the week, it was truly heartbreaking having to walk out of these children’s lives.
Another organization that we had the chance to work at a few times was Brother Francis Shelter. Though we mainly were in charge of helping in their spring-cleaning efforts (picking up garbage around the facility and cleaning some of the rooms) we were also privileged with the opportunity to speak to many of the people who were in and out of the shelter. Some of these people were frequent visitors, while others had just been struggling for a few weeks. It was incredible to hear the stories they had to share, as they often didn’t have the opportunity to voice their thoughts. A big take away for me was to understand how many different backgrounds these individuals had, and all the many different circumstances they came from. As Andrew reiterated to us throughout the trip, these people were all like us, they were our brothers and sisters, yet somehow they ended up in these circumstances while we were fortunate enough to not. It’s easy for us to look at these people, but it’s something more altogether to really see and appreciate them, something that is not often accomplished.
The last organization we served at was Bean’s Café, which serves breakfast and lunch to those who need meals. On a regular basis, this place is able to feed anywhere from 150 to 350 people. Because Brother Francis Shelter is only able to provide dinner to its residents, Bean’s Café is an opportunity for these individuals to get their other two meals taken care of. Thanks to the large donations from other organizations and people, Beans Café is able to provide these nutritious meals, largely due to their great staff and helpers. It was an amazing experience being able to put these meals together and to provide some positive faces for the homeless individuals, especially because they were all going through so much. Although they shared their thanks, it was truly us who were impacted, catching a glimpse of the people who need our help and who it is our duty to serve.
In spite of working with these great organizations, the service opportunity that perhaps was the most impactful and stood out throughout this trip was our encounter with the homeless on the streets. Packing our lunches for the day, we split up into groups of three and brought two extra lunches with us. We went out into the streets of the city, each group walking around and encountering Christ in His people as we listened to the stories told and shared our food with our brothers and sisters. Each encounter that we had was both unique and humbling, as we were able to see them for who they were, instead of ignoring them or avoiding them like most of the surrounding community did. Moreover, this experience challenged each of us, since this was something we could easily do back home in Minnesota where a comparably large community of homeless people live on the streets looking for hospitality.
Along with the service we accomplished, there was a tremendous emphasis on our prayer and spiritual life while in Alaska. As many know, entering a huge college campus can be difficult while trying to maintain your faith and stay true to our values. By surrounding ourselves in a community that shared our faith, and by prioritizing the holy sacraments throughout the week, we were able to grow in our relationship with the Lord in a deeper and more meaningful context. Much of this was due to our rigorous routine, which consisted of going to morning mass every day, followed by adoration. The rest of the day was filled with various quiet times to pray, along with group discussions in which we explored topics such as abortion and Theology of the Body, as we tried to relate these scrutinized topics into our daily college lives.
By surrounding one another in this open community filled with discussion, prayer, and silent adoration, we were able to refocus our lives and reevaluate our relationship with Christ. This was further made possible by our frequent encounter with the beauty that surrounded us each day. Just by waking up to the wondrous view of the mountains, we were in awe of the creation that the Lord blessed us with. Through our various excursions to Flat Top Mountain, the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center, and Matanuska Glacier, we were truly astounded by the tangible encounter of God’s grace through His creation. By the end of the week, we all had been fully engaging in our faith in a way that set a foundation for ourselves for the upcoming weeks.
Finally, in addition to the service and prayer throughout the week in Alaska, what truly made this experience so satisfying and fulfilling was the community that formed throughout the trip. Coming into the trip, we were for the most part strangers to each other. Though some of us may have known one or two people, it was a trip into an unknown environment surrounded by unfamiliar people. That being said, we were the furthest thing from strangers when leaving this beautiful place.
It is incredible how fast we all came together as one. Now some of this was due to our close-knit quarters, but it was mostly a result of delving into our mission trip full throttle and taking advantage of the time we all had together. By entering into prayer together, by participating in service together, and by intentionally spending meals and other free time together we were able to develop meaningful relationships. A highlight of this time together was our daily family style dinners and going through the high points, low points, and our “God” moments, which were moments where we truly experienced or appreciated God’s presence. Through this sharing of food and memories, we were able to come together in a deeper community. Having this strong community built upon our shared faith helped make the transition back into our campus life that much easier, as we knew that we were still surrounded by such a great Catholic outlet. It was evident that these were people we could continue to count on even if we were not seeing each other every minute of every day from here on out.
So while we may have spent our spring break in an atypical destination, I can confidently say that the experience we all had on this mission trip truly helped mold and change us for the better. We were offered the chance to experience service, to engage more fully in our faith, and to create a solid Catholic community, all of which will continue to be helpful to us back in our every day lives at the University of Minnesota. We were blessed with amazing views, amazing people, and amazing opportunities to grow closer to God and to find out each of our individual vocations.
Bernadette Prickel is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota