Tuesday April 4, 2017

"Show Me Your Hands": Elizabeth Abrams' Marianist Student Award Speech

Below is the transcript of Elizabeth Abrams' Marianist Student Award speech.  The award is given every year to "acknowledge the contribution of a graduating senior who exemplifies the Marianist charism on campus."

Thank you all for being here. Especially on the eve of the second best holiday of the year.

I’m going to start with part of a song we sang at McGinnis Mass a few weeks ago that has stuck in my head.

'We come to share our stories. We come to break the bread. We come to know our rising from the dead.'

I think that is ultimately what we are doing here tonight, right?

We have come together. We have shared stories. We have broken bread and shared a meal. And, through these things, we have, in a sense, come to know our rising from the dead. Because what is that, actually? To me, it is hope. The Resurrection is hope made manifest in the world. And when I look around this room, I see hope.

First, some thank yous.

To Mom and Dad. Thank you for believing in me from the very start. Thank you for all the sacrifices you have made over the years and for every ounce of strength and love you have infused into our family and this world. Thank you for teaching me to go outside my comfort zone and appreciate differences. Your humility and patience are incredible examples for me. Thank you for encouraging me to pursue what I love, for always answering the phone, and for setting an example of strong faith. I learned it first from you, and your support means everything.

Thomas. You are my best friend. Thank you for knowing me better than most, for talking to me about hockey and the Colts, politics, humor, God, and everything in between. Thank you for believing in me and pushing me to be my best. Keep asking questions and pay attention to where your heart leads. I am proud of you and so glad you could come tonight. The best of UD is in this room, and I hope your next 4 years here bring you joy in your own unique way.

And thank you to the other nominees for this award – Katie, Peter, Miranda, Abbey, Maggie, and those who aren’t here, Tim, Elisa, Devin. This is more about us than it is me. We have shared a lot of life together. And we are a part of something so much bigger than ourselves. This is about what we have done and continue to do, building on the foundation laid by people before us, and strengthened by the people who come after us. Thank you for inspiring me in my Marianist vocation and living yours so well.

I also want to thank Maureen O’Rourke. This started with you and continues with your incredible spirit embedded in it. You’ve had a tremendous impact on my life. Thank you for encouraging me to dream and for showing me what it means to be Marianist in a very tangible way.

Thank you to the Rector’s Office – Fr. Jim, Mike, Allison, Fr. Joe, Debbie, and Miranda for creating this opportunity to gather together. And thank you to everyone in this room for being here tonight. Each of you means something special to me, I really mean that.

So, I stand before you tonight with a reflective heart, full of gratitude and joy. And I want to share that with you by sharing some of my stories, the ones that have formed me into the person I am today.

Stories are important. A few weeks ago, I was talking with Crystal Sullivan about preparing for this talk, and I was not sure how to tell stories that would mean something to everyone. She said, “Stories, when told, become something for everyone who hears them.” So that is my hope tonight. That something from a story I tell becomes something for you that you can carry into your own stories in some small way.

I thought a lot about how to tell them. This is one of the hardest talks I have ever had to give, not because I don’t know what to say, but because what I want to say goes beyond any words I could ever weave together. I read back and pulled things from five different journals, I wrote four pages by hand, I have a few notes in my phone, and three different Word documents with things that came to mind. How do I explain what Marianist has meant to me? How do I describe what this place, what each of you has meant to me? How do I tell my stories?

And then I remembered someone who is a gifted storyteller, Seán-Patrick Lovett. Seán was here in November for the Vocation Conference. He is the director of English Vatican Radio, he has worked for five popes, and he travels the world. But he is so much more than that, and I would say his vocation lies more in his stories than in any of those jobs. He delivered an incredible keynote at the conference, and one line, or really two, stick out to me. It was his bookend.

Seán said, “Show me your hands.”

My hands.

My hands are important. They tell my story. They embrace. They hold. They do. They feel. They are embraced. They are held. They are felt.

So I am going to tell you some of the stories of my hands, and I invite you to listen for two things, and these are two of the most important things the Marianists have taught me:  the importance of showing up, and the importance of staying.

First-year Elizabeth noticed an email about an event called a “Discernment evening.” First-year Elizabeth was interested in what that meant. She showed up. She had a wonderful meal and ate with people who would soon become mentors and friends, and then she listened to Fr. Jim Schimelpfening talk about listening to God’s voice within our hearts. And then there was this hour of silence. An hour of silence?! What?! Silence, in college?? Crazy! Elizabeth loved this hour. It was peaceful. So she kept her eyes out for the next discernment evening, and the one after that, and soon the four discernment evenings a year became checkpoints of college. A time twice-a-semester to come together with other students who wanted to take time to listen to stories about aspects of discernment, and Marianist religious who were willing to share theirs. A time where I showed up, listened, broke bread, and, in the silence and prayer and companionship, experienced God. Many of the people in this room have been present at those evenings, and they have been formative pieces of my time at UD and formation in the Marianist family. For that, thank you.

The next stories come from Los Angeles. The city of Angels. A place where Hollywood and skyscrapers are literally right next to the most poverty I’ve ever seen in the United States. But I’ve noticed that where there is a lack of things, there is often an abundance of truth, because when it comes down to it and you don’t have anything else but each other, then you realize how wonderful each of the other really is…and the whole concept of “otherness” fades away, anyway. I participated in the Marianist Universities LA Immersion, a week-long experience that brought together students from each of the three Marianist Universities to engage in justice initiatives in LA. On one of our first days there, it rained, a lot. This was bad, because when it rains, the cardboard roofs and walls of the Skid Row homes start to lose their structure. It was difficult to drive down the street and see people sitting next to their shelters while they melted in the rain. I went with a group to Union Rescue Mission, a gigantic place which offers a multitude of services, from food and temporary shelter to child care, banking, and dental care. We were given the task of painting nails for women who were in the big open room, just to hang out and take shelter from the rain. There were a lot of women inside that day. I got all set up with the nail polish, and, though I’m not expert at painting nails, I was pretty sure I could handle this. First I painted Yolanda’s toenails. She told me she had just been in Las Vegas to see her daughter, but she didn’t like it. She also was just coming off her third stroke and kept giving all the credit to God. She talked a lot about taking care of yourself, only doing what you can do each day, no more, no less. Taking things slowly, one day at a time.

Then walked in another woman. She never told me her name, but I think about her daily. She was tall, in a gold suit, and she really wanted her acrylic nails removed, which I didn’t know how to do. I know nothing about acrylic nails. But this woman really, really wanted them off. So I got some nail polish remover and we soaked her fingers in that for 10 minutes. No luck; the nails barely budged. So we repeated the process. This time some of the acrylic nail started to come off, but it looked to me like it was taking her real nail with it. That worried me, so I kept suggesting that maybe we stop and just wait a few more days for the nails to fall off, but that was not an option. She became exasperated, and she wasn’t happy that I marketed myself as a nail-painter but all I was doing was nudging her to stop working on her nails. I tried to ask her name 3 or 4 times, but she didn’t want to talk about that or how her day was or anything really except her acrylic nails that needed off. After repeating the soaking and scraping process several times, we eventually got the nails most of the way off. At that point she decided she wanted purple – no, clear – paint, and she wanted to polish her own nails. I sat with her while she painted. After that, I rubbed her hands with lotion.

Show me your hands – a tender moment, four hands joining together, each one with a story of its own but whose stories were growing to include that of the other set of hands.

Then she left. I remember the gold woman when I think about service often being idealized. We like when we hear stories. We like when we have something to give, and we can give it. We like to see the difference we make. We like when we know how to help. But those don’t always happen. Sometimes we give until it hurts but the hurt doesn’t look like we thought it would, but rather it looks like wondering why I didn’t think to study up on acrylic nail removal or why I couldn’t even learn this woman’s name. And it is then that we are forced into a ministry of presence. Which is a beautiful ministry, the most important kind, I think. Why? Because it involves two things we all are capable of doing – showing up, and staying. I have no idea what the woman that day left thinking. I don’t know her story. But I know she is part of mine, because she was the first person to force me to simply give my presence. I will never forget her hands.

Fast forward five months to a place 8000 miles away – Lubwe, Zambia. While the gold woman was the first to teach me about feeling vulnerable and letting my presence be enough, Lubwe is where I practiced it. Through the UD Center for Social Concern Cross-Cultural Immersion Program, I traveled with ten other people to Zambia and spent six weeks there. We spent time with Marianists in Lusaka and then went to the village of Lubwe for just under four weeks. The first day in Lubwe, we walked out of the compound where we stayed, to 100+ kids waiting and cheering at the gate. These kids know UD shows up every summer, and they knew what that meant. The first day, having 15 kids literally controlling my every move in an unfamiliar village was overwhelming. But then, every day after that, I showed up, and they showed up, and that was enough. Rarely did I walk out of the compound without being hugged by Wilfred or Angela or Eliza within 10 steps, and they’d put my arm around their shoulder, and I’d hold their hand, and we’d walk. I also went over to the hospital to help and learn what I could, and some days I’d be there late. Usually, around 5:00 each night, the kids march us over to this field where we watch akasubakowa, which is the sunset. It was my favorite part of the day. But a few times I stayed later at the hospital, and I will never forget walking out at 5:30 knowing I’d missed sunset and assuming I’d just go straight back to the compound for dinner and see the kids the next day, but seeing Angela and Jimmy sitting outside, waiting for me. They knew I would come out eventually, and that mattered enough to them that they skipped sunset to wait. Isn’t that how God loves us? God will wait. God knows we will come. Even if we are late, God will wait.

As time went on, it became more and more evident that solving any issue in the village was not going to be a box we checked. Poverty, injustice, lack of sufficient health care when a kid was sick with malaria and then when he got the medicine, lack of food that the pills had to be taken with. Kids wearing the same pants every day despite there being a hole across the entire back side of them, kids not going to school as often as they should, I could go on and on. And the more I was there and the more things I learned about, the more I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to fix any of them. But I wanted to fix them then more than ever because suddenly those issues had faces and names. And the more I realized I wasn’t going to fix them, the more I understood why I was really there. That was an immersion about presence. That was an experience about showing up, and staying. Because that is literally all I could do. I showed up. The kids knew we would, and so they did too. And then I stayed, not for a long time, really, but I stayed as long as I could, and even now I stay there in my heart sometimes. In our world full of doing, it can be hard to accept that showing up and staying is enough, but there, it was. And I think here, it is too. It should be, it can be.

I held more hands there in six weeks than I’ve held in the rest of my life combined, and I carry the stories of those hands every single day.

My experiences in LA and Zambia have been extremely influential, and I know the same is true for many people who have gone on any kind of immersion. The $500 award from the Rector’s Office will be given to the immersion programs to help more students have opportunities to step outside their comfort zones and into a new set of stories.

My hands have also set tables, and enjoyed meals with others at the table. It is a well-known fact that where there are Marianists, there is food, and when I remember all the meals I’ve shared with the Marianist family, I can’t help but smile. I remember meals at the Sisters’ house, where I’ve laughed so hard I was almost in tears at I don’t even remember what. Meals at discernment evenings over the past four years. The theology of dining with Chaminade Scholars in Assisi, where dinner lasted three hours and meant so much more than just a meal. Snacks that most of the time were more like meals at our Hearth Lay Marianist Community meeting; seriously, Joe Twiner and Lauren Chipchak make a mean cheese ball and a very firm peppermint bark. While we broke bread together in that way, we learned more about each other, and we invested in one another’s stories. I hope the Hearth we have created will continue to share stories together for years to come. I’ve also shared many a meal with my MSC – another setting where I tend to laugh so hard I cry – out of the middle of my eyes. I could tell those stories but you would all wonder why they made me laugh that hard, because, again, it wasn’t about exactly what was said. It’s not that we sit around telling jokes. It’s about setting a table and then showing up at it and staying long enough. Long enough for someone to say a word that sounds funny, or someone to tell a story about their day, or someone to ask a question. Thanks for the meals and late snacks, guys. They are some of my most cherished memories.

To each of those communities, thank you for taking me as I am and inspiring me to be my best.

Community holds hands well. They pull us forward. They squeeze them for comfort. They hold us back. They walk beside.

So, now I have shown you some of my hands. But not all of them. Not all the stories are beautiful. Some of them I don’t like and sometimes wish away. But they are part of my story, and I want to acknowledge that, because to leap over them feels inauthentic. Those ugly parts have been challenging, but community makes them lighter. And I think looking to Mary in the difficult stories is also key to understanding the way through them.

For example…I, along with many of you, stand before a transition, a time of uncertainty. But I have been remembering Mary’s hands, specifically the ones in Michelangelo’s Pietà, which sits immediately to the right when you enter St. Peter’s Basilica. One of Mary’s hands is grasping her Son’s lifeless body, holding Him tightly. It is in a position of deep love. The other hand is out, upwards, slightly bent. It signals openness. I pray that, as we move into the future, we can emulate Mary’s commitment to love at all times, even in the depths of sorrow and fear, and also to trust. To be open to the spirit and the way it guides us over time. To be open to showing up and staying. As I go forward into my vocation, which I feel involves working in health care, staying at the table is important. Staying at the table in hard policy discussions, listening to stories of patients and providers and making sure everyone who belongs at the table is given a place. That is a Marianist way of doing it.

My last story is a moment I shared with Seán, the one who first said, “Show me your hands.” He was about to leave, and I said, “Seán, I want to say thank you. You always make the person across from you feel like the most important person in the world.” He didn’t miss a beat. “Well that’s because you are! Don’t you know that? Do you believe that? Look into my eyes, can you at least see it there?” He took my hands as my eyes filled with tears, the kind of tears that happen when you are reminded of your goodness. I said yes. In that moment, my hands felt loved.

Isn’t that the whole point of all of this? To communicate to the person across from us that they matter? That they are important and we are grateful for them? To love them? I think it is. The first step of love is showing up with a heart open to loving. The second step is staying. Just stay. Stay and be. Sometimes staying is the most courageous thing to do. Staying with a situation. Sitting in the complexities of injustice. Staying with a question. Staying with the goodness that is myself. Staying with God while God walks with me on a path I can’t see the end of. Staying with a friend in his or her pain. Staying long enough to tell a story. Staying long enough to listen to a story. Staying long enough to see. Staying long enough to build connections. Stay when it feels uncomfortable, because that probably means we are vulnerable, and when we are vulnerable we can be authentic, and the encounter between one authentic person and another authentic person is the most beautiful thing in the world.

With everything I am, thank you.

Continue to share your stories. Continue to break bread. Continue to see the hope in rising from the dead.

So, sing with me,

'We come to share our stories. We come to break the bread. We come to know our rising from the dead.'

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