There was never any question in my mind that I would do a year of service after my undergraduate days at Fairfield University. International service, to be precise.
I had had too many positive, life-changing immersion experiences during undergrad: conversing with folks sentenced to life in prison in the Philippines, learning the tragic history of the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation, studying liberation theology and helping build a house for a family in need in Nicaragua. I was made to serve internationally—and certainly, there was plenty of need. I’d put that international studies degree to good use right out of the gate.
But when I landed in Bolivia a handful of months later, something didn’t click. I didn’t want to play fútbol with the primary school students—I don’t like sports. I didn’t want to dance with the highschoolers—imagine, me, in my cargo shorts! I didn’t want to speak only Spanish in my community of European housemates—I mean, everyone actually knew some English. Plus, why didn’t anyone talk to me about finding God in all things?
Something wasn’t right here.
I’m struck by the image of Peter just hurling himself into the water in this weekend’s Gospel. The guy sees Jesus and just leaps overboard. He’s that pumped.
But when he gets to shore, it’s not long before Jesus is wondering aloud whether or not Peter loves him. Peter: dripping, shivering, smelling of fish because—again, this shouldn’t be forgotten—he hurled himself into the water to get to Jesus as soon as possible.
Of course, Peter loves Jesus. But something isn’t quite right.
“Do you love me?” Times three. And Jesus goes on about sheep and lambs.
For Peter, hurling himself toward Jesus wasn’t enough. He still had to do the hard work of nurturing relationships, of caring for people, of repairing broken and ruptured relationships. Good intentions might get you out of the gate, but they don’t get you across the finish line. And Jesus wants to be sure Peter is on board.
After all, he did deny Jesus just a few days ago.
That younger version of myself wasn’t so different from that over-eager Peter. Those life-changing, awe-inspiring undergraduate service immersion trips caught a lot of fish—I threw my net in the water and couldn’t believe what I encountered. But was I as intentional about the relationships as I should have been?
In Bolivia, I wasn’t building houses; I was building relationships. And that’s much harder—and exponentially more important.
The lifelong work of justice and love and compassion and mercy—of building up God’s dream for our world—is merely glimpsed in these powerful yet quick moments of encounter. They sent me diving in the water, doggy-paddling my way toward Jesus on the shores of landlocked Bolivia.
That excitement and energy and head full of good intentions got me on shore. But it would take the invitation of Jesus, again and again, reminding me to love the real people right in front of me. And to recognize that a life of service isn’t about what I stand to benefit—let alone my own preferences and comforts—but rather about emptying myself of ego and superiority and humbly making myself available to feed the lambs and tend the sheep.
Eric Clayton is the deputy communications director at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, responsible for developing and sharing resources and reflections to promote Ignatian spirituality. He is the author of the forthcoming book Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press). He and his wife are both graduates of Fairfield University and live in Baltimore, MD, with their two daughters. Follow his writing at ericclaytonwrites.com.