When I was notified of my shifts by email a week or so before the event, I became a bit discouraged. I was assigned cashier duty in the food court on Saturday and Sunday between 10:30 am and 3:30 pm, precisely the time when most of the sessions were taking place. I felt a bit disheartened that for my first Encounter I would miss most of the presentations, and began to wonder if maybe I should have saved volunteering for another year when I had already had an opportunity to experience the Encounter.
Nevertheless I reported for my first meeting on Friday at 1:00 pm. Though many of my friends from Canada were attending the Encounter, when I arrived in the packed meeting I did not spot anyone I knew. And yet I still felt at home, loved, embraced by these strangers who all loved the same person I do, and who were brought there by the same purpose. Even though this particular meeting was all about the business of the running the New York Encounter with volunteers, it was still approached as any gathering of CL, with opening music and prayer. The leader then called us to look seriously at our reasons for doing this, pointing out that the shifts were long and the work was difficult, and that we were not getting paid. "Why would someone do this?" he asked. He reminded us of the great opportunity we had been given not only to serve one another (the New York Encounter is a free event that is only possible to run through the work of volunteers), but to serve Christ through one another. It was a very powerful message that I needed to hear, and there being so confronted with my own deep desire to be loved, I knew that I wanted to do my best to be Christ to every person I met through my service.
We had a Mass celebrated just for volunteers, and the Celebrant gave a beautiful and encouraging homily, after which a dear friend from Canada met up with me and took me to see some of the biggest sights in the city. And then that evening I took in two beautiful sessions, and felt completely filled up.
The following morning began bright and early with a Mass for volunteers at 7:45 am (Mass was offered daily for the Encounter, but a special Mass was celebrated earlier for volunteers who would be working and unable to attend with everyone else.) This and the Sunday Mass the next day would prove to be the only events I would attend at the New York Encounter. When I reported for my first shift at 10:30 am, I was determined to smile and be joyful to everyone I met. The people working with me, mostly early high school students, were amazing and such a joy to be around. And being able to meet almost everyone who attended the Encounter was truly a gift. I spent most of my six-hour shift on my feet with no breaks, but was completely sustained by the joy of knowing I was doing this for an Other. Everyone I met was so nice, even when we ran out of coffee (which happened often!) or the waits were long.
As the end of my shift grew nearer, I began to feel the strain of the long day. I was sore, hungry, tired, and freezing (our station was next to an open door), and feeling a sense of satisfaction at a good day's work, eagerly counting down the hours until I was finished. There was a session immediately following my shift that a friend was moderating which I hoped to attend, and one following that by Cardinal Dolan which I was certain I would make. However as 3:30 pm approached, our station began to line up again. There was only me and two high school students left, and the crowds just kept coming. "I hope someone is coming to relieve me," I said, and one of the students desperately replied, "Oh no, we can't do this by ourselves!!!" I assured her I would not leave if nobody else came, and in fact no one did. My check-out time came and went, and the crowds kept on coming. The session I hoped to attend finished while I, still sore and tired, had to force the smile that came so easily for most of the day. When finally the crowd subsided and I was able to leave, I was too sore to stay for Cardinal Dolan's session. I went back to my hotel to rest, feeling more than a little sad.
I knew I didn't have much time to rest because some friends from Canada had made plans to go to supper and Broadway together that evening. I have never been to Broadway, and had been planning on dressing up and looking fancy, but I was too tired to do anything but rest. I called my husband to chat for a bit, then hurriedly dressed with only a fraction of the effort I had intended on using, and rushed back to meet our friends for supper.
The rest of the event was a beautiful reunion of all of the people that I love most in the Movement. We filled the tiny pizza restaurant (which, incidentally, I would have been WAY overdressed for if I had been able to prepare as I had wanted to!) with thirty people, and more than half of that crowd went on to Broadway. Having never experienced a Broadway show before I was in complete awe, but even more than all the magic of that event was the fact of sharing it with so many people who I loved so dearly. When I had come to the Encounter I had an idea of how I wanted it to go, but what God was giving me was something so much greater. I feel like all my experience of New York has been bathed in relationships, and it has made it all so much sweeter.
The next day I was able to attend the 9:00 am Mass of the Encounter, celebrated by Cardinal O'Malley of New York (the first time I have ever attended Mass celebrated by a Cardinal) and probably close to fifty other members of the clergy. And then it was back to another shift. I was overjoyed to see the same familiar faces from the day before, and I worked with renewed purpose. I was even able to meet an individual who gave a profound presentation to our CL Vacation last summer via Skype, and was able to introduce myself and thank him for his words. And I met the President of Communion and Liberation, and was able to thank him for being with us. His response was to thank me for what I was doing - me! Here he was travelling from Italy to the US and spending his entire day in meetings and giving talks, and he was thanking me for taking money for coffee! It was truly a humbling experience.
As I sat in my home Tuesday morning, preparing for school, my thoughts were immediately brought back to that experience. Being aware of Whom I was serving made everything come alive that weekend. It turned menial work into an opportunity for joy, a small moment of interaction into an encounter with Christ in each person I met. I was deeply aware of my own need for love, and desperately wanted to share that with others, knowing how much the fact of being loved had brought Christ to me in so many moments of my trip. Faced with my seven children that morning, I was so deeply aware of how often I let that same opportunity slip by. How I let the mundane work of housewifery and homeschooling take over, and neglect the work of their hearts. Over the weekend it had been my simple goal to look at each person in the eyes and to smile, and yet how often do I look past my children, to the next job to do?
That morning I realized that Christ is asking the same of me now as He did at the New York Encounter. If I could have a Mom's meeting every morning before school, I imagine the leader would tell me, "Remember Whom you are serving." And that I would look around, and see the faces of so many people who love me. And I would feel the deep desire to share that love back with them, so that in every moment however brief, there would be the possibility for an encounter with Christ.
Often serving strangers is so much easier than serving the ones we love. And yet for me it was through service to complete strangers that God has showed me the deficiencies I have been living with in my own home, the opportunities I have let slip by. In the same way that a dull and physically demanding job at the Encounter was transformed simply through interaction with the people before me, so too if purpose to engage with my children will all the things about my daily life that bring me the most stress be transformed into something I not only complete, but that I respond to and accept for them. Am I disappointed that I spent my first New York Encounter behind a table while all the sessions went on without me? Not one little bit. Because I know that by using me for His service, God has accomplished everything He intended. He has given me new purpose by putting me in touch with my deepest need, and the reality that this is not something to be fulfilled outside the home but within it, and through the dear ones with whom I am blessed to share my life. And now that I am home, the lessons I have learned in New York will carry with me through the rest of my life. God absolutely intended to use my service this weekend. Because through it, He awaked my desire to serve those I hold most dear. And so my goal, no matter how arduous, draining, or mundane the daily work becomes, remains - Look them in the eye. Smile. Share the love that you so desperately desire. Be Christ to them, and allow them to be Christ to you.
ps: Incidentally the friend I travelled with attended all of the sessions, and shared them with me with great passion on our trip home. So even though I missed all of them, I feel like I was still able to experience the Encounter through her. God never leaves us lacking for anything.