Who do you say you are?
With papers and final exams still to be tackled before graduation, 10 University of Dayton roommates and a dozen or so friends, many barefooted and clad in shorts, retreated to the tiny third-floor chapel in a campus house.
Welcome to the weekly 9 p.m. Mass on Mondays at 1903 Trinity Avenue, an oasis of tranquility in the middle of what can be a raucous college student neighborhood.
“I know these are your last days,” said Father Ignase “Iggy” Arulappen, S.M., standing behind a simple altar flanked by two candles. “Many times we read in the newspaper all that is bad in our world. We hear less about the grace of God. (The world) needs the eyes of grace and faith to see.”
My son, Ali, and his friends sat cross-legged on the floor and prayed for the recovery of one of the roommate's aunts, an end to school gun violence and the safety of the people of Nicaragua caught up in bloody anti-government protests. During the traditional “Sign of Peace,” the students embraced everyone in the room in a tender moment that lingered.
Afterwards, Ali said, “This is a time to take a breath, feel peace and feel the human touch.”
It’s also a bittersweet time for my son and his roommates, who lived together “in community,” to use the Marianist lingo, over two years in special student houses in UD’s neighborhood. An eclectic group, they hail from different parts of the country — from Pittsburgh and Atlanta to Fort Wayne and Cincinnati. One is Chinese. My son is a Muslim.
They shared meals and prayed together. They bared their souls about tough professors and broken relationships, divisiveness in the country and hopes for humanity. They challenged their neighbors to a crockpot cook-off and invited other students over for dinner and roundtable discussions every single week. They took turns tending to the demands of an energetic puppy. Some spent their summers in a dilapidated farmhouse in Appalachia, living among the people of Salyersville, Kentucky. Armed with degrees in fields as diverse as electrical engineering and English, all worried about what the uncertain future holds for them.
As their days together wound down, one joked, “We’ll never live in a 10-bedroom house again in our lives,” leaving unsaid that the bond of friendship that unites them today will be harder to maintain when they move the last couch out and move on to new lives.
I flash back to the words of Father Jim Schimelpfening, S.M., at first-year orientation Mass at UD Arena nearly four years ago: “I hope you learn how to ask questions, the questions that really make a difference, the questions that change lives,” he said.
“Who do you say you are? How you answer that question sets the stage for everything.”
If graduation is the ultimate final exam, these guys may have aced the answer to that question.
Ali is heading to NYU to earn a graduate degree in social work and turn his passion for helping troubled youth into a profession. Others are studying theology and medicine or taking jobs in engineering and finance. One has signed up for a year of service in Chicago with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, which works to help children and families heal and rebuild after violence and conflict.
All seven graduating seniors are taking University of Dayton President Eric Spina’s charge at the spring commencement ceremony to heart: “Do not use your degree just to make a living. Use your degree to make a difference.”