Want purpose for your school breaks?


Thinking about traveling with Newman for the May Pilgrimage or a FOCUS Mission Trip?  Claire Dang reflects on her experience last spring break…

If you had asked me at the beginning of sophomore year what I would be doing for spring break, I never would have said “going to Nebraska on a mission trip.” So obviously that’s exactly what I did! I had the opportunity to spend a week serving the people of the St. Augustine Mission on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska with an incredible team of FOCUS missionaries and students from various schools. It was a week filled with laughing, crying, cleaning, playing, singing, eating, and praying . Lots of praying. It was a week of eating in a school cafeteria, playing with the kids at recess, sleeping on the school’s stage, and playing dodgeball, get-the-soccer-ball-in-the-basketball-hoop-with-no-hands ball, or swing dancing in the gym after a long day. It was a week full of learning about the Omaha and Winnebago people and their culture, not to mention my Catholic faith. It was a week of rediscovering the meaning of being a child of God. A week of discovering more about this crazy adventure called life. While I’ll never be able to truly capture everything this week of serving and learning means to me, here’s the tip of that iceberg.

“There’s no time like the present.”

In a world where technology allows us to be doing seven hundred things at once, it can sometimes feel like we’re getting so much done; that we’re so connected to everyone. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Being present isn’t just a matter of being in the same room as other people or listening to them talk. It’s a matter of being fully attentive to those around you; not distracted by the screen that just lit up with a new message. We have to make the effort to listen; not hear, listen. In a society that values efficiency, it’s hard to slow down and not worry about even the next ten minutes. We’re thinking about the next five things on our to-do list while working on three others.

This also applies to our relationship with Christ. How many times have you used your busy schedule as an excuse for not making time to be with God? I know I have. One of the many things I learned on this mission was just how much I’d been missing. I started each day with Mass and had a Holy Hour during which the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and confession was available. Truly living in the moment and spending so much time in the presence of Our Lord opened my eyes to the kind of life He wants me to live. It placed Christ at the center of everything I did.

Mission Team

I was able to do what I was made for—serving those around me and bearing witness to Christ’s love for us. In the midst of the chaotic lives we lead, it’s easy to forget to slow down and remove distractions from our lives so that we can be fully present. Work, school, and balancing life can be stressful at times. For the first time in a long time, I let myself forget about school and the responsibilities that I had left behind for the week. I learned to be fully present to those around me, especially my team. Whether it was riding in the car, making breakfast for dinner, or praying as a team, it was incredible to see how quickly we were brought together as a team; more importantly, a family. Instead of pulling out our phones and scrolling through all the social media, we played dodgeball, FOCUSball (the basketball/soccer combo), swing danced, or were just plain crazy. It was wonderful.

Claire painting in the outdoor classroom.

“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”

That’s pretty much all there is to it. Leading small-group Lectio Divina, playing tag at recess, and listening to our Omaha guide for the week, Dwight, share stories, gave me the opportunity to impart bits and pieces of my experiences and thoughts with those around me, and hopefully teach them something. Likewise, I was able to learn from the witness of those around me, growing from their shared experiences and thoughts. Like a never-ending connect-the-dots, our lives take shape as we meet different people and learn different things. It doesn’t come pre-numbered, although sometimes that would be nice.

Claire and team members serving dinner at the volunteer appreciation dinner.

“Take a look through my eyes.”

Throughout the week, I was exposed to so much new knowledge about the Winnebago and Omaha people and their culture. I also added quite a few fun facts and important chunks to my ever-growing knowledge of the Catholic faith. Having the chance to live through Dwight and his experiences, I know have a better grasp of what it means to be Omaha. Change of perspective is a powerful thing. The ability to see people through God’s eyes, or to see people as Christ himself, like Mother Teresa, allows us to encounter Him in ways we never have before. I left the week with a new view of seeing things from different viewpoints as opposed to judging books by their covers.

“Hakuna Matata.”

“It means no worries.” And boy does that sound nice! Letting go of everything besides what was happening gave me the chance to just be. It reminded me of what it was like to be a kid again; going to school and learning, playing outside, not having a list of 972 things that need to get done. So often we hear from the Scripture that we are the children of God. Getting to play dodgeball in the school gym and being so carefree really reminded me of what that means. The sheer joy I felt getting to run towards a playground with nothing else to do is something that I would love to have all the time. As I began to find out over the course of the week, having a dynamic relationship with God can do the same thing. Spending more time in prayer, Adoration, and going to daily Mass provided a very good starting point for that journey.

Looking back, I can say that I didn’t fully realize the impact that a mission trip would have on me. It helped me pass “Go” and collect some graces that I really lacked. The people, the places, the food, and the fun each provided an opportunity for growth and made the week that much more memorable. You can look at life as a treadmill or a playground. If you actually read every word I wrote, you know which one I would pick in a heartbeat. It’s very easy to get in a rut—spiritual, literal, or otherwise—and not want to mix things up. We like familiar things because they’re just that, familiar. It’s comfortable to do the same things over and over again, but if we never allow ourselves to try anything other than what’s familiar, we end up with the shortest straw; for then we will never know what could, in time, be familiar too.