Becoming: Michelle Maddex reflects on her time at SCU
One day a few weeks ago I woke up at 4 am panicking about graduation, “who will I be when I leave here?” I wondered, seriously concerned that as I drove away in June my identity would suddenly dissolve. After attempting to deny the fact that I was graduating stopped working, I moved into a pretty consistent state of anxiety. This year especially Santa Clara has felt 100% like home. The pieces have come together and I finally know who and where to go to find peace, joy, inspiration and love. And leaving behind those people and spaces is one of the scariest things I can imagine.
Santa Clara is the first place that has been truly mine, where I haven’t had to worry about taking care of other people or being the glue that holds my family together. In the past four years I finally had the chance to become me in a deep and genuine way I never allowed myself to before. I have found myself, found God and found a community that has nourished me so much. The anxiety I’ve been feeling is not based in a fear of what’s next, but rather in a fear of leaving behind a place that has become home and friends who have become family.
When I came to Santa Clara I called myself a universe person. After surviving a really hard year with my family and ending up at my dream school I knew there was something more involved than my own resiliency. I thanked the universe regularly but was resistant to religion and God because my experiences were either of boring masses that meant nothing to me or stories of exclusion and judgment. Then I came to Santa Clara and found SCCAP where I met people who were loving, accepting and committed to faith and social justice. I started going to the 9 pm mass and met numerous people who showed me that religion was not synonymous with judgment and exclusion. I was introduced to a God that was loving, accepting and wanted peace, equality and justice for everyone.
Junior year I studied abroad at the Casa in El Salvador where my whole world was turned upside down. I came face-to-face with deep suffering in a community of people who couldn’t always feed their children, whose homes collapsed when it rained, and who had the strongest faith I had ever encountered. Why did they have to experience so much suffering and how could they have such strong faith when they were living with so little? Where was God in their suffering? As I struggled with these questions, the Salvadorans taught me about liberation theology and the God they believed was with them, accompanying them in their suffering. Everyday I heard “gracias a Dios," thanking God for each other, the food on the table, the sunshine, every little thing they had. And “primero Dios” when you said goodbye, because only God could give us another day together. Again, they challenged my idea of God and introduced me to a loving, present and compassionate God.
At the same time, they taught me to be vulnerable and, for the first time, I let myself feel, I stopped trying to be strong and together and started to open up to my own pain that I had been hiding from. I delved into and struggled with my own pain, and felt more alive, more genuinely me, and more in touch with reality than I ever had.
Then the four months ended and it was time to come home. Although I had changed, most things back home hadn’t. So many people were unaware of the suffering that existed outside of their comfortable bubbles, and people I had come to love were still struggling to put food on the table in El Salvador. I felt alone, lost, and didn’t know where I fit in at SCU anymore. Just like resiliency wasn’t the reason I had survived in high school, strength and determination were not enough to get me through that time.
I didn’t want to be at Santa Clara, I wanted to be in El Salvador where at least I was in touch with the suffering and surrounded by community. But as hard as I tried to resist finding my home again, Santa Clara provided me with the community and spaces to slowly bring the light back into my life. JC [Landry] invited me to read at a reconciliation service and, crying through the entire service, I realized that I needed something else. I couldn’t do this alone and I couldn’t keep dwelling on the past; I had to move forward somehow.
In the spring I went on the silent retreat and for the first time in my life I asked God for help. I never even knew how to ask the people around me for help, let alone some abstract divine presence who I was afraid would judge me for not knowing or being enough. But feeling stuck and suffocated by that deep pain, I had to surrender my pride and fear and ask for help. I had slowly opened up to a different idea of a God who was loving, compassionate and not judgmental, and I finally let myself take a chance at my own personal relationship with him.
I started to pray, even though I had no idea what I was doing. I came back with a new hope that I would make it through this time. Through the Search community, writing a talk on reconciliation and slowly opening myself to God and the community at Santa Clara, I started to feel at home again.
These intentional communities that are committed to faith and justice are what make Santa Clara home. They give us the chance to ask the hard questions, be honest and vulnerable with one another, acknowledge the suffering in the world and find hope in a communal desire to make change. Through Search, SCCAP, Sunday night mass and so many incredible people on this campus, the person I found in El Salvador came to life at SCU. These communities showed me that the two places did not have to be separate but were connected in so many ways. I found what I loved about El Salvador at SCU--the things that made both home. And I when I wake up at 4 am afraid of leaving I find comfort knowing that I can find communities of faith and justice wherever I go, it just takes a little searching.
Next year I am going back to El Salvador to work at the Casa as a Community Coordinator. I will be living with students who are studying abroad, accompanying them as they too come face-to-face with suffering. And although leaving Santa Clara and my communities is scary I am so blessed to be going back to the place where I first found what really matters.
Sometimes I worry about returning to the country that opened me up to so much pain, but I have found that I am most alive when I am close to suffering. I am motivated by the honesty, strength, vulnerability and faith of people who suffer but know something about God that so many of us who have lived comfortable lives don’t know. I cannot understand their suffering, their joy, resiliency and strength, but to me that is proof there is something more out there, and in El Salvador it's hard not to feel close to the God of compassion the Salvadorans first introduced me to.
Again and again at Santa Clara we hear about finding our passion and going out to serve the world. The past four years have been full of people and experiences that have motivated me to make that a reality. Sometimes staying at Santa Clara forever sounds a lot less scary. But slowly I am seeing how easy, selfish and comfortable that would be. The nourishment I have found here is not meant to just live in me; I have to take it forward with me and share it with the world.
When filling out my application for the position at Casa I thought about the way it transformed me. The love, wholeness, community and honest understanding of the world I found there. Next year I get to continue to live into that and accompany students while they too find that. We as college-educated students are amongst the most privileged people in the world and I believe it is my responsibility to use that privilege to make change. I hope to continue to understand the reality of suffering so many are experiencing and live deeper into finding my place as a privileged white person in a world of inequality.
My decision to go to El Salvador next year isn’t necessarily the typical after college path. Lots of people look at me funny when I tell them what I’m doing and when I told my dad I got the position all he said is “how will you pay for your loans?” I am going to be far away, poor, and may come back more confused about what to do next than I already am. But my time at SCU has not taught me that I should be starting a life long career next year simply because it is comfortable. It has taught me that what’s important is finding my passion, learning about the needs of the world and combining the two into this thing they call a vocation. I am the best version of myself in El Salvador, I come to life accompanying others, being vulnerable and close to suffering. I know that next year I will be alive in a way that is honest, in touch and loving, and I hope that I can come closer to finding what that means long term.
Santa Clara is preparing us to take a commitment to social justice, faith, love and each other out into the world. In the last four years I have grown into a relationship with God that is about serving, loving and working for justice and I have found strength to carry that beyond SCU. I used to think I was supposed to be strong for everyone else, but I have found that being honest, vulnerable and asking for help brings us together. I have found wholeness in my brokenness and in the brokenness of the world. We find community, God, home and love in that suffering. Santa Clara has shown me that, rather than being about judgment and exclusion, a relationship with God and a home in the church is about love--about finding it, spreading it and living out of it.