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SCSJ Fall Service and Justice Trips seek solidarity with marginalized populations across the country

The initial motivation for Creighton University freshman Jimmy Connors to participate in a Schlegel Center for Service and Justice Fall Service and Justice trip might not have been the most profound mover, but beginnings don’t necessarily portend endings.

“Everyone I’ve talked to seems to have a deep reason for going on a service trip,” said Connors, who hails from Boston, Massachusetts, and was one of 234 Creighton students who deployed to 30 different sites around the country during the University’s fall break to take part in service projects and immersion experiences. “The truth for me is that it was cheaper than a flight back home. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started. I thought, ‘Well, it’s just a week. What difference could it really make?’ By the end, I didn’t want to leave.”

Connors’ trip took him just 65 miles down Interstate 80 to an organic farm outside Lincoln, but as with most of the embarkations in the SCSJ’s 33rd annual installment of the Service and Justice trips, it led him to a new perspective on the world. Working all week in the fields, harvesting the farm’s produce by hand, Connors said he grew into an appreciation of something most people in modern life take for granted.

“At first, we’re doing this very hard, intense work — it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would be life-changing,” Connors said. “You’re dirty. You’re working muscles you didn’t even know you had. But it’s such an intimate experience. When you’re buying your food, you don’t think that much about it. We’re detached from the food products we buy. Every night, we reflected on that and thought about how we’re part of something much, much bigger.”

And speaking of bigger, the SCSJ’s Fall Service and Justice trips continue to attract more students and widen the spectrum of experiences. This year’s contingent traveled 41,130 miles across the U.S., from St. Paul, Minnesota, to El Paso, Texas, from Wheeling, West Virginia, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and right in Creighton’s own backyard with students helping out at Creighton alumnus Josh Dotzler’s Abide in North Omaha.

Students also took part in immersion trips, learning about sustainability, life on a Native American reservation or about the Civil Rights Movement.

“You’ve got to get uncomfortable to get comfortable,” said Ameer Chughtai, a junior from Lincoln who took part in an immersion experience on sustainability with the Sisters of Providence in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. But after a little while talking with the sisters and helping them prepare a farm for winter, I realized that this is how I’m learning what I can do with my life and with my assets and abilities. This trip taught me, outside of an academic setting, some of the most important things in life.”

Students worked in homeless shelters and on farms, in soup kitchens and in inner-city schools, but many found the most important effort they made was to be present, going alongside people who are struggling, listening to their stories.

Solidarity, one of the SCSJ’s seven pillars, was a watchword this fall.

“It’s important we live in solidarity with other people,” said Margaret “MJ” Jow, a senior from Fort Worth, Texas, who took her first service trip this fall, an immersion experience in civil rights in Montgomery, Alabama. “For those of us on the trips, we chose to go to a number of places where the people don’t have a choice. They’re living in it. It’s not an opportunity to live a day in their shoes, but to summon the empathy within us and to understand how they live and to think about how we can work to make it better.”

The message is one Creighton students carry from their very first moments on campus until long after they’ve graduated and gone out into the world. The Service and Justice trips, Jow said, make the University’s mission and its Jesuit values tangible.

“What sets Creighton apart from any other school in the nation are the service and justice trips. I have friends at different schools all across the country and when I told them what I did, they said, ‘I wish I could do something like that.’ You’re living out the Creighton mission on an SCSJ trip, living for and with others. That’s a feeling you get at Creighton from the moment you step on campus. And we think of it as a privilege to serve. We are so blessed to be able to do this and reflect our faith.”

Reflection, a key component of the Service and Justice trips, takes place at the end of each day of the trip. Bradley Koenen, a junior from Appleton, Wisconsin, spent his week on the reservation of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska in the northeastern part of the state, helping out at a school and engaging members of the community.

“My experience was definitely educational,” said Koenen, a descendant of the Blackfeet people. “The reflection was probably the moment where we learned the most. We would spend the day in conversations, playing with the kids at the school. I was definitely graced by all that we saw, everyone we talked to. With all of that learning, the question we kept coming back to was, ‘Well, what’s next?’ And it appeared to us that thing was to share our experience, open the discussion about what’s going on at the reservation and continue someone else’s education.”

Jackie Rivas, a sophomore who traveled to St. Paul as part of an advocacy trip for the homeless community there, including a “Day in the Life” activity in which the Creighton contingent experienced the Twin Cities through the eyes of a homeless person, thought about the sometimes slow march to justice that begins with a simple step.

“Sometimes, being in solidarity is the most you can do in a moment,” Rivas said. “Advocacy and justice can take a long time, but just being with someone, recognizing that we are a community and that we are connected, that can happen right now.”

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