Steve and Father Camillo Ripamonti
I once heard a professor describe a Jesuit education as “an education that ruins you”. As I enter my senior year here at John Carroll, I can directly speak to this. Through John Carroll, I have witnessed first-hand the horrors of poverty in both Cleveland and various international locations such as Guatemala and Jamaica. What I saw in these experiences both disgusted and inspired me. My comfortable privileged life was ruined. I began to look at things differently. This notion is not meant to be pessimistic, but rather to explain the feelings one experiences when he or she is exposed to the harshness of life. To see another suffer is sobering and turns one’s life upside down.
John Carroll employee Carrie Pollick once told me that experiencing poverty first-hand can be compared to a pebble in your shoes. At first, you shake it off, but that pebble turns out to be more and more of a nuisance as you continue to walk. When you have a sobering experience of witnessing another human in suffering, you are forced to reevaluate how you live your daily life, because you have had that sobering experience. You realize that you can no longer continue on the current path that you are on because you are disturbed by what you have seen.
In my Senior year, I made the decision to study abroad in Rome for the semester. I never could have anticipated the impact. Rome is unique in that it is a city full of beggars and homeless individuals. On a typical walk to class, one can expect to be asked for spare change by at least four or five individuals. One day, I saw a beautiful rainbow over the Tiber River. I followed the top of the rainbow to the bottom of a bridge. It was then that I noticed around 20-30 homeless individuals sleeping under the bridge. That image summarized Rome. It was a city full of beauty and horror. Beautiful churches coexist with beggars with deformities.
Steve (middle) with two fellow volunteers
That’s when it all hit me. I wasn’t here just for me. I was here for others. I could no longer pass beggars in the streets, avoiding eye contact so that I was not guilted into giving them money. For the first two months in Rome, I was self-centered. I tried to find happiness, but I did not know exactly where to look. I didn’t find it in drinking beer and eating delicious foods. I didn’t find it in traveling to other countries or in buying new clothes for myself. Something big was missing. I decided to ask Dr. Casciani, the director of the Program, to provide me with an opportunity to participate in service, and she delivered this to me. In October, I began working for the Jesuit-run Astalli Refugee Center, located below the Church of the Gesù. For the first time on the trip, I felt useful. Despite speaking little Italian, I was able to achieve genuine human interaction. I was merely handing out food and cleaning trays, but I finally felt useful. Every Monday and Thursday, I helped provide a warm meal for over 400 refugees from Africa, Syria, Lebanon, and the Philippines. In helping them and sharing a smile with them, I had removed the “pebble” from my shoe. I was walking lighter and started to feel better about myself.
The importance was letting people know that someone else cared about them. Despite knowing little Italian, I provided a sympathetic audience to those who were struggling. The hardest sights to see were hungry children. Yet, I found myself energized when I learned the universal language: Playing. I didn’t have to be in Italian 301 to initiate a game of tag or “duck, duck, goose”.
God had turned my weaknesses into my strengths, my stumbling blocks into my stepping-stones. My somewhat addictive personality was now addicted to serving. I found genuine gratification in serving the vulnerable in society and being in solidarity with them. It energized my heart and channeled my energies. I started getting up earlier to make snacks for my homeless friend, whom I passed every day on the way to school. I started to study more, because the refugees stressed to me the importance of education. For the first time abroad, I no longer felt that I was looking for something. I had found what had made my heart leap for joy, and I decided to dedicate the rest of my trip to it. While I was not sure of exactly of what God’s plan was for me, I knew I was taking a step in the right direction to discover where I fit in. For the time being, my hands were carrying out God’s work, and that was enough for me. I decided to let go and let God, and I felt calm for the first time.