Note: This is Mr. Weber's address to the JP II student body on August 18, 2008.
As I was finding out about JP II late last winter, trying to decide if I wanted to move my family here and take this job, one of the things that stood out to me about you was the Christian Service Internship program. Last year, you gave 26,000 hours of service to the poor and the disadvantaged of the Nashville area. That is extraordinary, and you should be proud of the good you’ve done.
There is a temptation, I suppose, to regard your 40 hour service requirement much like you would regard a major paper or test—a necessary evil you must complete, a means to an end, something you must cross off the to do list. I would understand that, partly, because all of us race from project to project, task to task, and we are, in fact, a society that values efficiency.
But as you begin to work with Mr. Fernandez to decide what your service will be this year, or if you’ve already decided and are starting your hours, I’d like to suggest a very simple alternative way of thinking about what you’re doing.
A quick story: In my younger years, I played the guitar. There was a very small, very old nun in Montgomery who visited the prisons in the Montgomery area. Out of the blue one afternoon in early December, she called me in desperation and said that the Christmas program in the prison was that evening and her guitar player was sick, so she needed me to play the guitar that night and lead the men in Christmas carols. I am ashamed to admit that my first instinct was to try and find a way to say I couldn’t make it. Leading prisoners in singing religious music was not on my top ten list of things I aspired to do, but sister had caught me so off guard that I couldn’t make up an excuse fast enough, so I said yes. Little old nuns can be very persistent.
We went to the prison. I had never been to a prison before. We walked through approximately 4 security doors, into a cafeteria filled with men, sitting in chairs, waiting for us to get there in the front. This wasn’t a prison for light-weight criminals. This was a maximum security prison—in the crowd were thieves, rapists, and murderers. I was so uneasy I could barely play. Sister welcomed them, then motioned for me to play “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. I began playing, expecting an anemic response—these were, after all, men. Men don’t sing. These were, after all, convicted felons. Convicted felons don’t sing.
I was completely wrong. Every single man in that cafeteria sang loudly, with smiles on their faces, as if they really meant it, as if they really believed Christ were coming and they wanted to welcome him. At one point in the program, I was so moved by their response, my eyes started to well up. It was one of the single greatest religious moments in my life, even today.
As sister and I drove home that evening and I was thinking about their response, I began to have nagging doubts as to their sincerity. I said to sister—“You’ve been working in prisons for a long time, sister, do you think their response tonight was sincere? Were they just going through the motions to look good, to try and convince the guards they were changed men, to make a stronger argument to the parole board?
Sister pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned and looked at me with fire in her eyes and said something I’ll never forget:
That’s not our concern! We have one simple thing to do, and that is to BE JESUS to those men. Be Jesus, and let the Lord worry about everything else.
As you begin your Christian service this year—in whatever venue you find yourself in—I want you to take to heart the words of this little old nun—for those brief hours you are involved in service, put everything else aside and simply be Jesus to the persons to whom you are ministering. God will take care of everything else.
Then the Son of Man will say to those on his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Then they will answer “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and not minister to you?”
Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you do for the least of these, you do unto me”. (Matthew 25:41-46)