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Center for Social Concerns


MJ Murray-Vachon

Send Off Talk 1998

By MJ Murray-Vachon

It is true that my oldest child is starting his first day of Little League today. And as one of his coaches, I am learning a lot that many of you already know. I could write a book about Little League and we have only done it for a month! This morning after the first half of the inning I said to the players, “I can’t stay for the rest of the game.” And the littlest player on the team, who just turned seven, said, “Gosh, MJ, you can’t be leaving! What could be more important than our game!” And the oldest player on the team who is eleven, who has this incredible deadpan wit, said, “She has to go do heart surgery, leave her alone.” And I laughed as I drove here because I think that doing a year of volunteer work is akin to having your heart operated on.

A few weeks ago I met with one of you, a young woman graduating this weekend, contemplating doing a year of service work. When I drove home from that meeting, I was amazed that 16 years after my year as an Associate the values that I experienced still burn deeply within me and are played out in my life on a day-to-day basis.

So I thought this morning I would share with you my Top Ten List of those lessons that I learned during my Associate year that are applicable today.

#10: Do the best with what you have been given.
This weekend you will graduate from Notre Dame, a place of incredible facilities, wonderful people and amazing resources. You will go into the areas of social science, teaching, parish ministry, health care and you will learn very quickly that the resources are often very limited, the people understaffed, and you will be confronted with complaining or being so frustrated that you don’t do the task ahead of you. Or, you can do the best with what you have been given. And that is truly applicable in my life today.

Late the other night I realized that in the time I have been given to speak to you, there is no way I could tell you my entire Top Ten List. I have it written out but I need to skip 9, 8, 7 and 6, though they are kind of witty … I hate to miss them, but I would keep you here all day. So I am going to go right to number 5.

#5: When you are done using the toilet, please flush it.
I am not kidding you. This was the issue in my Associate household. Unfortunately, it split along gender lines. We lived in the West and the men in the household felt we shouldn’t flush the toilet after each use to conserve water. The women in the house just thought that idea was disgusting. Whether you flush every time or every few times, I think it is interesting that is the tension that those of us who are Christians walk with every day: the tension of do I meet my own needs or do I meet the needs of the larger community? But in the end the lesson is the same: think of others. As a mother now, if I had a dollar for every time I say to my household, “Please flush the toilet. Flush the toilet, please. Who just used the bathroom? Would you come back and flush the toilet,” I would be a wealthy woman. But in the end it is one of those day-to-day things we tell our children to remind them that they are not the only ones here on earth, that our task in life is to think of others.

#4: You can’t pull a U-haul behind a hearse (otherwise known as, “You can’t take it with you.”).
I cannot take the credit for this one. When I was an Associate I worked with the elderly. And one woman whose name was Mary lived in a ranch home. She was bedridden. From her front door to her bed was the only cleared path in her house. Every inch of the house was cluttered with all of her stuff: books, magazines, clothes, handbags, shoes, her frog collection, her teapot collection, her silver platter collection. There was not one inch in her house that was not covered. One day I was sitting on her bed and said, “Mary, what will you do with all of this when you die?” And she looked at me and said, “I don’t know – you can’t pull a U-haul behind a hearse.” Many of you will go into programs with a pillar of simple lifestyle, where living simply is held up. Most of us here don’t really know what that is about. We have been born into comfort, if not privilege. And sometimes that idea of living simply pushes buttons in us that makes us feel guilty or causes fear that we will be judged for the lifestyle that we have. But it is so important, especially in today’s world, that we have the courage to ask ourselves: how are we using the gifts that we have? – how are we using the resources that we have? We are here for relationship. We are not here for materials reasons. And so it is important that we remember at the end of our lives we do not want U-hauls, we want those people we love and who have loved us to follow our hearse. We can’t commit our lives to the almighty dollar or to the mall. We have to commit our lives to one another.

#3: Follow your heart.
Every Associate community is given a Holy Cross priest as their guide and director for the year. Ours was a wonderful man by the name of Fr. Jim Schultz who has since died. We loved this man so much. He walked through our door and we said, “Jim! Jim!” He was wise and articulate – and very eccentric, as I am sure the Holy Cross priests here today would validate. He would always say to us, “Ya got to do what you love. Ya got to do what you love.” Halfway through the year I said, “You know, Jim, you sure say that a lot.” “Yep, I sure do, MJ.” “You know, Jim, if I did what I loved, my life would look nothing like it is right now.” “Yep, it might not, MJ.” “Jim, that would be really scary.” “Yep, it might be really scary.” “Gosh, Jim, what does it matter if I do a good thing to do or a hard thing to do or what I love.” “It matters a lot.” “And so well, Jim, you have to understand that I had to do what I had to do to get into college – then in college I had to keep my grades up in case I wanted to go to law school. And now you are telling me to do what I love.” “Yep.”

It took me three years to understand that he wasn’t telling me to follow my heart as some impulsive person who goes out and does something silly. He was saying do what you love as a way of honoring the gifts that God gives you. What I always loved was working with people. And he was really the one who opened my heart to follow it. I wanted to go into social work even though no one in my family had even known how to spell it. It was great to have a business degree, which I did, but it wasn’t what I loved. And now, 16 years later, I understand that following our heart is what Monk talked about; integrating our minds and our hearts. Forever I will love that man and be grateful because he really was the person who spoke the words that gave me the courage to do what I love. And I think when people do that it makes a huge difference, not only in my life but in the lives of others.

#2: Poverty is a terrible way to live.
I did not grow up in poverty. So when I began my Associate year, the only thing I knew about poverty was what I learned in class. And my sense of the poor was very intellectualized and, to be honest, romanticized. In my Associate year, I began to really understand the poor in a more broad and deeper way. But I have to admit that it took me nine years (probably because I am a slow learner) to really get it.

After I worked with the Associates, I went to Chicago and I worked as a family therapist in an agency that did in-home therapies for families who were so troubled or so poor that they could not afford to get into the office. One family that I worked with lived in conditions that were deplorable. In 1980, nine years earlier, had someone told me that a family in the United States lived in a building with no plumbing, that the mother who was physically disabled lived on the 3rd floor with no elevator, I would have never believed it.

This apartment stunk so terribly that I had to change my clothes after each appointment. So one day I went to visit the mother and the two girls (who I just realized were 5 and 7, the same ages as my children) opened the door. Their names were Faith and Charity. And I said, “Faith, what are you guys doing home?” And Charity looked up at me with these big brown eyes and said, “I just wished we had money to buy lice shampoo. If we had lice shampoo, we could go to school and that would be great.” And a knife went in my heart. This is a five-year-old begging for lice shampoo. My five-year-old begs for Barbies. She is begging for lice shampoo (which we should use on Barbies). But she touched my messianic complex because I said, “I will go get you lice shampoo.” And right when I got in my car, I began to cry, not those little tears in your eyes but those sobs when you feel like you are going to drown in your tears. And when I was all done crying, probably 7 minutes, 8 minutes, which is a long time to cry, the only thought in my head was poverty is a terrible way to live. It took me nine years to feel what it is like to be poor. For those of us who live in subdivisions and gated communities, it is easy to never feel what it is like.

And I needed nine years and two children to break the barrier I put around my heart, to understand that poverty is a terrible way to live for all of us, those in it and for those of us who are part of the wider community who are called to change the way that those who live in poverty live.

#1: Love one another.
Kind of a trite #1. I am sure that David Letterman would have something a bit more humorous. But my volunteer year, when it really boils down to it, was about this, about loving one another. I grew up with that. Jesus said it. It sounded like a good thing to do but I thought it just meant not to fight with my sisters. When I became an Associate I learned that, yes, loving one another means our friends and our families but for those of us whose lives are committed to our faith, it means something much deeper. It means that we must love the other, those who are often unlovable, those who make us nervous, those who are different than us, those who have intense needs, those who are homeless, those who are disabled, those who have AIDS, those who have no money, those who are alone. We are called to love them. And if we have the courage to step out of our world, we see that people are people – there’s no difference between us and them when it really comes to what we want in our lives and what our hearts are about. This is an incredible opportunity. I think we have to admit that only those of us who come from lives of opportunity choose to do a year or two of service. We need this much more than the people we serve.

My prayer for those of you who are graduates this weekend is that you go into this year with an open heart and an open mind. And you will see 16, 18, 20, 40 years later, whether you are a University president or whether you are at home with your children that what you learned from this year will never leave you. For those of you who are parents of graduates doing service, there is always a big continuum of reaction. Maybe you are like a man here at the University whose daughter is a Holy Cross Associate who said, “I almost pinched myself. What did we do right that she would choose to go to Chile?” Or maybe you are like my father who said, “$25,000 and you are earning 50 bucks a month!” That was 16 years ago, college was a lot cheaper. Or maybe you are in the middle. But, boy, if I could say anything to you who are parents, this is a tribute to you. No child chooses to do service if the seeds weren’t planted at home. And I hope that you, as well, will open up your minds and hearts because the ripple effect of a year of service touches everyone in the family of the one who serves. My best to you all. If your year is half as good as the weather this week, which has been outstanding considering that it was Senior Week, I am sure that it will be incredible. Thank you.





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