By September of my senior year in high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. A few years earlier, I’d volunteered to assist a religious education team from the diocese who was developing a program for special children. They were ready to pilot their work and needed a few high school volunteers to assist with preparing and tending to their teaching space each week. Because I had a special place in my heart for the children who would be involved, I embraced this opportunity. When a classmate and I arrived for our orientation, I knew immediately that this was the place for me. The sister, priest and lay people involved cared deeply for the children who were referred to as their special friends. My classmate and I were charged with preparing the environment and acting as gofers during the sessions. Busy as we were, I couldn’t help watching as the helper catechists and children interacted. When the lead catechist offered the day’s message, I found myself attending with as much interest as the children. My only regret was that I didn’t have the training at the time to do the same. After assisting on the sidelines for the next two years, I determined that this would be my life’s work.
At the onset of senior year, I applied to potential colleges. On each application, I listed “special religious education” as my major of choice. This was in spite of the fact that there was no such major at the time. Eventually, I determined that a double major was in order: Special Education and Theology. This would certainly provide the tools I needed to achieve my objective. By the time I began college the following fall, the special religious education program in the Archdiocese of Chicago had debuted as SPRED and I debuted as a helper catechist. In spite of commuting to classes every day and working as close to full-time hours as possible, I served in this capacity throughout all four years of college. Though I’d tweaked my majors and my career path by this time, my SPRED friends, both the children and the adults, had made indelible impressions on me which remain to this day.
I’m sharing this chapter of my personal history with good reason. My SPRED experience offered me an encounter with God’s love and an example of what moments spent with Jesus must have been like. The SPRED catechists prepared together for every lesson. They worked hard to ensure that the environment, the topic of the day and their own hearts were ready to be shared with the young souls in their care. Their top priority was to reveal God’s love to the children as tangibly as possible. Every gathering began with activities which calmed the children and freed them to attend to the day’s message. I recall sitting with my special friend as we molded clay or poured rice from a pitcher to a bowl for as long as it took for him to relax and to focus. It was during these activities that the one-to-one relationship between adult and child grew into a special friendship. When we gathered as a group, the children were attentive and ready to receive the good news of the day. These SPRED encounters offered me a taste of heaven which I’ve only rarely recaptured. I had no doubt that God sat with us all the while. This is the reason God sent Jesus to walk among us. Like my SPRED friends, we needed tangible evidence of God’s love as well.
Today, Mark’s gospel (Mark 5:21-43) places Jesus in the midst of a pressing crowd. If the masses of people who scurry about the Holy Land today are any indication, keeping that crowd’s attention was no easy task. Still, in the midst of the circus around him, Jesus drew them in. Somehow, Jesus’ loving and perceptive awareness of each one urged them nearer to hear more. On this particular occasion, Jairus, a synagogue official, made his way through the throng and knelt before Jesus. His young daughter lay dying and Jairus was convinced that Jesus could help her. Jairus’ request was remarkable because religious leaders constantly questioned Jesus’ behavior and his authority. Still, in spite of their doubt, Jesus’ work had touched Jairus’ heart and this was enough. While Jesus and the crowd moved toward Jairus’ home, a woman who’d been hemorrhaging for more than a decade pushed her way to him. Jesus’ loving ways had filled this woman with such hope that she wished only to touch his cloak. This touch would certainly be enough to heal her. Amazingly, that boisterous crowd failed to distract Jesus from this woman. As soon as she touched his garment, Jesus felt the woman’s presence. At the same instant, the woman was healed. Afterward, Jesus continued on to Jairus’ home where they were told the girl had already died. Jesus reassured Jairus and then went to his child and said, “Little girl, I say to you arise!” And so she did…
My experiences with SPRED touched me deeply because they mirrored Jesus’ work among us. My fellow SPRED catechists’ presence to their special friends echoed God’s presence to each one of us just as Jesus had. Everyone was welcome. Everyone was taken as he or she was. Everyone was given as much time as needed to open up to the message of the day. Though SPRED didn’t become my life’s work after all, spreading all that my special friends taught me about God’s love has become just that.
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