St. John's Prep Today Online
The first of a series of special online stories to complement St. John's Prep Today is written by Heather Angell, a campus minister, who highlights the PULSE program. Enjoy reading!
The PULSE program has become a living tradition at St. John’s Prep. Each year, over 60 students and a dozen faculty and staff participate. PULSE stands for Prep Urban Life Service Experience. The trip (which happens eight times a year and has nearly doubled in size in the past five years) takes place across fours days. Students gather at St. John’s early on Sunday morning with an open mind and their backpack. While most students have been to Boston for a field trip or Sox game, few have seen the side of Boston that PULSE opens up for them.
The Experience Begins!
The experience really begins when we exit the darkness of the O’Neil tunnel, drive past South Station and see the giant arches of Chinatown. We navigate the narrow streets of Boston with the Prep van and quickly de board to the sound of honking cars as we block the traffic on Tyler St. The Prep has been staying at the Chinese Pastoral Center for over a decade now. The unique relationship we have with the Pastoral Center and nearby St. James the Greater Church makes the program possible. There are not many places that would hand us the keys and welcome us home like they do, which makes our first stop at 10 am mass the perfect way to get started.
Students are usually very struck by just how hospitable the parish community is. Perfect strangers, we are ushered in to the front of the church. The mass is in Mandarin and the students are usually inspired by how tightly knit the community is. After mass, everyone gives the group a standing ovation. Students often look at me with a humbled expression that says, “Is this for us?”
The Simplicity of Pulse
The dedicated simplicity of PULSE comes in the parking lot at the Stop & Shop at South Bay Plaza. Before the group of 10-11 head into the store, they are given a strict scenario and budget. “We are a family of eleven. We’ll be eating our meals together for the next four days. And we’ll be doing it all on food stamps.” You see, in Massachusetts, a family of eleven would receive a maximum of $1,652.00 a month in food stamp assistance. If you break that down further, it works out to $5 per person per day and only $1.66 per person per meal.
As the students absorb these figures they begin to think about how much they are able to spend on an average lunch in the cafeteria or on a weeknight out with friends. They start to think big, think in bulk, and wonder about soda and red meat. And we haven’t even left the van yet.
What is it Like for Those Who Struggle?
Inside we break up in small groups to buy breakfast, lunch and dinner. The concept organic goes out the window along with any fresh fruits. Wheat bread is replaced by white bread. Hamburgers are replaced with peanut butter and jelly. Water is the beverage of the day. As these decisions are made and unmade and the meager meal budgets get closer to the edge, our students have already begun to ask the key questions that the PULSE program hopes to raise: What is it like to be poor and marginalized in Boston? What is it like for those who struggle? And we still haven’t even left Stop & Shop yet. Buying our food together is an act of simplicity, an act of community, and an act of solidarity with the people whose lives we are hoping to better understand.
On Sunday afternoon, before the service work begins students have a Tai Chi workshop with a man named Stan Chang. In his quiet yet assertive way, Stan invited the students to take part in being fully present to the moment and to connect their movements to their intentions. The Tai Chi workshop, which takes place in a classroom at the Pastoral Center, is rightly placed at the beginning of the trip. In addition to the service work, PULSE is about challenging our students to unplug and be present. Cell phones are left turned off in their bags. Laptops and textbooks are stacked at home. The students are in the moment in ways their everyday lives do not always allow for.
Lessons About Dignity
In the coming days the students are pushed and expanded. They will walk miles to the Woods-Mullen shelter to serve the evening meal. They will walk through the metal cage-like walkway that serves as an entrance for guests. They will smile at the people in line. They will learn a lesson about dignity. One evening at the shelter, a woman came into the kitchen and asked us for a trash bag. A simple request, until she explained the shelter was at capacity and had run out of bed sheets and she planned to wrap herself in the plastic to sleep. For most of our students, this is unchartered territory. This kind of scarcity and need is not something we commonly come in contact with in hallways of St. John’s Prep. The students ask more questions: How can I be of service? What happens when I leave the comforts of home and immerse myself in the unknown?
A visit to the Friary in Mission Hill
Monday night is a holy night on PULSE. Students are typically a little unsure of the Little Brothers of St. Francis upon their arrival at the Friary in Mission Hill. We begin with vespers, the brothers’ cat often crawling unexpectedly around the altar. But as soon as dinner begins, the students are always awash in the joy of the brothers’ lives. This small religious order was founded in Boston in 1970 in order “to follow Jesus in the footsteps of Saint Francis as a non-clerical community of religious brothers (not ordained to the priesthood), embracing a life of contemplative prayer, Eucharistic Adoration, and solidarity with the lepers of our society.”
Sharing Stories of Faith
The brothers make their trademark bowls of spaghetti and meatballs while easily sharing their stories of faith with the students. They all wear simple denim robes and spend their days in prayer or ministering to the poor and homeless. Their authenticity is disarming and magnetic. They are clearly holy men, but they are real. More questions arise: What does it mean to live one’s faith? Where is God in all this poverty? Many dinners end with a guitar jam and a lot of laughter. When we leave the friary, our bellies and hearts are full. It feels as though we have just had dinner with the apostles.
An Uplifting Experience
In a short time, the students can compare several different shelters. On Tuesday morning the group drives out to the Long Island Shelter, the same route that hundreds of homeless men and women take on city buses from Woods-Mullen every night.
Hope and Creativity
This Boston city shelter is on an island in the harbor. Soon the landscape – one of separation, one of old bridges connecting the island to mainland Massachusetts - becomes about more than just geography. The students are making connections. They are seeing the message of isolation and separateness that so many people in poverty experience. At the shelter, we walk the emptied hallways (the guests having left on the last bus back to the city by the time we arrive) They paint, work the laundry or till the fields at the farm run by the shelter that provides fresh food to thousands of shelter residents each year. This is often one of the most uplifting experiences – to see a growth and a harvest – the landscape is now a metaphor that yields hope and creativity. This is how we can help each other. This is how we can sustain real change.
Changed and Commissioned to be Changed
On Tuesday afternoon, students get a chance to tutor children at the St. Katherine Drexel After School Program in Roxbury. Since our fellow XBSS member Xaverian Brothers High School visits there often, the students are used to high school boys visiting and quickly pick their tutor. Soon, students are immersed in addition and subtraction, grammar and reading. There is much laughter and playing. The place is full of life.
A Range of Emotions
As each day ends, the group gathers for dinner at a pushed-together mishmash of tables at the Pastoral Center kitchen. None of the plates match. We pray and talk about the day. After clean up, we gather in a circle in a classroom and have nightly reflection. At these times students identify where they struggled, where they saw God, where they felt overwhelmed – either by sadness or joy. A range of emotions exist on PULSE and the reflection time creates a space to help the group support and challenge each other.
After one last volunteer shift at the Greater Boston Food Bank, the group heads back through the O’Neill tunnel, leaves the cityscape behind and return to St. John’s Prep, hopefully changed and commissioned to be the change.
An added dimension to the PULSE experience comes from Chris Messinger, St. John's Prep Class of 1995, who works with Boston Mobilization and has met with Prep students as part of the PULSE program for three years now. Here is his perspective on why PULSE matters.
How did the 1% get where they are? What’s life like on a daily basis for the 99%?
These are two of the many questions I ask St. John’s Prep students participating in the PULSE program each month. While they may seem like commonplace questions in the last six months, I’ve been asking them for more than three years now, as part of Boston Mobilization’s training on Class, Wealth and Systemic Inequality.
How did I end up ahead of the curve on social justice issues? I’d like to think that my time at St. John’s shaped my values around equity and prepared me to act for systemic change. Sure, I won a soccer State Championship in ‘94, and I learned a ton from Brother Ron (before there was a new arts building). But I learned something more from a school infused with Xaverian Brothers values: we must not only feed the poor, we must change the systems that cause poverty.
I became a teacher after college, but realized education is only part of the answer. Now I'm the executive director of an organization that empowers teens to learn about social systems and then act for change. We've trained hundreds of teens (check out our summer program!) and published a book which is being used by schools across the country. We've also used community organizing to shift policies around youth employment at the state level. And next month, I look forward to working with the eight PULSE students who will come with open minds and a hunger to make the world fair. They remind me a little bit of myself.