Mr. Daniel Gustafson, SJ
A Reflection on Long Experiment
During his long experiment, Danny Gustafson worked at St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia teaching religion and working in the Mission and Ministry Office.
I arrived at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, PA, with a mission of co-teaching three sections of a senior religion class about Ignatian spirituality and working in the Mission and Ministry office. After arriving I added “assistant tennis coach” to the job description. This went along with the expected occasional activities such as chaperoning mixers, leading the weekly Examen over the school intercom, and helping to plan, lead, and direct retreats and service events. Perhaps the least expected job I found myself doing was using power tools to cut tiles to be installed in the floors of a house that Prep students helped to build over spring break. Add to that going to as many basketball games and theater events as my schedule allowed and one has a pretty good idea of what my spring semester looked like.
On many occasions before or after school, between or during classes, in the building or away at a retreat, tennis match or service trip, casual conversations with students would spring up. Oftentimes these conversations were as simple as what my students had done that weekend, why they hadn’t done their homework, how their other classes were going, or who they were planning on inviting to prom. As these unstructured conversations continued and as I came to know the boys better, two realizations leaped out at me.
The first realization was what exactly these students were looking for by wandering into my office or stopping me in the hallway. Initially I supposed it to be simple curiosity about who I was and what I was doing as the newest teacher in a school where some faculty stay for up to (or more than!) 40 years. Later I suspected that it had something to do with the reliable supply of granola bars I kept stashed in the bottom drawer of my desk. Eventually I came to realize that while these other reasons likely played some role, each and every student was looking for essentially one thing and one thing only – acceptance. A place and person or group with whom they could be themselves, relax, take a deep breath in the midst of a typically busy high school day, and know that they are cared for.
The second realization I had about these seemingly routine conversations was that as the students got more comfortable around me (and I around them), every now and then the seriousness of the conversation would deepen significantly. Suddenly I would find myself talking about something that was painful, unknown, or simply not regularly discussed in the day-to-day life of the typical teenager. We would plunge from talking about college basketball (to the entire SJP Class of 2013 – yes, thank you, I am still fully aware that Georgetown lost to Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA Tournament) to a student’s concerns or fears about moving away to college and being away from friends and family. The next conversation would range from talking about that day’s school-wide morning prayer to a student’s struggle with belief in God or disconnect with the Catholic Church. Yet another chat with a student would start with an explanation of what he missed by being absent from the previous day’s class and eventually evolve into talking about a difficult situation in the student’s family life.
In seeking acceptance and an opportunity to share something challenging in their lives, these students helped me to recognize that this is a universal human characteristic. Indeed, these are the same thirsts that I feel, and that all of us feel. And it is exactly where God wants to meet us: listening to us, helping to carry our burdens, loving us at each and every turn.
As a Jesuit novice, the primary undertaking of the last two years of my life has been getting to know Christ and discerning how I may best follow him. On Long Experiment, I found that following Christ can lead me to a wide variety of opportunities, sometimes big, notable events where meeting and experiencing God was nearly a given – giving a talk on a retreat, leading a week-long service trip, helping students to learn more about Ignatian spirituality and integrate it into their own lives. These were all meaningful and fulfilling encounters with God, but I shall remain ever grateful to the students of St. Joe’s Prep for teaching me one lesson in particular. Through these students, God showed me that being a companion of Jesus will also bring me to what may be a run-of-the-mill conversation or may lead to listening to someone vulnerably share an issue that has been plaguing him or her for years. As I find myself feeling fulfilled, and joyful, and fully myself in these situations, I know that they are encounters with Christ and are opportunities to bring greater glory to God.