Bob McKeon

July 18, 2011

A few weeks ago, I was invited to talk with a group of summer interns at Mustard Seed in inner city Edmonton. For the past several years, Mustard Seed has provided a summer employment opportunity for several young adults seeking an experience of Christian outreach and service with inner city men, women and children.

The summer workers get to work in the different programs of the agency including emergency food and clothing, community development projects and public education and advocacy initiatives.

One day a week, they gather with an experienced Mustard Seed staff person to learn more about the inner city, to explore more deeply a biblical spirituality of inner city service and outreach, and to spend time in prayer together. I found this to be an exciting and challenging time for myself, being confronted with a new generation's youthful passion and energy for Christian service.

Joe Varano with the Jesus Volunteer Corps. Cares for Seattle children in this 1972 photo.


Joe Varano with the Jesus Volunteer Corps. cares for Seattle children in this 1972 photo.

This experience at Mustard Seed takes me back to an earlier time in my life when fresh out of university after 16 years of Catholic education in New York City, I started asking: What was I going to do with my life?

Like many of my generation who came of age in the 1960s in the time of Vatican II, I felt a call to leave home, explore new opportunities and challenges, and do my bit to make the world a better place. I applied for and was accepted in the U.S. Peace Corps and received an assignment to be a teacher in Ghana.

However, I was not able to follow through with this because of the requirement of compulsory military service that existed in the U.S. at that time. After my military time was over, I renewed my life explorations. This time, being more deeply rooted in my Catholic faith, I looked for an opportunity for volunteer service with a Christian foundation.

Searching the Catholic newspapers, I came across an ad for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps based out of Portland, Ore. Again I applied and was accepted. While I was hoping for an exotic location and position, I was assigned to be a math teacher in a Jesuit high school in Missoula, Mont.

There were seven of us Jesuit volunteers, men and women, who were to live a life of Christian community together. Our remuneration was room, board and $50 a month. One evening a week we would gather with the local Jesuit community for an evening of worship, food, mentoring and fellowship.

The following year, I had a similar experience with the Oblates as a member of the Frontier Apostolate in Prince George, B.C. Again there was an experience of building Christian community with deeply committed men and women in a shared project of Christian service.


It was only later that I learned that the motto of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps was "ruined for life." This has certainly turned out to be true in my case. These two years of volunteer Christian service were life transforming and set the direction for my future.

What followed for me was a time of formal theological studies, seeking to find words to name what I had lived. What happened for me has happened for many others who have had similar extended experiences of Christian volunteer service.

My sense is that there are fewer extended volunteer service possibilities like this for our Catholic young adults today. The Frontier Apostolate and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in the Pacific Northwest no longer exist.

There are extended volunteer service placements with secular non-governmental organizations overseas and at home. Community service learning programs have certainly grown at Canadian universities and colleges but these seldom occur in a faith context.

Catholic young adults today do have incredible faith-filled opportunities that did not exist in my time. Think of the thousands of Canadian youth travelling to Spain this summer to celebrate World Youth Day.

However, I think that the leadership at Mustard Seed is really on to something important with their summer internship program. They offer an invitation and challenge that young people today are eager to accept. We often hear it said that the Catholic faith is too demanding for young people today. I wonder if the real problem is that we are asking too little.

(Bob McKeon: