We must have our HEARTS BROKEN OPEN if we are to be true Edmund Rice people.
These were the words of Rachel Lucy of the Cork Life Centre as she described the moment when she truly felt part of the Centre. She said it is not easy to understand what happens in a Life Centre without experiencing it. She allowed her HEART TO BE BROKEN OPEN by “John”, one of the students, and in her journey with “John” she learned more about life than she did in any classroom or any university. This experience turned her life upside down and as a consequence had all the NONSENSE SHAKEN OUT.
This was the key moment for me in a day when we gathered in Emmaus to have a CONVERSATION about the Edmund Rice Network. The Cork Life Centre is part of that grouping as are The Edmund Rice Camps, ER Heritage Centres, The Lantern Centre, The Westcourt Centre, Belfast, ER Development, those who work with immigrants and the homeless, CBS PPU national body, Timirí Éamainn Rís and many others.
The theme for the day was GATHERING, ENCOUNTERING AND REACHING OUT. Yes, and we covered all three topics in a day packed with inspiration, reflection, discussion and hopefully this WILL LEAD TO ACTION. We received a warm welcome from some of the ER Camp leaders who helped us register and get organised for the day’s events. After a welcome cup of tea and chat the day started promptly at 10am.
John Cooley of the Edmund Rice Network Leadership Group (ERNLG) welcomed us all and outlined the theme and the arrangements for the day. This was expanded on further by Wilf Hammond (ERNLG) and the full text of his address will be posted soon. The tone and mood for the day was set by the beautiful and inspiring presentation by Vivek that incorporated key phrases and messages from Pope Francis, the Nairobi Chapter and the ERNLG document ‘A Vision for our Future’. Fr. Brendan Comerford SJ was the guest speaker and his theme was the ‘Francis Effect’. He outlined some of the gifts that Francis has brought in his approach to the Church – Practical Application of the Gospel Message, Bringing us Beyond our Comfort Zones, Challenging and Amusing us at the same time. The key message is that Pope Francis urges us to be a CHURCH ON THE ROAD. We must step outside ourselves, reach out, move to the outskirts and margins and abandon the ‘idols’ we take refuge in. It is in this personal encounter that we meet Jesus. For Francis an act of justice is PRAYER.
The business part of the day was facilitated by Br. Chris Glavey who explained the CAFÉ concept of conversation. This process is based on the assumption that “people have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges.” During the day we had four different sessions each one addressing certain questions and challenges such as What is it that inspires you? What gathers us together and how is that related to Edmund Rice? What conversation would create new possibilities for us and our network? How can we develop a vibrant network of committed action? What will I take away from today?
Each of the four sessions was interspersed by presentations by the Cork Life Centre, the Westcourt Centre, Belfast and the Edmund Rice Camps. Don O’ Leary of the Cork Life Centre spoke of the privilege it is to work with the students of the Life Centre, many of them ‘written off’ by the mainstream education system. The centre is a community where these students experience TRUST, LOVE, FAMILY and where everyone gets the chance to succeed. The formula is simple – students are given RESPECT and GREAT THINGS are expected of everyone in an atmosphere where “we are given the opportunity to be our best selves.” Don’s talk was followed by the personal testimony of Rachel Lucy who is the Deputy Director and her words (quoted above) were powerful, moving and emotional. It’s such a pity, even a DISGRACE, that the work of the Centre, with those on the margins and the outskirts, is under threat through lack of funds. CAN WE IN THE EDMUND RICE NETWORK ALLOW THIS PROJECT TO FAIL? Surely if the day of conversation is to mean anything to the network we cannot allow such an invaluable project to fail through lack of support. How can we increase public awareness and be advocates for the students of our Life Centres? Can Edmund Rice Development be involved in supporting this worthy project as it does many other projects with financial support?
Cormac Mac Airt, briefed us on the work being done by the Westcourt Centre with the homeless of Belfast and a unigue photography project undertaken by some of the homeless people. This project resulted in a book entitled WORD ON THE STREET – Voices of Homelessness. The book which combines images, stories and statistics gives an insight into homelessness in Belfast and challenges the public perception of this issue. All the photographs were taken in Belfast by men and women who are homeless and all the stories are real though the names have been changed.
At some stage during the evening our attention was directed to the ICON of Edmund Rice and the number of hands that appeared on it. The hands were ASKING, TOUCHING, REACHING OUT, EMBRACING – A powerful message to all of us and very much in tune with the exhortation of Pope Francis. A recent ‘Thought for the Day’ reminded us of the words of Billy Graham – “God has given us two hands, one to receive with and the other to GIVE with.”
Rachel Morrissey from Kilkenny spoke to us of the new growth in the work of the Edmund Rice Camps. Rachel is a teacher and has been involved in the camps for 7 years. She explained that the recent camp for special needs children in St. Patrick’s Special School, Kilkenny came to be because of having some special needs children in the camps over the years and the fact that the Kilkenny Camp had been using the facilities of St. Patrick’s for the last number of years. It was a natural progression to organise a camp for the children of St. Patrick’s and this took place over the October mid-term break. It’s a great credit to the leaders involved the extent of their preparation for this camp, in understanding the issues of dealing with special needs children such as suitability of activities, language, needs, medical issues and child protection etc. Leave it to the fact that this took place during their holiday break! Well done to the young leaders who attended the Conversation Day – Rachel, Fionnuala, Tara, Andrew, Aoife and Craig. They are an inspiration to us in the work they do with children during the camps that are held annually throughout the country.
After a break to stretch our legs and to casually engage each other in more conversations we all gathered again in open forum to express our hopes and aspirations moving forward with the network. All the feedback at this and other sessions during the day was recorded and those present will receive a summary of ideas and suggestions by email. The hope was strongly expressed that this not be another once- off event, a talk shop where nothing ever happens. I have a sense that things will be different and that there will be a commitment to take action and move the network forward. What struck me was a phrase used during the café conversation process: “What one person can do” . This is not a question that put limits on us but rather a declaration of the power of one person’s efforts. So it is appropriate to finish with this thought and I hope that many of those who attended added their names to the list of members who will actively engage in supporting the network to move forward in REACHING OUT and casting off THE IDOLS WE TAKE REFUGE IN.