O'BRIEN: Embrace a 'Holy Boldness'
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J.

We crossed over the verdant hills of Nairobi and made our way north in a small propeller plane built in the 1970s. There were 12 of us from Georgetown cramped in the plane, about to embark on a two-week immersion program during which we’d learn about the social justice work of the churches, colleges and Jesuits in Kenya.

We traveled to a remote area in the country’s northwest region. Green hills yielded to plains and then desert. We landed in Lodwar “airport,” a landing strip marked by potholes and a single burnt-out plane engine sitting ominously at the end of the runway.

Upon arrival, we loaded up in vans and drove for over two hours on a bumpy road. The landscape was barren, although at various intervals we came upon villages of the Turkana, a local tribe who live in huts that shield them from the oppressive heat and sun. Beyond the town of Kakuma we reached our destination, a refugee camp run by the United Nations. Opened in the early 1990s, KakumaRefugee Camp houses over 98,000 refugees from neighboring countries, such as South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

We stayed in a walled compound where workers from relief organizations live in relative safety but utter simplicity. Our hosts were priests, sisters and laypeople from the Jesuit Refugee Service. Within the camp — which was really more like a city — the JRS runs pastoral services, as well as a mental health wellness center, an education center and a day-care center for orphans and the mentally ill.

In the school buildings, we entered an air-conditioned classroom, where we were greeted by a blue and gray Georgetown banner. In this small corner of the earth, 20 young men and women are getting a Jesuit education offered through Regis University in Denver, empowered by distance learning technology and the efforts of instructors on the ground and halfway across the globe. Georgetown has been a proud participant in this most imaginative program for a number of years.

When we first arrived at the refugee camp, surrounded by the desert landscape, we couldn’t have been further from everything we knew. Yet there in that classroom where the banner hung and learning was taking place, we felt so close to the Hilltop.

The JRS project in higher education is a testament to how much good can be accomplished when talented, imaginative people get together and think out of the box to meet urgent needs. God works through human ingenuity and generosity to guide ideas to fruition. Just as He is at Kakuma, God is at work here at Georgetown.

When I arrived here in 1984 as a student, Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., the president of Georgetown at the time, told our class that the function of a university is to gather people so that great conversations can begin. At a Jesuit and Catholic university, we believe that it is not by accident that we are all here together. God gathers us here not only for personal growth, but for a purpose greater than ourselves. The needs of the city and of the world press upon our gates, clamoring for attention.  A humanitarian or religious conviction summons us to respond.

At this juncture, we face a choice. Modern-day challenges can seem insurmountable, and it is tempting to fall back on conventional wisdom and do things the way they’ve always been done. Overwhelmed, we may simply settle for the status quo. But that’s not why we are here. At a Jesuit university, we do not settle for mediocrity, but rather embrace what the Jesuits call a “holy boldness” that challenges us to think, imagine, feel and love deeply. Shallow thinking did not bring a college education program to a refugee camp. Shallow thinking did not get you here to Georgetown.
Be bold. Once you encounter needs that are not being served, particularly needs that others are not prepared to address, let God kindle your imagination so that you can discover new possibilities and untraveled pathways of thought and action. Bold thinking and imagining do more than self-motivate; they inspire, reaching deep down in minds and hearts to rally others to the cause.

Admittedly, being bold presents the risk of failure, but, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, better the one who “strives valiantly … and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never known neither victory nor defeat.”
Whether you’ve just arrived here or graduated from Georgetown many years ago, look around you and see great-souled people who dare to learn and live with holy boldness.

Fr. O’Brien, S.J., is the vice president for mission and ministry. He is one of the alternating writers for AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT …, which appears every other Friday.

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