Alternative Spring Break

Spring Break Reflection – by Michael Janczakowski

March 2-6, students from Newman’s Social Justice Committee visited St. Michael’s School on the Navajo Reservation. St. Michael’s was established in 1902 by St. Katherine Drexel, a Philadelphia religious who dedicated her life and large inheritance to serving Native-Americans in the western United States. We spent 3 days in class with St. Michael’s high school students, learning about Navajo culture and sharing about life at a large state university.

Out of all the words that could be used to describe this year’s Spring Break Experience, “nizhóní “ would be the most accurate. This Navajo word for “beautiful” encompasses both physical beauty and the abstract idea of “the good,” thereby pointing to a reality that fills the soul with joy and content. At the school, we encountered this beauty in the smiles and laughter of the students and their teachers. St. Michael’s School is a small and familial community. With 385 students K-12, the teachers are profoundly influential in the lives of their students. One of our hosts, Sr. Barbara, has served at the school for 27 years; she had held some of the students as newborns. Coming from an institution of 38,000 undergraduate students, we found this camaraderie stunning and invigorating. 

We also encountered beauty during our travel days. On our way up, we observed clouds that modeled the rich curves of a 3D wave function, and on on our way back, we sat in awe of a sunset that painted the desert landscape with a tincture of pink and turned the mountains into an endless sea of blue. Our students also spent a day at Canyon de Chelly, a sacred home for the Navajo and for the Anasazi people who populated the canyon 1500 years before the Navajo ever arrived. Our guide Sylvia graciously shared stories about her life in the canyon and about the experiences of Navajo people who hid there from Spanish and American soldiers. The troubled history of Canyon de Chelly struck a chord in all of us, and was a strong reminder of the institutional racism that continues to plague U.S.-Navajo relations. 

Finally, we experienced beauty in the sacredness of St. Michael’s school. It was wonderful to share in Ash Wednesday mass with the school kids – one of our students actually served in the mass (“I haven’t been an altar server in 10 years, but let’s do this!”). Our lodging was one floor above an incredible chapel, where we found rest in the presence of Jesus after a long day in class. Furthermore, our lodging had once been the living quarters of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Sr. Barbara noted that the sisters in heaven and purgatory are still hard at work at the school; we definitely sensed it. 

It seems to me that when we die, the judgement will be more a test of recognition than a trial. We will stand before Christ, and he will ask us, “Who do you say that I am?” The only way we can answer that question is if we have seen Him before. Perhaps this is where the concept of nizhóní fits into our lives. By finding that which is good and beautiful in this life, and recognizing it is from God, we will more easily recognize Him when we arrive in the next. So we thank the students and staff of St. Michael’s, not only for their hospitality, but also for allowing us to encounter God in their midst. May God bless you all, just as you have blessed us these past couple of days. 

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