Jessica Nayden, program coordinator for the diocesan Catholic Service Corps, still remembers the summer she led a group of young people on a mission to Everett, Massachusetts, to work on a home that had fallen into disrepair. The task seemed to be a simple one—scrape the deck, replace broken wood and apply generous coats of paint.
But what at first looked like a routine project took the group a lot longer than they anticipated because they ran into an unexpected twist—and it had nothing to do with home repair. It had to do with human repair.
The owner, Regina, was in her 80s and suffered from what St. Mother Teresa called the “most terrible poverty” of our age—she was lonely. Painting the deck became secondary to something more important.
“It was almost impossible to do work at her house because she wanted so much to tell young people about herself and hear about their lives,” Nayden recalled. “Each day, we spent hours just talking.” And that was a good thing.
As part of their activities with the Catholic Heart Work Camp, whose motto is “Love, Serve, Connect,” there was prayer and discussion at lunch that centered on the question, “Where did you see God today?”
Regina wanted to take part in that discussion. The peculiar thing, they realized, is that once you start to look, Christ keeps popping up everywhere in likely—and unlikely—places.
Nayden, 30, emphasizes the need for Catholic service to center on prayer and reflection, and as coordinator of the Catholic Service Corps, she understands the importance of bringing Christ to the needy … and finding Christ in the needy.
The mission of the corps, which was formed as a result of the Diocesan Synod, is “to foster Catholic identity by uniting young people to be the face of Christ in service to others.” It is the same Christ, who after washing the disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday said, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
The corps is open to young people in the diocese, who are urged to participate in events and service projects and prayerfully reflect on them. As part of the Office of Faith Formation, the corps offers resources and opportunities to parishes, schools and individuals.
“So many people don’t know what the Catholic Church does to help people,” Nayden says. “They don’t know the good things the Church is doing, and they don’t know the good things that young people are doing.”
As coordinator, she works with youth ministers, pastors, directors of religious education, and schools. Her work has included overseeing the distribution of rice bowls for Catholic Relief Services, helping to collect food and toys for Al’s Angels and organizing the Diocesan Service Challenge last October, which involved a day of service. Eleven different groups, including St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Service Corps School in Trumbull, Notre Dame High School in Fairfield and St. Andrew Parish in Bridgeport, undertook service projects in their communities.
“We’re serving as part of our faith,” she says. “It isn’t just about feeling good; it’s about seeing Christ in a person and being Christ to that person.”
She is quick to point out that service work doesn’t always come with an emotional high. “Sometimes it can be difficult and uncomfortable.”
While she was a teacher at St. Joseph High School, she chaperoned a group of students on an Appalachian service project that required them to do bathroom and porch repairs on a decrepit home.
“The woman who lived there was a hoarder, and for the students it was like ‘Whoa, we’ve never seen anything like this before.’” Young people often can be thrust into unfamiliar circumstances that require adapting and patience.
“Instead of having a great experience and leaving with happy photos, you sometimes leave wondering, ‘Did I make a difference at all?’” she said. “For example, in the Midnight Runs to New York City, you often have to give that person to God and do what you believe Christ wants you to do, whether it’s providing a meal or a smile.”
One of the primary purposes of service, Nayden says, is to affirm the dignity of the person you are helping, even those who are hoarders, homeless or suffer some other infirmity or condition. “Everyone deserves to be treated as a beloved son or daughter of God, regardless of their circumstances,” she says.
Young people are naturally drawn to service, and many do so as part of their requirements for Confirmation, college applications or high school groups. There are opportunities to do volunteer work at soup kitchens and food pantries, clothing and book drives, visits to senior centers, mentoring children, helping the homeless, walkathons and Bible camps.
The upcoming Catholic Relief Services FoodFast will take place May 6 from 11 am to 8 pm at St. Joseph High School in Trumbull to help young Catholics understand the reality of world hunger by going hungry and learn about how they can take a stand against global poverty. For more information, visit www.catholicservicecorps.org.
The corps has a calendar of events and some 30 opportunities in which young people may participate. It also helps parishes and schools throughout the diocese with the work they’re doing, and has partnered with St. Joseph High School, St. Philip Parish in Norwalk and Sacred Heart Greenwich, where a filmmaking class developed promotional videos for the corps.
Nayden also cited the work of the St. Aloysius Parish, New Canaan, youth group, which is committed to helping children and seniors. Members traveled to Kentucky and brought Christmas stockings to people around the holiday.
“It’s eye-opening to see that kind of poverty in our country,” she said, “and it makes you feel blessed for what you have, especially when you see the joy little kids get just to receive a toothbrush.”
Nayden grew up in Brookfield and was a member of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Parish, where she was introduced to community service by assisting in Vacation Bible School and parish events.
“I knew I wanted to serve the Church in some way,” she said. After graduating from Brookfield High School, she entered Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where she studied theology and English. Her experiences working with young people have led her to appreciate the importance of service in bringing them to Christ. Once that happens, they can bring Christ to others, one person at a time.