Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C., has checked in again with his monthly post, and this month as we journey with his backpack -- yes, his trusty backpack -- Fr. Eric helps us remember what is of true value in this world.
I lost a friend this week. This is a friend who had journeyed with me for many years, accompanying me almost everywhere I went. This week I lost my backpack.
I know that losing a backpack is nowhere near as devastating as losing a person. I have celebrated enough funerals of friends and family members to know the difference. Still, I felt a real sense of loss as I let go of my trusty travel companion.
I first met my black JanSport with durable brown leather bottom about 20 years ago as I matriculated at Notre Dame. It traveled with me to World Youth day in Denver where we met the pope. OK, maybe we never got that close to JP II, but we were there!
It was there all through my time in the seminary – hiking with me in Colorado at the Novitiate, carrying the water and trail mix needed to stay hydrated and healthy. It traveled with me to East Africa when I spent a year and a half there as a seminarian. Overseas, I used it as I taught in a secondary school or as a suitcase when I traveled to other apostolates or the houses of fellow Holy Cross seminarians. It went everywhere with me. This backpack was with me when I went to study Spanish in Guatemala and in Mexico. It climbed an active volcano with me on one of those trips, smart enough to avoid the lava below.
When I was ordained a priest, it carried the oil stock that my grandma gave to me at ordination as well as the pyx I use to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and homebound. With it, I visited many people in hospitals and nursing homes. It was there as I anointed my grandma each time I visited her until she passed at the young age of 102. It was with me my first year as a priest as I traveled to Toronto for World Youth Day and concelebrated the Mass with the Pope. It even traveled with me to Rome as I attended the canonization of Br. André Bessette, CSC.
No matter how much I abused him, he never complained. He just stood by my side, or hung on my back. It did have to go to the backpack doctor twice with mad zipper disease, but both times returned to me safely and fully recovered from its surgery at JanSport HQ.
I love this backpack, but this past week I realized that I had to say goodbye to my trusted friend. Someone generously donated a laptop to replace one that was stolen, and it just did not fit into this bag that obviously was not made to carry laptops. Not that my other computer did either, but now it was obvious that it may be time to part with my JanSport appendage. I spent more than a month in denial before deciding to part ways. I found it easier to let go of the stolen laptop than trying to get used to the feel of another bag resting on my back. But this past week I broke down. A new JanSport came into my life, and I parted with my beloved companion.
Knowing how good my friend was to me – and how much life it still had in it, I put the backpack in our clothing closet so that one of our guests at André House could get to meet it and become friends. I just knew that it would find a good home with a guest who really needed a new backpack as our guests constantly ask us for backpacks. So on Wednesday as I worked in the clothing closet, my heart skipped a beat as a guest asked if we had any backpacks to give out. “Yes we do,” I said, and I went to introduce the gentleman to his new friend.
“No, that’s a little too small,” he said, “and it is ripped in the bottom.”
“What do you mean too small!!! It held clothes that lasted me a week when I was overseas. And that tear, you never know it’s there!” I wanted to shout. But instead, I just quietly took my backpack back, hoping that the next person would appreciate the true gift being offered.
“Do you have any backpacks?” came the question from one of or regular female guests.“Yes” I replied as I eagerly showed her the backpack, knowing she would see its beauty and worth.She too rejected it in favor of a cloth grocery bag.
Finally, she came. Another woman guest looking for a backpack. This time she gladly accepted this backpack of mine, saying, “Wow! A JanSport, they last forever!”. She put her new clothes from her time shopping in our clothing closet right into its spacious (enough) main pouch. She had an expression of joy and appreciation as she carried it away. It seems like we finally found the perfect match for my trusty companion. Or should I say, for her trusty companion now.
It was humbling to have something I had such a hard time parting with turned down and rejected not once but twice. I felt like I was offering something filled with so many memories, so filled with me. And we were rejected. I knew intellectually that just the backpack was being rejected, and for objective reasons, but it also felt like we were rejected.
How often have our friends on the street been rejected on a more personal way? How many times have our guests been judged by their appearance and not offered an interview, a handshake, or even the courtesy of eye contact? How often have our guests been brushed aside as if they were worth less than a semi-beat up, 20-year-old backpack? How much more would that rejection hurt when it is more directly related to you - or people’s stereotype of you? How much more would that rejection hurt when it really is personal rather than directed at something you happened to own?
At AndréHouse of Hospitality, we try not to brush people aside, but to look people in the eye and to see the value in each person. We try, and hopefully more often than not, we succeed.
As I parted with my friend, finally, I was happy to see it find a good home, a new companion for new journeys and adventures. Mostly, I hope that more of us will learn from our own experiences of rejection, and help to reach out an accepting hand to our fellow companions on this journey through life, especially our friends who are infinitely more valuable than even the most beloved of backpacks.