Memories from spring break, barely a week ago now, will live long in the minds of many college students. But while the cliched destinations include Cancun, Miami or South Padre Island to party and relax, a group of 11 men from Saint John’s University chose to spend their week away from school in pursuit of a different kind of satisfaction.
For most of seven days on a service and immersion trip, they gave their time away – trimming trees at a former Benedictine monastery, painting and performing maintenance at a Catholic elementary school and playing soccer with Special Olympians.
Admittedly, it wasn’t all benevolence and altruism. Their destination was Nassau in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
“To be completely candid, the Bahamas over spring break? I’m like, ‘That sounds like an amazing experience,’” said Sean Fisher, a junior environmental studies major from Pueblo, Colorado. “To have it be service and faith centered, to strengthen our bond and be in community with the peoples of the Bahamas, I really feel blessed I was able to have that experience.”
One that not everyone can understand.
“People ask ‘Did you go to the beach? Did you get crazy every night?’” Fisher said. “I’m like ‘Mmmm, no. We went and did service.’ But honestly, I would so much rather do this trip than just go somewhere and be a crazy, drunk tourist. This was more fulfilling.”
The group, supported by SJU Campus Ministry and led by SJU chaplain Fr. Nick Kleespie, OSB; Pat Martin, assistant director of Campus Ministry; and Mike Connolly, SJU vice president for student development and dean of students, departed March 5 and returned a week later. It was just the second time such a group has traveled to Nassau, where Benedictine monks and sisters of Saint John’s and Saint Benedict established a connection many decades ago. Several hundred Bahamians have since attended CSB and SJU, which currently have 61 undergrads from the islands.
One of them is Antonio Thompson, a first-year physics and pre-engineering student, who went on the trip and acted as a host of sorts, proudly showing his peers where he went to high school as well as the best places to eat.
“Honestly, it was a beautiful thing overall and an amazing experience,” Thompson said. “Going back with this group made me passionate and proud to be a Bahamian. It was great to be able to show the hospitality of our people and the beauty of the sun and the waters, the greenery, the nature. And I also found a change in myself. I found happiness again in my country and saw it from their perspective. It changed my whole view. It made me miss the Bahamas a lot more than I initially did.”
Because so many Bahamians attend CSB and SJU, sophomore Wes Kirchner – who was born and raised in Minnesota – wanted to experience their culture.
“I wanted to see their home,” said Kirchner, a political science major. “Not just the resorts and Paradise Island. We wanted to be in the middle of Nassau and work with children in grade schools and high schools and learn about their lives.”
To participate, students could sign up and had to go through an application and interview process to be selected. In addition to Fisher, Thompson and Kirchner, the others who went included: Frank Doyle (junior, exercise health and science), Ernesto Lazaro (sophomore, global business leadership/economics), Evan Mattson (junior, political science), Jesus Moreno Gutierrez (first year, biochemistry/biology), Gilbert Perez (junior, theology), Elias Wehr (first year, global business leadership), Diego Argueta Melendez (first year, global business leadership) and Emanuel Popoca Santana (first year, accounting). Pat Martin, assistant director of Saint John’s campus ministry, and Mike Connolly, SJU vice president for student development and dean of students, rounded out the travel group.
“Their willingness to give up a week to participate in this just leaves me feeling like our future is bright,” Connolly said. “To get young men engaged like this is awesome.”
And the benefits ran deeper than just goodwill from cleaning up parish grounds or painting a school shelter.
“Most departments can pull together a service group, so why campus ministry?” Martin asked, rhetorically. “We saw throughout the week how this was valuable when the guys would come together at the end of the day and reflect and pray. The students who participated engaged in that wholeheartedly. They were seeking themselves and seeking the answers to deeper questions.”
They attended Sunday Mass at Saint Anselm Roman Catholic Church, and several of the students said the Mass that Kleespie led the evening of March 10 at a half-built chapel from more than a century ago was perhaps the high point of the trip.
“These students are leaders in our campus community and are filled with faith,” Kleespie said. “Travelling to the Bahamas with a group of young men allows them to form long lasting relationships with each other, opens them to new cultures and ways of interacting, and calls them to a life of great service.”
The group met with the Most Rev. Patrick Pinder, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Nassau, and attended a Bahamian alumni association reception with Barry Griffin ’09, who is now vice president of the Bahamian Senate and took them on a tour of the parliament buildings.
And, of course, there was a trip to Paradise Island, where the Johnnies got to spend time on the beach and in the surf.
“Our trip wouldn’t have been successful if the guys didn’t get some beach time,” Connolly said. “To be floating in 70-degree water was awesome.”
But Fisher’s prominent memory is when the entire group, exhausted from a day of work yet comfortable enough in the presence of fellow students – some of whom they barely knew until the trip, fell asleep while traveling in a van en route to spend time with the Special Olympians.
Martin said campus ministry intends to send another group to the Bahamas next year. The first tour was in 2020, and last year was canceled by COVID-19.
Thompson wants to make a similar excursion to Mexico. Others have been tempted to continue their service through the Benedictine Volunteer Corps. And the connection with the Bahamas will remain strong because of all those students who come to Collegeville and St. Joseph.
“There will be other opportunities to travel,” Fisher said. “But this trip was a beautiful, spiritual, holy thing. In that sense, it can never be duplicated.”