By Allyson Noenickx
On Thursday, Oct. 27, students gathered in Loyola Ballroom for the Latin American Student Organization (LASO) co-sponsored Agape Latte event, Cafè con Leche. Students crowded around round tables in Loyola Ballroom and talked over Boston Donuts coffee and pastries as The Nate Chung Project performed. Brenda Hernandez ‘17, a member of the Spanish choir, opened by reading two prayers in Spanish—“Prudence” and “Those That Suffer”—by the Spanish-born Jesuit Luis Espinal, S.J., who famously spoke out against injustices in Bolivia before being assassinated in 1980. The event featured speaker Rev. William E. Reiser, S.J., professor and department chair of religious studies, who has taught at the College for over 40 years. Father Reiser spoke about his experience reaching out to the Worcester community beyond the gates of the College.
Father Reiser began his reflection by talking about one afternoon that forever changed his life. One day, in 1988, he accompanied a friend who was involved with Youth Opportunities Upheld, Inc. (YOU, Inc.) to Plumley Village and Great Brook Valley—two public housing facilities in Worcester. There, Father Reiser was struck by apartments with no furniture and families who had nothing more to eat than a box of dry cereal. “I said to myself, I live about a mile and a half from the College, and I’ve been living in Worcester now for ten years. What’s going on here?” said Father Reiser. “It was a reality I had no contact with up until that point. That Saturday my world got turned upside down. Ever since that Saturday I haven’t been able to see the world the same way again.”
This experience prompted Father Reiser to learn Spanish so that he could reach out to more people in the local community. He began by listening to tapes, sitting in on Spanish classes at Holy Cross, and walking around Worcester neighborhoods, conversing with residents. In addition, Father Reiser traveled to Mexico and Bolivia. “I fell in love with Bolivia,” he noted, “and visited the country over 25 times.” “How was I ever able to teach theology without knowing the kind of reality that was outside the gate? It’s altogether different once you leave the Hill,” explained Father Reiser.
Back in Worcester, Father Reiser believed the College needed to connect more with the Worcester community. “I met some families who thought that this place on the Hill was a hospital. They didn’t even know what a university was,” he said. “What we really needed to have was a presence among some of these neighborhoods.” To do so, the Jesuits decided to purchase a house in the Main South area of Worcester in 1988. Father Reiser himself lived there—at Casa Maria—for over 15 years. He forged strong bonds and friendships, developing a father-like relationship with many of the children and families who lived with him. He even served as a godfather to one man and became known as grandpa to his children. “I was getting to know people in a way that I had never gotten to know families before,” noted Father Reiser. “If I try to imagine my life without that now, I’d say I couldn’t. I don’t think I could teach. I don’t think I could be where I am today without them. When I think of who I am, so much of them is inside me now that it’s become part of my identity.”
Following his talk, Father Reiser answered questions about how students can engage with the surrounding community. While he said that Community-Based Learning classes are a good place to start, he urged students to make friends with people who are different. “Do you have any friends who are undocumented?” asked Father Reiser. “Do you have any friends who have been in prison? Do you have any friends who wrestle with addiction? Do you have any friends like that? Do you have any friends who are poor? Do you have any friends who are different? If you don’t, you’re poor. You have to make friends with somebody who’s different. At least that’s where I’d start.” In his parting words of advice, Father Reiser also warned against the anti-social habits promoted by cell phones. “It’s as if people want to be in touch but don’t know how to reach out to the person right here,” he explained. In addition, he insisted students engage with those around them when walking around campus or their neighborhood. “You never know when a walk in the city is going to make a difference. I never expected it would turn out like this. I thank God that it did. Every day I thank God for it.”
Agape Latte invites speakers from campus to share their personal stories and how their spirituality has helped them throughout their life each month. Agape Latte’s next event will be held on Nov. 28.