SEATTLE – When COVID-19 pushed learning online, it challenged students at Christ the King School to rethink their year-end Missionary Discipleship Institute project, finding ways to meet new needs closer to home.
“The people who are on the margins changed overnight” when the coronavirus pandemic hit, said teacher Amy Hall. “The people who were donating to the food bank are now using the food bank, and the seniors who were most active in our parish are now the most vulnerable.”
Students in her class began phoning elderly parishioners to check in on them, so they would feel less alone. They helped siblings with schoolwork. And they started sharing their experiences through a page on the school website, Coronavirus Caring Acts.
“This is what missionary disciples do: They see a need and respond to it,” Hall said.
Chane Brummond, a seventh-grader at Christ the King School in Seattle, makes a call to check in with a senior citizen from the parish. Photo: Courtesy Christ the King School
The Missionary Discipleship Institute, part of seventh-grade religious education classes at 27 Catholic schools in the archdiocese (see box), is a yearlong exploration of what it means to be and respond as a Catholic disciple of Jesus.
“Our annual guiding question has been, ‘Who is our neighbor?’ Now our guiding question is, ‘Who is our neighbor in light of COVID-19?’” Sandra Barton Smith, assistant superintendent for mission and Catholic identity for the archdiocese’s Catholic schools office, said in an email.
“This ongoing call to action really is aligning their actions and learning to the corporal works of mercy,” Barton Smith said. “Really insightful and meaningful actions are being demonstrated in light of COVID-19.”
Although Hall’s students didn’t abandon their original focus on care for God’s creation — they created yard signs at home and used digital platforms to bring attention to the plight of the planet — through COVID-19 they found a more tangible understanding of missionary discipleship.
“It’s so much more real to the kids right now,” Hall said. “It is literally their neighbor.”
Discipleship is a call to action
In its sixth year in the archdiocese, the Missionary Discipleship Institute is a collaboration of the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Catholic schools office, the archdiocese’s pastoral care office and the Maryknoll Society.
The curriculum, which incorporates Catholic social teaching, has three phases: encounter, disturbance and response. During the year, students research issues and engage in immersion experiences that allow them to encounter their neighbors living on the margins. They cap off the year with a plan for responding to the issue they have selected.
“One of our hopes with the whole institute process is that students will understand this is an essential part of being Catholic,” said Anna Johnson, Western regional director for Maryknoll’s U.S. Church Engagement division. “Part of it is really giving the students ownership over the action plan.”
As COVID-19 restrictions upended students’ original action plans, MDI teachers around the archdiocese used the opportunity to assist both students and families “to encounter, be disturbed and find ways to respond in light of the Gospel call,” Barton Smith said.
At Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Seattle, teacher Lauren Hobbs encouraged her seventh-graders to explore areas of personal interest and grow their relationship with Jesus by creating individual action plans within their homes, communities or neighborhoods.
“When COVID hit, there was more opportunity for them to stretch,” figuring out how to demonstrate care for others and discerning where they felt personally called at this time, said Hobbs, who is the MDI companion for the archdiocese. In that role, she provides teaching support and curriculum guidance to other MDI teachers.
Sylvi Schellong, a student at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Seattle, sews masks for those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of Guadalupe School
“We’re all called to be missionary disciples,” Hobbs said, “but we’re not all called to the same mission.” She asked her students: “How are you the hands and feet of Christ?”
That lit a passion in many kids, she discovered.
One student created videos to teach PE classes to neighborhood kids. Another collected bags of clothing from his family and neighbors and deposited them in a donation receptacle. A third student picked up trash from a hillside in her neighborhood as a way to care for creation.
“Many told me they did much more because they realized that it meant more to them,” Hobbs said. “It was not just an assignment, but a way to make a difference during these difficult times” and feel they have a purpose, she said.
“They’re so compassionate about the needs of others,” Hobbs added. “It’s been beautiful to see.”
Capstone and coronavirus
Traditionally, MDI concludes with Capstone Day. This year, almost 750 seventh-graders from the participating schools were going to gather with their teachers at Seattle University to celebrate a year of living out the call to missionary discipleship by sharing their experiences, participating in activities and listening to inspiring speakers.
With the cancellation of large gatherings, Barton Smith said, an “amazing team” that included staff from the archdiocese, the schools office and Maryknoll pulled together a quick switch to MDI Virtual Capstone Week — a three-lesson online program featuring speaker videos, prayers, guides, a dinner with family members that includes an MDI conversation and a final blessing from Bishop Eusebio Elizondo. Each student also was asked to record a short video reflecting on their MDI experience.
“I’ve heard there were great conversations that were happening at the dinner table with families,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the blessings that came with this shuffle that had to happen.”
Missionary Discipleship Institute schools
The following Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Seattle participated in the Missionary Discipleship Institute during the 2019–20 school year:
Christ the King, Seattle
Holy Family, Kirkland
Holy Family, Lacey
Holy Family Bilingual, Seattle
Holy Rosary, Edmonds
Holy Rosary, Seattle
Our Lady of Fatima, Seattle
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Seattle
Our Lady of the Lake, Seattle
St. Anthony, Renton
St. Benedict, Seattle
St. Bernadette, Burien
St. Francis of Assisi, Burien
St. George, Seattle
St. John, Seattle
St. Joseph, Chehalis
St. Madeleine Sophie, Bellevue
St. Mark, Shoreline
St. Mary Magdalen, Everett
St. Matthew, Seattle
St. Michael, Olympia
St. Michael, Snohomish
St. Philomena, Des Moines
St. Pius X, Mountlake Terrace
St. Thomas More, Lynnwood
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