All Y’all Are Welcome Here

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

Two Sundays ago, I enjoyed being in the Church of Loretto with a standing-room-only congregation. It was the first weekend that students were back on campus, and many new students came over to the chapel to worship with the Sisters of the Holy Cross, with faculty and staff from the tri-campus community, and with other members of the Loretto community. I was delighted to see those young women, just starting to find their way at the College, also making their way over to that 10:30 a.m. Mass. I spoke with several of them afterwards, and one told me that she was taking the advice I had given at the final orientation event just a few days before.

So, what was that advice? I had pointed to The Avenue, our beautiful tree-lined approach to campus. And I’d told the Class of 2027 and transfer students that there was a lesson for them in those noble sycamores and Norway maples. The lesson sounds contradictory, but it isn’t: branch out and stay rooted. There’s nothing, I suggested, that makes one feel more able to reach for the sky and try new things than being securely grounded. Indeed, the student who was taking my advice said that her faith was what grounded her, and her faith brought her to Loretto that morning.

Everyone there that Sunday was treated to a wonderful homily by a priest we had not met before, Fr. Matthew Gummess, O. Carm., a graduate student at Notre Dame. Fr. Gummess opened his reflection by telling the congregation that he was born in Texas, but because he hadn’t lived there very long, he had no trace of a Texas accent. Then he shared with us the single word that might still give away his origins: “y’all.” My own parents lived in Texas for 35 years, so I’ve had quite a bit of experience of the Lone Star State. I leaned over to the friend sitting next to me and whispered, “And then there’s the plural: ‘all y’all.’”

What a wonderful phrase!

And wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly where Fr. Matthew was going. “All y’all are welcome here” was what he took away from the readings. God has a big tent. God likes a forest. That homily dovetailed precisely with my annual late-August concerns for new SMC students who might be thinking about the matter of “belonging” in the new home they have chosen. This year, our first-year class at Saint Mary’s is especially large and diverse. They come from 31 states and seven countries. 28% are first-generation college students. And of course, each one brings a unique self—maybe even a quirky self—full of personal passions, individual talents, strongly held opinions, hidden worries, and hopes and dreams for the future. So the question of belonging is very real. How can they move from being a bunch of individuals to being “all ya’ll”—to being “us”?

There are many ways in which starting college can feel like a big uprooting, a precarious transplanting. It’s hard to branch out and stay rooted. But maybe we really can take a lesson here from trees. In recent years, ecologists have discovered that trees communicate far more than we ever thought they did, and they do this underground, in their root systems. We’ve learned about the interdependence of different tree species, and about the complex roles of the diversity of life—including the insects and fungi—in the health of a forest. Trees derive energy and also produce energy from that diversity. We’ve learned that there is an invisible cooperative effort happening all the time among trees, with carbon being directed underground from one tree to another. We’ve learned that older trees actively help seedlings and young trees—that they have an important role in regenerating the forest. I wonder what those trees on The Avenue are saying to each other, and what they can say to us.

I’m imagining they can tell us not only that belonging involves both branching out and staying rooted but also that our ability to branch out in healthy ways actually depends on what is happening at the root. They can tell us to let ourselves be a bit vulnerable and depend on others, perhaps especially others who seem different from us on the surface of things. They whisper encouragement to let ourselves get tangled up at our roots, to share what “grounds” us and makes us who we are, as well as how we hope to grow, and to be open to hearing what is deeply important to others. When a Douglas fir sends a message to a ponderosa pine, she isn’t focusing on their differences. She is focusing on the health of the ecosystem. Those majestic maples and sycamores on The Avenue have been in conversation for a long time. As we start a new academic year, they can teach us a lot about how to support and sustain each other. They can remind us: “All y’all are welcome here.” It takes all y’all to make a community. To make “us.”

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.

August 31, 2023

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