Rev. Tom Johnson, Principal at The Neighborhood Academy in Pittsburgh, defined vocation as “that place and time in our lives when our great joy meets the world’s great need.” NativityMiguel Schools were founded by this concept of vocation. Over the years, I have had the privilege of talking with leaders and teachers who were involved in the founding of schools like Nativity Prep and Mother Caroline Academy in Boston, Cornelia Connelly Center in New York City and San Miguel School of Providence in Providence, all in the early 1990s. These inspired leaders thrived in the typical chaos of a start-up because they were grounded in great joy for what each day would bring. While these creators are often called visionary entrepreneurs, many of them will humbly tell you that their focus was on attention to their students’ needs that day and reflection on what they and others could do that day to respond to that need. They countered the rush and race of the world with a patient spirit of connecting with a student or an adult and seeing what would happen. Their vocation would require prayer as they recognized that being mindful of the sacred is necessary to clearly know and prioritize the need in all of the noise and to consider a meaningful and purposeful response in all of the confusion.
While we often think of a vocation as an individual’s journey, our schools are not pursuits of a single person. Our schools are vocational communities. The founding drive of our schools is simple – you can pull together a group of people with an abounding energy who are deeply committed to the educational need of students and families in poverty. For example, anyone who visited Nativity Mission Center on the lower east side knew that both the joy and need were prevalent. I remember having lunch in the small cafeteria with the students, faculty and staff. While it was clear that certain expectations defined those relationships, there was also a positive tone and upbeat fluidity to the conversation, laughter and care. It was not scripted behavior, this was a genuine community, a family so to speak, that exuded hope and optimism to be brought home and shared in the neighborhood.
As our schools and students have matured, our impact has rippled out to positively affect wider circles in the school’s immediate community and elsewhere, yet our ambitions remain devoted solely to the students and families served by the school. In education these days, reformers are often chasing the next big thing, the idea, perhaps a new funding mechanism or new mode of technology, that can be scaled to serve thousands then tens and hundreds of thousands. While NativityMiguel Schools enroll upwards of 4,000 students across the country and support over 6,000 graduates, a number that grows by 650 graduates each year, each school is designed to be intentionally small, and our mission, our vocation you might say, is focused on the care, formation and education of each individual student and his/her family.
As many look back and remember 2016 as a tough year categorized by struggle, conflict and division, we need to remember that for many of our students and families, last year may have felt a lot like the years prior. As 2017 gets underway, our vocation is as important as ever, and we pray that we will know and prioritize the need of our students and families and consider a meaningful and purposeful response. We begin this new year much like NativityMiguel schools were founded, moving forward confidently and faithfully as a community of people who meet a great need with great joy that is strong and uncompromising.