Many colleges and universities, including Methodist University, where I work, offer a class for first time college students to  aid their adjustment to the college environment and equip them with academically relevant skills.  I teach a section of that class to 17 freshmen.  One of the topics covered during our time together is career planning.  The advice given by the course textbook is fairly conventional—get to know your interests and abilities, then learn about careers that might be a good fit for you.  The text uses the term ‘vocation’ in a secular sense, neglecting its original meaning as a call or summons from God.  I made sure that my students knew the origin of the term and had the opportunity to consider whether they have received such a call.

Much of what I said about the subject came from Brian Mahan’s book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition; I wrote about that book  previouslyMahan notes that in our culture we are encouraged to be ambitious—to strive for well-paying careers, positions of power, and public renown.  Ambition makes the self into a commodity; the young are encouraged to sell themselves to prospective employers.  Doing so, though, reduces one’s worth to no more than what the marketplace is willing to pay.  Mahan encourages youthful seekers to take another route–to consider lives not of ambition but of vocation.

The life of vocation involves a call to something larger than oneself; Mahan calls it a “life increasingly given over to compassion for self, others, and world.” He suggests that many people experience the call to such a life in the form of “epiphanies of recruitment.”   These are encounters that beckon the person to a life in touch with human need.  An epiphany is a manifestation of divinity or of some deeper truth, so an epiphany of recruitment is such a manifestation that includes an invitation to do something in response to what has been revealed. One of Mahan’s examples is of a young lady named Martha, who went to visit an orphanage with some friends.  She was introduced to a young boy and spent several hours interacting with him.  The crucial moment for Martha came when the boy turned to her and asked, “Martha, do you have a daddy?”  Now Martha cries whenever she thinks about the boy and the orphanage.  She feels a need to respond in some way, though she doesn’t yet know how. 

 I told my class of the epiphanies of recruitment that called me to volunteer for prison ministry, and also of the epiphany that occurred while I served.  I worked in prisons from 1979 until 1984, but eventually left prison work to gain broader experience in the mental health field.  That may have been the result of ambition rather than vocation, though I don’t regret the direction my life has taken as a result of that choice.  In any event, while was driving from North Carolina to New Jersey in 1995, I had a strong sense that God was going to again use me to work with prisoners.  I didn’t know what to do with that feeling, but, in 2000, I heard about Kairos, a prison ministry based on the cursillo movement that builds Christian community among inmates.  I learned that a team of men just happened to be finishing preparations to serve on a Kairos weekend at Evans Correctional Institution in Bennettsville, South Carolina.  I contacted the team leader, asked whether they could use another volunteer, and soon found myself at Evans welcoming guests (i.e. prisoners) to the weekend.

I experienced many epiphanies in the year I was involved at Evans, but when I took my job at Methodist, it no longer was feasible to continue volunteering there.  I thought occasionally about Kairos, but I never thought I had enough time to participate.  Last year, a group of volunteers was planning to introduce Kairos at Scotland Correctional Institute, quite a bit closer to my house than Evans.  Gus Brown, one of those volunteers, contacted me in mid-2010, asking if I was interested in serving.  “I’m too busy,” I replied.  This March, Gus contacted me again.  I still was awfully busy, and planned to say no, but decided that maybe I should pray about it first.  The next morning, I opened the devotional guide I was using and turned to the scripture for the day.  It was from Matthew 25 and described the last judgment.  In it, Christ turns to those on his right and says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Epiphany.   I was immediately certain that I was being called to volunteer in prisons, and called Gus to join the team that was being formed.

I described to my class one of the many marvelous experiences that occurred when I was on the Kairos weekend at Scotland CI.  I was sitting in the chapel area with the other team members.  The guests were on the other side of a partition; we were giving them privacy while they opened letters from members on the team.  Each team member had written to each guest.  We could hear the occasional ripping of an envelope, but mostly there was silence.  A deep sense came over me that what was being ripped was much more than envelopes.   Defenses and barriers that had been built over a lifetime, resentments and bitter feelings that had kept others out, were being shredded by the words of care that we volunteers had penned.  I felt a sense of God’s presence, and felt small, as if all that I could do or say was being dwarfed by what was taking place in the next room.  I started to cry.  As I told my class, “Either I was just a sentimental old guy tearing up over nothing, or what Jesus said is true and the kingdom of God was near.”  When we rejoined the guests a little later, it was evident that many of them had been deeply moved.  One of them commented, “If being a man means not crying, none of you are men, because I looked around and there wasn’t a dry eye.”  Some epiphanies have a way of spreading.  I hope my students will be prepared when the tide of divinity splashes into their lives as well.