It’s May. The month of commencement ceremonies and parties, honoring students who are crossing a “finish line” of sorts, earning their diplomas and moving on to new chapters in life.
In the whir of ceremonies, parties, and questions about ‘What’s next?’ for graduates, it’s natural to focus on the excitement of celebrations. Less often do we look at a graduate and ponder the long walk that preceded the short walk across the stage - the mundane routines and tedious effort that led the student to graduation day. Perhaps because our own story may not have been as challenging.
I’m lucky to know a young woman who will graduate this month from Dowling Catholic High School who has given me good reason to reflect on resolve that is deeper and stronger than what can be seen, even with a weekly glimpse.
Attend Sunday Mass at St. Ambrose Cathedral in Des Moines, and chances are, you will see Janefa James serving on the altar. Quiet and serious, Janefa, 18, is clearly a dependable right hand to St. Ambrose clergy, liturgists and Eucharistic ministers. She serves almost every Sunday and helps train new servers. Witness Janefa’s abiding involvement in Mass and you know you are seeing a young person of deep faith and commitment.
But the fleeting glance of Janefa at Mass does not fully capture the entire commitment – the lengths she goes to in order to serve.
Janefa is the oldest of five siblings, ranging in age from 18 to six years old. Born in South Sudan, Janefa arrived to the U.S. as a child with her mother, Rejoice. Janefa attended Holy Family School where she ran track and met teachers she admires to this day for their unwavering service to others, especially Janet Holmes and Mr. Robey. Throughout high school, Janefa has stayed active in track and at St. Ambrose.
Like many first-generation American families, Rejoice works long hours, nights and early mornings, to provide for her children. As Rejoice needs the family car for work, Janefa rides her bicycle several miles from the James’ home on Des Moines’ south side, through downtown to St. Ambrose to attend and serve Mass every Sunday. It’s not often you see a teen coming and going from church on bike. Rain or shine, regardless the season, Janefa doesn’t miss Mass.
Beyond involvement at St. Ambrose and school, Janefa holds a job and helps care for her siblings. This autumn, Janefa will become the first person in her family to attend college, setting out to pursue nursing or speech pathology.
As we celebrate with our graduates and think about who is that person, how did he or she arrive to this point, and who helped them get here, Janefa’s story inspires us to remember our connections. Janefa allowed herself to be inspired, shows her appreciation by giving back and, in turn, inspires the best in us. Happy graduation, to Janefa and all the graduates in our diocese. Your efforts, as much as your achievements, are recognized and appreciated.