By Andrea Woods
Class of 2009
PHILADELPHIA – A Gonzaga professor told me one sentence that changed his life. And then it changed mine.
“Everyone you will ever meet has infinite worth.”
These words so perfectly embody my Gonzaga education. Thanks to my Jesuit schooling, I am forever altered, given a new framework from which to view the world. It’s a framework in which every person is inherently valuable, and anything is possible. It is because of Gonzaga, this professor, and so many important moments built into my last four years, that I now live in Philadelphia as a Jesuit Volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
My life is unlike ever before. Working for a group called Witness to Innocence, I support men who were innocent but sentenced to death through wrongful convictions, but eventually exonerated and freed. In knowing them, I am humbled to simply listen – an adjustment from my role as Gonzaga’s student body president when I was frequently handed a microphone. Now I hear of suffering, blatant injustice, torture, and loss – life stories that are infuriating, extraordinary, and true. And they come from the mouths of men who have practiced more forgiveness, survived more despair, and exuded more grace than anyone I’ve ever known. These men know what it’s like to feel invisible and forgotten. These men are infinitely worthy.
In my visits to jails, my meetings with re-entering prisoners, and even my walks to the subway, I share my time in Philadelphia with people whose backgrounds are strikingly different from mine. And though I live in North Philadelphia, would easily qualify for food stamps, and live at the mercy of public transportation, their reality is not one I can fully understand. I am merely a student of this city and society. I am learning how cruelly unfair the world can be, but from the comfortable place where I can still buy a latte and take a warm shower as winter grows colder. I’m beginning to understand how little I may ever actually understand.
Certainly I have known disappointment, anxiety, and heartbreak like so many people I serve. I have not known the rumble of a desperately hungry stomach, or the desolate timelessness of a prison cell, or how it feels to be overlooked because I was poor, dangerous or different. Yet I marvel, with every step, at the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
As the air chills, the nights grow longer, and the holidays approach, it becomes more significant to remember the poor and marginalized. Whether by offering a warm meal or an attentive ear, Christmastime challenges us to slow down and see how – in many small, significant ways – we can be men and women for others.
Now, I slip up sometimes. Too many snooze buttons and I’m buying coffee at McDonald’s instead of making it at home. I frequently apologize to homeless men that I don’t have spare change. My big service challenge this month is a trip to Pennsylvania’s Death Row where I will be a prisoner’s only Christmas visitor – though he is a complete stranger. I’m nervous for the trip to the prison this weekend but know enough men who’ve lived in similar cells that I believe in its value. Who knows what we’ll talk about, or what I’ll have to offer him. But I’ll start by trying to honor the fact that – despite his situation – this man too is inherently worthy. Whether we have much of anything in common, he and I are both participants in this astounding gig on planet earth. And, for now, that is enough.
Gonzaga taught me that. And I’m learning more every day.
Andrea Woods (’09) was president of the Gonzaga Student Body Association, and was Gonzaga’s first Rhodes scholarship finalist. An Honors student, she also was an Ambassador and resident assistant. She won the Ignatian Spirit Award last May and played in the wind ensemble, chamber, and symphony orchestra (flute) at Gonzaga. Woods earned degrees in English and psychology, played many intramural sports and lost “every single game” during her four years here.