Plattsburgh, NY. Wikimedia Commons

Guess Who’s Coming to Plattsburgh

From May 26th to 30th, American CLU students from various states came together for vacation, with two Italian guests who tell the story. Hikes, songs, jokes, and skits. The freshness of the beginning.

Giovanni Cesana E Luca Frigerio

Waiting for us at New York’s JFK Airport were Stella, Greg, and Leah. It was a hot May day, and we were in the Big Apple to start a seven-day adventure with CLU youth in the United States. For us, CLU now wears the faces of two Californians, Greg and Leah, the first a student in New York, the second in San Diego here only for the vacation, and Stella, originally from Pesaro and now living in New York. Chatting with them, we realized the profound social differences between an Italian university student and an American one. In America life is very hard for a college student; the cost of the average college today exceeds $10,000 a year, which many families cannot afford. Once a child is seventeen years old, families often step aside, and for a student, going to college means asking for big bank loans and making lots of sacrifices. Yet, without a college diploma, it is practically impossible to find a good job.

A new creation
After an hour of traffic we got to Brooklyn, to Stella’s family’s house on Senator Street, the nerve center of the Movement in New York. It is a classic brownstone New York house, with ten or so front steps that, as the afternoon wears on, fill up one after another with kids around 19-20 years old. We realize something unusual: many of them do not know each other. The CLU vacation is their first chance to get together; they have often been in contact by phone or e-mail, but have never seen each other before. We breathe the air of the beginning, as we read about them in Traces–for example, the first songfests, the first trips to Varigotti. We feel like we have stepped into one of those black and white photos. Here, it is not like home in Italy. Nothing is already organized here, everything has to be created; nothing is taken for granted.

All afternoon the CLU kids in New York shuttled back and forth to the airport, to bring to Brooklyn all the others arriving from all over America.

There were 35 of us on the vacation: 14 from New York, 7 from California, 4 from Boston, 2 from Washington, D.C., 2 from Oklahoma City, 1 from Minnesota, 1 from Miami, 1 from Buffalo, 1 from Chicago, Pablo, here from Spain with the Erasmus Program for architecture.
The site of our vacation was Plattsburgh, a college town north of New York City, an hour’s flight from Montreal. We slept in a dormitory.

We arrived there about 6 o’clock in the evening, then had an hour for settling in, dinner in the cafeteria, and immediately afterwards the presentation of the vacation. Greg, CLU head in New York, read sections from the 1999 Equipe lecture, "On the Way", and spoke briefly about what friendship with the others in New York means to him. He asked us to follow carefully the various gestures that would be proposed. In the meantime we met Lorna, a Memores Domini and manager of a telecommunications company who leads the CLU group and would be our official translator. Later we also met Father Antonio; Greg’s brother Damian; Carlo, a college professor in New Jersey; and, one-by-one, all the rest of the troop.

In the land of the Mohicans
Our days started with big American breakfasts, then morning prayer and daily reading from On the Way. Then we were really on our way. In the morning, games or short walks; in the afternoon, group meetings or On the Way again. Even the girls played hard. These are all people with great grit and determination.

One whole day was given over to the classic field trip. After two hours of steep climbing we got to the top. We sang the songs of the Union Jack, the Civil War, American folk songs, a few Italian songs, and even some sevillanas (with the help of Father Antonio and Pablo). Later Carlo explained to us the history of these mountains, telling us about the battles between the English and the French and Indians–the setting of The Last of the Mohicans.

One evening, Jonathan, Valentina, and Chris arrived from New York; an exceptional trio of musicians, they gave us an evening of classical music. In an atmosphere of rapt attention, Leah opened the concert by explaining and playing on the piano Chopin’s Piano Etude, then the trio began playing classical pieces alternated with spirituals. They told us how their passion for music was reawakened by their encounter with the Movement. In particular, we were struck by Chris’s story: he had been playing since he was six years old, received his diploma from the most important music school in the States, then could not become the musician he wanted to be because he contracted tendonitis. He told us that after some years of living in darkness, he began playing again only because of meeting the Movement, and said that he was much happier now because only now has he been able to truly possess the pieces he had been playing all his life.

Monsignor Albacete came too. The youth asked him to talk about politics, since the presidential election is coming up soon. Albacete, taking his cue from what Father Giussani said in Assago (Milan), spoke of subsidiarity and solidarity as pillars of society. In the United States, in contrast to Europe where the fight is all about subsidiarity, what is missing is solidarity, in education, in health care. And the young people seem to want to change things, these kids who don’t even have enough money to take the subway every day, but have encountered something truly big.

Saved from the streets
After Mass came dinner, which was for us a chance to get to know the others and to find out how they live. These are all people with a great sense of humanity, who are living in difficult situations, most of them with hard family lives. Ray told us that in his neighborhood there are two gangs. To be able to join one of them, to prove your courage, you have to slash the face of the first person who comes your way. Being with them, you understand what it means, literally, that Christ saves mankind. This is true also for us, but in them you can see it physically, in the sense that He has saved them from the streets and all the rest… Even the simple fact of meeting a group of people who come together in the evening to sing, in a place like New York, Stella told us, is not a common occurrence. Starting from this awareness of being saved, these kids look at themselves and each other differently, and they look at everything that arises from the place where they found safe harbor with enormous interest.

Yvonne, from Oklahoma City, told us that her state is 97% Protestant and 3% Catholic.
The last night we all came together for an evening of entertainment. Between games and singing, we realized that we were the object of almost all the final jokes! Father Giussani once phoned at the end of the CLU Retreat in Italy to hear how things had gone, and the first thing he asked was, “How were the skits?” In Plattsburgh we were all rolling on the floor with laughter. This gives the idea of the climate that was created and that was confirmed in the final assembly the next day. Everyone spoke, trying to say what those days had meant to them. They found meaning in those days, and the enthusiasm to continue to live this friendship even though separated by thousands of miles, each one in his or her own college and circumstances.

Returning home
The next day we left for New York. In the car, Greg continued to ask us lots of questions about the history of the Movement. He asked about the university and about politics on campus. He asked about Father Giussani, our friends in Italy, and wondered if it was possible to send some of us to study in the States.

That evening we finally had an Italian meal at Stella’s house. We hadn’t even sat down at the table when the phone and doorbell starting ringing, and in twenty minutes the house was once again full of people. Before we knew it, we were back in the car heading into Manhattan. Our friends took us to hear some blues, and with a good beer in front of us our thoughts went to those ten steps in front of the house on Senator Street and the three or four steps in front of Berchet High School; just a few steps that lead to a physical place where a new friendship is developed, to be spread from there to all the world. Our thoughts also went to Father Antonio’s idea that there is no mercy without a task; that is, what we have encountered should immediately become a mission, so that everyone can meet and come to know what has changed our lives.