Quincy University students follow the pied piper

An “I can change the world with my own two hands” sign on a preschool classroom door greeted Bishop-elect Fernand Cheri and Quincy University students on a mission trip to New Orleans March 10 at St. John the Baptist Head Start. It was an apropos message, considering Father Cheri, who left his Quincy campus ministry job to become auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, has tried for four years to impart that sentiment to the Illinois university’s students.

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“Once they get the big picture, they see (the value of service for others),” he said. “I hope they gain an appreciation of how rich this country is – the diversity of people and the beauty of that diversity.”

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Several members of the football team joined the most recent service trip upon his invitation.

“He’s kind of like a spiritual leader,” said junior Brad Eckols, a Quincy University football player. “He led our team in prayers and was head team chaplain. He was one of the most approachable people. You could easily go up to him and talk.”

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A listening ear
Cheri said he enjoyed leading team prayers at football games and also the beginning-of-year blessings on various university teams and organizations. His greatest impact probably was providing counseling and spiritual direction as campus ministry director.

“Any problem that I have, I can go to him,” student Tanner Day said. “He’s helped me through a lot of stuff. He listens before he talks. He takes (the phrase) ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth’ seriously. He just really comprehends where you are and puts himself in your shoes. He’s very patient.”

It seems Father Cheri gained a reputation for his faith and his cooking. Eckols and other team members often frequented Father Cheri’s home to chill and eat dinner.

“He’s good with chicken, and his gumbos were top notch,” said Day, a business and finance major. “Sausage gumbo was my favorite.”

Father Cheri laughs when he recalls watching his students (from all over the country and world) eat gumbo for the first time.

“I couldn’t believe people didn’t know how to eat gumbo,” he said, explaining that some had never been to the South. “Some would have separate plates for the rice and the juice. I had to show them how to eat.”

Interaction with youth
Father Cheri’s youth involvement began before his priestly formation as a counselor at the Louisiana Training Institute in 1972. During formation in 1976, he was assistant vocation director, a religious educator, mentor and math tutor at St. Augustine High School, where he also kept football team statistics.

He worked closely with youth as pastor at St. Francis de Sales and then was a guidance counselor at various high schools, vocation minister, in campus ministry at Xavier University in New Orleans and finally at Quincy.

Over time, he learned that high school students are dreamers still trying to understand who they are, whereas college students are more confident in themselves and more realistic about what they can and can’t change but have to be kept focused. Students taught him that they did not like to be second-guessed. Listening was a huge requirement.

“I act like I know nothing about what they are talking about, and I’ve found that as they talk they learn to help themselves,” Father Cheri said. “I’m not afraid to ask the questions, even though I know the answers.”

No matter what situation a student presented to Father Cheri, he would say they could work it out if they put themselves in the way of God and let God do the work.

Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, who earned a master in theology from the Institute for Black Catholic Studies the same year as Father Cheri, thinks his impact in the archdiocese will be the special way he communicates with young people.

“Wherever he is, he will make sure to speak to young people and bring to them the good news of the Gospel and say it to them in a way they can receive it,” she said

Trips create servant leaders
He inherited the Quincy mission trip from Franciscan Brother Ed Arambasich. The university began bringing college students for mission work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Father Cheri said he has led approximately 180 students to New Orleans over the past four trips.

“I was able to get a lot of athletes involved,” Father Cheri said about the mission trip, built on the Franciscan and Catholic tradition of service and a means by which he could develop leaders among the missioners. “You’re not only doing service, but learning what it means to be a servant leader.”

He said each service day ends with a group reflection on what happened, what was meaningful, what surprised them and what they learned about themselves as they cared for God’s people.

“And, when they go back to school, they have new friends and it forms a strong community among the students,” he said.

In addition to the Head Start stop, Quincy students volunteered with the Green Light Project, did gardening and yard work at the Poor Clares Monastery and the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse.

Senior criminal justice major Daniel Lee returned for the third time – now a student leader – to refurbish a garden he had previously built at the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse. He said Father Cheri helped him transition from Florida to campus life in Illinois.

“He’s been a blessing,” Lee said about Father Cheri’s influence on his life. “He’s touched more than me. It’s how he is. He’ll do anything for you.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached atcbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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