Somewhere off in the woods you can hear a chainsaw roaring. And closer at hand Michell and Guillermo are painting a stairwell. Kenneth is just returning with a truckload of groceries for an upcoming dinner for 50 brothers. And Adrian is listening intently to Ted Kennedy, one of our senior brothers, explaining the finer points of accounting. This is a fairly typical day at the brotherhood center, where these men are doing their practical service during the two years they spend in the International Formation House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the U.S.
Since the early 1980s the brotherhood has maintained a house in Michigan where men from around the world come during part of their period of formation and discernment. Currently there are seven brothers, variously from Canada, Lebanon, India, Dominican Republic, Mexico, the Philippines and the U.S., who live there together with the three lifelong brothers who provide formation. One of them is John Yocum, who has a PhD in Theology. He teaches at Sacred Heart Catholic Seminary, but devotes a large part of his time to leading the house and overseeing the various elements of the training process.
Luis Arce, a 35-year-old Costa Rican with a degree in communications and advertising, is here to both learn how to become a trainer for younger men, and to assist with the formation process. He helps teach some of the courses given in the house, co-leads a small group and provides personal pastoral care for two of the trainees. “It’s a great house,” he says. “I feel that it is at the heart of our life. All the men are here seeking to live the life well and to lean into God’s purpose for them. Everything is very purposeful since we want the trainees to understand why we do things the way we do them. I love it!”
Indeed, life is very regulated in the house. In addition to the three daily prayer times which are “normal parts” of any S/W household life, all the men study about 12 hours a week: courses in Scripture, theology, history and spirituality lay an intellectual foundation for the years to come. “It really marks your life,” says Luis. There are also about 20 hours of service and mission per week, often practical and relatively simple, like the ones described above. Many also help in the local youth and university outreaches, something the local communities appreciate greatly. About the practical service, Kenneth, the Filipino trainee, remarks: “It can be backbreaking at times, but it grows on you. And the fact that this service is not as intellectually taxing gives it an almost contemplative character. You get time to think and pray.” Luis echoes that: “In our region back home our lives are very busy with service and outreach. You come here and life slows way down. You suddenly realize that you are not primarily here to do stuff, but to be somebody. While it can be jarring, it is a very helpful experience.”
So what changes a man during his time in the international formation house? “First and foremost,” Luis continues, “it is the living encounter with the Lord. The whole experience here is designed to have you hear the Lord clearly and to be impacted by his word.” Then there is the formation group, a place where the men open up their lives. “It’s a very supportive environment, full of rich fellowship with a wide variety of brothers,” says Kenneth, “but it is also a place to deal intensely with my weaknesses and shortcomings. I learn and unlearn so as to become a better brother, a better leader, a better man.”
Spending two years away from home is costly, both financially and in terms of manpower. So is it really necessary, or could that not all be done at home? Luis and Kenneth are adamant: “The space you get here to make a good decision is invaluable. You also grow in cross-cultural and ecumenical exposure which is crucial if you want to be a member of an international, ecumenical brotherhood.”