On April 22, 2023, the fourth Act Five cohort graduated from the program in a ceremony full of tears, hugs, and joy. It was a beautiful time for students, staff, family, and friends to come together to wrap up the year and celebrate how far this cohort has come.
David Schuurman, who has been on staff for Act Five the past 3 years, gave a commencement speech for the students, reflecting on their progress and praying a blessing over them. May you, our supporters, find encouragement in his words to them.
Picture this: it’s the fall of 2019. Act Five has just begun its first gap year with its first cohort of students. Nobody had ever heard of COVID, and pandemics seemed far-fetched. The first floor dining room was a living room, and the first floor living room was a dining room. The backyard was an unattractive, lumpy field of weeds with a beautiful, diagonal magnolia tree in the middle. There was a bit of a buzz in the church networks of Hamilton that a gap year program was finally starting in the city, and I remember our students saying multiple times that they felt like celebrities when people found out they were Act Five students.
Observing that year, it didn’t take very long for me to realize that although part of me was sad that Act Five wasn’t around when I was 18, another part of me was really glad it wasn’t. I would have been so tempted to do it, but there’s no way I was mature enough or ready for what Act Five offers their students.
Upon moving in, I always ask the students, “What made you want to come to Act Five?”, and with a mix of naivety and maturity, almost every student answers, “I want to grow.” I think that’s why I’m not sure I could have done Act Five at 18 years old. I wanted to grow, but I don’t know if I was ready for the growth each of you experienced and leaned into this year.
A year and a half ago, I set a goal to try and hike the Bruce Trail over the course of the next 5 years. I’ve seen a lot of parallels between my Bruce Trail journey and year four at Act Five.
It didn’t take me long—maybe 15km out of the 450km that I’ve currently hiked—to realize that the Bruce Trail would be a pilgrimage of sorts for me. Going as fast as possible isn’t going to work. I need to pace myself, no matter how badly I want to skip ahead. I have to experience the present and walk through what is around me in order to get to the finish line.
While hiking, I found that when I direct my attention to the present, I realize how beautiful my current place is. I realize that I don’t need to listen to the most charismatic voices or the most well-marketed music. The noises and voices and music where I am is the most beautiful, and the most important in that moment. The Bruce is a long trail that will leave me sore, but I won’t realize how good and beautiful this trail is if I’m only thinking elsewhere and ahead.
This year, I’ve seen you come to these same realizations. Realizing through dancing, walking, exploring, working, cleaning, praying, unplugging, and supporting each other, that even if the present moment was painful, there was no use trying to pretend you were somewhere else. And, maybe most importantly, realizing that it isn’t so scary to be present where you are when you’re never walking alone.
As you all leaned into this, and as you began paying attention to what was going on inside and around you, I saw something beautifully profound and rare occur. You became a community of young people that knew how to sit with both your own pain and the pain of others. This community became a place where people were upheld as they mourned the loss of loved ones. It was a place where people responded to the question “How are you?” with an answer that resembled how they were actually doing, rather than just the acceptable and often untrue “I’m doing good.”
Students, I saw you leading Elvis singalongs at a L’Arche home, humbly cleaning cat poo out of the sink drain of a low-income home, making art with houseless teenagers, calming down a fight over a shirt at a thrift store, and giving manicures to people in palliative care at St. Peter’s hospital. I saw you going out in cold temperatures to spend time with people at the soup truck, dancing with strangers in food-insecure communities in El Salvador, sharing meals with families that have suffered from storms in Texas, and asking thoughtful questions to Indigenous leaders as they shared about their experiences in residential schools. I watched as you asked your peers to be gentle and support you as you leaned into your inner pain and learned how to cry; showing love by doing other people’s dishes or chores to give them a lighter load.
Act Five spends some time in the southern States; last year in New Orleans and this year in South Texas. In the Bible Belt, we’ve learned that it’s common to say: “well, as the good book says”, followed by something that either is or isn’t in the Bible. So, “as the good book says”:
“Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’
“Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.” (2 Cor. 12:7-10, The Message)
This year, I believe that I really saw your community embody this. With the amount of death, loss, struggle, and sickness that existed in and around this community, you all had to embrace humility and weakness, whether you liked it or not, and let go of some hopes, dreams, and plans. And once you pushed through, I saw you exist as a community with such freedom, such surrender, such fun and joy.
I’m sad to see you all go, but at the same time I see that you are ready and equipped, and I’m so excited to continue to witness how you live and what you do. It is my prayer that through your time here with Act Five, you carry the joy that your hearts experienced this year as you move on, finding strength in weakness and creativity through improvising.
So, Act Five 2022-2023, thank you for all that you’ve been for each other, for who you’ve been to us on staff, who you’ve been to your placement sites, and who you’ve been to people all over the city and beyond. Stay curious. Stay humble, and walk into whatever is next for you with freedom and confidence.