Hospitality in its truest sense is one of Bellarmine’s core values, and the campus community is known for the warmth with which it embraces newcomers and visitors. But “if you thought Bellarmine was the epitome of hospitality,” says Camber Sollberger, “you’ve never been to India.”
Camber, a third-year senior from Jeffersonville, Ind., who will graduate in May with a degree in communication, was one of eight students who spent 10 days on an immersive trip to India over Christmas break that was led by Fr. John Pozhathuparambil, a Conventual friar and Bellarmine campus minister from Kerala, and Laura Kremer Kline, assistant director of Campus Ministry. During the annual trip, which will mark its 10th anniversary this year, Bellarmine travelers visit ashrams, churches, temples and mosques; schools and universities; places of lush natural beauty and cities teeming with people.
“Every home you walk into welcomed you with food and entertainment, whether they knew you were coming or not,” Camber said. “All religious temples or places of worship brought you in as one of their own and stopped everything they were doing to give you a quick tour and answer all your questions. The Assisi Shanthi Kendra in which we stayed had welcoming and goodbye celebrations, making sure we knew their customs and how much they loved having us. Food and laughter was shared during every meal.
“Every person we met, every school we visited, every friary we entered, wanted to take selfies, serve meals and share culture.”
That sharing of culture was the objective a decade ago when Fr. Adam Bunnell, who had come to Bellarmine as the president’s special assistant for international and interfaith relations after working for the Conventual Franciscans in Italy, suggested the university establish some sort of exchange with the Conventual Franciscans of Kerala. (The order is the same that helped to found Bellarmine in 1950 and whose friars taught at the college for many years.)
The original goal was to build a Bellarmine campus in India and to create an India Institute at Bellarmine. Glenn Kosse, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations, went on the very first trip to Kerala, in 2009, to check things out, a journey he calls “one of my most vivid, cherished and fascinating travel memories.”
“I recall a mesmerizing cacophony of so many colors, tastes, sounds and activity, but also I remember meeting so many welcoming and friendly people. At the Franciscan monastery where we stayed I met many young priests and students who proudly showed us their community. Many of the people that I met—Fr. John, Fr. Leo and Fr. George—would become familiar faces during their time here at Bellarmine. I especially remember Fr. John walking me around the surrounding streets and introducing me to his neighbors, all of whom welcomed us into their homes and provided us with refreshments and the most wonderful spicy roasted cashews.
“But no recollection of a trip to India is complete without a reference to the death-defying acts of driving through insane traffic that terrified certain visitors, to the amusement of our hosts. The Catholic school boy in me survived by reasoning that there was no way I was going to die in a car with three priests!”
Fr. John came to Bellarmine in 2010 to begin a ministry for young adults, and in 2011 he started leading the annual trips to India, which have included both undergraduate and graduate students from many academic disciplines and with varying travel experience. At least one student had never even flown before.
“We visited teaching hospitals and colleges to explore connections with both our nursing and accounting programs. We also found great benefits for graduate students from the spirituality and communication programs,” said Dr. Melanie-Préjean Sullivan, Bellarmine’s director of Campus Ministry, who has made several trips to India, including the very first.
“Aside from these obvious academic connections, the personal and spiritual relationship on the trips have been profound. Our Indian hosts display a level of hospitality that is truly biblical. They embody the essence of our BU mission: a holistic understanding of our academic, spiritual and cultural solidarity. On my last trip, our undergraduates facilitated group conversations in the colleges, clearly demonstrating how much a Bellarmine education prepares our students to be citizens of the world.”
While the notion of a campus in India didn’t materialize, the trips have been enriching for the participants in many ways. “As I often say, if even one student found this to be a life-changing event, then we would have fulfilled our goal!” Fr. Bunnell said. “I was pleased that all those who traveled to India reported that even the short trip to India was that kind of event.”
Indeed, Fr. John added, “students come back transformed, especially experiencing the hospitality. We have students going back to India to do mission work. We have taken students who have never been outside the USA, and I am so happy to hear that this trip helped them to open themselves to accept another culture, [to] accept a friend from another culture.”
“I have never felt so welcomed, and I never will,” Camber said. “If we can learn anything from India, it is how to make people feel appreciated and loved.”
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org