University of Detroit Mercy student Mary Margaret Payne was uncomfortable the first few times she worked with the poor and homeless. She knew she wanted to help, but she also knew she had to leave her comfort zone to be effective.
Now, as Payne prepares to take the stage on Saturday, May 11 as the 2019 University of Detroit Mercy Valedictorian, she is a different person.
“I love that discomfort, I seek that discomfort,” Payne said. “All the things that I’ve been hesitant to do because they are outside of my comfort zone are ultimately the ones that brought me the most joy, helped me grow the most and were the most fulfilling. Now when I recognize the right kind of discomfort, I know that’s going to be good.”
Payne feels a special connection with the poor and hopes to dedicate her life to service as a member of the Community of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in New York.
“I’m halfway through the application process,”she said. “I have my final visit this summer. I’ve been thinking about joining for a while. I’ve really fallen in love with the poor and the Franciscan Sisters have a ministry of being present with people.”
Payne is dedicated to helping the poor, but not necessarily by providing food, clothing or shelter. She enjoys getting to know people and feels she can serve them better once they have a connection.
“Obviously my heart breaks for individuals experiencing homelessness and who are without food and clothing, but it has really been on my heart to serve the poverty of loneliness,” Payne said. “People who feel unknown and outcast by society. One of the hardest things is when I meet people on the street and they talk about how the people who walk by won’t even look at them. All they want to do is say hi and people won’t even give them a look. That is a very real poverty that people don’t always acknowledge. I think we have to know people before we’re able to serve them properly.”
Payne discovered helping the poor was her passion while on an alternative spring break with Detroit Mercy Ministry at Nazareth Farm in West Virginia. Payne’s group thought they were going to a shelter to do repairs, but there was a mix-up and the shelter didn’t have anything for them to do.
“We just sat for three hours with people at the shelter,” Payne said. “It felt like they were really grateful for that. They just wanted to have a conversation. They asked us about what we were studying. It was just a joy being with people. I went into that situation and said, ‘I’m here to help you fix your building.’ And I was humbled by realizing, ‘No, I’m not. I’m here to listen to you and know you.’ That’s a big gift, to be given the joy of knowing somebody. I think that was the first encounter I ever really had with that.”
Payne’s experience at Nazareth Farm led to her spending a summer with Christ in the City in Denver.
Christ in the City is a Catholic program dedicated to forming young adults, volunteers and the greater community to be lifelong missionaries and to knowing, loving and serving the poor.
“It was definitely the most uncomfortable summer of my life,” Payne said. “I went knowing nobody and I had to just start walking down the street and talk to strangers. I’m not that outgoing.”
Every day Payne and other volunteers would go out and start conversations with the poor, often running into the same people on multiple occasions.
“We would meet them and then as the weeks go on you see the same people and you build friendships,” Payne said. “It’s really just a humbling experience to see these people in a difficult circumstance and I really can’t do anything to lift them out of that. So my call is just to be there and be present with them. And when there is an opportunity to direct them to more resources, I can do that from a place of love after knowing them personally and knowing their needs, rather than just assuming that they are on the street so they need food and clothing.”
The experience in Denver inspired Payne to consider joining the Community of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal.
“They really live very simply and make themselves available to whatever the needs are of the community,” Payne said. “It’s having the opportunity to live in a community that is available to the needs of the poor around it, and listens to what they need and be there to accompany them in those circumstances.”
Payne returned to Denver this year when she led an alternative spring break at Christ in the City.
“The students loved it. It was like the first time I was there, they were all very uncomfortable, but it’s that discomfort that helps us grow,” she said. “To get to see the joy that they found there was really beautiful.”
Payne is thankful to Detroit Mercy Ministry for helping guide her and always being open to new ideas. Payne and Detroit Mercy student Annie Taylor were inspired to form Christian Life Communities after attending a conference and Payne said they couldn’t have done it without the help of the Ministry office.
“Christian Life Communities is really just a space to come and talk in the context of our faith,” Payne said. “Like what’s happening in school, your life, your family, your highs and lows and your God moments. Just a place to share with students how God is working in their life.
“The Ministry office helped us form Christian Life Communities and has supported me when I wanted my faith to grow. They really put in extra effort to build a community of students growing in their faith. It’s been really beautiful.”
Payne is very passionate about service and faith, but she’s also excelled in the classroom at Detroit Mercy and will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a minor in Philosophy.
“The chemistry department has supported me through everything,” Payne said. “They want to see your success as a person, not necessarily just your success in chemistry. When I went to Denver they were thrilled for me and wanted to hear all about it. When I said I wanted to go to graduate school they were ready to help me with anything I needed and when I said, ‘Nevermind, I want to be a sister,’ they were thrilled too. They’ve accompanied me these four years as I figured out who I am and what I want to do. They were just present, attentive and available to students. Just them modeling that has meant a lot to me.”
Payne has enjoyed being a member of the Chemistry Club and is thankful for her relationship with Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Matthew Mio.
“Professor Mio and the Chemistry Club are amazing examples of community,” Payne said. “The lack of competitiveness in the Chemistry Department is great. We weren’t ever competing against one another for grades. It’s always been a community of support from my peers and our professors, which I’m so grateful for. Chemistry Club is amazing, just having the opportunity to get to know each other outside of class and really have fun with our major. Professor Mio is just an awesome professor. He’s available to talk to students about classes but also about life crises. Just a lot of great support from everyone in the chemistry department.”
Payne is honored to represent the Class of 2019 as the valedictorian and said she was motivated to apply by her parents and her desire to thank those who have helped her.
“I’m very grateful for this University, I learned a lot from it so having the opportunity to share some of that in a commencement address was important,” Payne said. “To highlight what this University means to me and how it’s helped me grow in the last four years was really the reason I applied.”