Formed in community

First slide

For Tom Duesterhaus, community is everything.

After growing up in a family with eight kids, teaching in a classroom for 15 years and living in a communal environment since his second year of college, it's no wonder he's used to having people around.

"Community has always been such a crucial component for me," he said in a recent interview. "If I'm in a community, then I'm part of it. I'm responsible to help build it up. I also benefit from it, but it's not just a self-serving thing."

Of course, it's more than just being used to having people around - Duesterhaus thrives on his relationships with others. The 37-year-old Duesterhaus is a lay consecrated member of the men's Youth Apostles community and currently serves as house director at their home base in McLean. For the last 15 years he has taught creative writing and English at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, from where he graduated in 1991. And at the base is his community of family - a strong group of Catholics in Northern Virginia who support one another and, he said, serve as a "building block" for everything else.

Early communities

As the sixth of eight children, Duesterhaus observed carefully the paths that his siblings took in life and his parents' support of them. Many are married and Father Michael R. Duesterhaus is parochial vicar at Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge. Through weekly Mass, attending Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Vienna and then attending Bishop O'Connell, Duesterhaus developed a foundation of faith that was never forced.

"It was in the air we breathed," he said. "It was in our bloodstream."

The large family was involved in parish and school activities, and his parents quietly led by example.

But it wasn't until Duesterhaus' last two years in high school - when he attended and then helped lead a Youth Encounter retreat - that he felt a transition from understanding the Faith to taking responsibility for it, he said.

"It was a pivotal moment," he said. "That gave me a framework for looking ahead to college."

Once at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg it didn't take long for Duesterhaus to discover a new manifestation of togetherness.

"I was looking for community," he said. "Pretty much right away I found it."

In addition to being steadily active with the Catholic Campus Ministry, Duesterhaus began meeting once a week with a group of men familiar with the Youth Apostles. Though they had different backgrounds and studied different subjects, all the men were "on a similar wavelength" to Duesterhaus where religion was concerned. For the last three years of college, he lived in community with these men, eating together and praying together in the same vein as the McLean-based brotherhood.

Duesterhaus recognizes how counter-cultural this type of college life was.

"We took a very intentional approach to how we were going to live our college years," he said. "That was the seedbed for me to discern further."

Discern he did. By the time he graduated in 1995 (with a degree in English from the school of education), he had discerned a life of lay consecration, where he would consecrate his life to God through community and ministry in a unique way: not as a priest, but not as a man open to marriage, either.

"For the most part it was an idea that wasn't being fully lived out," he said. "It was certainly a new idea, and it sparked right away."

That summer, he made a one-year commitment to the Youth Apostles.

During this time of discernment and decision, Duesterhaus' parents maintained the quiet support that, he said, had always been "implicit" in his family. They placed the same trust in him that he witnessed them place in his older siblings.

"That's the culture of our family," he said. "I bought in because I saw the positives coming from it."

From student to teacher

After some time in formation and working in young adult and youth ministry at St. Mark Church in Vienna, Duesterhaus signed a contract to teach seventh- and eighth-grade language arts and reading at St. Louis School in Alexandria.

After three years, in the fall of 1999, he made a lifetime commitment as a lay consecrated member of Youth Apostles. At that same time, he went back to O'Connell to try to help form his students in the way of Christ. By helping students discover how they are called to serve Christ and others, Duesterhaus said, he is living out his own vocation.

"To acknowledge when a kid is on a good path, showing a desire to serve other people, being an encouraging voice" - that is his goal, he said.

Last year, he accompanied several O'Connell students to the Dominican Republic for a service trip.

"It was a profound opportunity to give the kids an occasion to serve, to be in touch with a culture that's very different from your own," he said. "It's that balance between getting out of the way to let God do the biggest work and then realizing there are moments that God's going to have to work through you."

When Duesterhaus' mother died in 2006 after suffering from a brain tumor, it was a pivotal moment in his faith.

"Stuff I'd believed up into that moment became much more real," he said, especially concerning "the big picture of life here on earth and what God desires for us afterward."

Again, community played a huge part in that trial - his family was in it together, for better or worse.

"We saw what the cancer was doing to mom," he said. "Being together as siblings and knowing we can't change things, we're helpless and powerless … there were just a lot of lessons. And a lot to be gained just by us being together."

Faith, he said, is often mystery and questions. With his mother's death, his family didn't have any answers "but we're together and we're relying on each other because we know that we couldn't shoulder this one alone and it would be senseless to even try."

Daily life, now and ahead

Aside from relying on friends and family for comfort and strength, Duesterhaus stays grounded in God by attending daily Mass and keeping a daily holy hour.

"Those are big oases for me," he said. "They keep me mindful, aware of the rhythms of my day (and the) different ways that God wants to move in my life."

He recently earned a graduate degree in English at George Mason University in Fairfax and, even more recently, published a book, The Loyal Treatment, that he compiled in summer 2006 just weeks after the death of his mother. He is always looking for new ways and challenges to live out God's will in his life.

And, naturally, the relationships of his family, friends, students and fellow Youth Apostles continue to sustain him.

"We are meant to be connected to each other," he said. "People are leaning on you in a good way and you can lean on them.

"Without community you can go 'lone ranger' for a while, but that's no long-term plan," he added. "That's no way to live."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011