On Sept. 26, 2019, Niagara University welcomed speaker Alexis Fuentes in the Multi-Purpose Room at the Gallagher Center as part of Vincentian Heritage Week, celebrated in homage to St. Vincent de Paul, whose acts of selflessness and charity inspired his contemporaries to serve the less fortunate. This year’s theme was “A Heightened Sense of Purpose.”
Born and raised in Florida to immigrant parents, Fuentes became involved with the Missionary Cenacle Apostolate (a Vincentian Family ministry) for youth and young adults. She now resides in New Jersey and, in addition to being a single mother, serves as director of missions at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. She is also a speaking consultant for The Big Talk Academy.
In a presentation titled “Be a Power for Good: A Student Conversation with Alexis Fuentes,” Fuentes discussed how acts of selflessness and generosity can strengthen our connection with God and each other.
“We don't usually think of generosity as a skill. But imagine a world where all of us were honing generosity as a skill, as a disposition of our heart,” she said.
To highlight this idea, she detailed a concept she calls “The Middle Seat Phenomenon,” referring to the oft-maligned middle seat on an airplane wherein one unlucky passenger is forced to squeeze themselves awkwardly and uncomfortably between two other passengers.
Initially, she (like nearly every person who has ever boarded an airplane) avoided the middle seat. Over time however, Fuentes began to look at the middle seat as one of many small opportunities in life to choose to be courteous and gracious. In doing so, she came to a sort of revelation about what it means to have the ability to make choices.
“We're always talking about choice, the sanctity of choice, our ability to choose, our freedom to choose,” she said. “What I'd love to get us to start thinking about is that freedom of choice is a luxury. It's evidence that we have more than we need. And if we start to think about choice as evidence of God's lavish love on us, we're going to start to consider people who don't have choices in a different light.”
For Fuentes, there are also direct benefits to engaging in these kinds of small, selfless acts, primarily forging connections with new people.
“My favorite part is, in choosing generosity, I have opened myself to possibility. So, if I look to my left and I look to my right, I have two times the possibility of meeting someone new, of striking up a conversation, of noticing something interesting about another human being,” she said.
Fuentes went on to note that a number of major studies have shown that acting generously produces oxytocin in the brain, which is a hormone that supports our ability to form bonds and human connections. However, Fuentes insists that this isn’t a coincidence or merely some welcome side effect of generosity; rather, it serves as evidence that our ability to build bonds between each other is the only way to properly connect with God.
“We live in a world of haves and have-nots. That just doesn't make sense,” Fuentes said. “There are plenty of people who have luxury who have more than what they need, and so many people who don’t have choices. Generosity tends to be the bridge over that gap.”
She went on to paraphrase a thought she emphasized earlier in her speech: “We can't get our relationship [with God] right until we get our relationship with each other right,” she said.
After her presentation, Fuentes served as the keynote speaker at the Vincentian Heritage Convocation, where she was presented with the Rev. Thomas Augustine Judge, C.M. Award for her work in helping to promote and advance the Vincentian mission.
For more information on Fuentes’ work, please visit her website, https://www.alexisfuentes.life/.