One Sunday, in 2007, at Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, in Ormond Beach, Florida, I heard an appeal for mission volunteers from Bishop Thomas Wenski.
I responded to his call by contacting Sister Bernadette Mackay O.S.U., the Director of the Mission office at the Diocese of Orlando. A few months later, I was in the bed of a pick-up truck as it ascended a steep mountain path made of nothing but dirt and rock. My destination was La Cucarita, a remote town in the Cordillera Central Mountains of the Dominican Republic, near the border of Haiti.
La Cucarita proved to be a liminal place for me, a place where I crossed a threshold into a new and unfamiliar reality. Before I arrived in La Cucarita, I could have never imagined that people could express so much joy and happiness while living in a cultural context marked by extreme poverty. La Cucaritan reality ultimately changed my life because I was forced to confront a paradox I did not understand.
I could not understand how everyday experiences caused me to sometimes feel like I had “encountered God” through interactions with joyful, hospitable people, or, through the contemplation of the natural landscape.
I also struggled to understand how I could feel the presence of God in a cultural context marked by a lack of material resources like water and electricity. Such a lack of resources necessary for daily life provoked in me a sense that: “This should not be!” Something was “not right.” Seven years later, in my Ph.D. program, I learned that I had what Edward Schillebeeckx describes as a “negative contrast experience.” LaReine-Marie Mosely writes that, for Schillebeeckx, a negative contrast experience is something that has the power to evoke not only “outrage at excessive human suffering,” but also “protest and eventual praxis to ameliorate and end the suffering.”
As my mission work came to an end, the paradox of Cucarita remained a puzzle I could not solve. After I returned to Florida, I reflected on my mission experience and realized that my “social imaginary” had been annihilated.
Charles Taylor explains that a social imaginary is the way people “imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others,” and how things ought to go.
The paradoxical reality of Cucarita had annihilated my desire to pursue the social imaginary I associated with the “American Dream.”
Ultimately, my experience in Cucarita forced me to question my ideals and my goals. And, soon thereafter, I realized I no longer wanted to be a postmodern American whose “idiosyncratic preferences are their own justifications” for happiness.
The change I underwent could be described as a metanoia
, a conversion where my “eyes were opened” and my “former world faded and fell away.”
La Cucarita had not only opened my eyes to real social injustice but also to a new vision of happiness. I felt compelled to act, I felt inspired to do something. But, what? I chose to pursue graduate studies in theology.
After I earned a master’s degree in Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, I enrolled in a Practical Theology Ph.D. program at St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. In Miami, I learned that my vocation is to be a Catholic theologian, ethicist, and educator who instructs students’ on how to use a theological method to make crucial moral choices in siding with the poor and marginalized in a civic and political context. 
Wenski is now Archbishop of Miami. 
What I mean when I say “I encountered God” is analogous to the way in which Karl Rahner, S.J. spoke as if he were Ignatius of Loyola speaking to a modern Jesuit: “I encountered God; I have experienced him.” For more see, Karl Rahner, Ignatius of Loyola Speaks
, trans. Annemarie S. Kidder, (St. Augustine’s Press: South Bend, Indiana, 2013), 6-9. 
For more on this topic see LaReine-Marie Mosely, “Negative Contrast Experience: An Ignatian Appraisal,” Horizons
41, no. 1 (2014): 74-95. What is central to Schillebeeckx’s claim is when individuals and communities face evil and suffering—their own and that of others—the universal pre-religious response is “This cannot be allowed to continue!” What is most crucial about Schillebeeckx’s argument for my present and future work is that the feeling of pre-religious indignation becomes the “specific starting point for ethics.” 
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age,
(Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 171-2. In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009),
James K.A. Smith writes that, in regard to the phrase “social imaginary,” Taylor acknowledges his debt to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities
(London: Verso, 1991), 65n46. 
Taylor, A Secular Age
, 171. Commenting on Taylor’s concept, James K.A. Smith suggests that the imagination (an imaginary) is a “quasi-faculty whereby we construe the world on a precognitive level, on a register that is fundamentally aesthetic precisely because it is so closely tied to the body. As embodied creatures, our orientation to the world begins from, and lives off of, the fuel of our bodies, including the ‘images’ of the world that are absorbed by our bodies.” Heuristically, then, the “imagination” (an imaginary) names a kind of faculty that is kinesthetic because it is closely tied to the body and how we make sense of our world. For more see, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 17-19n37, n38. 
James K.A. Smith argues that the modern American social imaginary promotes a narrative of autonomy that indicates that one gives oneself (autos
) the law (nomos
). For more, see James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom,
Joseph A. Tetlow, “The Most Postmodern Prayer: American Jesuit Identity and the Examen of Conscience, 1920-1990,” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits
26, no.1 (1994): 33. 
Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology
, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 130. A richer description of Lonergan’s insight is that conversion is “a transformation of the subject and his world. Normally it is a prolonged process though its explicit acknowledgement may be concentrated in a few momentous judgments or decisions.” And, “conversion, as lived, affects all of a man’s conscious and intentional operations. It directs his gaze, pervades his imagination…it enriches his understanding, guides his judgments, reinforces his decisions.” 130-131.