Chris Hallberg’s eyes were opened when, as a Marquette University freshman volunteering at Aurora’s Walker’s Point Community Clinic for the first time, he was not the patient in the doctor’s office. Instead, he shadowed a nurse practitioner as she helped a homeless woman, struggling with a cocaine addiction, who was having heart problems.

“I just kind of got to sit back and watch this interaction between this health care provider and the person who had come in to see them,” said Chris, 22, who graduated from Marquette University’s College of Arts and Sciences in May with majors in sociology and Spanish. “And I just really fell in love with the empathy and the goal of medicine, in general, being this relief of human suffering and just the compassion that was there and the genuine concern for this other person’s life.”

While volunteering at Walker’s Point Community Clinic, a clinic that offers health care to
uninsured and underserved patients in the Greater Milwaukee

Chris Hallberg

Age: 22

Parish: St. Pius X Parish, Wauwatosa

Occupation: Pre-med student; the Fulbright Scholarship is a post-grad fellowship

Book recently read: “Say You’re One of Them,” by Nigerian Jesuit Uwem Akpan

Favorite movie: “Into The Wild”

Favorite Quotation: “Physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and social problems fall to a large extent within their jurisdiction,” Rudolf Virchow

area, Chris decided to study medicine and become a doctor. And as a 2009-10 Fulbright scholarship recipient, Chris is working toward a life goal that revolves around a life of service to others. The prestigious Fulbright Program, founded by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, offers grants for international educational exchange for scholars, educators, graduate students and professionals.

“I would love to run a clinic with a group of people here in the states that was set up in a way that basically physicians or the health care practitioners would pay themselves less and be able to use that money that they generated from that to fund a sister clinic somewhere in Central America,” Chris said in an interview with your Catholic Herald a few weeks before his Oct. 28 departure. He will spend 10 months in one of the poorest municipalities, Torola, Morazán, in El Salvador, studying economic development programs.

“A lot of times, you see these kind of anti-poverty programs that are developed not necessarily with the input of local community members and I hope that this can be a way that people can – we can – bring more voices to the table as those decisions are made,” explained Chris of the project. He hopes it will result in a short documentary on the community and a small exhibition of the artwork, photos and interviews that “explore identity in the presence of poverty, emigration and development programs” – all with the goal of “assisting agencies in designing more effective local development programs so that youth perceive staying in their home country as a real possibility,” as he stated in his statement of grant purpose.

Chris said he hopes to return next August with a better understanding of the country and its people.

“As an undergraduate, I’m not really sure how much I have to offer in terms of advice or telling people how to do things, but it’s an incredible opportunity to just sit with people and learn and hear that different perspective,” he said.

According to Chris’ parents, Dick and Vicky Hallberg, he’s more than qualified for the Fulbright Scholarship project.

“As a young person interested in global issues and international understanding, Chris is well suited for the challenges and opportunities that a Fulbright Scholarship provides,” Dick, a Marquette University High School Spanish teacher, said in an e-mail interview with your Catholic Herald. “While it is difficult to be apart for 10 months, we know that Chris is doing important work and learning a great deal.”

Dick and Vicky taught Chris and his brother, Mike, a junior at Marquette University, by being living examples of faith and trusting in God, and they’re glad to see their sons are actively practicing their faith. Chris’ service work is the way he lives his faith, according to Dick, and that he earned the Jesuit Fr. Pedro Arrupe Award as a junior at Marquette University is testimony to that.

“While he constantly nurtures his faith through worship and reflection, for Chris (and for Fr. Arrupe) faith is above all a call to service – service with a preferential option for the poor and marginalized,” Dick said. “Chris’ faith sustains his desire to make a difference, to build God’s kingdom every day.”

Service is nothing new to Chris, whose family belongs to St. Pius X Parish, Wauwatosa. “There was always just an understanding that it was an important value to know how or be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes and empathize with other people,” said Chris of his family’s approach to service. “And I think that’s kind of what got me started in service work.”

Vicky, a dental office receptionist and former nurse, said Chris’ longing to help others stems from his childhood.

“Chris has always loved to help others,” she said in an e-mail interview with your Catholic Herald. “His heart is full of compassion. Once, when he was about 4 years old, we were on the MU campus. A homeless person approached us and asked for some money. I offered to buy him a meal instead, but he wasn’t interested. I explained that he was homeless, and Chris asked if he could stay in our extra bedroom.”

Chris’ compassion for the less fortunate will follow him into his career, she said.

“Chris is a wonderful son, a sensitive person and, if he chooses to study medicine, he will be a compassionate doctor,” Vicky said.

With everything he’s done – playing guitar at Mass, planning retreats, studying abroad, including three trips to El Salvador, doing volunteer work with the YMCA’s one-on-one mentoring program, with parenting classes at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, and at several clinics just to name a few examples – Chris said the exposure to social justice issues has been a powerful experience and has challenged him to grow in his faith.

He’s been especially influenced by his time in El Salvador.

“I think the level of poverty and suffering there really caused me to think about (faith) in a new way,” Chris said, explaining that the faith with which he had been raised was more personal and individualistic than the more communal, “we’re in this together” way that people in El Salvador share their faith. “… this suffering is what really united them and it was difficult to see pain and hurt and death being what brought people together, but in addition to that, they were also brought together by this remarkable ability to just celebrate and enjoy what they did have.”

To reconcile his concept of God before he left for El Salvador with what he experienced, Chris said he talked about it in lengthy conversations with Jesuit Fr. José Moreno, whom he referred to as a spiritual mentor. “Talking things out with Fr. Moreno, (helped) I think, more than anything.”

Fr. Moreno, pastor of St. Patrick and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes, Milwaukee, said that since he first met Chris, the latter has matured in his faith through the many questions he’s asked.

“I was very impressed about his eagerness to learn and that is important for me,” Fr. Moreno said, explaining that Chris’ honesty and the way he was always looking for solutions to problems made him unique compared to other young adults.

“Something that’s very unique in a person is that even though he has a lot of doubts and concerns about the church, faith, the tradition of faith and the creed and all that stuff, he still wants to be a part of it,” Fr. Moreno said, adding that many others reject it but Chris didn’t.

Being a part of El Salvadoran communities has restored his faith and brought more meaning to it, according to Chris, but he’s still figuring out how everything – the old experiences and the new that he has yet to encounter – make sense.

“I guess the most important part about being Catholic would be being a part of something that is larger than yourself,” Chris said. “And being a part of an organization that has a history that maybe isn’t necessarily perfect and has its flaws, but being part of a larger community, a larger body of people who are working together for some common, shared purpose.”