Monday, April 14, 2014


Check out the Franciscan Outreach Volunteers music video!
Special thanks to Patrick Penner for putting it all together.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Trust in the Lord and He will Deliver


Kelly meditating on the lakeshore
Over the past few years, my relationship with God has been a work in progress but with each day it grows more secure.  Recently, I've found myself reflecting upon each experience and evaluating why God has made certain people present in my life.  And although I think He does not design our lives, I am a firm believer that God aids them in an indirect way.  With this year, my spirituality has undergone much scrutiny.  I find myself constantly inquiring about the suffering in our guests and the many issues that are boiling under the surface but still seem to go unnoticed.  Often pensive at Mass, I ask God to tranquilize the uneasiness of my mind.

Devoting time each week to attend Mass and personally converse with God was always a part of my life but recently the weekly meeting has gained a deeper meaning.  Always a family activity, going to Mass when I was younger was not my choice; the same rituals, anecdotes and the same 80-year-old avós (grandmas) slobbering huge kisses on my cheek never seemed appealing.  We always attended Portuguese Mass, so naturally I would follow along in the English missal because our priest spoke more "Portuglish" (a slang of Portuguese and English words) than either language.  And although I am fluent in Portuguese, I found it exhausting to constantly trade off mindsets from Portuglish to Portuguese and then to English.  It wasn't until I began attending Mass on my own with my selected Parish did I begin to fully listen and comprehend all of Jesus' messages.  That one-hour at Mass transformed from "daydreaming about everything else I could be dong" to a "sacred allotted time where I spoke to God" and fully allowing myself to become absorbed in the Scripture.

Kelly & Zach with a group of soup kitchen volunteers
The adversities our guests face and struggle with daily are often what I find myself speaking to God about the most.  In particular, a conversation I had with one of our guests this morning jolted me back into reality.  Always full of life, spunk and the character of two people, this guests never fails to lighten the mood.  He has a quirky commentary on life and we poke fun that he has slept on every surface in the building.  But this morning was different.  He walks in exhausted and lounges on the bench we have in the foyer with the look on his face that he's had a rough night.  His mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer--something no one wants to hear.  Reminiscing in failed opportunities and losing himself in drug abuse were factors he said contribute to his homelessness.  Weary of the lifestyle and beaten by the system, he articulates that he never expected his life in his mid-40's to come of this.  Immediately my heart sank as this enthusiastic guest broke down and peeled away at the plights of his life.

It's difficult to then reflect on such a conversation when you haven't wholly understood it yourself.  What do you say? How do you act?  The answers to these questions are anything but easy.  Coming into this program, there aren't any guidelines or instructional manuals.  Responding to these emotions require a combination of spirituality, sensitivity, and patience.  Our services only stretch so far, then all that remains is hope; hope that God will guide them towards the path of redemption.  It's moments like these when I need God and my spirituality the most- to make sense of the incomprehensible.  If this year of service has taught me anything, it has been to fully embrace Jesus and all of his teachings and to love our brothers and sisters, unconditionally.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Your Smile for your Brother is Charity"


"'Charity is prescribed for each descendant of Adam every day the sun rises.' He was then asked: 'From what do we give charity every day?' The Prophet answered: 'The doors of goodness are many...enjoying good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one's legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one's arms-all of these are charity prescribed for you.' He also said: 'Your smile for your brother is charity.'"  -Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 98

When I was preparing for my year of service in Chicago, everyone seemed so impressed when I told them my plans. Whenever I meet new people in Chicago, I inevitably end up talking about why I'm here.  Their reaction is usually similar, they show appreciation, admiration, and respect.  I once met a Buddhist person who told me that the service I do was good for my karma--eventually, you get back what you give.  This is my belief in the final act of justice, and my belief as a Muslim about the essence of "Karma".

Kristen, Mustafa & Hannah ice skating
I cannot deny that I am flattered by what people say.  However, I can't help but think about how those who I serve see me.  I wonder if they believe in the genuineness of my service, or is it possible that some might see me as a naive young lad who does not quite serve them from the heart so much as chasing after some personal benefits (for school, job, etc.); who is just willing to deal with the problems surrounding him for a year and then will leave everything behind and pretend not to have experience anything life changing in the course of his service year?

Every now and then I feel like I am possibly conveying this kind of impression out of insufficiency and truth be told, I would not blame any of our guests for thinking of me as the type of person I just described.  Every night after we let in our guests they have to stop by the desk in the dorm and check in with their names.  Often they show interest in having a conversation with me but unfortunately at times I have to dismiss them as I realize other people in line are forced to wait.  Later in the night they might not have an opportunity to come back and chat since they need to get some sleep.  There have been other moments when I felt I might be falling short.  At times I would fail to find something someone needed; toothpaste for example, after searching and knowing the person waited for a long time.  Most of the time it is not my fault, but I am still concerned I might appear careless and apathetic towards their wishes.

This is why I experienced a moment of fulfillment when one of our guests recently said he appreciated my genuine attempt to help as much as I can and for "not treating them as homeless people".  I was really happy to hear this, but at the same time I was puzzled by the words he chose to express his gratitude.  What does it mean to treat someone as a homeless person?  As a matter of fact, we cannot pretend that they are not homeless otherwise we would not succeed in providing the right type of service.  What he meant was actually something different yet obvious.  Our society has somehow linked the state of homelessness to negative traits of personality such as laziness, antisocial behavior, or to a criminal past.  This image is engrained in minds whether we want it or not.  The guests subconsciously paraphrased the sad reality by just using the word "homeless", which simple means to be without a home, it does not tell anything about the character of a person.

Winter Olympics Community Night
So far, I have learned something that opposes this prejudice.  When we walk by people on the street we are prone to assume that all they care about is getting money from us.  They are poor and do lack many things we take for granted, this is true.  But the truth is not as simple as we think it is.  People on the streets wish to be respected and treated with dignity as any other human being.  I firmly believe that this starts with the simple act of smiling.  Our prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Smiling is charity".

Even though it's a slight movement of our facial muscles it is capable of a huge impact on our souls.  Whenever I walk by someone I may not know and there is an exchange of a smile I instantly feel better.  It is the most effective way to lift the wall we have drawn between strangers and ourselves.  A smile removes the feelings of insecurity and reservation we resort to when we encounter someone on the street.  It conveys a powerful message.  It is often the initial spark that paves the way for people to get acquainted with each other.  Our feelings of loneliness might be rooted in the lack of smiling although we are not alone.  In this case we don't receive this message very often and feel emotionally neglected.  God has put this emotional need in us and he made us interdependent.

So what keeps us from 'donating' a smile to everyone?  Not only those who are marginalized but simply every individual regardless of their race, religion, social, and financial status, etc. At this point I might come off as a patronizing moralizer pointing his finger at people from his lecturing desk. At the end of the day I am not perfect and I don't walk around with a smile on my face all the time. That actually would be a little creepy if you ask me.  But I try to improve from day to day and make
Hannah, Mustafa & Patrick at dinner
an effort to give a smile as often as possible, especially on those days when you are not at your best.

I can tell from first hand experiences that after many of our guests come in with a troubled expression (and they have the right to feel that way, none of us can even remotely imagine what they have gone through that day) and see a smiling person at the desk, they also begin to smile and seem to forget about their worries for a minute or two.  If all of us smiled more often we would contribute to happiness and joy in all of our lives.  Let us give a smile whenever we see someone and be a part of meaningful charity!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Last 6 Months in, I'm sorry, 15 Minutes?


Reflection on the Mid-Year Retreat
Some of the things I've been thinking about lately include my faith life, what my plans for after Franciscan Outreach Volunteers include, my discernment for my vocation (married or religious life), my relationships, or lack there of, with guests, and being caught up in Netflix dramas or Broadway productions or PBS Masterpiece Classics.  I don't imagine myself a real contemplative, or exceedingly reflective, but I do find that I ask myself many questions throughout the day, on any one of the aforementioned topics, but also on little things that may just as easily slip my mind.  Those are always the best.

As a whole, our community recently finished our Mid-Year Retreat.  You know how at retreats you spend "X" amount of time reflecting on "X" subject and how it influenced you or brought you here today?  Mine came soon after arriving to our snow-globe of a retreat site (it was lovely: outside of the city, trees surrounding the building, squirrels frantically digging at tree feet).  We were supposed to reflect on the previous six months of our lives, how we feel/felt, how we've grown, then create some artistic representation of the last six months...?!  Six months is a very long time to reflect over a 10-15 min time frame, and I'm not exactly one to keep my mind from wandering.  *At this point I would like to concede that this was, in fact, one of my favorite parts of the retreat, and I greatly value opportunities such as this.*

Sara & Kristen cooking for the community
So, I closed my eyes and rested my forehead over my hands and just sat there, face down, letting my mind kind of do its meandering in and out of the prompt.  I'd like to say a flood of thoughts came rushing to my memory, all in a neat, tidy, and chronological fashion and they were all so wonderful to recall, but let's be serious...that's not what happened.  Again, six months of memories is a lot!  It was a blur, a melting pot of leaving my hot and humid college town in Texas, driving 17ish hours in a Clampett-mobile (90 year old grandma included), meeting 12 new roommates, starting work the day after arriving, the smell of burning a 60 serving pot of pasta, and the endless amount of yogurt to sort boils over in my memory.  Hundreds of new faces, hundreds of new names, oodles upon oddles of facial expressions.  The image that kept coming to the forefront of my mind, the clearest image I could assemble, was a sincere smile on a man who regularly walks through the doors of the Marquard Center soup kitchen.  That was it.  I mean, not it, but it was probably the most poignant.  Why?  Why that smile on that face on that man?  I never had a particularly deep connection with him.  I've seen many smiles through the doors of the Marquard Center.  I've chatted with him, but also with others on numerous occasions, so what makes this image so memorable?

I realized that what I was remembering was a little thing that could just as easily slip my mind.  But it wasn't the smile.  I got to see happiness.  No, it was much more than that.  I got to witness a deep, true, and totally joy-filled moment.  It was sincere, unafraid, and unembarrassed.  Why did he smile in such a manner?  The reason seems trivial, but it's actually quite endearing.  He asked me to play some songs on YouTube that he thought I should hear, that he would educate me on music history.  We talked about groups and songs that I know because of my parents, like "Carry on My Wayward Son" by Kansas, my mom's class song in high school, or "Shambala" by three Dog Night, a group my dad educated me about when I was in high school. I'm slowly beginning to understand why it has impacted me the way it did.  See, when I was describing my art project to my community on our retreat, I began to feel my throat constrict as tears gathered.  Unexplainable at the time, but the more I think about it, the more clear my emotions become.
Mid-Year Retreat

I understood the joy I felt based on something that reminds me of people I love dearly, with whom I already share a deep connection.  Rather, I was able to make a sincere connection with another human being based on a simple, common interest, one that he valued and cared enough about to share with meI never imagined sharing something as easy as music would be so...emotional.  I don't know what exactly was going through the man's mind or heart throughout the entire interaction, so I feel almost one-sided on this subject, but I just cannot let myself believe I saw anything other than joy in his smile.  I wish I could see more of them.  I wish I could make more of them.  Until the time when true joy covers the faces of every person on this earth, I'm happy to get a glimpse of it when I can.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Cards I've Been Dealt


"You're the average of the five people you spend the most time with." -Jim Rohn

Snowball fight on our recent Mid-Year retreat
If this quote has any truth to it, I am an incredibly lucky man.  Over the course of six months, I have spent more time with Sara, Gracie, Mike, Emily, and Kelly than I have spent with any of my close friends or family during any other six month period in my life.  By working side-by-side in the Marquard Center kitchen we have gotten to know each other to the point that we can pick up on each others "ism's" as Gracie calls them.  These "ism's" are the quirks that are uniquely a part of us.  For instance, I tend to walk on the balls of my feet and say words like "dope", "sweet", and "phenomenal" more often than most other human beings.  This year I have developed a strong affinity for dates (the kind you eat not the kind you go on) and this affinity has provided plenty of jokes at my expense, which we all tend to enjoy.  I've noticed a few of us beginning to incorporate the phrase "that's happening" into our lives.  Courtesy of Emily Ford, we all have a new motivational mantra.  Kelly tends to use the word "banana" like I might use the work "knucklehead". "Don't put your hands in there you banana!" is one example that comes to mind.  Sara's enthusiasm for any idea is demonstrated by the phrase, "OH MY GOSH, CAN WE PLEASE DO THAT!" That enthusiasm is extremely contagious I might add.  Mike has the magical ability to add comedy to any situation.  Whenever I have to ask for a second opinion about the seasoning in a dish we're serving for dinner, Mike is there to say, "Why not?  You ain't driving!"  This is just the kind of motivation I need to get a dish completed with a smile on my face.
Zach preparing dinner

These "ism's" are certainly not restricted to the Kitchen Staff.  The shelter crew, the other half of our community, has just as many if not more examples of these phenomena.  Since our community has been enriched by five fascinating citizens of Germany, we have learned a wealth of cultural quirks that you cannot learn from reading a book.  I've noticed phrases like "in general," and "the thing is," being used frequently when trying to prove a point.  We use them in the kitchen now to interact lightheartedly.  When we label our leftover dishes made from dinner we prefer to write "Wegetables" instead of vegetables to poke fun at our German roommates' pronunciation of the letter V.  Timo has introduced me to the wonders of bacon-wrapped dates.  He has single-handedly brought my love affair with the Middle Eastern fruit into the stratosphere.  Thanks to him, I will have an hors d'oeuvre up my sleeve that will guarantee hit dinner parties for the rest of my life. Ephi has taught me a new way to tell people to watch out or be careful with "Attention! Attention!" Hannah's "ism" just happens to be whipping up five-star quality meals like it's her job (which it's not, she works at the shelter).  We all tend to enjoy her cooking, and I think many of us kitchen folk have wondered if we should just have her serve the guests.

Community secret Santa exchange
These instances all demonstrate the beauty of living in a diverse community.  We become the average of each other.  Where or when else will you get the opportunity to incorporate the culture of Texas, Ohio, Indiana, New jersey, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts into your life?  Let alone Germany?  If you are a person that values the diversity of ideas and perspectives, there are not many ways to live more diversely than community.  Not only have I gained a vastly more encompassing perspective of the world from working closely and living with these folks, I have also picked up on each of their strengths.  Each person in this community has left an impression on me that I have no doubt has changed me for the better.  Whether it be work ethic, lightheartedness, positivity, capacity to love, or determination, each one of my roommates, or should I say brothers and sisters, have shown me how to be a better person.  I am eternally grateful that God has deemed me worthy to receive such an abundance of good personalities into my life.  When I stroll the top floor of the Marquard Center (our apartment) on my days off, I cannot avoid the living and breathing inspiration even if I tried.  I have seen strength in every individual in my community...strength I want to be a part of my own life.  I can only hope that I have made some positive impressions of my own with them, because they have given me so much that it seems difficult to ever be able to repay.  If this community happens to be the cards God has dealt for me this year, I have been dealt a royal flush. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Homeless Simulation-24 hours on Chicago's Streets


Recently we participated in a homeless simulation with Chicago's Mission Year volunteers.  We had all packed our items for the night not knowing where we were headed next.  We started around 7pm with a meal and a speaker from Breakthrough Ministries.  Afterwards, we were told that we would only be allowed to take three items with us.  I picked a jacket, a sleeping bag that I found in our community, and after much thought I decided my final item would be a water bottle.

Timo and other volunteers at the shelter's Thanksgiving meal
Our leaders brought us downstairs in the Marquard Center and told us we'd be sleeping in the dining room.  This was a bit of a relief because we thought we might be sleeping outside.  It was freezing outside so the cold breeze came in constantly...a reminder of the risk of not having a shelter in the winter.  As I was lying on the floor of the dining room, I tossed and turned again and again because my body started hurting once I was in a position for too long.  I was just trying to stay warm and waiting for it to be over.  I couldn't fall asleep until early in the morning when the tiredness became worse than the inconvenience of the floor.

We got woken up at 6:30am and were told that we had 10 minutes to pack up our stuff.  We were then told to wait at the door to our community apartment but nobody knew what would be behind the door.  Eventually we were called in three at a time.  When I reached the hallway there was a man sitting at a table waiting for me.  My side of the table had no chair so I had to kneel on the floor.  The man's role was to be my case manager and in order to get breakfast I had to answer his pages of questions.  However, when he started talking, he wasn't speaking English.  Instead he spoke Chinese which unfortunately I don't speak.  There was great difficulty communicating and he was annoyed by me.  I wondered, what should I do?  I had been happy to just get through the night but I was exhausted and confused.  Eventually I was dismissed and told it was time for breakfast.

Out of the 16 of us taking part, only 4 people received a piece of paper that allowed them a lunch bag with chips, a sandwich, and a can of orange soda in it.  At this point I was starting to get critical about the homeless simulation.  I thought about our guests and services we offer at Franciscan Outreach.  No one has to sleep on the floor, everyone gets breakfast and dinner, and our case managers are nothing like that!  We do our best to see that everyone is warmly welcomed, treated with respect and if communication problems occur we look for someone who can help translate.

Timo & Mustafa making traditional German dumplings
We took some time to talk about what we felt like during the night and the experience in the morning.  It was neat to see how many people felt the same way I did, and also to hear new experiences from others.  Then we went downtown in teams of two with a list of ideas and challenges to complete.  We weren't allowed to use our phones and we just had our ID's and a bus card that we were only allowed to use for back home that night.

Downtown, my partner and I just started walking without a destination and checked our lists for things we wanted to do.  We just started walking in one direction and kept walking, and walking, and walking.  After a while I started thinking "what am I doing here?" I just kept walking around.  I realized if you don't have anywhere to go you might just walk around aimlessly.  I felt like there was nowhere to go and nowhere that I would be welcomed. I continued walking and started looking through some trash cans (a suggestion on our list) to search for some useful things.  I was disgusted by the trashcans and there smell, I was disappointed by what I found, only some cans and leaves on the bottom of the trashcan.  But mostly I felt people staring at me.  I tried to look for places where almost nobody could see me but someone always could.

My partner and I walked to the library and then to Panera to check in with Kristen and meet up with another community member.  We took some time to sit by ourselves near the Sear's Tower.  I felt uncomfortable sitting there.  It was worse to realize what it is like for people who are really on the streets.  I got a small glimpse at what it feels like to be ignored.

After a while a guy came and sat down right next to us.  He asked for a lighter for a cigarette butt that he found on the ground and for some of my water.  None of us had a lighter and I still hadn't found a water fountain to fill up my bottle.  So he just sat with us for a bit.  He said he wasn't from Chicago so he couldn't tell us where free meals or similar services were.  After a while he left and we were alone again.  We started to realize how cold the sidewalk was, it felt like it sucked the energy out of us.  We found a train station to go to the bathroom in and warm up a bit.

Community night ice skating
We gathered back wit the rest of the group and talked about the difference experiences everyone had.  Some groups panhandled more, tried to ask people directly for money, made signs and got $20 from one man who first passed them and then came back.  One volunteer said she felt like a pigeon during the day.  At first I thought it was weird, but then I realized that was exactly how I felt. Pigeons bothered us all the time in Chicago and today we oddly felt closer to them than to the people.

On our way back home I was glad that I took part in this experience but still couldn't figure out what the day meant to me.  I still felt weird because obviously my experience was far off from what it is like to really be without a home.  But I knew I did not want another night on the floor or even on the streets.  I felt really exhausted from only this one day.

When I went to work that night and stood at the door to the shelter letting all our guests into the warm dorm I was really impressed by how close I felt to everybody who came in.  I always had a lot of fun at work with the guests, but this night was different, I felt more connected and could imagine what many of the guests might feel like in a way that I had not experienced before.  That is something I will definitely keep with me this year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Survey of Former Volunteers of Catholic Volunteer Network

Former volunteers often share how much they feel like they've been changed by their experience as a volunteer.  Sometimes people volunteer and meet their future spouse, decide to change a career path, or go back to school.  Until now, most of our understanding of the power of full-time service has been anecdotal. 

Recently Catholic Volunteer Network (CVN), an umbrella organization that supports domestic and international faith-based service programs (including Franciscan Outreach Volunteers), commissioned a survey with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University: "A Study of Former Volunteers of the Catholic Volunteer Network".

The survey looked at responses from more than 5,000 alums of volunteer programs and results were shared at the CVN annual conference in November.  Questions included demographic and background information, as well as questions about alums experiences with their volunteer program and their lives post-service.  The following is taken from Catholic Volunteer Network.

Some significant study findings include:

On service-
  • 98% of former volunteers said they decided to serve because they "felt compassion towards people in need." The same percentage also believe that their volunteer service experience made them a better person.
  • 95% say that they would recommend their volunteer program to others.
On faith-
  •  Nearly half (46%) of former volunteers attend religious services at least once a week.  This is significantly higher than the U.S. population (27%) and the U.S. Catholic population (25%).
  • Almost two in five former volunteers (37%) have considered a vocation to ordained ministry or religious life.  27% of these respondents have considered a vocation very seriously, and 35% say they have considered this somewhat seriously.
On life-
  • More than two-thirds of former volunteers (67%) say their volunteer service was either 'somewhat' or 'very' important in influencing their choice of career. 
  • Almost half of former volunteers are married (47%).  Excluding respondents who say that they have never been married, just under one in ten (9%) have ever divorced.  This is much lower than the corresponding proportion of the U.S. population (31%).
  • More than eight in ten responding former volunteers (82%) say that they have volunteered time, donated money or property, or both in the past 12 months.