Friday, October 21, 2011

A Journey of Service: Stonehill College to Chicago


As a life-long resident of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, people might wonder what I'm doing all the way out here in Chicago.  It's an interesting tale.  What has brought me from Stonehill College out here to Franciscan Outreach Association (FOA)?  In order to answer that, I'm going to have to give a summation of my journey through Stonehill.

Chapel of Mary at Stonehill College
I spent my first year at Stonehill trying to acclimate to college life while balancing academia and trying to have a social life.  I decided to take a page out of St. Ignatius' discernment of spirits and, at the beginning of my sophomore year at Stonehill, I looked back at what I liked doing and where I liked being the most.  Upon further reflection, it turns out that when I wasn't going to class, doing my homework at the library, or hanging out with friends, I was in the Chapel of Mary.  There, I met Timothy Gannon who was involved in student ministry.

During my sophomore year, I became a student minister.  My times as a student minister were some of the best I've ever had in my life and I could fill up the rest of this article just singing the praises of the program and the people.  The student ministers were (and still are) some of the most interesting people I've met at Stonehill and although we were similarly dedicated to the mission of community building and living out our faith, we each had our own strengths and weaknesses to bring to the table.  Campus Ministry became my home away from home.

My time as a student minister greatly informed my decision to do a year of service after graduation.  After corresponding through email with Kendall Grant the Program Director at FOA, she noted that my desire to live out my faith through service was admirable and my experience with working in my home parish's food pantry would be beneficial to the mission of FOA.  Soon I was applying, interviewing, and driving out with my family to Chicago.  The past 3 months or so here in Chicago have been great.  Getting to know the diverse members of the FOA community and working with FOA's guests has been a great joy and a privilege.  Being in the middle of Chicago doesn't hurt either!

Jon sorting donations at the Marquard Center
Which brings me to my final point, what is it that brought me to seek a year of service?  The most straightforward answer I can think of is my desire for a personal search for perspective and I find that volunteering and giving my time to service has given me the greatest amount of perspective.  Living a life that is unfamiliar and learning how others live in places far from what I'm accustomed to has brought me a great deal of insight and much food for thought.  However, since I'm still in the midst of my own discernment, it feels strange to me to delve too deeply into that aspect of my year of service.  Instead, let me finish with a short list of things that I could confidently suggest to anyone interested in volunteer service and/or a year of service.

When you're out volunteering, rub elbows with people.  Don't work in silence either. Talk.  Talking is where the relationship starts.  Find out people's stories or learn a thing or two about them.  After you get home from a new and/or challenging experience, reflect on it.  Think about what happened.  Write about it if that helps you.  Put on some music, lie on your bed, and review what you saw, or didn't see.  Listen with all your heart, then follow where your heart leads you.  This last part is key.  God speaks to us through our desires and, in order to truly listen, we must be ready to act on where our hearts guide us.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Change in Perspective


A soldier can take part in battle, but winning the war isn't his objective.

I'd have to say that the most common response I got when I told my friends and family what I was going to be doing this year was, "OK, so you're going to go help the homeless.  You're going to be trying to get them off the streets, right?" I thought it was a fair question.  In fact, it's a question that I asked myself.  And, if you had come to me three months ago, I'd say it's what I came to Chicago to do.

Kazakhstan artist Nelly Bube, "The Good Samaritan"
Ending homelessness is clearly a noble goal.  Although Christ himself tells us "you will always have the poor with you" (Matthew 26:11), He doesn't mean we shouldn't work to end social injustices or seek to improve the lives of those on the margins of our society.  But, three months into my volunteer experience at Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph Shelter, I find myself reconsidering what I was brought here to do.  Should 'ending homelessness' be my objective?  Is that even reasonable?  Will I look back and gauge my success in this endeavor by whether or not I get any of these men off the street?  For me, the answer is no.  Some staff and volunteers at FOA are dedicated and focused on that end, and that's a great thing.  But to find my marching orders-not the Church's, not the organization's, but mine-I needed to get a little deeper than that.

In retrospect, it was easy to find.  I didn't even have to look-over and over again it's made itself clear to me.  In fact, most times I didn't even realize that I was being confronted by the very essence of my mission here until the moment was gone.  Everyday I am met by moments of simple humanity, opportunities to realize why I came to volunteer here.  Sometimes I've stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park; sometimes I've failed to muster a swing, and let one of my brothers down.

I reach out my hand to someone who doesn't expect me to shake theirs.  I call someone by name before they have the chance to remind me what it is.  I know in doing so, I help to affirm this individual's identity and value.  That's something that's hard to come by when you're one of the faceless members of that group of people that society wants to forget.  Or someone mentions something to me in passing that I, personally, wouldn't tell to anyone but my closest friends.  And I realize that they're telling me because, well, I'm one of the most stable relationships in their life.  There's just no one else to tell.  At times, these conversations have shocked me and made me uncomfortable, and I wasn't able to extend myself to that person, or to make myself vulnerable to enter into that conversation.  And the moment passes, and I realize I've let them down.

I once heard a sermon in which the priest was talking about the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).  In this story a priest and a Levite, two (supposedly) very holy men, pass by an injured robbery victim on the side of the road on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho.  The priest giving the sermon pointed out that these two men would have been taking that route in order to go to their places of worship.  Christ specifically notes that these two men purposely crossed to the other side of the road in order to avoid the man lying in the ditch.  The reason I bring up this story is that, as I see it, the man in the ditch is our place of worship.  That's what this is all about.  And so often we cross to the other side of the street instead of going and ministering in the way that Christ is most concerned with.  People crowd into churches all over the country and profess to believe the words printed in the Good Book, and yet we can so easily over look that God's very self is present in "these least brothers of Mine" (Matthew 25:40) who are all around us every day.

Sure, in the big picture, there remains the lofty goal of winning the war.  But we're all just individual people prompted by our faith and conscience to do our part in the battles in which we find ourselves.  We've got to focus on what we're capable of, on what's tangible.  And our directive is clear: "Your light must shine before others" (Matthew 5:16).  We can't forget that most times what that actually means isn't some lofty, possibly unreachable goal.  It's just staying on that side of the road and confronting the humanity we all share.