Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lucky 13


Gracie & Sassi doing dishes on retreat
As long as I can remember, 13 has been my lucky number. To some people, the number 13 is cursed or unlucky. Often there is no 13th row on airplanes or a 13th floor in tall buildings, but the number 13 has given me plenty of good luck. Whether there is actual truth behind lucky numbers or it’s just coincidence, the number 13 has played a significant role in my life. For example, playing sports was the highlight of my childhood and adolescence, and I always wore jersey #13. When I went off to college, I was nervous of what was next. College seemed like a scary place, but after spending my freshman year living in room 313 in Stuart Hall my parents had to almost literally drag me home for the summer because I had fallen in love with The University of Dayton. While I was at UD I had a number of life inspiring experiences, but the most inspiring was the summer I spent in the Appalachian Mountains doing service work. Coincidently enough we lived on State Route 1031, the number 13 backwards. After 4 amazing years at UD I sadly had to graduate, but it seemed like a sign that I was graduating in 2013. It was as if someone up above was telling me that even though one door is closing, the next door that is being opened will be full of hope, promise, and good luck. Now I am living in Chicago, which is a life-long dream come true. To top it all off I am doing work that I love and I am a part of an amazing community comprised of....wait for it…13 incredible people that have become family. Coincidence?

Iron Chef community night!
Getting the opportunity to live in community has been one of many highlights of being a Franciscan Outreach Volunteer. After living in community when I was doing my summer of service in the Appalachian Mountains, I knew that if I was going to be doing a year of service, I had to live in community. But what does it mean to live in community? Being a part of a community is more than just being roommates. It means being intentional with each other. Picking each other up when we are down. Community means challenging each other to become the best version of ourselves as possible. It means holding each other accountable for the promises that we have made to ourselves and to our community. Community means spending time with each other. Whether it is a community dinner on a Sunday night, or it is having an “Iron Chef” competition at one of our Wednesday community nights, being with each other is a top priority. Community is laughter. My favorite part of the day is when we are all sitting at the kitchen table together talking about our days, staring stories of our lives before FOV, and laughing until we cry or until milk out of our noses, whichever comes first. Community means inclusivity. Yes, there are 13 of us that make up the 2013-2014 Franciscan Outreach Volunteers Community, but it also means that the 13 of us work together towards expanding our community to include those around us, especially the guest of Franciscan Outreach. Above all, community means love. Loving and accepting each other for who we are. Community means supporting one another as we learn to love others, especially the guests of FO, for their character, not undermining them because of their choices or life situations.
Themed Thursday in the soup kitchen

Community is one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given, and I feel so lucky that I have been blessed with an amazing community here at Franciscan Outreach. Community has shown me that we are not meant to go through life alone. We were meant to live life together. In Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness, she says “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community”. Ms. Day could not have spoken more truthfully.  With a little luck, hopefully one day through the power of community we will no longer know loneliness, only love.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013



Mike & Gracie jumping in with both feet on retreat
One year ago, I was starting my last year as a Boston College undergraduate, finishing up a BA in Theology.  Somewhere along the way, life provided a plan for me.  A perfect storm of coincidences eventually brought me here, to be sitting on the third flood of the Marquard Center, at a computer that is slower than a snail in molasses, writing this blog post. 

How exactly I got here isn't important.  The most important thing I've learned as a result of the experiences I've been blessed to have, is no matter where you are in life it is of the utmost importance to jump in with both feet.

Looking back, this is a philosophy that has served me fairly well.  After I took a fairly rudimentary theology class, my interest was piqued. The next year, I did what any irresponsible 20 year old with zero foresight would do, and I switched my major from Pre-Med to Theology.  And I didn't drown.  By jumping in with both feet, I found more than just a major, I was changed by it.  It ignited a passion within me for the close study of scripture that I still carry with me.

Wining team for "Chopped Challege" Community night
There are other instances of jumping in with both feet that I found have served me equally well--by deciding to fully and ambitiously explore my faith, I can confidently say I've found a deeper relationship with God.  Fully trusting in myself and the future allowed me to travel to South Africa and have some of the most adventurous times of my life.  But it is in the work that we do at Franciscan Outreach every day that I see this lesson fully realized.  One of my community member's once wrote on our quote board, "throw your heart into your work, and jump in after it".  I fully believe that in order to gain the most from any experience, especially a year of service, it is important to jump in with both feet, and, keeping with the metaphor, swim away from the ledge into deeper waters.

Mike & Timo at the Open House event
At Franciscan Outreach, we work directly with those who are homeless.  But you already knew that.  Daily we come in direct contact with human beings in various situations, many of them in crisis.  We stare at hunger, substance abuse, mental illness, and poverty in the face, every single day.  We prepare food for our guests and provide them a safe place to sit down, relax, and have a meal.  Nothing that happens in the building can ever be half-assed.  In fact, it is the opposite.  Every day, I find that we have to give more of ourselves to our guests and our work than we expect.  We share more with our guests than food and a building--their struggles become ours, their heartaches ours, and their defeats ours.  When Chris* was kicked in the leg by some punk when he was sleeping, or when Brian* is threatened and kicked into the street by his ex-wife, or when Curtis* has all his belongings stolen, those struggles become ours and part of the weight we bear.  When you make a commitment to serve a marginalized population, you should be prepared to take their sorrows and make them your own.  If you insist on keeping a distance between yourself and the people you serve, of only living with them half of the time, you'll drown.  It's not all bad though.  With the sorrows and defeats also comes incredible joy and life.  When Julie* got a job or when David* got housing, we rejoiced with them.

Making dinner
Committing fully and jumping in with both feet is a theme that consistently comes up in the Bible, and oftentimes it is the measure of a great person.  When Abraham left his ancestral land of Ur, he did not do so apprehensively.  He heard God's call and followed, leaving his home and country behind in the hopes of a better life ahead.  When Joshua led his people from the wilderness into the land of Canaan, he faced seemingly insurmountable odds.  And yet, he trusted in God and carved out a country for his people. In these instances, neither one said, "Oh I'll just dip one foot in and see how it is".  The patriarchal stories lose their ring if after Abraham heard God he said, "Okay, but I won't sell my hut just yet, maybe I'll sublet it for a few months in case things don't work out.  Sarai, can you put some of the appliances in storage"? In both instances, these men were called to do something and they answered with a resounding "Yes".

If you are thinking about doing a year of service, listen to your heart.  Do you feel that you can fully commit to giving yourself to a population desperately in need, homeless or otherwise?  Do you feel drawn to do it?  If you're like me, you may not be able to articulate exactly what draws you toward service, but that's fine.  If you're going to do it, do it all and do it well.

There is a very simple reason that a year of service demands that you jump in with both feet and hold nothing back: a year of service is a year of living out love.  Giving yourself to those who are homeless, or orphans, or refugees, or homeless orphan refugees, or any marginalized demographic is an act of love, and an act of love is to give yourself wholly and fully to another.  And it's not easy.  There may be days when you don't feel like working or days when you feel crushed by everything--the systems of poverty, hopelessness and despair.  But that doesn't matter.  You agreed to live in love.  You agreed to be love.  Trust in yourself, your heart, and whatever God you choose, and things will turn out for the best.

*Names changed

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Learning the Ropes


Sassi at the apple orchard
About a year ago I was filling out my application to be a Franciscan Outreach Volunteer.  At the time I was in school and living in a small German village with my family.  A lot has changed since this time last year! Now I'm living in the third biggest city in America, in community with 12 other people and working overnight shifts at our shelter.

Since my first day here in Chicago, I knew that the decision I made a year ago was definitely one of the best I've ever made.  I feel like I learn something new every single day.  It's not always obvious or important, but just living in another country with a different language and community teaches me a lot.

Thinking back on my first shift at the shelter, I still didn't feel that comfortable speaking English to the supervisors or the guests.  I couldn't really imagine that I'd know almost all of the ladies names one day or that it would get easier to work overnight.  But at this point in my year, I can already say that this is exactly what happened.  At first the ladies were guests and that's all I knew about them.

In the last three months, these women have become more than just "guests" to me.  They all have one thing in common:  they don't have a place to sleep; they are homeless.  This was the only thing I knew when I came to the shelter.  However, besides this one aspect, all the ladies and all the guests, are totally different.  Our guests have different ethnicity, some are in their twenties and others are over 60.  Some of the ladies sleep at the shelter for several years and others are new and only stay for a couple days.  We have pregnant guests and guests with or without jobs.  And the most important difference:  They all have their own personalities, needs, and stories.
Sassi, Mustafa, Sara, and Zach at the Cub's game

Since I've been at the shelter, I've talked to the guests and they tell me about themselves, about their children, or even grandchildren.  One of the ladies recently came to the desk where I was sitting and asked me if I wanted to see pictures of her family.  She opened a folder and told me all the names of her grandchildren and their ages.  Another guest looked at the date one day and shared that the next day was her son's birthday.  She shared stories of her three sons that she hadn't seen in a long time.  Other women are more quiet and don't talk a lot.  But finding this out is also a part of getting to know them.

2013-14 community serving dinner after Orientation
Some of the ladies don't talk a lot about themselves but are interested in my story.  It always starts when guests ask for my name and I tell them "Saskia". The response is typically, "say that again" or just "what?" so I repeat it or I say "my nickname is Sassi, maybe that is easier to remember" and I often add, "I'm German, that's the reason for the name".  At this point they get really interested in how long I've been here, how I like the U.S. (especially Chicago), and the differences between the two countries.  All in all, it's a great experience to live in another country, in a big community, and to work at the shelter. I feel like I am learning every day from the guests and my community members and I'm looking forward to what else will come this year!