Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Gift of Inner-Dependence


Hannah getting toiletries for the women
One of my first weeks with Franciscan Outreach, my volunteer community had a group reflection on service and what that meant to each of us.  I remember thinking and hoping that service could be about more than a one-sided exchange of offering help to others.  Some of the ideas brought up by our group were that service can be a mutual exchange, that there is a sense of equality with those we are serving, or that we can find inner-dependence with those we serve rather than trying to be independent ourselves but viewing them as dependent on our services.  All these sounded great to me, but during the reflection I grew unsettled because our conversation seemed so idealistic.  I didn't know how we could practically find inner-dependence or equality or mutual exchange with our guests when, to be honest, they are coming to us for food and shelter while we already have those needs met.  Even in a relational sense I didn't understand what these ideals about service could look like.  I figured the nature of the program would lead me to depend more on my fellow volunteers for relational support than on the guests.  Our volunteer group is an intentional community formed around common values, living and serving together.  With the guests on the other hand, we don't see them as often, and when we do, it's almost always in the regulated context of us serving them as volunteers.  With all this on my mind, I left the reflection wondering "How do I still find inner-dependence with the guests?  How can I still approach service as something more than 'helping the less fortunate' (a view which unwittingly belittles those being served)?"

Women's dorm
Well, I didn't find an answer to my concerns that afternoon, but now that I've been working for months, I recently realized I do find support in the women, and I see them supporting each other.  There is a form of inner-dependence there.  It just took me time to discover what it would look like and become aware of it.  One of the central ways I find inner-dependence at the shelter is in the diversity of personalities we have there.  The shelter is not the ideal community environment - many of our guests face especially difficult life situations - yet I see some of the women bring life to the shelter with their different personalities.  I'm grateful for the combination of temperaments we have because the women positively contribute to the dorm environment in different ways.  Some are jubilant, others are giving, caring, funny, optimistic, helpful, easy-going, or down-to-earth; and there are many other traits that I don't have time to list.  I love seeing the women uniquely serve and support each other, and myself, through their individual gifts and strengths.

As I'm writing this post, a number of women come to mind who exemplify the supportive presence I'm talking about.  They contribute to the community and peace there, and over the days, weeks, or months that I know them, I really grow to appreciate these individuals.  One of these women is particularly caring and relaxed.  I never hear her complain, and she almost always has a smile for others.  I admire the way she treats those around her, and one night I wrote down in my journal that despite sharing the dorm with so many other women, "she doesn't see others as nuisances or threats; she sees them as people.  And she cares about them."  I was prompted to record this because I want to remember the ways she's inspired me.

Another woman has a sweet, quiet, temperament, and she's very giving.  She always makes sure to wish me a good day before she leaves.  I've seen her share food or toiletries with other women, and one night when a different regular guest didn't show up, this woman asked about her, wanting to make sure she was okay.  She has even brought in a few potted flowers to brighten up the shelter.

A third woman recently attended a spirituality support group we have every Monday morning.  At the end of the group, we shared prayer requests, and hers was for peace.  As I left the group that day, I realized that she is praying for peace, but she also helps bring peace to the shelter.  She has a soft, kind manner, and I never see her lashing out at other guests.

Volunteers on St. Patrick's day
On a different note, one woman tends to be quite loud, but always cheerfully so.  She'll come in singing and sharing stories.  She'll wake up singing or excitedly talking about her cute outfit for the day.  She'll be moving into a housing program soon, but when she shared this great news with me she added "you all are going to miss me aren't you?  I'll come back and volunteer!"

I have shared about these four women in particular, but there are many others that I haven't mentioned who have come through our doors and blessed me and those around them.  I am only one person, and as hard as I try, I cannot support all 40 women as much as I would like.  But in midst of my limitations, the women come through for each other and for me.  Sometimes a new woman comes in uncertain or upset, and I don't get a chance to make sure she's okay, but I'll see another guest talking to her, showing her around, and helping her out.  Other times women come in, and despite being in an emergency shelter, they bring a good time with them.  They find people to laugh and joke with, or they spend their free time doing each other's hair.  Lastly, in almost all of the women, I have witnessed an inspiring resilience.  I regularly hear guests say they are grateful to be alive, or they are blessed to wake up every morning.  Despite the difficulties they are facing, they don't let their situations keep them from seeing life as a gift or from finding happiness in their daily routines.  Every shift I work, I get glimpses of this resilience in the words and actions of the women, and in this way, they continually give me, and each other, hope.

Fear, Joy, and Peace: Encountering and Turning Towards God


Start of the Easter Vigil
Today is Easter Sunday, and my first full day of being Catholic.  At the Easter Vigil last night, I received the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Looking back on last night and the previous days, weeks, months, and years of my own faith formation, I can recall a wide range of emotions along the way.  As my own relationship with God has unfolded, I have felt so much gratitude, both towards God and towards my beloved family, friends, and mentors who have offered me so much guidance and patient support.  I felt humility before the outpourings of love from my loved ones and God, and of course I have also felt joy, sorrow, regret, and peace.

One particular emotion that seems to stand out is fear.  For those fortunate enough to have been baptized into the church at a young age, it may be difficult to imagine the fear that accompanies joining the Catholic Church as an adult (or just a large child, in my case).

Mike preparing for Baptism
From an objective standpoint, fear is a strange thing to feel.  Many people fear death or retribution or aggressive geese.  Why would somebody fear life in God, forgiveness of sins, and boundless compassion?  Why would somebody fear freedom from sin and worldly desires, the peace of God and knowing that death has been conquered?  Like all great writers, allow me to defer to someone else.  Specifically, the scriptures.

We find that in the Bible, fear is indeed a very real, natural, and common response to an encounter with the divine.  When Joshua is commissioned by the Lord to engage in his military campaign to take the land of Canaan, a land with hostile nations with military superiority, he must have been terrified.  And yet, we find that God is continually encouraging Joshua, imploring him to "be strong and courageous, [to] not fear and [to] not be dismayed" (Joshua 1:6-7, 9 NRSV).  When Manoah and his wife, parents of Samson, discover that the man they were speaking with was actually an Angel, they "fell on their faces on the ground" (Judges 13:20).  We find that when Daniel encountered Gabriel, the people around him were so terrified that they ran away, hiding themselves.  Daniel "grew deathly pale, and [he] retained no strength" (Daniel 4:9).  And truly, when the Angel arrives in Matthew 28 to announce the news, the wondrous, glorious, incredible news of Christ rising, the guards are knocked out cold and his first words to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are "Do not be afraid" (Matthew 28:5).

Mike's Baptism
When we encounter the Divine, or rather when the Divine encounters us, it can be a frightening experience.  Indeed, many things involved with following Christ are quite terrifying.  Being baptized into Jesus' death, to give up financial security, and to live a life in which we are called to suffer and die if need be are all fairly daunting prospects.

I can say with confidence that I had my fair share of fears and anxieties when first approaching God, an experience I am sure many coverts also share.  At one point in my life, Catholic Mass was a foreign and inaccessible mystery.  Nobody ever explains what to do, or what one is allowed to do.  Is sitting during the Eucharist considered disrespectful?  Can I touch the holy water?  Do I say the creed?  Mass was an uncomfortable experience in which I felt like an outsider, in fear of being judged or being wrong or being disrespectful.  How could this strange place ever feel like home?

By the Grace of God.

Jesus promised His apostles to make them fishers of men, which I supposed would make me an exceptionally stubborn tuna.  Somewhere along the line God saw fit to plant in my heart the desire for Him, and in gentleness and kindness He pulled me towards His Church.

I was on a silent retreat once, hoping that my restless heart would find God to rest in.  The retreat was called Manresa and to this day I owe a heartfelt thank you to the incredible ministers who helped put together that retreat, for it was through them that God created the conditions to move my heart.  I've always been ambitious and productive when I had limited internet access, so I expected and planned for this to be a fulfilling, prayerful, and productive six day.  I had books, bibles, a journal, and a sturdy pair of waterproof boots to go for long, rainy walks.

One morning, I sat at breakfast with a cup of coffee and a book, attempting to plan my day and create a mental checklist.  Would I be able to finish The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything today, or should I start Tattoos on the Heart?  Maybe I should pick up a poetry book, or just journal.  Could I do that outside, or would I have to find a corner in the retreat center?  Do I really need to shower today?  Do the Celtics play tonight?  I began to trail off mentally, which should surprise nobody, and was staring absent-mindedly at the wisps of steam dancing off my coffee.

In that moment, a very clear voice cut through my anxieties, expectations, and mental franticness.  "Relax.  I'm glad you're here.  Have some coffee."

God's voice was one of welcome, comfort, and kindness.  I was humbled and surprised by the experience, and thoroughly amazed at the sense of peace I felt afterwards.  For a brief moment, my heart was able to rest.

Newly baptized and confirmed
Attending a Catholic Mass can be scary.  It can be confusing and crowded and if you have clammy hands and a voice prone to cracking line mine, the sign of peace can be a nightmare.  Your brain may run a hundred miles an hour as you try to keep up with the singing, the reading, and the responses, and you may feel like a benched player in your middle school basketball league when you do not go and receive the Eucharist.  But it doesn't matter.  I learned that God, eternal, living and boundless in love, yearns for you and I, clammy hands and all, to join his body.

In God's love, fear falls away.  The fear that I felt was real, but it melted to nothingness like spring frosts before God's warmth.  As I stood before the congregation of St. Clement's Church last night, I felt many, many emotions.  I felt humility before God and the wonderful community that welcomed me so warmly, as well as a deep, deep gratitude for my dear loved ones in whom I have seen the love of God reflected quite profoundly.  I felt gratitude to God for calling me, and for blessing me with the grace and will to respond to His call, a grace I did nothing to deserve.

Gracie (sponsor), Mike, and Kendall (Godmother)
At the beginning of the vigil, I felt fear.  This fear became nervousness and then jitteriness as I approached the Baptismal font.  A switch turned, and as I watched Father Ken sneak off to the side, hike up his robes and pull up his pant legs high around his thighs and take his shoes off, nervousness was replaced by laughter, then joy.  This briefly became fear again when we learned that he would be dumping not one, but three pitchers of water on us, and when we saw how large the pitchers were.  The joy that I was blessed with was accompanied by a gentle, engulfing wave of peace that washed over me during confirmation, and for the rest of the vigil, my restless heart found peace in God.

For anybody reading this being drawn to the Church and to union with God, and for anybody who can relate to my own fears, I will tell you the following with full confidence:  God longs for you to be there.  You have nothing to fear, because Christ yearns for you and to be there with him more than we can even fathom.  Rest and trust in God, and know that you are welcomed with open arms and fullness of heart by everyone in the community (which I can now say I am part of!).  Take a deep breath, relax, and simply be.  God will take care of the rest.

Happy Easter, and God bless you.

Some of the FOV group celebrating with Mike

Monday, April 14, 2014


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