Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Christ in Disguise: Bon Secours Volunteers Reflect on the Corporal Works of Mercy

“The Corporal Works of Mercy are found in the teachings of Jesus and give us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise.” 
~United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

 The above description of the Corporal Works of Mercy reminds us that Christ lives within all of creation, unifying every living being. When we experience this sacred reality, we come to understand our actions as a means by which we may bring healing and wholeness to the Body of Christ. As our Bon Secours Ministry Volunteers practice the Corporal Works of Mercy through their service, they develop a deeper appreciation for the web of relationships which connects each of them in both an intimate and a personal way to all those they meet in their daily lives. In the reflections below, the BSVM volunteers share encounters which illustrate this growth. It is in the act of responding to their neighbor’s hunger and thirst for dignity through the Corporal Works of Mercy that our volunteers meet Christ in service. 
~ Olivia Steback, Program Manager, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry



Feed the Hungry and Give Drink to the Thirsty
By Gerard Ondrey

When I bring a patient a container of apple juice or a pack of graham crackers, it often doesn’t register in my mind as a significant action.  After all, most patients get three meals a day while in the hospital, something many of them do not receive outside the care of Bon Secours Baltimore Hospital.  However, during my year of service I have come to realize the importance of these gestures lies not in their magnitude, but in the greater recognition of the human dignity these acts symbolize.

The patients I encounter, many of whom struggle with poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and other afflictions which contribute to their marginalization from mainstream society, are not used to being waited on or served. On the other hand, I am accustomed to going out to restaurants with family or friends, people taking my order, cooking my food, filling up my drink glass, and removing my dishes when I am done.  When offering a patient a snack, I don’t quite have the selection of a five-star restaurant to choose from, but when I am asking a question as simple as, “Would you prefer apple, cranberry, or orange juice?”  I feel I am embodying the ways in which I have been served. “Waiting” on patients, taking their “orders”, bringing them food, and clearing things away when they are done, feel like true acts of mercy. I am showing them that I find them important by honoring their requests and responding in a full and prompt manner.

In my mind, this is what it means to live out the Corporal Works of Mercy of feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. In the above scenarios, the acts are not important because the people I am serving are in danger of starving to death in that moment, but because of the dynamic they represent; seeing and honoring Christ’s presence in all people elicits the desire to serve. 

Shelter the Homeless
By Alex Yeo

Through my ministry in the emergency room I have been able to work with many of the homeless men and women who reside in our community. These individuals come to the hospital seeking medical care and assistance with their social problems. My role, when I first meet them, is to ensure that their non-medical needs are addressed. One of the main organizations the hospital partners with is Healthcare for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides medical care and social service assistance. With their aid, I have been able to provide patients the support and resources needed to help them transition out of homelessness. 


Visit the Sick
By Mackenzie Buss

Our volunteer community has been fortunate enough to avoid sickness so far (thank you Lord!) but, every day at the hospital, we work with those from the greater West Baltimore community who are ill. In my experience, it is often the sickest patients who are the most difficult to 'be present to'. All of our renal patients have a lot going on in their lives, from physical ailments, comorbidities, and actual disability to the myriad social problems that living in an impoverished neighborhood presents. In spite of the massive obstacles that all our patients face, there is still a huge range in energy levels and general overall health. The chipper, friendly, energetic patients are often the easiest to build relationships with. At first, I was daunted by the prospect of talking to the older, quieter, sicker renal patients. As I have grown and learned with Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry this year, I have come to understand that our service isn't necessarily about entertaining patients, solving little problems, or even listening to them. It's about being there for them with your whole soul.

That is the mentality that empowered me to smile a bit and sit down next to one of our elderly, quiet, very sick nursing home patients. Sometimes, I'll hold her hand or say something that I am thinking of, but mostly I just sit there beside her. It's really a silent visit, a moment of being present to one of my sisters in Christ in the only way I know how - to just be together. I don't have much else to offer her, but something about those tiny moments, no matter how small and simple, just feels right. It's like a little slice of the Holy Spirit is there in right relationship with us as we sit and simply be together. 


Visit Prisoners
By Elizabeth Modde

It is not unusual to pass a man or woman walking down the hallway in handcuffs, flanked by two security guards. Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore ministers to patients from the Department of Corrections. In fact, some patients admitted to St. Martin's Hall Inpatient Unit will be discharged to the police. Seeing these patients, shackled to their beds, I find myself trying to imagine what they must be feeling. Some are visibly anxious. With a small idea of the dehumanization that can be experienced in prison, I feel privileged to extend warmth and kindness to our prisoners at the hospital. Recognizing basic humanity and dignity, of both patients and the guards in their rooms, can be as simple as smiling and offering a cup of water. 


Bury the Dead
By Alex Yeo

In the ER, you rarely get the opportunity to develop a lasting relationship with a patient. There is a very specific process: triage, treat, and either discharge or admit to the inpatient floor. The focus is on efficiency not casual conversation. Regardless, many of the patients that come to the ER frequently are often too intoxicated or incapacitated to engage in conversation. This year, however, I had the privilege of meeting a patient, let us call him David, who had developed a lasting relationship with the ER staff.

David, admittedly, was not the most pleasant patient to work with; a homeless alcoholic he had been cycling through the ER for over twenty years. I was always impressed that despite how frustrating it was for the staff to see him constantly return to the hospital, they were able to retain hope for his future. He was always given a place to rest out of the cold, a warm meal, and often times new clothes. The ER staff was his family. Their relationship may have begun begrudgingly but was now one of love and concern.  When David passed away this winter, the mood in the ER was one of sadness and relief. Knowing that he had moved on to a better place brought solace to those who had worked with him.

Being one of the last people to work with him, I was given the task of organizing his memorial service. Visiting the different departments of the hospital to raise publicity about the service, I was amazed at how many people in the hospital knew of him or had stories about caring for him. The hospital staff had given him many resources and much love, but he also gave back to us. During those difficult and frustrating moments of caring for him, he taught us how to love and to be patient; how to look past one’s impulsive judgments and tap into a deeper desire to care for one another as members of God’s creation. For those lessons we are eternally grateful and his presence will be greatly missed. 

Give Alms to the Poor
By Nicole Odlum

Through my ministry, I had the privilege to deliver Christmas gift bags to the many seniors I visit every month for blood pressure screenings. Around Christmastime each year, women from local Baltimore churches donate gift bags filled with simple personal hygiene products, laundry and dish detergent, and hand-knit scarves. For many of the residents, this may be the only Christmas present they receive. When I told them they could keep the entire bag of gifts, the look on their faces was humbling. The gratitude and appreciation they expressed was inspiring; this simple, unexpected gift bag brought them so much joy. One woman actually came back down from her apartment after leaving with her gift bag to thank us again for the things we gave her. That was an extremely powerful moment for me, because I realized how much these simple items, items most people consider a necessity, meant to the seniors. 

Pope Francis writes that, “Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.”  Please continue to remember our volunteers in your prayers as they take Pope Francis’ words to heart and strive to courageously live lives of mercy and hope. 


To learn more about Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry, please click here


Monday, May 2, 2016

Justice in Education

By Mary Arczynski, Colorado Vincentian Volunteer


In school I discovered my passion for improving our societal structures, but by my senior year, I felt dissatisfied with pure discussion and felt a pull to act, to “do” something about all of the societal injustices that I was learning about. Especially in my economics courses, many discussions on the right policies for social safety nets, for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, etc. seemed so overwhelming in terms of my inability to help everyone. So many of these programs feel like putting a Band-Aid on a deep wound that needs stitches, stitches that no one is willing or able to pay for. Learning about injustice, and not knowing how to help the marginalized, many times left me with a deep feeling of despair. This study led me to my passion for education equality. The more I studied economics, the more I realized the self-agency that improving the education or “worker’s skill” of a person that knowledge and experience provides.

There are many factors that play into the education of a child outside of the public institution of school—to include supportive parents or guardians, presence or lack-thereof of traumatic events in childhood, safety, nutrition, the amount of education received by a child’s parents, etc, and arguably those are factors that society does not have to “pay for” in terms of education. But, when you really think about it, education is everything when it comes to preventing a deep wound from ever forming so that a Band-Aid never has to be used in the first place, and school systems are not equal in terms of funding, nor are they equitable. Education is supposed to give everyone a chance and in addition, when done correctly, it gives people the awareness to advocate for themselves. A beneficial education allows the marginalized to improve their situations and to become contributing members of society who can interact with pride and mutual self-respect.

Education is what turns anger, violence and despair towards a situation into a burning hope for something better. Truly, think of the first time you learned to read a word, your first book and your first scholarly essay that opened a portal into an entirely new perspective on life. An education allows an individual to do that many times over during the course of ONE day. Imagine the impact of a successful countrywide educational structure on our country. One in which each student and school had adequate staffing, textbooks, technology and opportunity.


Anyone working in a profession that directly advocates for the marginalized knows that many social justice issues are intertwined. One cannot talk about education injustice without talking about poverty, and one cannot talk about poverty without talking about racial injustice. But, I truly believe that the first pragmatic step to long-term positive improvement of the many social justice issues in our country begins with providing equitable education to children. 


Mary Arczynski is a graduate of James Madison University with a dual degree in English and Economics. She is currently volunteering with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers. 









This post is part of our new Justice Matters series, in which volunteers reflect on the social justice issues that have become an important part of their service experience. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Holy Ground: A Volunteer and Graduate Student's Experiences of Unexpected Grace

By Laura Shrode, former Colorado Vincentian Volunteer

“As others allow you into the most tender places in their lives, you will know you are standing on holy ground, and you will find yourself touched, humbled, and gladdened by unexpected grace.” –Sharyl Peterson

On one particular busy afternoon at my service site, Denver Urban Ministries, I met Cynthia (not her real name). My job was to sit with her, ask her some standard questions, fill out paperwork and then assist her to our food pantry. That is the bare minimum. One of the best things about Denver Urban Ministries is their emphasis on quality over quantity. Though the lobby was bursting with people and we were short-staffed, the organizational leadership taught me to be present to the person in front of me. And so it was that I heard Cynthia’s story. Through tears and mumbles, she shared her struggles and fears.  I sat and listened.  I tried to acknowledge her struggles and let her vocalize the pain and the fear she had been feeling, but had been afraid to speak. It appeared as if this were the first time she had been able to mention these struggles aloud. 

Three years later, I do not remember the specifics of our conversation, but I have not forgotten what it felt like to be standing on Holy Ground. What a beautifully, powerful place to be! This conversation with Cynthia was one of the crucial moments that led me on my journey to Saint John’s School of Theology to pursue a Master of Divinity degree. My journey at Saint John’s has allowed me to travel many paths filled with unexpected grace. Many of these moments have come from my time as an intern and a chaplain at a local hospital.

My learning experience so far as a hospital chaplain has taught me to expect the unexpected.  When I enter a patient’s room or respond to a trauma, I have only the slightest idea of what I am getting myself into.  In some cases, the patient is alone sitting in his chair watching The Price is Right. Other times, several family members are present, with remnants of snacks and blankets from the one who stayed overnight with their loved one sprawled across the small space. At another moment, in a moment of trauma, I may enter a sea of organized chaos. The lights are bright, a few white coats are in the room and several other medical staff members dance around the patient in the hospital bed. I am always impressed by how the medical staff have mastered the dance of chaos. So many beeps from different machines, so many bodies trying to do chest compressions, trying to bring in the right medications, trying to do whatever they can to keep the patient alive and comfortable. Most times the dance is beautiful. Somehow the medical team knows their roles and where they need to be to not get in the way of one another. I try to stand near the head of the patient, to let her know that she is not alone. Or I will be directed to where the family is waiting. There we will sit and pray, pace, and share stories.

I am learning to appreciate the many surprises. Sometimes I am surprised by the medical situation - the biology degree in me is constantly fascinated with some of the crazy things I have witnessed. Sometimes I am surprised by the stories I hear - stories of pain, grief, loneliness, joy, hope and love. Many older patients have given me advice on how to live a good life, how to have a happy marriage, and how to keep the faith.

I value these stories because I recognize that in listening to them, I am standing (or sitting usually) on Holy Ground. The patients or family members are allowing me to enter into their lives, even if just for a few brief moments. I am able to share in the joys and blessings of a new birth or the sadness and confusion when someone hears difficult news. I find “unexpected grace” in seeing Christ in the hospital bed before me. How lucky am I that I get to encounter the many faces of Christ on a daily basis? I truly am humbled by these experiences.

My time at Saint John’s School of Theology has led me to other ministry work as well.  I am the new Recruitment Coordinator for the Benedictine Women Service Corps volunteer program. I now have the opportunity to encourage others to seek out ways to encounter that “unexpected grace.” This position allows me to connect with female college students interested in service and help them discern where their path is taking them.  I anticipate, with excitement, that they will have their own experiences of unexpected grace on holy ground.

Laura Shrode was a full-time volunteer with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers in Denver, Colorado 2012-2013. She now is a full-time graduate student at Saint John’s School of Theology (Collegeville, MN) working towards a Master of Divinity with plans for hospital chaplaincy. She also works as the Recruitment Coordinator for the Benedictine Women Service Corps.


To learn more about St. John's School of Theology and their scholarships for volunteers, please click here