Monday, February 25, 2013

U.S. Climate Change Rally: A Firestorm of Hope

By: Amy Woolam Echeverria

Sub-zero temperatures could not keep tens of thousands of people (an estimated 50,000) at home on Sunday, February 17, 2013 for a historic rally on climate change in Washington, D.C., The Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach (CCAO) was no exception. On the first Sunday in Lent Columbans were Presente! with current and former CCAO team members waving the Columban JPIC flag as we stood in solidarity with Creation and all communities that suffer due to climate change.

I was struck by a number of things over the course of the rally.  First, as we began the Lenten journey, I was reminded of the importance of public witness as an expression of our faith.  There is no greater radical public witness than Jesus’ journey from the gates of Jerusalem to the Cross. He chose the garden, the streets, and Golgotha, to make known to humanity his faithfulness and love.   
As I stood on the national Mall in the shadows of the White House and Capitol Hill, I was reminded of Jesus’ words to Caiaphas, “I have spoken publicly to the world.  In secret I have said nothing.” (Jn 18:20).  Jesus, rejected to the point of death, looked the nay-sayers of his day in the eyes.  He faced them with compassion, unwavering in his love for all people, knowing that his message was not understood or accepted by the powerful and wealthy elite.  
Joining thousands on the chilly Sunday afternoon also struck home for me the importance of communion.  Having named Called to Communion as our guiding vision for the next six years at the recent General Assembly of Columban missionaries, this rally reminded me what true communion looks and feels like.  It can be uncomfortable, tiring, even painful, but in our Catholic tradition, the Eucharist is not symbolic gesture, but a transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.  So too we are transformed in real and concrete ways when we enter into relationships that move us out of our comfort zone.   

As Columban Fr. Naill O’Brien describes, “[Eucharist], is nothing less than an act of revolution, a radical call for personal and social transformation; it challenges every unjust structure and calls to offer our lives in the struggle to change these structures.” (N.O’Brien. Island of Tears, Island of Hope). 

Understanding Communion in this way gives new meaning and challenge to the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist and in our lives.  We are invited and encouraged to be participants in the transformation we seek.  Mystic and saint, Teresa of Avila calls us to become God’s hands and feet, eyes and hearts in the world.  I would have much preferred to comfortably watch the rally on TV from my warm living room, but my faith impelled me to join the crowds and shout for environmentally sound policies until my throat was raw.  

Hands and feet, voice and vision, Columban missionaries have for decades worked to challenge structures and change lives.  Often met with rejection, Columbans have remained faithful to JPIC as an integral part to preaching the Gospel and mission. During our 2006 General Assembly we identified climate change as one of our top two JPIC priorities.    We affirmed this priority at the 2012 General Assembly and expanded it by making the connections between climate change, extractive industries, and water issues.  This re-iteration comes as a result of seeing sea levels rising in Brazil and Fiji; glaciers melting along the Andean peaks in South America and in Pakistan; desertification and sandstorms in Korea and China, to name a few.  While some people continue to question the realness of climate change; our missionary experience tells us in the communion we live with that Creation and communities are increasingly vulnerable as a result of human over-consumption.      
Finally, on Sunday, frozen to the bone, exhausted and zapped of energy I received a lifeline of warmth and hope.  My phone rang.  On the other end a Columban Sister energetically asked, “Are you there?!  I can see all the people on T.V.  Are you there?” I was happy to say, “We are PRESENTE!”

For more about the climate change rally, read this story from Ellen Teague, member of the Columban JPIC team in the UK:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Little Things

By Christy Titus, Colorado Vincentian Volunteer
Christy works at African Community Center’s Safari Thrift Store

I would never have considered myself spiritually poor before I came to CVV.  In lots of ways, I wasn’t—I had grown up in a strong Christian family and had developed a meaningful faith life. I felt like my relationship with God, while not perfect by any means, was a personal one; I lived my life pretty strictly according to my morals and values. Coming to Denver, I never anticipated the immense growth in my spirituality that would occur, and how it would change me; how it would push me to look for God outside the times I set apart for Him, but to recognize Him in the day to day experiences of my life.  Learning theological reflection has helped open my eyes to a deeper understanding of God.

I read the The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exup√©ry on our spring retreat to St. Benedict’s Monastery a few weeks ago, and while I was reading it for entertainment, it struck me a very real way.

“The desert is beautiful,” the little prince said.  The book continues, “And that was true. I had always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence, something throbs and gleams…”

This year has opened me up to that throbbing and gleaming in others, in situations that seem hopeless, and in times when it’s hard to see past my own prejudices. CVV has opened my eyes to seeing God in those times when I have failed in the past to recognize Him.

I see Him now on the mundane days sitting at the register at Safari Thrift, because He is the thankfulness in those who are homeless who are accepted here; He is the joy in the lonely people that come not to shop but to talk to someone who will listen; He is in the relationships that are formed between myself and the refugees, even though we can’t speak the same language; He is the invisible force in the day that makes it beautiful, even when it seems ordinary.  This year has taught me to see God in these things, and to more fully understand the wisdom of the little prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Different Route to and through Service: Head as Well as Heart

 By: Eileen E. O’Brien, former Claretian Volunteer

I arrived at full-time, faith-based service along a route different from most of my colleagues.  Most of my fellow volunteers were right out of  college, where they had earned undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts. I, however, came out of graduate school having earned my Master’s degree in business administration. With such a background, I faced quizzical responses from family, classmates, community members, even people in casual conversation when I mentioned interest in faith-based service. 
Given my Catholic background—in upbringing and education—I wanted it to be a Catholic program.  Fortunately, I found the Claretian Volunteers, which worked to find a position to match each volunteer’s talents with its service communities’ needs.  I told the director that I wanted to work in administration.  He found a cooperative of parishes in north St. Louis that welcomed my ministry and our community. I was privileged to serve in the Claretian Volunteers program from August 1985 to August 1988, working as a parish business manager for a cooperative of four inner-city parishes in St. Louis, Missouri. 
People thought this career path was strange. My family, while loving and accepting, commented on how this career path differed so markedly from my older siblings’.  “You’re taking all of this good Catholic education to go off, live in the inner city, and earn $75 a month (along with room and board)?”  Yup, they taught me well, didn’t they?  I was placing my talents—along with my time and life—at the service of God and God’s people.  A strong and recurring impetus in my discernment process about volunteer service has been:  I do not want regrets.  I did not want to look back 50 years from now and ask, “What would my life have been like if….?”  I did not want to regret not serving in that way.
My classmates were supportive, but also bewildered.  We joked that I would bring down the statistics for the average starting salary for graduates.  Given the widely-perceived view that business students cared only about money, and how to earn more of it, my stated ambition of joining a volunteer corps caused others to shake their heads in disbelief, but also in admiration.
Do what you love.  Do not do it just for the money.  Within the first two months of my volunteer time, I was offered a job at the local chancery office—a real job, a paying job.  That would have meant leaving the community, reneging on my commitment of a year of service.  But it was a job!  What was I going to do?  I felt both happy and anxious.  After talking to community members, trying to get some perspective, I realized that I was more enamored of the job offer than I was of the job itself.  This was my first real job offer.  Wow:  someone was willing to pay me money.  My work was valuable.  Once I saw that, I was able to express my gratitude to the chancery office, but decline their offer.  I would be true to my commitment, and to my desires.  Even with a newly-minted M.B.A., it was not all about the money.
As I also learned later, during further graduate work in religious studies, “administration” and “ministry” come from the same root word, ministrare, meaning “to serve.”  My administrative work in the parish office—budgets, databases, facilities maintenance—was not just supportive of their ministries; it was in and of itself a ministry.  Administrative ministry (I Cor. 12) serves the church, just as educational ministry, pastoral ministry, and liturgical ministry do too.  
Incorporating my practical nature into my ministry was also important. God gave us a mind to use in service of God’s people, as much as God gave us a heart.  I could introduce pastors to budgets, which were foreign documents to them.  I could remind them that while they might desire to engage in every wonderful social service project they formulated, our parishes had limited financial resources.  As I frequently said, “We are a not-for-profit organization, but that also means we are not-for-loss.”
In addition to our ministry, we in the Claretian Volunteers also live in community, and that was an important element in volunteer life.  I lived in community for three years.  Others came and went, so there were multiple formations of community:  female and male, older and younger, single and divorced, each with unique life experiences.  Somehow we had to form community, not just people who lived together as roommates.  We were not just people who happened to check into the “hotel” (in our case, a parish rectory) at the same time.
One key was communication; another was the assumption of goodness and good will.  When the door slams, do not assume it was because someone was mad.  Maybe the wind blew it closed.  If someone does not speak in the morning, it could be because she or he is not a morning person.  Talk about it, but always work from a foundation of love and care, from an assumption of the other’s good will.  Community members should be able to assume of the others:  Remember that the person who is telling you this loves you very much.
Community members also need to remember appropriate relationships.  There is a difference between family members, community members, friends, and roommates.  Each has a particular claim on a member’s time.  That commitment differs with respect to length, depth, and intensity.  These people are your community members.  They may or may not be or become your friends.  I have been fortunate enough to see one of my community members many times, even though we left the Claretian Volunteers almost 25 years ago.  I have hosted her in my home many times, and we enjoy a deepening and blessed friendship.  Fortunately, our professional paths continue to cross too, so we have frequent opportunities to see each other, even though we live two time zones apart.  With other community members, though, you may never see them again once your volunteer service ends.
Looking back over 25 years, I see how some of my reactions were not as developed or mature as I would have hoped them to be.  That is all part of the growing process, I hope.  Volunteer life gave me the opportunity to see a new city, new culture, and new living arrangement, all while meeting some people who are still my dear friends, and developing my professional skills.  It also gave me the opportunity to realize that I enjoy administrative ministry—working on the business side of church—a calling I am still fortunate enough to pursue.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

“Me blind, but me can still see.”

By: Meeg Conroy, former volunteer from Passionist Volunteers International

 “Me blind, but me can still see.”

The simplicity of her statement and the coyness of her remark left me thinking. I had only been in Jamaica three weeks at that point, the first two had been a crash course in everything Jamaican, including hurricane season. We learned how to quickly pack and unpack and repack all of our belongings. Bringing the first epiphany of simplicity - material possessions are overrated, especially when you have to lug them up and down stairs. Elevators were an anomaly here- but sheer strength was in an abundance, something we’d develop throughout the year in physical and mental bouts of determination- a mere emulation of what the Jamaican people demonstrated day in and day out.

“Me blind, but me can still see.”

The third week: a reemergence to civilization, our time to sink or swim in a new culture, new environment, and new mission. Karen, a PVI staff member and a guru of sorts on everything Jamaican, had been patient enough to put up with all my questions through orientation- “How hot is it really? Will we get to use computers? What’s the food like? Can I still go running? Will we get to see some reggae shows?” All questions that make me chuckle now, but at the time were my most pressing concerns, and their answers a little more comfort to an extremely uncomfortable situation. Today Karen was taking me to King Weston, her pride and joy- all the more pressure to take every detail in, making mental notes and pictures of all I saw that day. One of our last stops was Miss Pet’s house.

A cement block resembling a tin of sardines with its lid pulled back, or rather the roof, exposing not fish but deteriorating beams and personal belongings bruised by the weather’s merciless force. I hesitatingly walked behind Karen, unsure of what to see, or rather not really wanting to see, because I could only imagine what the radio never reported. My breath caught in my chest with shame as I cautiously peered into the house. Furniture was upturned, rotting, complimenting stained walls and stagnant water collecting in corners- ashamed of its own presence in such a simple, humble abode, now bowed to the forces of nature. A few tears welled in my eyes as I was again slapped with simplicity- quickly grateful for what I did have- even the barred windows that allowed mosquitoes to come and go as they please seemed ok, it was something. Embarrassed by my naivet√©, I wiped the hot water from my eyes, trying to take on some of Karen’s strength as she assessed the situation and what needed to be done, rather than dawdle on the devastation of a situation that could not be changed.
“Now we’ll go see Miss Pet.” “Miss Pet?” “The woman who lives here; lived here.” Again uncertainty crept into my being. What to do, what to say, how to console someone in this situation? My mind raced as we made our way out of the debris to the house next door. My ability to understand patois and the thick Jamaican accent was pitiful at that point, so I merely watched the interaction. Miss Pet, a 90 year-old blind woman sat in a tattered cotton nightgown, her gray hair platted in two tiny braids wrapping a round, worn, and wrinkled face- her eyes shut. Her lamentations were a confrontation to my own concerns and complaints- what I worried about, what I stressed about, what I “needed”.

“Me blind, but me can still see.”

 These are the words I remember from our first meeting, and which always seemed to come up in our conversations- and there were many. For little did I know, but Miss Pet’s house would become one of my largest projects that year, and one of my life’s most important. The seeming simplicity of re-roofing a house, and cleaning it were stripped as I worked on the project for nearly six months, dealing with material and monetary shortages, Jamaican time, and my own issues of insecurity and personal struggle. But in truth- it came through. The final step came to paint the walls robins egg blue, as Miss Pet requested. In blue radiance she turned to me and said. “Why thank you my dear. You know, me blind, but me can still see- and it’s beautiful.”

 After returning from Jamaica I decided to commit to domestic volunteer service through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Though entering another year of service after Jamaica may have not been the best financial decision, it was the best personal and spiritual one I could have made. As an AmeriCorps VISTA I was hired to understand poverty through poverty. I often tell my roommates from Jamaica that there we lived with poverty, and now I live in poverty: A subtle difference, but one that creates very different situations. However, living within the light of simplicity, these different situations are both humbled to humanity. I’ve learned what I need to live is very different from what I want to live with. In fact, my time of service has showed me that my bare necessity is my spirituality. I’ve learned that this is a source of nourishment that is never depleted and always accessible for those who seek its nutrients. It’s as Miss Pet said, “Me blind, but me can still see.” – For it’s not the physical that lights her sight, but the spiritual, a faith that is always burning and enduring.

Friday, February 8, 2013

"Getting Things Done" for MLK Day of Service 2013

By: Kristina Swanber, St. Joseph Worker Program, 
Catholic Volunteer Network - AmeriCorps

It is no wonder why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was such an inspiration for generations of people in the United States and worldwide. His words reached many and crossed barriers that commonly were not broken. I was happy to take part in this National Holiday to learn from and serve the community that I live in.

Our day began by joining a community engaged in celebrating Dr. King’s legacy over a catered breakfast from Fay’s Homestyle cooking. While there, we joined in soulful singing, thoughtful reflection and prayer until Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of Children’s Defense Fund, was broadcast to us for her Keynote address from the Minneapolis Convention Center at the 23rd annual MLK Breakfast. Her address focused on the importance of investing in our nation’s children by installing a foundation that will facilitate quality education, an emphasis in art programs, safe neighborhoods, access to affordable health care, and positive family structures. Without building these foundations and investing in our children, we will fail to secure the United States’ future--leaving Edelman to ask, “will the United States be a beacon or a blip in history?” The morning breakfast was a seamless introduction to the following day of service in honor of Dr. King and his legacy.

Our group of thirteen went to Learning In Style, a school for adult immigrants and refugees in the metro area focused on areas such as English, Math, Computer, and citizenship. We split into several groups to accomplish different tasks. Some sanitized every inch of the classroom and daycare facility (meaning every LEGO piece) while others organized the “Free Store,” which is where I worked for the day.

The free store is, not surprisingly, a free store for anyone in the community to donate to or receive goods from. The most common items were clothing, but shoes, books, and kitchenware were among the other miscellaneous items available. My group took direction from Sister Marie Herbert Seiter, a long-time volunteer with the free store. She shared with us stories of common individuals that utilize this resource. Some are experiencing homelessness, some are single mothers, and some are simply in a pinch. Sister Marie Herbert was particularly moved by one individual who was searching for appropriate shoes to wear to an interview the following day. He found a perfect match and left the store beaming with more confidence than ever before.

We concluded our day together by engaging in song, prayer, and conversation about serving others, experiencing poverty, and making lasting changes. Our day of service did not require any heavy lifting, excruciating working conditions or even direct contact with people. However, it meant wonders to an important non-profit in our community. It can often be difficult to work tirelessly towards something we may never directly see the effects of. But days of service like this one beckon us to ponder one of Dr. King’s most powerful quotes, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is; what are you doing for others?”