Friday, July 31, 2015

A Year of Miracles in Detroit

By Rich Samartino, Story Contest Winner
Mercy Volunteer Corps Volunteer
Detroit, MI

I tell people all the time that miracles happen. Some unexplained force comes into a situation and changes it in ways that people never could have imagined, often with positive, inspiring or beautiful results. Though some people react skeptically to the possibility of miracles occurring, I believe that my year in Detroit with Mercy Volunteer Corps has been full of miracles from the very beginning.

Ill start my story right there: at the beginning. I was sitting in the Chester County, Pennsylvania public library, clicking through job listings on the website I had just been turned down by the one job prospect I had, and my quest to work with issues related to social justice seemed to be at a dead end.

But then, like a bolt of lightning, I saw it: a job posting for someone working with people with disabilities in a poor area of Philadelphia through an organization called Mercy Volunteer Corps. I couldnt believe it - of my two most recent volunteer jobs, one was working with adults with developmental disabilities, the other living at a community for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction in North Philadelphia. The position seemed like a perfect match, and I called for more information only to find out that the position had already been filled. But, said the voice on the other end, we do have one spot left in Detroit.

With a burning desire to work directly with issues related to social justice, I decided to read more details about the opening at Cabrini Clinic, Americas oldest free health clinic. The clinics small staff and history of advocating for social justice in healthcare appealed to me as an ideal place to get involved with issues related to social justice. Within days, I had been accepted to the program, and in a little over a month I was living in Detroit.

When I arrived in Detroit, I found a city full of people actively working to create a more just society. My placement at Cabrini Clinic put me in contact with one of the most connected people in the struggle for justice in Detroit, Sister Mary Ellen Howard, former Executive Director of Cabrini and a member of the Detroit Peoples Water Board, among many other organizations. By the time my first month in Detroit was over, I had attended a Peoples Water Board meeting and several other justice-related gatherings with Mary Ellen. Like a duck taking to water, I began to make my own connections with people involved in the struggle in Detroit.

A breakthrough that allowed me to become involved as a contributing member to the movement for justice came when I attended a meeting of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. I graduated from Penn State with a degree in Information Sciences & Technology, so when I sat down and heard the group discussing the need for someone to update their website, I knew I had found a perfect opportunity to contribute my IT skills to the fight for justice in Detroit. I soon had administrator access to the groups website and began posting articles that group members sent to me, something I have done several times per week for several months now. 

This seemingly simple contribution has led me places I never could have imagined. I now personally know many of the key people involved in the struggle against water shutoffs and tax foreclosures in the city, and most amazingly to me, contributing my IT skills has allowed me to be not just an admirer of these talented and dedicated people, but a co-worker and comrade as well. Most recently, I have been asked to help create a website for legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs 100th birthday party.

I dont know any other way that I could have become so intimately involved in a struggle so important to me in a way that allows me to contribute my greatest gift of technology skills.

Whether this is a miracle or not is open to interpretation. However, I would like to close by comparing my presence in Detroit to a seed, one that finds fertile ground and begins to grow. Eventually, it becomes so big that even birds and other animals rest on its branches and enjoy the sunlight that gives life to all beings. I feel that my work here has already touched many lives and made a positive impact in the struggle for justice in Detroit. However, like any living thing I want to keep growing and reach my full potential. Eventually all plants and animals pass away, but it is the image of each one of us resonating with the spirit within at such a frequency that the whole world hums along with us, that is the true miracle of life and highest aim of any person here.
 But it all starts with a little, dark seed in cold ground. Until, by an unexplained force, green shoots extend upward and hairy roots down. Why these changes at this particular time and in this way? Who can explain it? You can provide your own explanation. I call it a miracle.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Just Listen

By Meghan Krueger
Bon Secours Volunteer
Baltimore, MD

Serving with Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry in Baltimore: “My Quest to B-more”.  This was my mantra as I prepared to begin my year of service, and my prior assumption of how justice is attained. I moved to West Baltimore with high hopes of affecting change in this community; an attitude that can be seen in various aspects of my day-to-day life. When faced with a new opportunity for involvement, whether that is through my work placement or my residence in the neighborhood, I leap into action asking, “What more can I do?”. This has most recently come up in response to the uprisings in Baltimore. Reflection on my reaction to this current event, as well as other experiences I have had in Baltimore, has allowed me to recognize an ever-present call to forgo my own agenda and just listen.

“Karen, do you have any ideas for something else I could do for the people we see at our monthly blood pressure screenings?” This was often a question I raised to my supervisor (and even more frequently to myself internally) during my first couple months as the assistant in a hospital disease management program. My task-oriented-self wanted something tangible, something noteworthy, to work toward; but it is by grace that I have been able to reach an acceptance and appreciation of the fact that my role this year is not so much to do, as it is to be. It was through interacting with Ms. Ellen – a native of Baltimore, cancer patient, and widow living independently in a senior building - that it was made most clear to me that taking blood pressures is merely a means of getting through to the people that I meet, and an invitation for them to talk and be heard. From “the arthritis in my knees is terrible!” to “it’s a shame what Baltimore has come to since I was growing up here”, the carrying on of Ms. Ellen and the other residents is a much needed release of tension, and a glimpse at the concerns of the impoverished members of the elderly generations. The premise of a blood pressure screening has the profound effect of creating a sacred space for conversation, fellowship, and learning.

“Doorbell!...There it is again!...Now they’re knocking…it must be the kids”. I wonder what the request will be this time – the soccer ball, the nail polish, something to eat – but in doing so I am completely missing the point. They could care less about which sport they’re playing, which color nail polish I offer to them to borrow, or what we have for a snack; what they truly crave, and what they are indirectly asking for, is our time and attention. It’s taken almost a year, but I can now see it – we know these kids well, but we’ve never seen their parents; we see them dressed in their school uniforms, but hear about how they’ve had a different substitute teacher every day for the past four months; and they tell us how they love to dance, but that there is no one willing to organize any afterschool activities for them. My large-scale thinking self wonders, “what can we start in this neighborhood for the kids?”, when what I really need to start doing is listening. I will never be able to understand what it is like to grow up in West Baltimore, the way these mature-beyond-their-years children are, but the least I can do is toss the football with them, paint my nails alongside them, and simply show them that I care.
Most recently, the uprisings in Baltimore City stimulated my forward-looking tendencies. Sitting in front of the TV on the day of the initial riots, I found myself already thinking, “what can I do to help rebuild, to work to achieve justice in this situation?” The guidance and insight that I have gained through my various experiences this year, allowed me to reach the understanding that the best course of action to take at this point was to fully and genuinely listen. Rather than try to come up with an explanation for the violence, it was more important to ask, “what are those running around looting and setting fires trying to tell us?” In a way, these teenagers were speaking for the larger West Baltimore community, a group of people with very little voice at all. The true injustice is failing to hear their cries for change. I will forever be an outsider in this community, but my unique opportunity to gain an inside perspective on life in West Baltimore has led me to appreciate that the critical first step toward progress and justice is to take time to listen.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a riot is the language of the unheard”. Over the last several months, I have seen this riot come in many forms – unfiltered complaints, relentless doorbell ringing, and literal riots – each parallel experience culminating in the humbling realization that all I can and should do is listen. My mailing address may confirm my current residence in an underserved neighborhood of West Baltimore, but I know, realistically, that I will never understand what it is like to live in this community – to have grown up here and to have the expectation of never leaving it. It’s taken me a while to get there, but, contrary to my initial expectations and goals, I know that justice will be achieved, not as a consequence of my personal efforts, but as a result of my commitment to open my ears and my heart to the unheard voices all around me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A dream come true

By Addie Crossen
St. Mary-by-the-Sea in Cape May, NJ

When I first heard of the Summer SSJ Mission Corps Program, it sounded like a dream come true. How could it not? Spending 6 weeks in Cape May, one of the most beautiful places on earth, volunteering - one of my favorite things to do - and meeting others my age that share in some of my main interests! There was no downside to this opportunity and as the summer went on I truly did realize it was a dream come true.

Spending my summer at St.Mary’s-by-the-Sea Retreat House with the SSJ Mission Corps was the best decision I could have made last year. I had just finished my freshmen year of school and had gotten away from my volunteering roots, which I really didn’t like. Volunteering had always been a large part of my life and I knew I needed to get back to it somehow. Not only did the Summer Mission Corps Program provide me with a way back into volunteering, it also taught me so many lessons that I never expected to learn.

I learned how to live a simpler life, not only through my own actions of fasting and reflection, but through the examples of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. How they live their lives is truly beautiful and I am so grateful to have been able to take part.

I learned how to live in a community, and all of the incredibly hard work and patience it takes to be more concerned with the well-being and the needs of my community rather than my own, so that we were able to work together and grow together and learn together. The importance of communication and the ability to discuss my feelings with others will forever be a lesson that I will continue to use in my life.

The best part of living in the community was forming the bonds that were created. Being able to go from barely knowing one another to spending everyday together and becoming great friends was the greatest part. I was able to be with my friends and learn who I am as an individual with them as they were learning about themselves at the same time. It is an experience I will always cherish.