Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Mystery of Mission: A Letter to a Future Missioner

2016 Volunteer Story Contest Winner

By Teresa Villaruz, Maryknoll Lay Missioner

Dear friend,

Relax. Breathe. Welcome to your new life as an overseas missioner. If you are anything like I am, you may be experiencing heaps of excitement with a dash of panic and a good dose of “Good Lord, what did I just get myself into?” Prepare to be enveloped in a cloud, or perhaps even a storm, of unknowing. Things you thought you knew – what is considered edible, how you cross a street, how you wash a mango – well, friend, those days are gone. Never fear, you will learn because you will have people walking alongside you who will show you how to get the dead gecko out of the water tank and how to negotiate the correct price on a minibus. 

You will see the silky comfort of wealth juxtaposed next to the crushing reality of poverty. In fact, you will probably live in the safety and comfort of this wealth, or at the very least, you will dabble in it from time to time when going to restaurants with exotic fare or on safaris to see living national treasures, but your work will likely be with the 99%, those who do not have running water or electricity in their mud and stick homes. And you will feel guilt. Lots of it.  While as missioners, we’re called to walk with those on the margins, the truth is that we can easily leave those margins whenever we choose.  As a missioner and a teacher, I often ask myself why I have 12 pairs of shoes at home under my bed while my student has only one pair of broken flip-flops; why I can gleefully spend $4 on a Frappuccino when that will pay for three months of my student’s feeding program. If you are like I am, you will toe that thin and almost invisible line between self-care and being part of the machine that imprisons people in poverty. 

Many visitors are impressed by how people can live in such dire circumstances and yet seem so outwardly joyful. But please, dear friend, do not idealize their poverty. Do not deny them their complexity and humanity. If you are able to meet them as they are with all of their contradictions and imperfections, you might be able to start sitting in the midst of the questions and the mystery that connects us all.

This is what mission is all about.  It’s about serving others and wrestling with the questions surfacing that you didn’t even know were inside you. It is the ability to look in the mirror and see yourself with stark and almost terrifying clarity because the truth is, when you pluck yourself from your everyday familiar and intentionally put yourself into what is uncomfortable and foreign, the landscapes of your soul begin to rumble and shift. And you begin to realize that these questions, no matter how painful to hold, are a gift. Your soul, though it may fall into temporary darkness, will bloom and your heart will expand because you had the courage to allow the tragedy around you to shatter it. You had the courage to stand with your hands open and empty, waiting for God to fill them. 

The reality, dear friend, is that you will need God more here. When you’re in a western country, you can rely on the doctor when you’re sick, go to a friend’s house when you need comfort, escape distress with a good movie. Here, hospitals do not have enough blood and people frequently die of preventable diseases. You can go to a friend’s house here, but that friend might not speak English, may have different boundaries about crying or expressing emotions. And watching a movie would be great…if you have electricity that night. These are the adventures, the challenges, and the gifts of everyday mission. You will see just how simply you can live, just what food you can stomach, just how much your culture has shaped your version of reality. And believe it or not, you will be surprised by how a place so foreign to you can feel so much like home. 

So often, we go into mission with plans about how we are going to transform lives, not realizing that in the messy process of learning how to serve, we ourselves will be transformed. You will be evangelized by the tragic beauty of the place you’re in, the struggles and the heartbreaks of the people you are accompanying, and the hope that is held anyway. And you will be evangelized by your own doubt, made to feel the breadth of your humanity and the fear and wonder of your unique journey. By putting yourself in such a vulnerable place, by allowing yourself to be broken and blessed, you nourish not only others, but yourself. So be gentle with yourself; you will learn the language and the culture and the customs with time. But for now, just thank God for the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of another and to draw just a little bit closer to the person you’re meant to be. 

With love, 

Want to know more? Visit Teresa's blog!
Would you like to make a donation to support Teresa's mission? Click here to visit her donation page!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas 2016 - The Gift of Light

The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in WWII Germany, said of Advent: “The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”
Over the past four weeks, we have lit candles on the Advent wreath. This ritual engages us with the darkness of the season, as well as the symbolic darkness of our world. In the circle of night we make a four-point square of light – a burning sign of our hope for the new life promised by God.
Today, our Christmas Gospel reveals God’s fulfillment of this promise:
What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:3-5)
We celebrate anew the birth of Jesus Christ – a gift we can hardly comprehend. In the refuge of the manger (which is located in every heart) we rejoice in the eternal Son of God, who is born for man, by the power of Holy Spirit and the willing service of Mary, his mother.
As a community founded in faith and service, we can rejoice doubly, for as God’s Angel told Joseph in the Fourth Week of Advent, “…they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23) As Christ is the light of the world, he is also the light within all who receive him. We are each made little lights in His name. We are each to glow, and as St. Francis of Assisi reassures us, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” 
We pray that you have peace and joy on this Christmas Day and beyond. We pray that you will carry your light forward into the world. The new earth has not yet come, but Christ has, illuminating the dark. Rejoice! In joyful spirit, we share now a few lines from author Madeleine L’Engle (herself a little candle of Christ):

First Coming (excerpt)

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent, A Season of Service - When God Turns Your World Upside-Down

Catholic Volunteer Network and the Catholic Apostolate Center are pleased to bring you this Advent reflection series to support your growth during this important season. We welcome you to journey through these weeks of Advent alongside several of our current and former
volunteers who serve as contributors for this series. We are constantly inspired by their courage to step outside of their comfort zones and their commitment to serving those most in need. They have remarkable stories to share, filled with light and hope. Each week, a different writer reflects on the Sunday Gospel reading through the lens of their volunteer experience. Their insights on the four pillars of faith-based service; Community, Social Justice, Spirituality, and Simple Living, call us back to the true meaning of Advent. Click here to download the complete Advent 2016 Reflection Guide

Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”
Matthew 1:18-24

Reflection by Danielle Goddard, Former Rostro de Cristo volunteer, Current Resident Minister at John Carroll University 

When I was young, I thought there was a script of how my story would unfold. It was combination of the life I had known growing up, along with the expectations others held for me, and the dreams I had for myself. I clung pretty tightly to that plan; that is, until I spent a year in Ecuador with Rostro de Cristo. My world was shaken and turned upside-down as I fell in love and shared life with people who were vulnerable and on the margins. I realized that although the plan I had for my life was very good, God’s call for me to respond to the needs of the world might be even more important.

It is because of these experiences that I resonate with Joseph in today’s gospel reading. He is a righteous yet caring man, determined to make the “right” decisions for his life based on other’s expectations and his plan for his future. Yet through a dream, he has his world turned upside-down by the realization that God is working through his life in ways he had not seen before. In his dream, the angel tells him “do not be afraid” to put God before the “righteous” decision.

This reading challenges us to not be afraid of the ways God is working around us and through us. Joseph gives us an example of trusting God’s will above our own plans or expectations. It urges us to listen to God speaking through those most vulnerable, or through the stirrings of our own heart. And it is a reminder that no matter how lost we feel, God is with us.

Focus on: Simplicity

I think of simplicity as putting God first. To me, this means putting Love before material things, before our own agenda, or before what others think we should do or say. It means listening to God’s voice stirring in our own hearts despite fear, just as Joseph responded to the angel in his dream. God calls us to love others, because all people are made in God’s image. This is what Jesus came to proclaim: “Emmanuel, God is with us.” So by putting God first, we strive to prioritize and choose to celebrate the Love alive in the people surrounding us, and in our own hearts. This is simplicity: letting go of the things, ideas, and distractions that create barriers between us and others, and ultimately between us and God.

Service Suggestion

Our lives are full of distractions, especially in the holiday season. Challenge yourself to embrace simplicity. Intentionally drop the barriers you create between yourself and others: focus on people instead of technology, material things, or expectations you put on yourself. Take time to engage with family and friends, or spend time building relationships with those on the margins in your community. Most of all, don’t be afraid to engage with your own heart in prayer to hear how God is stirring within you. 


Dear God, 
We thank you for the ways you surprise us and challenge our expectations. 
Help us to simplify our lives in order to draw closer to those around us, 
and to ultimately grow closer to you. 
Give us courage to hear your call, spoken through those around us and from our own hearts. 
Give us peace to know you are with us, through the gift of your son Jesus, Emmanuel. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Getting a Head Start on Your Application

What are you doing after graduation? If you are a college senior, this is sure to be a question you will hear a lot from friends and family during your winter break. Instead of dodging those tough questions, we recommend that you utilize this time to get a head start on your post-grad service applications. Many of the most competitive programs have priority deadlines starting in January, so this is the perfect time to begin the application process. We've put together these tips to help you get started...

Looking for more? Be sure to visit our Facebook page between now and Christmas day to check out CVN's Twelve Days of Christmas series. This will be a great way to learn more about many of the programs in our Network, while also gaining some great advice for the application process. 

Let us know if you have any specific questions about faith-based service in the comments section below! We are here to help, and look forward to answering your questions!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent, A Season of Service - Seeing the Face of Christ in Ecuador

Catholic Volunteer Network and the Catholic Apostolate Center are pleased to bring you this Advent reflection series to support your growth during this important season. We welcome you to journey through these weeks of Advent alongside several of our current and former
volunteers who serve as contributors for this series. We are constantly inspired by their courage to step outside of their comfort zones and their commitment to serving those most in need. They have remarkable stories to share, filled with light and hope. Each week, a different writer reflects on the Sunday Gospel reading through the lens of their volunteer experience. Their insights on the four pillars of faith-based service; Community, Social Justice, Spirituality, and Simple Living, call us back to the true meaning of Advent. Click here to download the complete Advent 2016 Reflection Guide

Third Sunday of Advent

“When John the Baptist heard in prison the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
'Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?'”
Matthew 11:2-11

Reflection by Meghan Dietzer, Former Rostro de Cristo volunteer, Current Coordinator of Local Service Programs for Villanova University Campus Ministry

In this gospel, John questions whether Jesus is truly the one that he and countless others had been waiting for.  In many ways, what John has heard about Jesus does not quite match up with the kind of person he had expected Christ to be.  I look back to my year of service and remember thinking similar thoughts while living among the poverty and great suffering that so many of our neighbors faced.  

I went to Ecuador in hope to always see the face of Christ in others and to do my utmost to be the face of Christ to all those I encountered.  In many ways, I had started my year thinking that recognizing and encountering Christ meant finding joy and goodness, no matter how difficult the situation. However, as we journeyed through our year, my community and I experienced many situations when Jesus seemed unrecognizable and completely hidden.  We came to know so much injustice, hurt, and suffering in the lives of our friends there that at points I, like John, also questioned who Jesus was.  

After some time passed, much prayer, and many discussions with my community, I came to understand that Christ was in fact looking at me, straight in the eye, each day.   For the first time, I recognized that He was Jesus Christ on the cross.  That Face of Christ that suffers with us, that knows pain and sorrow, but also that face that rises from the dead and brings us unimaginable hope of the kingdom of heaven and eternal life with Him.  

Focus on: Community

Living in community can be hard and so challenging at times (generally, most of the time!) Unfortunately, if we are struggling with our faith or other such things, we, unlike John, cannot simply send a member of our community out to go ask Jesus the big questions and return with answers. However, we must remember that by praying together and journeying with one another, Christ is in fact there guiding us along each step of the way.  For, He told us, “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in their midst.” Living in community with an openness to be vulnerable, to lean into discomfort, and to pray together holds so much potential for encountering some of Christ’s purest love.

Service Suggestion

Think about John the Baptist in this Gospel.  He was in prison and unable to go out and find Jesus himself.  Without the gift of his friends, he may not have been able to know if Jesus truly was the Christ.  This week, let us recognize those in our community who don’t seem to have anyone to bring them Christ’s love and peace.  Do your best to be like those friends of John and bring that person the good news of Christ.  Whether that means visiting the sick or imprisoned or sitting down with a co-worker who is having a hard day, there are countless people who need the gift of a friend that can share with them the love of God.

Dear Jesus,

As I anticipate your humble birth in that small stable in Bethlehem, 
Help me to further humble myself and to give with a selfless heart.
Grant me the openness to receive you into my heart in a new way this Christmas that truly transforms me.
Guide me as I continue on my journey in community with others, grounded in love.
Help me to recognize you in those that I serve, even when it is most difficult.
Let me truly hear your words of healing and hope, and enable me to spread your message to those who need to hear it most.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent, A Season of Service - Fire and Water

Catholic Volunteer Network and the Catholic Apostolate Center are pleased to bring you this Advent reflection series to support your growth during this important season. We welcome you to journey through these weeks of Advent alongside several of our current and former
volunteers who serve as contributors for this series. We are constantly inspired by their courage to step outside of their comfort zones and their commitment to serving those most in need. They have remarkable stories to share, filled with light and hope. Each week, a different writer reflects on the Sunday Gospel reading through the lens of their volunteer experience. Their insights on the four pillars of faith-based service; Community, Social Justice, Spirituality, and Simple Living, call us back to the true meaning of Advent. Click here to download the complete Advent 2016 Reflection Guide

Second Sunday of Advent

“I am baptizing you with water for repentance, 
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.”
Matthew 3:1-12

Reflection by MIchael McCormick, former Augustinian Volunteer, current Resources Coordinator at Catholic Volunteer Network

Today we meet John the Baptist, the voice in the wild. For me, John represents the totality of an individual living in accordance with God’s will. Through self-denial, John becomes a healer of sinners. Through self-abandonment, John becomes whole. How can anyone follow such a path?

I find direction in the two baptisms John describes. First, he says, “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance.” Then he says Jesus, the one who comes after, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  John washes, Jesus burns. Both will cleanse me and remove my excesses.

Water and fire were two shaping forces during my service year in Southern California, where there is still a severe drought.  The unforgiving dry heat in the desert town where I worked exhausted everyone. The simple words, “Would you like a glass of water?” became a life-affirming phrase of hospitality. Rainfall, though rare, quenched our spirits.

Fire also formed us. In the dry hills, wildfires often threatened homes. In our community house, the small flame of our prayer candle was like my Pentecost, igniting a love for my three community members that mostly surpassed my self-love.

A lack of spirit, like a lack of water, leaves me dry and thirsting for God. A fire of purpose, kindled by the Augustinians, gives me the courage to proceed. I know I am chaff and dirt, yet God will find my grain and burn the rest – sin and sorrow and all that holds me captive.

Focus on: Social Justice

What strikes me is John’s offer of baptism not only to the meek, but also to the righteous Sadducees and Pharisees. Yes, John harshly rebukes them and commands repentance, but the offer is still there if they shall be humble. As Catholics, we pray that God will protect the poor, which he does. We also pray that God will forgive all sinners – including even the mighty.  I cannot help but think of our political climate, and how often we root for leaders to fail, when we should hope for their redemption and our own.

Service Suggestion

During my volunteer year, program staff would visit our communities as a way of checking in. They would also have one-on-one sessions with each volunteer, usually off-site, always over a coffee or tea. These unhurried talks were a form of service by the staff, giving their full presence to become a witness to each volunteer’s experience, struggles included.

This season, who can you check in on? To whom can you be present to? Make time and be a Christian witness to ONE person’s life, especially in this season when so much time is claimed by trivial affairs and festivities. 

God, help me to eat the locusts. Help me find the nighttime path. Help me bend this proud back, help me kneel by the river. Mend my cuts with honey and leaves, wipe the grime out of my eye, paste my tongue to the roof of my mouth and help me remember your silence. Your Voice fills the desert night, your Word kicks against the stomach, your fiery breath scorches me and renews me, you rip me from the dirt and for this I give thanks. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent, A Season of Service - Focus on Spiritual Growth

Catholic Volunteer Network and the Catholic Apostolate Center are pleased to bring you this Advent reflection series to support your growth during this important season. We welcome you to journey through these weeks of Advent alongside several of our current and former volunteers who serve as contributors for this series. We are constantly inspired by their courage to step outside of their comfort zones and their commitment to serving those most in need. They have remarkable stories to share, filled with light and hope. Each week, a different writer reflects on the Sunday Gospel reading through the lens of their volunteer experience. Their insights on the four pillars of faith-based service; Community, Social Justice, Spirituality, and Simple Living, call us back to the true meaning of Advent. Click here to download the complete Advent 2016 Reflection Guide

First Sunday of Advent

“So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
Matthew 24:37-44

Reflection by Madonna Enwe, current Franciscan Mission Service volunteer

I remember sitting in class during my last semester of college, thinking about the image I had seen the previous night: a dead Syrian boy whose body had been washed to shore. I was deeply hurt by that scene and wondered why people, especially refugees, had to suffer so much to find a peaceful home on earth. As someone who had arrived in the United States as an asylee, I was drawn to helping in any way I could to make the lives of refugees and asylees better. 

I had decided to take a gap year between college and medical school, planning to do something health-related. However, I changed my mind when I discovered the opportunity to serve for a year at the Refugee Service Center for Catholic Charities through the Franciscan Mission Service program. I did not want to wait until I became a doctor before I could help people. This opportunity had presented itself to me, and I knew that God wants me to take advantage of it right now, especially when there is a current refugee crisis in the world. Without knowing when our Lord will come back, I cannot push back a call that He has placed in my heart. To better prepare my heart for His second coming, I am called - just as we all are - to  minister to the suffering and needs of the people around me, listening to the Lord’s voice when He calls me to serve, even when I don’t feel qualified.  

Focus on: Spiritual Growth

There are always times when I go for days, weeks, and even months without creating concrete time for the Lord. These moments always make me feel dry and withdrawn from Him, and I feel a sense of peace taken away from me. This passage tells us that we should not let our limitations lead us far away from God, but to strive more often to desire to find peace again and turn to Him. Being alert to serving the needs of others also challenges us spiritually to always be looking for and serving Jesus in those around us. 

Service Suggestion

During this time of thanksgiving and waiting for the birth of Christ, let us daily strive to open our hearts and homes to those who are lonely, living alone or away from home, and suffering in one way or another. Find some way to engage your talents or resources to serve those around you: sing at a hospital or nursing home, donate gifts to refugee centers or crisis pregnancy centers near you, or become involved with young people in your parish to give them more opportunities to  grow in their faith.

Lord, please create in me a clean heart 
and a quiet spirit 
that is ready to listen to your call and answer it quickly. 
Help me not to be blinded to the sufferings of your people around me; 
rather, let me be an example of your goodness and mercy to those I serve. 
Even when I hide or run away from your call, 
draw me back close to you so that I can dwell in your presence 
and be an instrument of your peace and love in the world. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


By Kaitlyn Miller, Mercy Volunteer Corps 
Kaitlyn Miller (far right) and her community members

I have been fascinated by the language of the Diné (Navajo) people since living on the Rez. In the nursing department we have been trying to keep up with learning a new “Navajo Word of the Day.” The language is quite a difficult one to learn as it uses sounds and syllables that my English speaking mouth just can’t seem to make happen no matter how hard I try.

One of the words (that I can actually pronounce!) I find particularly interesting. It is the word hózhǫ́ (it kind of sounds like ho-shown). It occurs in two important ceremonials called the Blessing Way and the Beauty Way and is found in many Navajo songs and prayers. My co-workers tell me it means, “walk in beauty, a place of harmony, blessing, a state of holy being, or a peaceful place.” From asking around and from doing some research, I was amazed to come to know that not even a hundred English words can truly describe what the word hózhǫ́ means to the Navajo people.

In short, this word seems to encompass beauty, order, harmony, and the idea of striving for a balanced life. According to Navajo culture and traditions, every aspect of life is related to hózhǫ́. Even more so, the Diné people believe that this doesn’t mean to pray for what you do not have, but rather to pray for balance with what is going on. For example, while others may pray for rain during a drought, the Navajo hold ceremonies to put them in balance and harmony with a drought.

The whole idea of hózhǫ́ recognizes what is beyond our control to change. Hózhǫ́ is changing one’s attitude to fit the situation, not to try to change the situation to our attitude. We need to try to become content with the inevitable. This harmony is a choice that we can pick each and every day. It calls us to be flexible in all situations, yielding adaptive skills and learning how to thrive under radically new conditions. Another English word that falls under this idea of hózhǫ́ is gratitude. Hózhǫ́ calls people to be grateful in every situation, both the good and the bad.

It is said that the Navajo do not look for beauty, rather they are engulfed in it. When it seems disrupted, they restore it; when it is lost or diminished, they renew it; when it is present, they celebrate it. Often it is said, “with me there is beauty (shil hózhó),” “in me there is beauty (shii’ hózhó),” and “from me beauty radiates (shaa hózhó).”

This makes me think of how Christians view God. He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. We are engulfed in His love. When our relationship with Him seems to be disrupted, we try to restore it, when it feels lost or diminished, we try to renew it, when we feel His presence, we celebrate it. We are taught to be grateful in all things and to praise Him in both the good and the bad times. He is with me, in me, and from me His light and love radiates.

This year has been crazy so far, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When we get stuck in the mud but God helps us find a way out, I think hózhǫ́. When we get to go hiking and be surrounded by God’s creation, I think hózhǫ́. When there are days when nothing seems to get accomplished at work or I feel like I didn’t make a difference, but I made a student smile, I think hózhǫ́. And lastly, when I see these four amazing women I get to share this year’s experience with, I think hózhǫ́. Being on the Rez this year, we have seen beauty and light with us, in us, and radiating from us, as we continue to live out what God has called us to do.

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, please click here

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Diversity is Beautiful

By Rebecca Lane, Mercy Volunteer Corps 

Mercy Volunteers serving on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona enjoy hiking as a community
She turned around abruptly to look at me and with sureness in her voice, the words, “I have never been friends with anyone like you before” echoed off the walls of our new apartment. She was probably right. Our interest and outlooks surely didn’t streamline together in a perfect way. It was no secret, we were undeniably different. We were placed together for a year of service, but that did not constitute a friendship. Our humor did not match, our lifestyles were polarities, and I thought we were headed for a year of turmoil. 

It wasn’t just her and I at opposite ends of the life spectrum. As a community, we all had stories to share of where we came from, and who we are today. None of which corresponded. Placed in an entirely different environment: college, a party, or a workplace, would we still have built a friendship with one another? The odds are slim. We are wildly unique, chasing our own lavish dreams. Even with three nurses in the house, they are each sprouting in various directions. Yet cohesively, we lived together, we worked together, and we adventured together. Truth be told, it isn’t easy. Robotic we are not. Each of us is wired with deep passions and strong thoughts on what community in the Navajo Nation should entail.

Packaged in our fleshy nature are concepts and ideals that have been unknowingly manifested in our psychological pathways and present themselves daily. They are caused by how we were raised, experiences we had, and a moral code we have developed. Most individuals are unaware of these concepts and ideals until they are forcefully removed from an environment that accepts them as normalcy. 

One ideal that may not appear as a dilemma but can shake other’s routines is washing the dishes. Four of the five Saint Michael’s Mercy Volunteers are from the East Coast where droughts and water shortages do not plague a community. One of us, however, is from the West Coast. Growing up in eco-friendly Colorado, her ideals are rooted in water conservation, composting, and gardening. As I write, there is a beautiful box garden growing on our windowsill. Therefore, continuously running water as one washes the dishes strikes a nerve in her. As we sit down at the dinner table nightly, each one of us brings assumptions like these on how daily chores should be done, how to make decisions, and different lifestyle choices. The beauty is none of us are wrong, we are simply different. 

Because of our diversity, we are learning a great deal. Yet, we did not simply learn about each other, we teach other. Living with nurses, I learned far too much about infections, medical terms, and how to be an advocate for others and myself in a hospital setting. As for the Speech Therapist, she shows me how to teach my non-verbal student to begin to speak and the importance of communication. For me, I have the opportunity to teach my community members American Sign Language and how to manage difficult behaviors in a classroom setting. 

Informally, we taught one another how to cook from delicious Italian meals to meat and potatoes and every other oriental dish in between. Winter nights were best spent learning to crochet and using them as “living simply” Christmas gifts. Summer months were spent learning to face the fear of height as we hiked all over this beautiful desert. In our downtime, we painted, we completed puzzles, and we learned which roads were best not to take after a rain shower. In 1 Peter 4:10 it states, “Each of you should use whatever gifts you have received to serve others, as a faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” We were each unique gifts and destined by God to serve in Saint Michaels, Arizona to not only serve our community, but to serve one another and teach each other every day that diversity is beautiful. More importantly, we taught one another that although assumptions are inevitable, to step into another’s life in intentional community is life-giving.   

Community forces yet fosters deeper relationships. We are unable to hide behind our exterior, instead everyday demands us to pour out a little of our soul on to the table for each member of the community to probe at and infer their own judgments. In the beginning, it was excruciating. By the end, it was liberating. To be a part of a community that freely allows you to be who you are, despite differences, makes for a pleasant abode. We are truly blessed. 

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, please click here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Learning to Pray in Appalachia

By Matthew Junker, Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center

When I was an atheist, I liked to say that prayer is selfishly asking for every atom in the universe to be rearranged just for your own interest. Having mocked it for so long, I had a very difficult time with prayer when I came into Christianity. Unwilling to be completely vulnerable, my first response was to intellectualize it. I bought a book of prayers originally intended for seminarians and poured over the writings of Augustine, Catherine of Siena, the Little Flower, and other great spiritual teachers. But despite the beautiful prose, these prayers meant little when read as poetry or fragments of theology. This kind of intellectualization was a cautious half-step into the spiritual life, and although it kept the door propped open, I had yet to experience the full richness of prayer.

This half-stepping didn't last long after coming to eastern Kentucky to work with the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center. Together, we pray at the beginning of each day in our chapel. We pray before each meal, and we pray at the beginning and end of each work day with those we serve. People here don't shy away from displaying their faith, and it wasn't long before others began asking me to pray for them. By friends and strangers alike, almost everyday I'm asked by someone new to keep them in prayer. It's easy to see that these kinds of requests aren't just pleasantries. When people here ask for prayer, they really mean it, and I knew if I was going to be honest, I had to follow through. As the director here said to me one day, “there's nothing worse than saying you'll pray for someone and not doing it.” 

This kind of religiosity is so often mocked in the wider culture. The tragedy is that this hostility isn't just out of disagreement, but out of a profound misunderstanding of what faith actually is, a misunderstanding that deepens as our societal literacy in philosophy and the liberal arts slowly deteriorates. Prayer seems ridiculous if one is expecting the miraculous regression of tumors or the sudden reappearance of sight, as some televangelists might promise. But seldom do we encounter God in this way. Rather, we find God in the passion and intelligence of those advancing medical science. We find God working through healthcare practitioners who turn down offers with higher pay in order to serve those with greater need, and we find God in the sacrificial love of friends and family when illness strikes. 

Despite poverty, illness, and all of the other reasons here for people to lose trust in God, I've encountered a people of relentless faith. The passion of the kids in our youth program, of the community leaders I've met working at the food pantry in town, and of my neighbors while visiting them in their homes has acted like a mirror to point out those shallow areas of my own spirituality. Their faith does not weaken because they recognize God everyday in the face of good neighbors and loving families. They see God acting through the hundreds of people who, despite having every reason not to, choose to come here anyway to swing hammers and dig ditches. And most importantly, they see God in themselves as they muster the strength to press on. Although these encounters are more commonplace, they are no less extraordinary than miraculous healings. In fact, the regularity of these encounters is what makes them so extraordinary – that we are continually brought back to love in a world filled with great darkness.

During my time with the Mission Center, I have learned that prayer is not just an intellectual exercise, some sort of meditation on metaphysical reality. Prayer is not passive; it is a generative act that strengthens our spiritual bond. As social and economic divisions grow, prayer asserts our radical equality before God. We are brought together to the common table where we learn to see the world from others' shoes and to recognize each other's value as uniquely-created and equally-treasured beings. We see darkness spreading by dividing and conquering. We pray so that we can tear down these walls and strengthen our spiritual solidarity, so that, together, we can walk that righteous path toward liberation.

My time in Appalachia has taught me to come down from my head and into my heart, and out from my heart into my hands. We do not pray because we expect sudden intervention from on high. We live in a world of great abundance, overflowing with talent, skill, intelligence, natural resources, and everything else we could possibly need to build a world that benefits all. The only element we lack is love. This is why we pray - to strengthen our ability to love, that deep, sacrificial kind of love that no other power can stop. The kind of love that heals wounds, uproots oppression, and builds anew. I pray so that I may love, so I must come to love to pray. This is what I have learned volunteering alongside the people of Appalachia.

To learn more about Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center, please click here