Saturday, September 25, 2010

Life Lesson

I didn't grow up with sisters, biological or religious. For the purposes of this post, the latter is more important.

I didn't grow up with religious sisters. I went to public school and my home parish was staffed by a group of priests and dedicated lay people. Even in all my ministry during college, both at school and during the summer, rarely did I ever cross paths with sisters.

It wasn't until I graduated and began my first job that I came across real, flesh & blood nuns. First it was subscribers to the magazine, then women out in the blog-o-sphere, and finally, sisters with minds and hearts for social justice. Truth be told, while those three groups are separate, in many cases, they are one in the same. To be most specific, it was that last group, with spirits overflowing with faith and hearts beating for compassionate justice, that landed me where I am right now.

Recently, there's been a upsurge in appreciation for religious women in America. After decades of under-appreciation (or at least silent admiration), the church has begun to recognize and acknowledge the work of the great women of faith. Even if it is the result of recent controversy (see: Vatican investigation of "quality of life" of women religious & the separate doctrinal assessment of the LCWR), this movement is welcome and seems to be strengthening communities, individuals, and the entire culture of women religious. This is long overdue.

Among the many articles analyzing and commenting on these events are a remarkable number of personal narratives and cries of gratitude. Each person who has worked with or been ministered to by sisters can recount what they've learned. There is no end to the list of lessons learned and blessings received.

I've officially been a part of the SSJ Mission Corps for the last month. The lessons I have learned are tremendous. Many I cannot put into words and many more are still in progress, coming to fruition as I live and work with the sisters and their spirituality each day.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to travel to New York City with a sister for a demonstration concerning the non-distribution of relief funds raised for the people of Haiti following January's devastating earthquake.

(Quick Reality Check- of the over 1 billion dollars that was raised for relief, only 38% has been distributed to people in Haiti, the rest is caught up in NGOs and is not going to benefit those who are still living in dire conditions without food or adequate shelter... OK, now back to the story.)

Since the demonstration was this morning, we spent last night at a convent in Newark, NJ. The women of this house showed us generous hospitality and, since the sisters were helping to sponsor the demonstration, a group of us ventured out together on our peaceful protest/journey from the Haitian consulate to the United Nations.

The lesson I learned though has nothing directly to do with Haiti or even social justice; it is a lesson that I noted over a year ago when I first visited the sisters and which has been continually, though I'm sure not intentionally, repeated throughout my time with them.

That lesson? I'm going to die.

Well actually, you are too. In fact, we all are. That's kind of how mortality works.

The thing that reminded me of this lesson was a conversation with the community of 5 that lived in the house. Over pizza, we shared stories and made small talk. One thing I have learned about sisters, especially Sisters of St. Joesph, is that they are remarkably and unapologetically real. They tell it how it is and by being genuine, they inspire those around them to be true to themselves and their beliefs.

As the conversation wore on I wanted to ask one of the sisters, originally from northern New Jersey, if her parents still lived close by and if she ever visited them. Before, the words could reach my lips another thought flashed across my mind: this woman is in her mid 70's, there is a good chance if you ask that question she may not have any family that is still living ::open mouth insert foot:: Yeah, death is a pretty big conversation killer. Luckily I caught myself, but that moment of realization stuck with me.

Kind of like the time I happened upon the congregation's cemetery- imagine long rows of gravestones, some only days apart, marking the final resting places of sisters from a congregation that, in Philadelphia alone, numbers nearly a thousand today (and which numbered in thousands in the mid-twentieth century.) Standing in that cemetery and sitting among (very much alive) sisters in Newark, I am reminded of my own mortality.

I am also aware of the mortality of this order. Any sister that I have encountered would humbly tell you that she is simply a person, a mere mortal. No religious title, congregational insignia, or set of vows can change that. Yet, it is these things that act as a outward sign of what to many sets these women apart. Really they are just like any one else. Their community, like any family, is made up of many parts. Each person brings their own gifts to the table, teaching others lessons and presenting an openness and willingness to learn. When they die, they will be buried alone; but really, a cloud of witnesses stands before them, a community that supports them before, during, and after their death. They are not alone at all. No matter the size of the order, they will live on in the lives they have lived and the lessons they've shared.

Per usual, the lessons we learn aren't always the easiest and most often they aren't what we expect to learn. Many times they come from facing things that make us uneasy and that we'd much rather avoid. Death is no excuse not to live.

I am going to die. The lessons I've learned can't change that fact; they can, however, enrich the life I live and allow me to give the life I have to others so that they might live better lives. I may be one person and have one life to live, but it is that life that is a blessing. If you have truly lived life, you will never be alone. Likewise, these orders of sisters will never die out. The Spirit that lives within them and that is in each one of us will live on and bring new life. Give gratitude for it and all the lessons that come with it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

In each visit, find the presence.

A major part of my job here is Philly is to act as a Visitor for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Philadelphia. This entails receiving referrals from local social service and mental health agencies of clients who are in need of food, clothing, and furniture assistance and then going out into the community, into the homes of those in need to access their needs and ultimately, to provide individuals and families with vouchers so that they can attain these goods free of charge.

As Sr. Linda, my supervisor at Visitation Parish, told me early on- "We're the only game in town!" No, we're not the only social service agency in the Kensington, not by a long shot, but in terms of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, we are the only society in the city and our sister societies are at parishes in Greater Philadelphia (i.e. the suburbs). So in terms of serving the need for accessible and free assistance, Visitation Parish is it. The parishes we partner with give us financial assistance, but if you are looking for a Vincent de Paul Visitor to come to your doorstep, talk with you, and give you a voucher be prepared to see my smiling face!

It was a late afternoon during the second week of September that I showed up on the doorstep of a home in Northern Philadelphia. What had been a heat wave a week before had cooled with the earliest chill of fall in the air. After a few wrong turns and then redirection, I found myself pulling up before a nondescript row house, typical of any neighborhood in Northern Philly- storm door, wooden steps, and bare porch- a slight variation of the row house that I currently live in, which trades the porch and the wood steps for a concrete stoop but otherwise is just another row house in the landscape of row homes that dot the landscape. I was outside of my normal jurisdiction as a Vincent de Paul Visitor but had made the appointment to visit anyway thinking it would be nice to explore the area around LaSalle University.

Since I was fifteen minutes late, the woman I was visiting was at the door waiting for me. We exchanged pleasantries as I entered her home. What do you say to someone who has come to assess your house and the life you've built? Somehow "Hi, how are you doing? Beautiful day isn't it?" doesn't quite fit the bill.

I explained who I was and the process that we would be going through, a simple tour of the house so I could see what furniture was needed and could fill out a voucher for the necessary furniture and clothes so she could pick it up at the Vincent de Paul warehouse. As we began our tour, I noticed a little girl making her way through the house with us. I asked her her name and age and bashfully she responded that she was Kaio (pronounced Kay-O) and that she was 5. "Oh so you must be starting kindergarten this week then!" I chirped back. She shook her head, a bit taken aback that this strange visitor was paying her any attention.

"No, she's starting pre-K", her mother stated, smiling kindly on her daughter.

"Oh! Well you must be excited and I bet your mom is too!" I said to both of them. Kaio avoided eye contact smiling at her shoes while her mother grinned, assuring me that it would be a welcome break.

Raising five children by yourself is no easy task, no matter where you live. But in a community where support is scarce and in a four-room home that is furnished by only two mattresses on the floor of one bed room, the task is even harder. As we talked, I learned about their life, a life strikingly similar to many of the homes I've visited over the last few weeks. A single mom, making ends meet and trying to survive not only for herself but for her children.

I try to ask a lot of questions of the people I visit, judging by their answers and general demeanor I determine how deep I can go/ how much they want to or are willing to share. My hosts are my neighbors and I must always remember that I am their guest. I have been invited into their home and it is in their hospitality that they share with me.

It is easy in my position to presume that I am giving to people who need so much and it is easy to assume the posture of a savior, to give myself a position of power/superiority through my ability to meet the needs of those I am serving. The threat of this presumption, this entitlement is present in each home I enter. I could be a savior to that little girl. I could rescue her mother. I could give them a couch and a dinette set. I could make this broken house a home. With disparate pride, I think I could, but really I can't nor should I think I can.

My job is to be a guest. To be welcomed into the home of another, to visit with them, to be gracious for what they share and to leave having taken something for the journey. What I take from each of these hosts is different. I hope that by being the attentive visitor I take something that will lighten their load, that by truly hearing their needs, needs far beyond a few pieces of furniture, I might be able to bring to them hope and gentleness in a world greatly deprived of both.

As guest, I find hosts willing to be vulnerable and in turn, I must be vulnerable too. While I strive to be Christ-like in my visitations, a savior I am not. I am not saving anyone. I may bring good news but ultimately it is those I encounter who are the one's in whom I encounter Christ.

The suffering Christ.
The simple Christ.
The very human Christ.
The sacred Christ.

The Christ who greets me, no matter how late or lost I am, at the door of an unassuming house. With a smile that shines through layers of filth and from behind faded eyes, he says, "Hi, how are you doing? Beautiful day isn't it?" and somehow in all its pleasantry and reality, humanity and divinity, that fits the bill.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bounded: Visions of Orientation

The following are images I captured during my week of Orientation for the Mission Corps. All are from Chestnut Hill College and I hope they give you a sense of the sights I took in & meditated upon while I was there. At the end of orientation, the word that my heart settled on for the experience of the week was bounded. May these photos bind you to my experience, encapsulate the space I was in, and give you a glimpse of whatever you are meant to be bound to in them.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Weeks that seem like months

Here I am at the end of week number two of my Mission Corps experience; there is much to reflect upon and many thoughts to be developed here on this blog soon, but for now let me give you the basic rundown of what's been going on in my life the last two weeks.

Week 1:

I moved into our house on Allegheny Ave. on the 22nd of August and was greeted by the leadership team of sisters who run the program. I had met many of them over my last year of hanging out with the sisters but among that crowd was my new community mate Barbara, our very own California girl, fresh off a red eye flight. We made small talk and got settled into the house before our third community member, Gabi arrived from Puerto Rico. The rest of the night is a blur, lots of getting to know you, lots of introductory conversation, and lots of just wanting to get this whole thing going.

The next morning, I was awoken by our neighbor's roosters at 5:30 AM (I live in Kensington, not the country & there are no hens around, so you draw your own conclusions about what they're doing with them). I have now become accustomed to the early morning crowing but for the first day it was a rude awakening. After getting up and getting ready we all packed our bags for orientation- a week at Chestnut Hill College for reflection and foundation in the program. So after less than 24 hours in our new home we were off to a home away from home, which barely had time to be acknowledged, let alone supplanted, as home. The week that followed was full and fruitful (a phrase I've been using a lot lately). Monday we toured each other's worksites; Tuesday we delved into the spirituality of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, learning about the history of the order, the prayer style of the sisters, taking part in a 'sharing of the heart', and getting a taste for the spirituality that will enrich the year ahead and on which this program is built; Wednesday was a glimpse into the tenet of community, what our individual experiences of community have been, how we operate in community, and our own expectations for life in community with one another; Thursday justice was our focus, including a trip on the 23 us line from the northern reaches of Philadelphia in Chestnut Hill all the way down to Citizens' Bank Ballpark at the river's edge, seeing the mass of humanity in between and traveling through the MANY neighborhoods that compile Philly; On Friday, we explored simple living first hand, sustaining ourselves on a total of $8.50 for three meal for three women throughout the day, finding new places to be filled, spaces that needed emptying, and bearing the triumphs and burdens of living a life of simplicity; finally, Saturday we were commissioned into the SSJ Mission Corps with a Mass at St. Joesph Villa, the community's retirement community in Chestnut Hill. The Mass was wonderful and a good cap to the week, which was full of blessings and challenges (often one in the same), the sisters at the Villa were ecstatic to see & meet us and being with them was a joy, if not a tad bit overwhelming, but who could resist a thousand hugs from old nuns?

Week 2:

By the end of Saturday, the three of us were exhausted. Full and fruitful for sure, but nonetheless tiring. One can only reflect and share with relative strangers for so long before there is a need to simply be in your own space. For that, Saturday night was much welcome. Although we had had a good first week, we all went our separate ways Saturday night, if only to regain the sanity that comes with decompression. Sunday we were met with the task of a house meeting, establishing our calendar for the coming month, setting some order to our community (I get to be the treasurer of the good ship Mission Corps), and laying ground rules for our time (Sundays= spirituality night & Wednesdays= community night). After completing our first grocery shopping trip well under budget, we toured center city (i.e. Independence Hall, Christ Church, Redding Terminal Market, City Hall) by ourselves & got the woman at the visitor center to recommend lots of fun (and cheap) things to do during our time in Philly.

When Monday finally rolled around, I felt like I had been here for two weeks at least. Yet with the sound of my alarm (or the crowing of the roosters, if you're so inclined), I soon realized our orientation was over and our long awaited and anticipated job placements were upon us. For those of you who don't know, I will be working at Visitation Parish and the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center (CBCC) during the coming year, splitting my time between the two and serving as an outreach coordinator in the parish for the food pantry and St Vincent de Paul Society and as a volunteer coordinator at the CBCC. Believe me, many of the details of my job had been ambiguous leading up to Monday morning, so if it seems to make no sense to you, just imagine how I felt facing this unknown as I rode my bike the mile down Kensington Avenue to the "Viz" that morning.

My first week on the job dispelled some of the anxieties I had that morning and helped to reassure me that this place was in some way the place I was meant to be at this moment. The first half of my week was spent conducting home visits with those requesting assistance from the parish's St. Vincent de Paul Society, seeing the need in person and accessing what material assistance I might be able to give them. This led me into the homes of my neighbors. It allowed me to meet those in need in their own space, to hear their stories, and to, in some small way, offer help and hope. From being asked out of respect to move down the street by a woman selling drugs to support her family to visiting a home infested with rats and with holes in the plaster walls to seeing a five-year old girl feed what little food she had to two cats as her mother explained that they must sleep in the same bed at night, a full mattress on the floor of an apartment empty of furniture, but cluttered with the lives of four adults and five-year old girl.

As the week wore on, I learned my way around the neighborhood, picking up what streets go where and beginning to acquire a little Spanish which will no doubt be an integral part of my ministry. After moving a woman and her two children into a new home in a different neighborhood Wednesday afternoon, I checked in with my supervisor at the CBCC. A new venture for the parish, the CBCC was just taken over from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by Visitation Parish and is still getting its programming set for the fall as the school year fast approaches. Working at the center is certainly exciting. Being present to its beginnings means lots of tasks need to be accomplished and I am playing a part in orchestrating its vast mission. For me, the center is a prospect full of promise and potential that I will have a part in forming, supporting, and bringing into reality. That prospect is invigorating, but identifying and accomplishing the work needed to realize this mission is daunting and is reinvented/ newly imagined each day that I come to work. For now, my focus is to get volunteers into the center and program up of the ground, to foster community and invest in the future of the wonderful, even if troubled, neighborhood that the CBCC is a part of and seeks to serve.

That leaves me at the end of week two. We spent Labor Day weekend down the shore at Cape May with the sisters. Expect pictures to follow as I find beauty in Kensington and entries that will hopeful unpack some of what I've laid out here. I know, I know- lots of exposition and not a lot of analysis- in time, just you wait. For now, what more can I say? It has been full and fruitful.