Monday, October 25, 2010

It's all about who you know.

Last weekend, I had a great weekend. SSJ Founders' Day, a trip to Ellis Island to see Women & Spirit, and a day of service with students from the Romero Center. It was a cherry on top of what had been a busy & hectic week.

Needless to say, though, after having a 12 hour day crammed into a 6 hour period (see: finding out your food bank has lost its funding, VdP clients causing problems, interns, and meetings running over) at the beginning of Founders' Day (Friday), all the activities for the weekend definitely posed their own set of stresses. Yet, since I had been looking forward to the weekend for quite some time, I vowed that even a stressful morning wouldn't detract from the day and all that the weekend held.

Hopefully I will write about the joy that was present in the many moments of the weekend at some point, but for now Saturday night (perhaps the dullest moment of the weekend) will be my focus. I know, I know- way to build up the post, Colleen!

By the time I reached Saturday night, I was exhausted. As we, my community mates and I, drove back to our house from Chestnut Hill College, we talked about the night that lay ahead; we'd been invited by another volunteer community to a party to watch the Phillies-Giants game with a group of year-long volunteers from various programs. There was a energy in the air, an excitment from one community mate to see a friend at the party and an anticipation of meeting new people.

Excitement may have been in the air, but it was slowly draining from my body. After having had a full day- having traveled to and from Ellis Island, making new friends with the retired sister from the Villa who I shared a seat with on the bus, and exploring the exhibit, as well as the Statue of Liberty- I could honestly say I was beat. Still, I wanted to go out and thought that I needed to. I mean, come on, you only live once and I will only have this experience once- in order to take full advantage of it, I need to do everything, take every chance, climb every mountain!

Yet, as I got out of the car to go into our house and get ready for more time out and about, I knew I wasn't going anywhere. It kind of just clicked in me, a piece falling into place. No matter how obliged I thought I was to go to the party- no matter how much I thought I needed to go, out of respect for my community and connection to this experience- I knew I was staying home for those exact same reasons. Out of respect for my community, I couldn't join them; In order to truly connect with this experience, I needed to take a night off, to recharge and to reflect.

The night was pretty uneventful; I cleaned, I cooked, I watched the game, I paused, and I regained peace. That's not to say I ever lost peace, it was just nice for a night to recognize- to re-know- that that peace had been there all along. It was also nice to be reminded that I know myself, even as I continually learn more and more about myself.

There are some things you know, but on occassion you find yourself rediscovering- reknowing, if you will- those things. To be able to catch myself, to feel that piece fall into place that told me I wasn't going anywhere, signaled that to me. My sophomore year of college I remember jostling with the questions of "Who am I?", "Whose am I", and "Who am I called to be?" in the Ignatian Residential College at Fairfield. Going into the year, I naively assumed that I would have those questions sorted out by my junior year- I mean if not all three, at least 2 of the 3 would be answered by then. Little did I know that those would be questions that would (and will) stay with (some would say 'haunt' ) me for the rest of my life, constantly evolving as I grow, taking on layers with each new revelation of self.

Being assured, though, that I am somewhere in the process of knowing who I am was enough for me on Saturday. As I sat on the couch watching the game and reading No Man Is An Island, the book that made me fall in love with Thomas Merton in my early teens, I reflected on how important it is to know yourself, whether you are doing manual labor, social services, or telemarketing.

There is nothing to be lost in the process (except maybe sleep. Oh yeah, and your ego.) In order to effectively do my job, I need to honestly and truly know myself. I need to be truthful enough about what I can do and what I can't. I need to know when enough is enough and when I'm making excuses for someone or something. In community, I need to know myself enough to share with others. And when tempted to judge or criticize those I live with or work with/for, I must remember that before I can even presume to know anyone else, I need to know myself.

As Thomas Merton says:

"In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in Him and to do whatever He wills... "

"We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaeous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition... It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-conscioucness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are."

"We do not live more fully merely by doing more, seeing more, tasting more, and experiencing more than we ever have before. On the contrary, some of us need to discover that we will not begin to live more fully until we have the courage to do and see and taste and experience much less than usual."

Therefore, it is all about who you know. To better serve the community, I must better know myself; To better serve God, I must know myself as God created me to be; and to better know and be myself, I must give God the space to work in me and through me, continually causing me to re-know the people, places, and things in my life that I thought I knew in the first place. It's all about who you know; it's bigger than me, it's about knowing God, knowing others, and, in the process, realizing that there is a lot I may never know.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Glimpses from September

I know I tell a lot of stories about people I meet here in Philly on this blog, but I have someone else I want you all to meet.

This is Bruce (& the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Bruce is a 10-speed, 1970's era Huffy. He is my road bike, my trusty steed, if you will.
We travel together to and from work everyday (except when it rains.)
We also go on a number of trips together outside of work.
We've been exploring Philadelphia together- I've been taking plenty of pictures (you know how I do) and Bruce, he's been beneath me the entire time (he's not much of a photographer).

For the last month, I've been out and about seeing and settling into life in the city of brotherly love. I hope to make photos a regular (see: hopefully once a month, if not more often) feature of this blog. Some will be explained, others will speak for themselves, some will do both, and even more, I would hope, will take on their own voice and vision.

Below are glimpses from September, from Cape May on Labor Day to sights from Kensington & grand tours of Philly with Bruce. May they show you what I have seen and reveal what your eyes are meant to see.

Gabi celebrating Mexican Independence Day
@ Penn's Landing

SSJ MCVs leaving our mark on Independence Hall

Oh what tourists we are.

Visitation rising from Kensington

The vision of Visitation that takes me back to Manila

Thursday, October 7, 2010

We Can Only Do So Much.

Originally, I didn't know how to start this post. Then my phone went off at 6:42 this morning and again at 7:51 AM. It was Sam.

Sam is a man I helped exactly a month ago. How do I know it was one month to the day? Because this morning, Sam called to see if I could renew his voucher. You see, the furniture vouchers that I give out for the St. Vincent de Paul Society are only good for one month from the date of issue.

Thirty days gives clients enough time to arrange transportation to and from the Vincent de Paul Warehouse with furniture en tow (a daunting and time consuming task in a neighborhood where a car, let alone a truck or moving van, is hard to come by.) It is only on rare occassions that I am able/permitted to help move the clients I help. Even to do that is a complicated process, which includes borrowing a local nonprofit's van, getting volunteers to help move, and taking the time and effort to move bulky pieces of furniture across town and into new homes. For this reason, I only help move women who are moving out of the transitional housing program attached to the community center as a means of helping them to get on their feet as they take their first steps into independent living. At times it can be heartbreaking to tell someone who you know is new to this country and who is sleeping on the floor because they have no furniture whatsoever in their house that they need to locate a van or truck in order to get the assistance you are giving them. Yet, they manage.

Friends, family, new neighbors- it seems that no matter how rough your neighborhood or how impoverished those around you are, there is always something that can be spared or someone who knows someone who might be able to get a van big enough to hold a sofa. I cannot physically furnish every house I go into; I can simply provide the tools for people to be able to help themselves. Ultimately, there must be an effort on their part; otherwise, the social services I provide feed into a vicious cycle of charitable dependence rather than empowered independence. I can lead you to water (give you a voucher) but it is your choice to drink (be there for my home visit and/or redeem your voucher.)

Sam was a thirsty soul. He came to me at the beginning of September having come into the community center without a referral looking for assistance. The recent victim of a fire, he was without furniture and seeking to regain some normalcy in his life. He also suffers from health problems and is currently on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Having made the effort to actually come into the center from his home in Frankford (a neighborhood three miles north of Kensington), I agreed to visit his home during my round of home visits that afternoon.

His house was the last stop on my long tour of homes that day. I met Sam and his girlfriend (/friend/hoe/whatever) in the lobby of his apartment building. To give you a sense of the place, it had a 1920's apartment complex feel to it, kind of how I imagine the Honeymooners apartment building, if only that complex were well lived in and semi-preserved for 2010. Victorian couches dotted the little lobby and the staircase was made of a sturdy, dark wood- a gem to be found in Frankford. To give you a sense of Sam, he gave off the feeling of a used car salesman- gravely voice, deceptively genuine, well worn from a hard life, and tempered with a healthy dose of skeevy.

Leaving his friend in the lobby, we climbed the stairs to his third floor apartment. The aged and worn charm of the building did not translate to Sam's little apartment, which was more a reflection of its inhabitant than the building it was a part of. Mainly the living room had been damaged by the fire, so I marked down an arm chair, small sofa, armoire, and coffee table on his voucher. As is sometimes the case, upon realizing the great deal that I was offering (see: free furniture), Sam began asking for other things. Some requests I was able to oblige, like silverware, plates, pots, and pans. Others I would not and could not honor. (see: sorry, the VdP Society does not give out electronics or appliances, no matter if you make me list them on your voucher or not.)

For the duration of our visit I stayed near the open front door, not liking the overall sense I got from Sam, a feeling that was confirmed when he excused himself to use the restroom, only to go into the bathroom behind a wall of the adjointing bedroom and peed with the door open (no worries, only sounds no sights.) Returning back to the lobby, I issued Sam his voucher, shook his hand, and bid him a good day, glad to be on my way and done with home visits for the day.

Having filed Sam's case away in my database of visits, I had forgotten about Sam until this morning at 6:42 AM when my phone began to ring. You see, in the rush of that busy September day, I had given Sam my cell phone number in case I got lost or if he wasn't going to be home (rookie mistake, I know, but I'd only been on the job two weeks!) Not recognizing the number, only its (215) zip code, I didn't pick up, but soon I had a voicemail, which I promptly and grogily listened to in my bed.

Suddenly, Sam came flooding back into my mind but, loving my sleep, I resigned that I was going back to bed until I needed to be up. The roosters out back thought otherwise, lauching into a chorus equivalent to Handel's Messiah (you know if roosters, especially Kensington roosters, knew who Handel was.) As soon as I was able to settle back into sleep, it was 7:51 and my phone was ringing again. Sam. Another voicemail. And with that, I was out of bed and off to quite a start for my day.

I went to 8:30 Mass par usual & Sam was with me throughout. A Gospel on who and when I must open my door to help- the lesson that persistence will persevere- was just what I needed (I say sarcastically). As I left Mass, I wondered what I was supposed to do. I had yet to call Sam back and I knew that in no time my phone would ring again.

Last week, when I had had a bad outing of home visits (3 out of 4 people weren't home for our scheduled appointments), Sister Linda reinterated to me that we can only do so much. If the people who come to us for help aren't able to be at their homes at a prearranged and agreed upon time, then maybe they don't need the furniture as badly as they say they do.

This morning as I walked up Lehigh Ave. to the community center, I wondered what I was supposed to do with Sam. He had had a month to go to the warehouse and hadn't. I had led him to water but he didn't drink.

That puts us where I began this post from.

Somewhere along the way in my religious education and spiritual psyche I came to believe that God helps those who help themselves. That is to say that, while God can do momentous things for us, if there is a something in our lives that needs to be done that we are perfectly capable of doing, it is our job to use the spiritual and physical gifts we have been given to achieve that end. In a way, this idea borrows from the Catholic Social Teaching of subsidiarity; if the individual or the local community has the ability to act and affect change then the course of action should be left to them and not handled by a power more distant from the reality of the situation. In another way, it is borrowed from the American belief in a meritocracy- if you work hard enough you can and will achieve great things, slowly but surely working your way up the ladder of social wellbeing.

Having this notion implanted on my consciousness certainly leads to a number of problems. It may explain why the concept of grace blew my mind the first time I heard it explained in layman's terms. Revealed like a splash of glorious color across the sky of my being, Grace as God's love freely given without condition and without merit, unable to be won or lost, not curried like favor but forever held in each one of us and shared throughout the world as a sign of God's love, was simply amazing. Cue awe, amazement, happiness, joy, and tranquility. Such a blessed revelation may not seem like a problem (and really, it isn't), but the basis from which it came, the notion I've mysteriously had bound in me, is.

The belief that God helps she who is able to help herself explains my own struggle with surrender. My difficulty in relinquishing control and admitting that what must be done cannot be done on my own comes from this assumed notion. It is a recurring pock mark on my spiritual journey. Yet, I recognize that it is there. By actively acknowledging it, I am able to consciously move beyond it, trust in faith, and find new life in the many graces God bestows. Ultimately, being able to do so is why I am so deeply drawn and attached to "Amazing Grace".

Nonetheless, the idea that God provides for those who strive to provide for themselves, their family, their community sticks with me. Faith calls upon us to strive in Christ, to believe that God will provide. That belief, though, does not permit us to sit idly by. It may mean allowing God to provide through our actions, to allow God to work wonders through the not-so-simple commitment to try, and, in some cases, to admit that try as we may, it is our duty to surrender to the help of others, to become vulnerable and honest enough to admit we need help. In all of that, God provides.

And so, I am torn. I must surrender but I must also strive; I know there is truth for me in the belief that I must act for God to act in me, yet I cannot say that this is always the case. God will provide in every time and every age; God will even provide for those that don't strive to help themselves. And that is where I am most torn. That is where I meet Sam.

I wonder to what extent I must help him. Does following Christ's call to service mean showing mercy and extending the date on Sam's voucher? Does it mean offering to move those who could not possibly move themselves? Does it mean figuring out how to pay the bills my neighbors can't manage to? or Does it mean giving them vouchers and holding to the standard of that act, not bending the rules? Does it mean allowing Christ to act in them through a prompting to their own action? To be honest, my answer changes daily. Should it? I don't know.

Seemingly, I am being called to serve those who cannot serve themselves. And I strive to find Christ's example in that. Throughout the Gospels Jesus does this, so it can't be that far off the mark, but there has to be a difference between healing the blind who cannot see and sorting out a woman's gas bill who is relying on the church to pay her utility bill, between being with the outcast and downtrodden and giving reprieve to a man who has left his voucher for assistance to expire without making an effort to redeem it- doesn't there? Again, I don't know.

I juggle concepts of mercy and compassion, justice and charity. I wonder if I am considering myself any better than those I serve. Is it that they cannot serve themselves or they just don't know how? Perhaps, I must show them the Way, revealing Christ's love and grace through my service, restoring their sight of God by caring and empowering them to begin to believe, even when their own poverty (material, spiritual, and practical) challenges my ability to.

In the end, I can only do so much- on my own and for those I serve.

As I hand Sam his voucher with a three week extension, I wonder if he'll make it to the warehouse this month. "No, I can't move you," I reply to his own disgruntled plea for more help. I remind myself that I can only do so much. Christ serves those who can not help themselves; it is by Grace that I find myself served and able to serve as long as life endures.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Union of Incongruous Parts

There are some things that you can't truly know until you have experienced them. Before I entered the Mission Corps, I had lived in community before. Some communities were small- a few roommates in an apartment- and others were larger- a dorm of 250 men and women choosing to live intentionally towards questions of vocation in a broad sense. Others still were experiences of living in close community with those with whom you work, travel, and, in some cases, manage.

Each community that I have been a part of, be it a club, team, family, or friends, has taught me and shed new light on what it means to be a community member- for better or for worse. The communities I have lived with, especially, have caused me to take honest looks at myself and have taught me certain truths about living in community: Sometimes, you need to wash the dishes that you didn't make; Sometimes, you should bite your tongue before you criticize someone else; Sometimes, other people need to learn to bite their tongues before they speak; And all of the time, we are in this together, which is not to say that we are all at the same place in our lives, coming at something from the same point of reference, or even invested in the community in the same way.

After over a month here in Philly, I can say that all of these truths have rung true and that I must remind myself of them constantly as I navigate the joy and challenge that can be community living. I can also say that each community experience is new and living with two new women in a new city where we are all doing new work is certainly an experience I have never had before. Despite the newness of this experience, over the past two weeks, it has been that final & quite ultimate truth that I have continually had to remind myself of- we are all in this together.

As you can see above, there are a lot of qualifiers to that statement and rightly so. When I remind myself that we are united in community, that reminder comes with those added insights. It comes with the reassurance that community can be a union of incongruous part; Like a mosaic made of differently shaped pieces of tile- each with its own texture, pattern, past life, and original intention- community is an amalgamation that can be messy and hard to put together, but when it is finished, after having been laid out and created with a larger plan in mind, reveals something of beauty.

With time, communities face moments of truth. These are moments when we can chip away at each other and we can find ourselves broken as well. When I was living, working, managing, and traveling with a community for a month at a time as part of CHWC, these moments of truth always seemed to come in the third week. It was about that time that our group, which had begun as strangers, would reach a point where comfort and exhaustion collided. This moment could end one of two ways: 1) with comfort established and relationships grounded, the group could take an honest look at itself, confront its flaws, and emerge stronger or 2) Feeling as if we knew each other well enough from having been in such close confines and worn down physically and emotionally from hard work, the group (or members of the group) would crack- criticizing each other beyond the bounds of sound judgement, drawing lines of division, and allowing exhaustion to get the better of cordial relationships.

Really those two outcomes are the same. One is for the better and the other... not so much. For the first to happen, people must realize what is at the root of their problems and be humble enough to allow change to be a possibility. For the second to happen, just throw pride, poor judgement, selfishness, short fuses, and stubbornness together and voila!

Of course these are two extremes and lots of other outcomes can come from moments of truth. Yet, having seen both of these results, I can value the lesson to be learned in each, both by themselves and in comparison.

The reason I bring all of this up is not for a "The more you know..."style PSA but, simply put, to say that our community has reached the proverbial "week three". That's right, the honeymoon's over.

(Don't worry Sisters out there reading along in blog-land ... no need to worry, this is simply observation on my part and it is part of the growing & learning process, rest assured it is nothing serious just something I took notice of and felt compelled to write about.)

That's not to say I'm not enjoying myself or that this whole year/experience/experiment is a bust- far from it (see: I love it.). In all actuality, it is probably for the best. The best for me, the best for each one of us individually in this little community, and the best for our community as a whole. Yes, it can be frustrating to deal with a person whose motives are completely different from your own; it can be trying to be faced with illegitimate questioning/ undue criticism, treated like someone who knows nothing and always need clarification of her statements; and it can be downright disheartening to not be heard by one who you hope to strive towards a common goal with. It can be and in all honesty, it is.

But while it is all of these things, it is also a thing of beauty. It is a frustration that can also be a triumph as you defend your thoughts, beliefs, and convictions; it is a trial that can be enlightening as you try to understand where someone else is coming from; and it is a letdown that can be, and has been, an insight into the true goal I seek in this experience, what God hopes to teach me, and who I strive to be daily as a person living in the example of Christ. To be reminded that, in the words of Michael Card, "the space between ourselves sometimes is more that the distance between the stars" and yet, "the call is to community, the impoverished power that sets the soul free. In humility, to take the vow, that day after day we must take up the basin and the towel."

Reflecting on all of this, I happened to come across a entry entitled "To Be Authentic" at A Seat At The Table that seemed to echo my frustration and allowed me to breach beyond my internal struggle with the topic. Here is the excerpt that I found particularly striking:
What seems more important to me is that my 'authenticity' may be quite different from yours. Thus, can we respect and value each other’s authenticity if it is far apart? My extraversion may irritate your introversion. My inability to pay attention to the right approach may drive you nuts. Your absence of team spirit may depress me profoundly. And so it goes.

So yes, I believe in vulnerability, authenticity, nakedness, altruism, identity, mysticism, benevolence, participation, inclusion, open-mindedness... All this may seem very unrealistic to you; dangerous even.

Isabel Briggs Myers entitled her book, Gifts Differing, as she understood that the world needed every personality type to function and that truly no personality type is better than the other.
And so it goes. We are a union of incongruous parts. Parts that while all NFJ, according to the Myers-Briggs Test, differ greatly. Our differences don't need to divide us though, in fact, they can be things that draw us together if we let them. It will not be an easy task, but as with any mosaic or as a marriage after the honeymoon, with work (intentionality and truth to our being as persons and community) we can surely create something of beauty.

Beautiful, aren't we?