Thursday, June 30, 2011

Words are not enough.

Disclaimer: If you are looking forward to the SSJ Mission Corps Newsletter, you probably shouldn't read the following entry, as it is my piece in the newsletter. Consider yourself warned. If you're not waiting on the newsletter (or just can't wait), dive on in!

Right before I began my current adventure with the Mission Corps I wrote a blog entry entitled "The beginning of an end ends up at the beginning." It recounted the transition I would be undergoing in the months to follow and explained what would dominate my blog for the majority of the coming year. Now as I near the end of my time with the Mission Corps, I could easily write a piece with the same title all over again.

As I look back on the year that has passed many thoughts come to mind. From moments of triumph and trial in my ministry at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center at Visitation to times of stress and success in community, the year has been full of grace and looking back on it my heart is filled with much gratitude.

There is no way that last summer I could have fathomed the abundant grace that awaited me in Philadelphia. As our orientation drew to a close in August, I still really had no idea what my job would be for the year. Sure, I had a brief job description with five points on it, but the first four points on the list were so varied there was no telling what tasks would dominate my days. Then there was the fifth bullet on the description: "Whatever else is asked or needed." If that isn't a tall (and very ambiguous) order then I don't know what is.

But as the Sisters of St. Joseph are so apt to say- we're ready for any good work. Embracing that mission, I took to my ministry with a generous spirit and an openness to everything, especially the "whatever else", that lay ahead of me. What awaited me was grace beyond my wildest imagination.

In many ways, I can't describe the grace that I've been blessed to encounter in person throughout this year. It is the grace that hovers in the space between two people as one tells the other their most intimate needs. It is the moment when you are welcomed not as a savior but as a friend and companion. It is the sense of witnessing subtle change as you watch trust replace timidity in a child who has disregarded you for hours of mandatory community service only to find a safe and comforting space in your presence. All of that has been grace and so much more.

When I first wrote in the fall, I rejoiced that the choice I had made to come to Philadelphia seemed to be the right one. I felt at peace with that decision and all of the subsequent decisions that were necessary to guide me here. Now, I can say that it was grace that lead me thus far and, I believe, it is grace that leads me still.

God works small wonders each day. From observations of beauty as I walk to Visitation in the morning to hard-fought and tear-wrought lessons of surrender in serving others, living justly, and binding your lot in community, God never fails. Grace is abundant to the point that no matter how busy I find myself, it breaks through. This is nothing if not a blessing. It has taught me to feel each moment and face the reality of a situation or relationship with honesty and compassion. Like many lessons, it has not been easy. Yet looking back on all that I have been allowed to experience and, ultimately, what I have opened my heart to experience, I wouldn't trade that lesson for the world.

The grace I was familiar with before has been transformed in wondrous ways. I now find my heart open to conversion and ready to experience love in new ways. God has met me in the unknown and unfamiliar. Newness of being with and relating to the Divine arose and, despite my best predictions, the change I expected to occur and the lessons I anticipated learning were radically different and yet peacefully resplendent when they came to fruition.

For this and for this entire year, I give thanks. Just as there is no perfect way to capture the grace I've experienced this year, the gratitude I have for having lived it also escapes words.

Suffice it to say that for each grace and blessing I am truly grateful- to Kensington for allowing me to live and work in a neighborhood that has silently charmed me and allowed me to experience what it means to be stranger; to Sister Karen Owens, SSJ and the entire staff of the Bevilacqua Center for support, guidance, and the reassurance that no day at the Center will ever look like the one before; to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill for the opportunity to share in your mission and the amazing witness that you bear as individuals and a congregation to the power of God's love to unite, heal, and transform in all situations; and finally to my community, Gabi and Barbara, for the many lessons you have taught me about life and about myself, chief among them being laugh, wash the dishes that aren't yours, heart can go a long way, and if you spend too much time in your own head, laugh and get on with living.

As the beginning of an end ends up at the beginning, so do I. This year wasn't easy, nor did it promise to be, but it was the challenge I needed and the challenge I wanted. Taking all that I have learned in the Mission Corps, I move forward, excited for what comes next and ready to actively and attentively say "yes" to whatever that may bring. I can only hope that the place of gratitude and grace where I have ended up isn't an end at all but another step in the wonderful journey I am already on.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Photographic Memories: Glimpses of Visitors

When you start making a new home, visitors are always a welcome sight. They carry with them a piece of home past and being able to share new spaces with them adds to that sense of home. May was a month of visitors. Each came to Philadelphia to share in my vision firsthand, while I found myself in Boston at May's end recalling the feeling of home with friends in a visit long overdue. The sense of home wherever is unmistakable. It is a sense carried in friends and family; it brings ease and it provides the support necessary for growth. The glimpses below are populated by those who joined me this month. They may be towards the periphery of the photographs but their presence pervades these visions. May those images I have been blessed to encounter in their company resonate within you and reveal what your eyes are meant to see.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

This Place Matters.

My neighborhood gets a bad wrap. Lots of people would qualify it as a "bad" neighborhood. In fact, for the longest time, the Philadelphia Police referred to the area I live in as the "Badlands" because of the prevalence of drugs, violence, and decay within Kensington.

Now, I can't write a stunning defense of my neighborhood. Nor can I deny that the ill-repute of the area is based on some amount of fact. It is true. Drugs, violence, and poverty are a stark reality. When I ride my bike to work in the morning I have to dodge broken glass in the street and avoid running over used hypodermic needles. These same needles haunt my dreams and despite all the fears that I could have (being mugged/ robbed, sexual violence, verbal assault, drugs, junkies), it is the needles that have come to occupy a large part of my sub-conscience. When I ride my bike, I whiz past drug dealers and prostitutes, navigating (what I've learned) is the heroin capital of the United States. When I walk to work, I need to be ever-mindful of what is up ahead, crossing the street when necessary and remaining aware of what blocks I use to make my way to work. Surely, this place is the Badlands.

Yet, no matter how many times I hear it said, I can't bring myself to call my neighborhood bad.

I once told a group of college volunteers from Kansas City that this neighborhood was a little slice of heaven; I then proceeded to have them do the grueling work of sorting bags of donated clothes and emptying, organizing, and restocking a food pantry that feeds over a hundred families a month but is effectively the size of a postage stamp. Weeks later a small envelope came for me in the mail. Inside was a university emblazoned card with a little notes from each member of the group. Some talked about the great experience, but few addressed the work they had done. Instead they addressed the community- "Thanks for having us this week! It was awesome to see your little "slice of Heaven" in Kensington. There's so much beauty there and seeing your pride for the place was inspiring."

Among everything we had done that day, everything that should have made them overlook the community, they remembered the beauty of the neighborhood and took it back home with them. And so now a piece of Kensington lives on in Kansas City... not the part that makes people cringe when I tell them where I live, but the part that shines with life, community, and hope.

A piece of Kensington lives in me too. I've realized in my time here that I will never be a part of Kensington. I can live among the row homes; I can learn the language and the customs; I can even walk these streets, but no matter how empty they seem and how well I know the lay of the land, I will always stand out, people will always know I am on their block. Still, Kensington lives in me.

The first time I came to the neighborhood, I knew it would capture my heart and that the work I'd do here would have a meaning all its own. Really, I didn't have a choice in the matter. It was going to happen. Going into this final month of service, I realize that it has happened.

May was a flurry of activity- home visits, new volunteers, construction of a new food pantry, a Quizzo fundraiser put together in two weeks, and a community cookout that fed nearly 150 people in an hour and a half. In the midst of all of that, Karen, the director of the center, and I sat down to look towards the future. Such planning though requires a healthy look back at what has been accomplished. For me, this provided an opportunity to witness to the great strides that our community center has made and to the community from which we have drawn so much life. It also put into perspective my own work at the center.

This is work I enjoy. It is work that excites me and at the same time exhausts me. That's what happens when you put your whole heart into something... when you have faith in something, in a mission and a community. That's why I can't call this neighborhood the Badlands.

Why? Because this place matters. That's what I thought as I picked up a piece of chalk and I drew 8-foot tall letters on the pavement outside the community center. This place matters because it is someone's home... it's a lot of someones' home. People who can't imagine living anywhere else, for reasons both good and bad. This place matters because the people here are working to make a difference. It matters because it is the salt of the earth. It is grounded in reality and flavored by beauty found in the nitty-gritty of life. It defies what anyone says about it or wants to believe about it and when the light hits just right, the badlands shine like nothing you've ever seen.

This place matters for reasons I can't explain. It matters to each kid who finds solace in the halls of our community center, to every family that finds comfort in the faith nurtured beneath the double spires of Visitation, and to every person who discovers when they enter our doors that they aren't bad because of where they live but that they matter.

Visitation BVM Parish (where I currently work) is vying for a $25,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. One of a hundred finalists from across the country, Visitation must now garner the most votes in order to claim the prize. Voting lasts for the entire month of June and is based on individual votes (determined by e-mail addresses). Please visit our web page on the This Place Matters Community Challenge website to learn more about Viz, to register, and to VOTE for Visitation!!

If you have multiple e-mail addresses, register each and vote. If you have a blog, re-post this call for votes. And if you have friends (I know you do), PLEASE get them to vote too! Get the word out- the work that Visitation does is too good to be overlooked and is in dire need of funding! Help us show the world that This Place Matters!