Friday, January 06, 2017

The will of God will never lead you where the Grace of God will not sustain you

The following is a reflection prepared by Clare Potyrala, a Volunteer living in the McKinley Park Community. She serves at St. James Food Pantry on the near south side of Chicago. Clare first visited Amate House one year ago as part of an immersion trip through her university. She spent a week with the McKinley Park community and visited service sites around the city. This January Clare and her housemates will be hosting another college service group at their house.

2017 is a breath of fresh air. It is also the marking of the almost half-way point of my year of service with Amate House…which is strange to say, because routine and life in community has become the new normal for me. I attended and graduated from the University of Dayton this past May and had chosen to pursue a year of post-grad service early on during my senior year. Formed in the Marianist tradition, teaching, and spirituality, I had previously lived in intentional community for 9 weeks in Appalachia on a mission trip in college. I gained many valuable thoughts, feelings, and lessons from that experience and wanted the challenge of living together in a committed community for a year.

Amate House pulled me in last January. UD does Service Break-out trips during our winter breaks and I was asked to lead the break-out to Amate House by my Campus Ministry. My lay Marianist community member, Tia, was already there serving her year and because I was looking into Amate House as one of my options, I jumped at the chance to visit and explore Chicago. I took a group of about 10 students up to Chicago and we stayed a week at South House in McKinley Park, visiting different service sites each day and spending reflection time together in the evenings. I’m a firm believer that God has this funny way of working in our lives and His presence was made known during this trip. One of the places we visited was a food pantry, called St. James Food Pantry. We participated in handing out groceries in the morning and left before the homeless lunch program, which happens every afternoon. When I walked into this building, it felt like home. The volunteers and staff were extremely welcoming and I began to picture myself in this place if I ended up choosing to apply to Amate House. I met my current boss, Peter, and I could tell the Holy Spirit was hard at work. Time would tell where I would end up...

Clare shows off the stocked shelves of the St. James Food Pantry.
Fast forward to August 2016: St. James became my placement site. To give some stats, St. James serves two different zip codes and about 1700 families each month. Some human rights issues I am passionate about are poverty and hunger. I felt that St. James would give me hands-on experience in serving the marginalized, learning more about food scarcity, and pull me out of my comfort zone. While I enjoy my job as Volunteer Coordinator here, this position has not been without its challenges. Some of my homeless clients, I see every single day, which is heartwarming because at least I know that they are receiving food. But it has been a struggle to recognize and sit with the feeling of ‘wanting to do more/fix their situation’ when in reality, all I was giving to them was this lunch. It hurt my heart knowing I couldn’t do more to help them in their lives and it took me a long time to let go of my frustrations of complacency. However, I have learned, lunch isn’t ‘just lunch.’ It is a smile given to my clients and recognition of their name and acknowledgement of their worth and human dignity as a child of God. So often I’ve thought about the last time some of my clients heard their name, because I feel like our current society labels and dismisses the vulnerable and marginalized as  the ‘Other’ or ‘less than.’ Just because someone is homeless or experiencing a hardship of any kind, does NOT give any of us the right to dismiss their dignity and worth. In God’s eyes, we are all His children, and who are we to judge?

My experience at Amate House has taught me about sacrifice, especially recently during the Christmas season. I had to work on Christmas for the first time in my life this year because St. James puts on a Christmas Lunch for the homeless. The entire week leading up to Christmas, I was experiencing this anxiety, dread, and jealousy because not only was I attempting to pull enough volunteers together for this lunch, I was watching my community members get excited about going home to see their families for Christmas. I’m not proud of my feelings, especially the negative ones, but I won’t discount them because they were real, valid, and it was my right to feel whatever I felt.

I had to remind myself that this year of service was not about ME. It wasn’t about what I wanted or how this year could serve me. It is about how God is breaking me down…flooding me with His Grace in order to mold, shape, and use me this year to serve others. I am sure I will gain something from this entire experience, but this year is about giving to others and being a servant leader as Jesus calls us to be. I was giving up my Christmas in order to be with those in need; people like me who otherwise wouldn’t get a meal or get to experience a place of warmth if St. James did not have a lunch program. Thankfully I ended up having enough volunteers and Christmas Day went pretty smoothly. We had about 220 people come to lunch and we able to give out gifts to kids and their parents. I saw such joy on people’s faces as they received their buffet lunch, laughed with their families, kids visited Santa, and listened to the live music. I went home that day with a full heart and am extremely thankful I was able to experience this Christmas program. Christ was present amongst everyone that day, more so this Christmas than any other recent Christmas and I was blessed to experience the richness God can provide us.

Now, it is back to work and the everyday life, but it is a start of a new year and a clean slate. For the rest of my year of service with Amate House and throughout 2017, my constant prayer is for God to use me. Use me. Love me. Use my hands, feet, heart, soul, words, and actions to bring Your kingdom to life. Break me. Break me down in order to bless me up with Your abundance of mercy, grace, love, and compassion… Help me seek the richness in the extraordinary and normal moments. To give me the eyes to see the richness in the thin places in my life. Be this force to continue to stretch and push me out of my comfort zones. Not my will, but Yours be done, Lord. 

I want to walk away changed from this year. My prayer for you is that you will not be hesitant to seek His will in your lives. Because He’s never going to leave you in this place where His Grace will not sustain you… I firmly believe God’s will for me is to serve through Amate House. And this year, I want to be as present as I can for the remainder of my time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Embrace the Unexpected and Say Yes

The following is an Advent reflection prepared by Maggie Lamb, a Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. Maggie is working at Lawndale Christian Legal Center in North Lawndale and she shared her story at Amate House’s Las Posadas evening of reflection on December 14, 2016.

About a week before I moved to Chicago, I realized something.  I was incredibly, gut-wrenchingly nervous. Would I be able to do my job? Could I handle simple living? What does it even mean to be in intentional community? At every transition before this, I’d had others who could tell me what to expect. Friends above me at my high school told me to get my skirt shortened before I arrived. Everyone I met offered some advice for getting along with my first roommate in college.  No one who I know well has done a year of service before.  I didn’t know anyone in Chicago. For the first time, I was really moving into the unknown and had no idea what to expect.

Learning to embrace the unexpected and the unknown has truly defined my year so far and has given me so many questions that occupy my mind.  In this season of advent, Mary is a beautiful model in accepting the unexpected.  When I think about Mary, I am usually caught up in her “yes.” I am so enamored by the way that she was able to fully accept a terrifying new experience with love and grace.  This year, however, I am more interested in her questions.  Mary’s “yes” is surrounded by uncertainty and confusion. When the Angel Gabriel appeared to her, she is initially troubled.  In fact, the very first words she utters in the Bible are a question: “How can this be?” After the birth of her Son, upon hearing others again discuss things that seem extraordinary, “she pondered them in her heart.”  This year, I am called to consider the questions that I am asking of God and of those around me in the face of so much I did not expect.
Maggie shares her reflection at Las Posadas at
Our Lady of Tepeyac High School.

At work, I am challenged by injustice and pain.  I have witnessed young people targeted and hurt by a system that that breaks every rule of justice. A few months ago, a young girl told me about the hurt that she was experiencing. It was pain that I had never experienced and I was caught in a spiral of shock.  I knew that this kind of suffering existed but I had no idea how to respond.  A few weeks later, a young man was surrounded by police officers with drawn guns and held overnight despite being cleared almost immediately.  He was on his way to receive an award for all of his hard work.

There are days when some of this just seems like too much.  I did not expect this to be such a pervasive reality and I am unprepared to emotionally handle this.  Like Mary, I look to God and to those around me and ask “how can this be?” I barely get an answer. But I do witness Mary’s “yes.”  I have never been so frustrated - and yet I have never seen God so clearly.  Our attorneys from the top tier law schools say “yes” when they accept low paying jobs without health insurance to fight daily against a flawed system.  Our case managers say "yes" when they drive twenty minutes out of their way on a weekend to give kids bus cards so they can get to school on Monday.  Those I work with say “yes” every day that they glare through tears at computer screens, fighting their own heartbreak in order to make the lives of their young people better.  And they say “yes” every time we love each other and offer each other support through our craziest days.
Jimmy and Maggie pose after Las Posadas! Great job LV!

And I wouldn’t be able to offer my own “yes” if my community didn’t help me.  I had questions at home too. What does it mean to practice unconditional positive regard? What does intentionality mean? Seriously, what the heck is a chia seed and why are these people putting them in cookies?  I know that I am so blessed to live with people who pose these questions and help me find answers.  I thought I might make some friends, but I didn’t expect to find role models in my own home.  But I did. I found people who have shown me such love and generosity that I never could have expected from people who I really just met.  I like to be in control, and the word “unexpected” has always been associated with negativity.  In our little home on Ridgeway, I learned that the unexpected can carry unimaginable beauty.

I have so much that I ponder in my heart this year.  I am learning so much so quickly and can only scrape the surface in this moment.  I just hope that, like Mary, when I am asked to embrace the unexpected and the unknown I can take a deep breath and calmly and confidently say “yes.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

Welcoming the Stranger

The following is an Advent reflection prepared by Caroline Musslewhite, a Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. Caroline is a first grade teacher’s aide at Our Lady of Tepeyac Elementary School in Little Village and she shared her story at Amate House’s Las Posadas evening of reflection on December 14, 2016.

As I was preparing for the Little Village Las Posadas evening of reflection, surrounded by a group of giggling Little Village-ers, I thought back to when I first moved to Chicago. I was nervous about my placement, working as a teacher with no prior experience. I was uncertain about my neighborhood, having been forewarned by many family, friends, and strangers about my safety. I was apprehensive about my housemates, envisioning potential conflict or lukewarm acquaintances. In a nutshell, I feared many layers of being a stranger – feeling incompetent, misunderstood, unprepared, and unknown.

The experience of being a stranger expressed itself in many ways. Going to mass by myself in Spanish and mumbling through the mass parts. Failing to appreciate the mistake a teacher can make by sending too many boys to the bathroom at the same time (essentially, giving them your blessing to play in the bathroom). It came in not knowing which was the safest route to take to the train or, more seriously, how far away was the sound of a gunshot I heard in the night.

These moments, significant and small, compounded to an overwhelming feeling of being an outsider. But then again, I only can appreciate how much I felt like a stranger then because in the past I have felt known, at peace in a community, understood, prepared, and competent. I am so blessed for these moments that I haven’t felt like an outsider. I’ll come back to that…
Caroline shares her story at Las Posadas evening of reflection at
 Our Lady of Tepeyac High School.
One of my highlights of the month of September was when I got my library card. I checked out “Tattoos on the Heart” by Fr. Greg Boyle. Fr. Greg is a Jesuit priest living in L.A. who runs Homeboy Industries, an organization that provides employment, services, and a community of support for gang members. Fr. Greg quotes a Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, who said of God’s love for people “Behold the One beholding you and smiling.” This line hit a chord in me. Throughout our experiences of being a stranger, throughout the tumult of feeling incompetent, misunderstood, unprepared, and unknown, there is One who knows us fully and is wholeheartedly proud.

But it takes fearlessness to welcome the stranger. The stranger is the outsider in the room, the awkward new student, the one who doesn’t speak the language or understand the social rules. The stranger is the child who we have given up on trying to understand, being constantly baffled by their actions. The stranger is the one who is always behind in class, always asking the question after the explanation has been given hundreds of time. The stranger is the one easily forgotten because they drift into the background, quietly struggling.

In so many facets of our education system, in our homes, in our daily lives, we can ignore, mock, and even hate the stranger. But in Advent, we are called to worship a man who was the stranger. A man who was born into poverty, hunted as a baby, swiftly put into exile, and who came from a place that was said: of it no good can come. Jesus certainly was not the stereotypical image of a messiah.

And so as a teacher, as a friend, as a person, I am called to remember to welcome my heart to the ones that don’t quite fit in. To know that even if I struggle with it, there is One who is “beholding them and smiling.” To reevaluate how I unconsciously rank people in my mind, evaluating their worth based on how effectively they can navigate our system. And to remember the moments when I have been a stranger and the gift others have given me by welcoming me into their hearts.

My closing prayer is that we notice those that we let stay the stranger in the room--those that we are content to remain ignored, mocked or hated—and that we can extend gratitude to the people who have reminded us that we are worth smiling about.

Preparing For Forgiveness and Repentance

The following is an Advent reflection prepared by Leslie Carranza, a second year Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. Leslie is working at Catholic Charities West Suburban offices in Cicero and she shared this story at Amate House’s Las Posadas evening of reflection on December 14, 2016.

On the morning of November 9th I sobbed at the news of our presidential election results. For the next 48 hours I would sob on and off until I would remind myself that I am safe. Then I would remind myself of the people I love that could be targeted by the people and policies that could be put in place in the next year and sob a little more. Eventually, I would remember that I am in a position of privilege and that I am a free agent and that, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson: “This is the end of nothing. This is the beginning of something new and solemn and so important. You must be part of what comes next…"

We often put so much of our faith in one person for the sake of having something to believe in that we get lost in the future—the utopia that could be. On the other hand, it’s tough to get past what has happened historically and caused us to believe that our input doesn’t make much of an impact. With the Electoral College and protester arrests and even just Twitter—I’ve felt helpless. However, it’s because of Twitter that I’ve been awakened by the words of Neil: “The future is never gone, never hopeless. No one has ever lived in the best possible world. There has always been a fight to fight.”
Leslie shares her story at Las Posadas which took place at
Our Lady of Tepeyac High School.
How I’ve come to understand repentance up until this point is as an admission of guilt, sincere regret, or remorse—which is not necessarily wrong, but not 100% right either. John the Baptist called to the people of Jerusalem to repent, but we need to think about what we actually mean by repentance. These people were brought forth to acknowledge their sins, not necessarily feel regret or remorse for them and carry the weight of that with them. In its original Greek, the word often translated as “repentance” can be more accurately defined as a change of heart and mind to account for and focus on the present. But “repentance” has more baggage than that; it includes “sincere remorse,” regret, sorrow, and even guilt. These things—sins—happened and that is nothing more than a fact once you’ve repented. Let that fuel this change in your heart—place more value in the present than the past or future.

Alumni gather with this year's Volunteers to celebrate Las Posadas.
Regret. Remorse. Guilt can be paralyzing. Guilt makes us feel like there’s something we could’ve done differently, even if the wrong “we’ve committed” wasn’t even within our control. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but at least for me, I can find a way to beat myself up about pretty much anything. In a way, it gives me a sense of control in a world where I don’t feel like I have much power at all. It makes me think that if I had just done this one thing differently my whole life would be more fulfilling and content, but let’s be real: I have a time turner; it doesn’t work.

With that said, I’m a lot more forgiving of others than I am of myself and I’m working on taking issue with that a bit more. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I yell at them, and then give them the benefit of the doubt; normally, I follow it up with “they’re probably in a hurry or just have been having a bad day.” When I accidentally cut someone off, I acknowledge my reason for doing so, and then find some way of telling myself what I could’ve differently to have avoided putting myself in this position. “I could’ve left a little earlier” or “gone to sleep earlier” or however else it could be my fault.

But, as one of my favorite literary characters once said “There is no point in driving yourself mad trying to stop yourself going mad. You might just as well give in and save your sanity for later.” Sometimes this means caving in and bingeing on dark chocolate and tangerines. In my case, it often means stepping outside of my own head.

One of the perpetual dialogues going on in my head is whether I’m worthy of love. I need to not disregard others’ love of me. Therefore, I’ve needed to transform a bit… change my heart and mind—be a bit kinder to myself because it’s affecting how I give myself to others. I need to not hurt them—not belittle myself and let my insecurities get in the way of their love of me because I am worth loving regardless of what I have or haven’t done, or won’t do.

In the book of Mark, the first words spoken by Jesus are “The time has come.” He said “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” The kingdom is in a constant state of becoming. We could even say it’s outside of time—and the best we can do is prepare the way of the Lord and ourselves.

With that, I’ve challenged myself to acknowledge that we are at a constant state of becoming. I am constantly becoming the best possible version of myself and the journey hasn’t been linear. This nation is a testament to the ongoing saga of oppression and liberation of opposing groups of people and I’m sure you don’t need me to say who is on what side of that power dynamic; you likely know.

To continue with the post-election Tweets of Neil deGrasse Tyson: “We are here. We find ourselves with a job to do, no matter how hard, no matter the pain in our hearts. Do not shrink away. No jokes tonight. Do not laugh and look away. Watch this. Stay here. Burn this into memory. Wake up tomorrow: the fight will await you.”

Action in Waiting: Horticulture and the Kingdom of God

The following is an Advent reflection prepared by Theresa Schafer, a Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. Theresa is a teacher at Our Lady of Tepeyac High School in Little Village and she shared her story at Amate House’s Las Posadas evening of reflection on December 14, 2016.

I live at Our Lady of Tepeyac High School. I spend my days split between room 102, room 301, and the Library. Tepeyac is my Amate House placement, therefore my home. Aaaaaand all of what home means: joys and sorrows, belonging and figuring out how to belong, growing and challenging and being challenged: all of that happens there, on the daily. Today I’d like to talk to you about what this home has taught me about the daily and horticulture and the Kingdom of God.

Every now and then, when days are really bleh and I can’t seem to make sense of why on earth I have found myself in a teaching position; when although I like teaching, I have never felt like teaching is my particular calling; when the last class I taught refused to quiet down for what felt like hours, and I finally called on one girl and thought she was going to contribute something to our meaningful discussion, but instead she asked if she could go to get a drink of water, and all I wanted to do was give up and walk out of the room and hide, but instead I say yes you may but please come back quickly, and then I turn my attention back to a group of girls who really just want sleep and don’t want to talk about the connection between feminism and biblical interpretation or the value of social justice; when I spend the next three minutes trying to get them as excited as I am about the breaking news on the Dakota Access Pipeline and all the feedback I’m getting is an assortment of slightly cross-eyed and sleepy stares…

…when these things happen, I have to mentally and emotionally fortify myself by falling back on two simple words: planting seeds.

Theresa shares her Advent reflection with the Amate House family at
Our Lady of Tepeyac High School on December 14th.

When I was in college, one of the prayers that came across my path was the Archbishop Romero Prayer by Bishop Kenneth Untener. I came to love this prayer because it was practical.  It acknowledged limits, and rejoiced in their invitation. And most of all, it spoke to me of faith. By faith, I don’t really mean beliefs, but faithfulness. Dan Berrigan said, “Faith is rarely where your head is at. Nor is it where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!” But I’ll get back to that. First, here’s the core of that prayer.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

All of this: limits and promise, tension and hope, acknowledgement and grace, patience and humility, all of it is wrapped up in the profession of teaching. And in the middle of an exhausting moment at Tepeyac, the words planting seeds echo in my mind and remind me that I am called to simple love and active waiting and diligent persistence.
Volunteers gather with alumni, staff and friends for Las Posadas evening
of reflection at Our Lady of Tepeyac High School.
I was in a meeting with my supervisor, Ms. Noonan, sharing the story of a particularly difficult afternoon, looking for some wisdom and guidance, when she said: “you know, one of the most difficult things about teaching is that you may NEVER see the results of your efforts. You just have to pour in, and then trust.”

You just have to show up; you just have to plant seeds.

And so it is with Advent. And so it is with the Kingdom of God.

Waiting for the coming of Christ and building the Kingdom of God is a magnificent enterprise, as the prayer above said. Sometimes, it is so far beyond me that I doubt that all this work is actually contributing to something real. It’s uncommon for any of us to have those epiphany moments where all of the puzzle pieces of our lives fall into place and we can see the whole picture. Instead, it comes back to faithfulness in the work, and faithfulness to the people in our lives. And in the face of doubting that this Kingdom, “beyond our vision,” is actually being built, what can we do? Narrow our vision.

See, the other wonderful bit of advice that Ms. Noonan shared with me was the absolute necessity of holding onto the little things, the little moments of victories in teaching. When I can remember to, I jot a note down when a class discussion was really engaging; when one student had that lightbulb look on her face; when an essay was powerful; when a student was willing to share something deep with the class; when an answer made me laugh out loud . . . . bear with me as I get a little carried away with the horticulture metaphor- those are moments when just a LITTLE green sprout pokes its head through the dirt. And you can SEE IT! And the angels rejoice and sing GLORIA! Well, maybe they don’t. But I sure do.

It’s not every day that I am able to see the beauty in the tension of waiting for those moments of victory. It’s not every day that I can humbly accept the fact that in many cases, I may never see the sprouts when they finally grow. It’s not every day that the daily “showing up” of faithfulness makes sense to me. But Advent is the perfect season for me to refocus my spirit with the gently whispered mantra “planting seeds, planting seeds,” and lean into the tension, acceptance, and faithfulness that both waiting for Christmas, and waiting for the Kingdom of God requires.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Amate House Celebrates Thanksgiving

The following is a reflection by Amate House alumnus and current Junior Board Member, Matthew Schultz. Matt was a Volunteer in the 2013-2014 Volunteer year. He lived at the McKinley Park House and served at One Million Degrees. He is currently working at DePaul University as a Resident Director. Matt shares a reflection about Amate House Thanksgiving, an event held every fall as an opportunity for the larger Amate Family to gather together.

A few weeks ago I attended an event that has quickly developed into a staple tradition of my fall each year, the annual Amate House Turkey Bowl and Thanksgiving meal. If you’re reading this then chances are you know well the excitement, delights, and many aromas of this day as you’ve gathered with fellow alumni, family, staff, and friends of the Amate House program.

You probably can recall your volunteer year: lacing up your cleats, layering your clothing, and making your way to McKinley Park with your fellow Amate House peers, and later leaving the field wondering how in the world it would have ever been possible to beat what basically amounts to an all-star team of alumni who’ve gathered from across the city to compete.

You may also recall perhaps being just a little distracted during the homily at Our Lady of Good Counsel as the church began to fill with the scent of a wonderful home-cooked Thanksgiving feast only several feet below the pews in the church hall. Oh, the memories…

Amate House Alumni and current Volunteers gathered on November 5th for the annual Amate House Turkey Bowl.
It’s really only been three years since my very first tastes of this holiday classic as a Volunteer, and yet so much has happened in that seemingly short span of time since I resided in South House with my eleven other community members. I’ve moved to and from a different state, earned a master’s degree, and landed a job here in Chicago. My Amate House Service Site has nearly doubled their program and staff size to now serve over 440 community college students and many of my fellow Volunteers have since moved all over the country and beyond to continue to serve, pursue graduate school, or even start their young lives together in marriage (oh, Amate love). Our nation and world have borne witness to much in three years, from shocking tragedies to major civilian led movements opposing social injustices that have transformed the national discourse. Even our beloved Amate House has experienced change, changes that become ever apparent during such a time of gathering and celebration of our community.

Amate House Junior Board hosted this year's Amate Thanksgiving.
Thanks John, Roberto, Mackensey, Tara, Shannon, Kevin, Sasha, Tim, Matt and Claire!
In fact, much about Amate Thanksgiving this year was, well… different. For starters the near 70-degree weather sort of threw me off a bit as I opted to leave my sweatshirt and beanie in the car, and our flag football match quickly turned into a mixed affair featuring teams of current Volunteers and Alumni together. This year’s mass was a prayer service giving thanks to the dedication of those who’s service to the Amate House program have helped shape countless lives. And that home-cooked thanksgiving feast filling the church with delicious scents was made possible this year by not one, but many very charitable families and friends coming together to celebrate in a new way. Even as Amate House has welcomed new Staff, new Volunteers, new Service Sites, new Board Members, and even a new Executive Director; amidst all the change, this program’s spirit, it’s very soul, has shown brighter than ever. As the years pass and kitchens are remodeled, new Amate bricks are dedicated, and the halls are filled with new picture frames attempting to capture all the ups and downs of a love-filled year of service in community, one thing will remain constant; unwavering love exists in this community’s past, present, and most assuredly its future. So next year, at this timeless Amate House tradition, when its 45 degrees and the current Volunteers are trouncing the alumni 42-0, and my old housemates and newly befriended Alumni are eating whatever roast beast may be present, I’ll pause and smile knowing that this is exactly how God intended it to be.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Amate House Welcomes New Executive Director

The following is a reflection prepared by Amate House’s new Executive Director, Jeannie Balanda. Jeannie joined the staff as of November first and has been enjoying getting to know the Volunteers and the program. She shares her story and what brought her to Amate House.

Hello Amate friends! My name is Jeannie Balanda and I am very pleased to be the new Executive Director of Amate House. My whole life has been in preparation for this challenge. I was born and raised in Chicago and my entire career has been dedicated to working with young people. I’ve developed education programs for youth in remote rural villages in Guatemala, worked to protect youth victims of domestic violence in Chicago and created many programs to prepare Latino students for a college education. My experience directing Chicago nonprofit organizations has led me to Amate House and I look forward to leading this fine organization into the future.

I was born on the southwest side of Chicago not far from McKinley Park. I’m the oldest of three children and was educated in parochial schools until I went to college. I received a BS in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Directly after graduating college, I served in the US Peace Corps in Guatemala where I coordinated youth development programs on the southern coast region.

I married a Guatemalan national while in the Peace Corps and we returned to the US where I began working with Latino youth who were victims of domestic violence. I ran support groups, provided individual counseling and advocated for them in the court system. It was rewarding but emotionally difficult work. My work with domestic violence victims taught me the importance of approaching one’s work with compassion and humility and this is something I’ve carried with me throughout my career.
Jeannie and her husband, Edwin.
In the mid-1990s I began working in education at East Village Youth Program (EVYP), specifically with low-income under-served minority youth to prepare them for a college education. These were very happy years working on behalf of youth to make sure they had a place in higher education. Many of the students I worked with went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and business people. It was at EVYP that I first became an executive director and learned what an enormous responsibility it is to be at the helm of an organization.

While I was directing at EVYP, I was working on my masters’ degrees. I have a master’s in nonprofit administration and an MBA from North Park University in Chicago. After 16 wonderful years at EVYP, I decided it was time to take on a new challenge where I could fuse my skills as a nonprofit professional with my business skills. Lucky for me, I found the perfect fit. I began working for MayaWorks, a nonprofit, fair trade social enterprise that works with indigenous women in Guatemala to support them as they lift themselves out of poverty. MayaWorks sells the artisan’s handicrafts in the US through various distribution channels. The organization also funds microcredit loans and provides educational opportunities for the daughters of artisans. I’m still involved with MayaWorks as a volunteer and will always fondly hold this organization in my heart.

While at MayaWorks, I hired Stacey Freeh, an Amate House alumna who had worked in marketing at Women Craft while she was a Volunteer. She always spoke fondly of her time at Amate House and the formation she received. Stacey is, hands-down, one of the most outstanding people I have ever met, so when the directorship at Amate House was announced, I just knew I wanted to be a part of this organization. I said to myself, “If the Volunteers are of half the caliber of Stacey, then they are incredible individuals and I want to be a part of the change they are creating in Chicago.” So YOU are what attracted me to Amate House and I’m so grateful the Board of Directors and the Archdiocese of Chicago thought I would be a good fit.

I have a beautiful blended family. I have two sons: Sam, 18 and John, 22. They are both musicians and soccer players so there has always been a lot of noise in my home and a lot of broken windows! I also have three stepchildren in their 30s. They have blessed us with four wonderful grandchildren ranging in ages from 6 weeks to 10 years old. I can’t forget to mention my four-legged love, Grizzly. He’s a Chocolate Lab and Chesapeake Bay retriever mix. He’s the best dog ever when he isn’t attacking small dogs and playfully lunging at children.When I’m not busy working or caring for my family, I love to cook and read. I’m also a news junkie -- don’t even get me started about the coverage of the presidential campaign!

I’m so happy to be at Amate House and I look forward to meeting you soon.

Peace, Jeannie

Monday, October 31, 2016

It’s That Time of Year Again…

The following is a reflection prepared by Amate House Program & Recruitment Coordinator, Deirdre Kleist. Deirdre is an alumna of the Amate House program from 2012-2013. When she was a Volunteer, she lived in the McKinley Park House and worked at Cabrini Green Legal Aid. As a Recruitment Coordinator, Deirdre travels far and wide on behalf of Amate House to speak with young adults interested in dedicating a year of their life to service. 

In the city of Chicago all of the traditional signs of fall are upon us: there is a crisp chill in the morning air, the leaves are turning bold shades of red, orange and yellow, and smiling jack-o-lanterns dot the landscape of neighborhood stoops. Here at Amate House this can only mean one thing: recruiting season is upon us!

Throughout autumn I have the pleasure of traveling across the country, from Ohio to California and plenty of states in-between, to meet with young adults who are discerning a year of volunteer service. Most often, I get to represent Amate House at postgraduate service fairs held by colleges and universities to help expose students to the wide variety of opportunities available to them when they complete their degrees.

As I look forward to the final few weeks of recruiting, I want to offer a few pieces of advice to students discerning service, most especially those who will visit service and career fairs.

Don’t be afraid to approach a recruiter. It’s wonderful when schools are able to attract recruiters from dozens of different organizations, but sometimes walking into a room full of these eager representatives can feel overwhelming or intimidating. The good news is – all of us at the fair are there to help you. While each of us of course hopes you’ll choose the organization we represent, what we care about the most is that you find a program that suits your needs, and that will help you to grow and to serve in a way that is meaningful and impactful for you. I love having the opportunity to learn about different students’ interests, as well as the chance to share about my own experience of service and of working for Amate House, so please don’t be afraid to come and chat with me at a fair even if you’re not certain yet about applying to our program!

Ask all the questions you’d like. The whole point of speaking with a recruiter is to learn more about the program he or she represents. I welcome any questions, from the basics about logistics such as the size of the program or the types of site placement opportunities to the subjective and thought-provoking inquiries (my recent favorite was: what do you think is the hardest thing about living in intentional community?). I want to be as helpful and informative as possible, and it helps me if I know what you are most curious or concerned about. Don’t be shy about gathering as much information as you need or want – it’s an important part of the discernment process!

Stay in touch. It’s natural to come up with new and different questions as you continue to discern a year of service and begin the application process. Don’t hesitate to reach out by phone or email to get more information – it helps me know that you are genuinely interested in the program, and allows you to make the most informed decisions possible.

As I look forward to my final rounds of recruiting this fall, I am eager to continue connecting with young adults in the exciting stage of considering the commitment to a year of volunteer service, and to prepare for the next great Amate House adventure: Application Season! (In fact, our application has already gone live and is available on our website. The priority deadline is January 15th!)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Understanding Resorative Justice in Chicago

The following is a reflection prepared by Maggie Lamb, a Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. After attending a four day training on peace circles, Maggie, along with her fellow Amate House Volunteers, spent a day at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation on the south side of Chicago learning about this important restorative justice tool. Maggie is serving at Lawndale Christian Legal Center this year in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

A few days ago, upon hearing about my experiences at Amate House and Lawndale Christian Legal Center, a college friend observed that I seemed to be learning so much here in Chicago. I hadn’t really thought about it before that moment, but my friend was completely correct. It seems that with each passing conversation, I learn something new. I could talk for hours about my new knowledge in a myriad of different areas but the most valuable new piece of knowledge I have developed is in understanding restorative justice.

I had never heard of restorative justice (RJ) before I began working at Lawndale Christian Legal Center. Given that I took two different classes titled “justice” in college, this was somewhat surprising. In the past few months, this has changed for two reasons. First, Lawndale Christian Legal Center, where I’m working this year, is an RJ Hub so restorative justice is a crucial component of its practice. In an attempt to understand the work that my colleagues are doing, I researched this area and was able to attend a four day Circle Keeper training (a crucial component of the practice of restorative justice). As I grappled with the questions that emerged, Amate House’s Fall In-Service arrived. We spent the day at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, another RJ Hub, speaking with Father Kelly about the meanings and implications of restorative justice.
Maggie and her fellow Peace Circle trainees learning about Restorative Justice.
In the simplest terms, restorative justice is an alternative to criminal justice that understands crime as a violation of a relationship rather than a violation of a law. The appropriate response, therefore, is not necessarily punitive. Rather, it seeks to repair the harm done to the victim and the community through facilitated encounters. In my courses on justice, we had pondered whether justice necessarily meant punishment for wrongdoing. As a Catholic, I find it both challenging and rewarding to explore that question through the lens of my own faith. Is a just God one that condemns or one that forgives? The Bible, frustratingly, offers examples of both kinds of justice. At the in-service with Fr. Kelly, we had a chance to explore these questions and contemplate what this might look like.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful and persuasive components of RJ is the Peace Circle. This exercise, adapted from a practice of indigenous tribes, is a type of facilitated encounter that can be used in conflict resolution. I spent four days being trained in how to lead such an encounter. In Peace Circles, victims, offenders, and the community can come together on a foundation of respect to engage in dialogue about the harm done. This leads to more just outcomes for offenders, who are asked to accept responsibility and repair the harm done rather than being punished without acknowledging culpability. It also provides more just outcomes for victims whose voice can be heard and whose story can be told. The criminal justice system is designed such that the needs of victims are not and should not be taken into consideration because the crime is against the state rather than the individual. In restorative justice, both victim and offender are able to take ownership of promise and articulate their own needs.

After studying as much as I could in the short time I had and completing Circle Keeper Training, I was filled with questions when I arrived at PBMR for our in-service that Monday. Learning the basics of restorative justice made me at once excited and confused. I could feel that this was a principle and theory that I wanted to practice and yet I still could not claim a total understanding. And to be perfectly honest, I still can’t. That day together, however, offered me something I didn’t anticipate. Father Kelly patiently answered all of my questions (even when I followed him into the kitchen during lunch). He showed us the way that restorative justice manifests with the youth at Precious Blood. But the most important thing that he did was give me the space to bring my questions to my community. By learning about restorative justice together, I was brought further into relationship with Amate House. I realized that a burden I was holding alone was now shared among 20 incredible friends. I don’t know that we have the tools to tackle the challenging questions of restorative justice. I do know, however, that on the days when I am particularly confused or frustrated, I have a community ready to listen and have my back. I am so grateful for our day at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation and I am eager to bring restorative justice into our home community!
Maggie and her housemate Caroline during Amate House's In-Service day at Precious Blood Ministries.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Amate House Welcomes New Volunteer

The following is a reflection prepared by Bryson Kemp, a Volunteer living in the McKinley Park Community. Bryson reached out to Amate House after he learned that his plans with another organization to do service in Chicago had fallen through. He joined the McKinley Park Community mid-August shortly after Amate Volunteers had started at their Service Sites. Bryson has been able to keep his commitment to St. Margaret of Scotland School, where he had previously been planning to do his service.   Amate House Staff and Volunteers are very excited for him to be with us and wanted to take this opportunity to introduce him to the wider Amate House family.

As I was jostled through the doors of the train, I became frozen with fear the moment I instinctively patted my pockets and felt they were flat. I looked back into the Orange Line train car and saw my wallet lying on the seat I had just vacated.  The doors had already closed shut, and all I could do was tap on the window for a second before the train whisked away.  It was just two days after I had arrived in Chicago.  Several community members and I had hung out with some  former Amate House Volunteers, and were taking the "L" back home.  Just as the train was leaving, I saw a woman walk over to the seat and pick up my wallet.  I immediately told the others, booked it towards a Chicago Transit Authority stand, and explained my error to an employee.  She called the conductor and had him ask around in each of the cars to see if anyone found a wallet, but to no avail.  The employee then explained to me that the person must have already exited the train and unfortunately there was nothing she could do.  Meanwhile, my fellow Amate House Volunteers were waiting patiently near the “L” entrance.  Just as we were about to leave the station, my cell phone rang, and a woman says, “Are you Bryson Kemp?  I just found your wallet on the train.”  After thanking her profusely, she was instructed by the CTA employee to give it to the conductor of an oncoming train.  Ten minutes later I had my wallet back.  My community members were as happy as I was, and one of them said she had prayed to Saint Anthony, the Patron Saint of lost objects.  We then took an Uber home, and I was grateful that my community members offered support without chastising me for the incident.  I had learned two things that day—there are good people in Chicago, and I know that my community has my back.        

Since March of this year, I had been gearing up for a year of service in Chicago with another volunteer organization that had placed me at St. Margaret of Scotland School (SMOS).  Only a week before orientation was to begin, I was informed the Chicago house for that program was closing.  Amidst the panic and heartbreak, I began frantically calling and emailing dozens of year-of-service organizations, asking them if there was a chance I could join late.  The principal at SMOS, Mr. Powers, who was just as surprised as I was of the closure, suggested I contact Amate House.  And coincidentally, my sister's sister-in-law who lives in Chicago had volunteered there several years ago, and she also encouraged me to reach out to them.  It was late afternoon, just two hours after I had heard the news, and I was talking with Alison Archer, Amate House’s Program Director. And although the current Volunteers had been through orientation and had begun at their service sites already, Alison was willing to look into the possibility of me joining the program. It wasn't easy, but the Amate House Staff worked quickly to reach out to Mr. Powers, and the following week I was on my way to Chicago!  My hopes of teaching at St. Margaret of Scotland were restored because of the kindness of the Amate House Community and Staff, who conducted an expedited interview process and welcomed me. 
SMOS principal Kevin Powers poses with Bryson in the school office. 
St. Margaret's is a pre-k through 8th grade school on the south side of Chicago. I serve as their computer teacher, teacher’s assistant, and aftercare assistant.  It has been a month since I first started teaching at St. Margaret of Scotland, and every day I feel closer to the staff and students.  Throughout the first week I was stopped by students several times a day asking me how tall I am, with their heads craned upwards.  I have received questions like, “Are you 7 feet tall?  Can you count to 100?  Are you in high school? What type of blood do you have?”  Besides the time I hit the principal’s car during recess with an overthrown football and having the feeling that the school would contact my parents, I relish walking through the halls, tidying up my classroom, eating at the coveted teacher’s table at lunch, but most especially interacting with the students.  I have a passion for music, so I have been enjoying incorporating music into my job. At the end of each computer class, I play the harmonica, while the older kids gather around a desk and play their best drum beats with two pens as drumsticks. I play classical music (with mixed reviews) on a Bluetooth speaker during class time as the children work quietly. Soon I'll bring my guitar and add it to the harmonica. My grandmother has generously donated the funds needed to buy percussion instruments so that I can start an after school drum circle, which I am very excited about. I look forward to seeing what the students can do with an African drum in their hands.  Having the ability to share what I love about music with the students at SMOS and, perhaps, enriching their lives in a small way, has been a highlight of volunteering.
Bryson plays the harmonica at the end of one of his classes.
I have been welcomed with open arms by my fellow community members, and continue to thrive and grow closer to them.  I was pretty nervous joining a house of eleven people who had already gone through orientation, but I found it pretty easy to become one of them, due to an atmosphere of chillness and welcome.  At the end of this week I fly home for my sister’s wedding.  In some ways it feels like I left home a year ago—not a mere five weeks.  I am returning home a little wiser and a little more confident.  And more sure than ever that I ended up exactly where the Lord wants me.