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.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Falling Into the Rhythm...

The following reflection was prepared by Alan Guillen, a Volunteer in the Little Village Community. Alan shares what he is doing this year at his Service Site and what he is looking forward to as the year continues. He is serving at the Chicago Legal Clinic’s Chancery Advice Desk.
Move-in, Orientation and settling into my new community have been exciting, thought-provoking, challenging, and overall pleasant learning experiences. The first couple of weeks were also filled with anticipation and impatience as my start date at the Chicago Legal Clinic’s Chancery Advice Desk approached. Essentially, the Chicago Legal Clinic, or CLC, is a non-profit organization that provides free or low-cost legal services to the disadvantaged of the Chicago area. The Chancery Advice Desk is one of several CLC offices which offers these types of legal services.  As the name suggests, the Chancery Advice Desk offers legal aid for Chancery Division cases, the majority of them being foreclosure cases.**
Alan and his housemate Emma Stiver commute to the Loop each day via the Pink Line. 
As I thought more and more about getting started at my Service Site during Orientation, I was mostly looking forward to submersing myself in legal cases and learning the most I could from the attorneys I would be working with, since becoming an attorney is something I may pursue in the future. Working directly with clients and knowing that a significant amount of these clients were going to be Spanish-speaking was also something I was looking forward to.   
Alan's office is in the Concourse Level of the Daley Center.
Now that I have been at my Service Site for a little over a month, I can look back and say that, “a little overwhelming” was a common response I gave and heard from my fellow Amate House Volunteers when we were asked about our first week at work. Though I was expecting a challenge, working office hours at a desk and constantly hearing unfamiliar legal terms has taken some extra effort getting used to. Luckily the attorneys, and also the clients that I work with, have been both understanding and patient as I begin to fall into the rhythm of my work.
Chicago Legal Clinic's Chancery Advice Staff

At this early point in my year of service, I am eager to learn the most I can about Chancery Division cases and legal services in general. I also look forward to maintaining CLC’s mission to educate and provide accessible legal aid to the under-served and disadvantaged.

**From CLC's website: The Clinic operates an Advice Desk for the Chancery Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County involving matters such as foreclosures and injunctions. Due to the extreme demand for foreclosure assistance, 10,702 clients were served at the Desk last fiscal year.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Getting Started at Amate House

The following is reflection prepared by Melissa Tsuleff, a Volunteer in the McKinley Park Community. She shares her thoughts on Amate House Orientation and how it has prepared her for her year of service and community living. Melissa is serving at the Marjorie Kovler Center this year.  

Looking back on our first couple weeks with Amate House, the main thing I am feeling is thankful. I am thankful that God has provided this opportunity for me to grow in community and spirituality. I am thankful for my family and friends for supporting me every step of the way. I am thankful for the presence and support of the Amate House Staff and Alumni. I am thankful for the McKinley Park and Little Village Communities, my Service Site, and for the abundant love I receive daily.

One other thing I am particularly thankful for is the Orientation we had before beginning at our Service Sites. Each year Amate House Volunteers begin the year with a two week Orientation introducing them to the logistics of the program, its five tenets (Faith, Community, Service, Social Justice and Stewardship) and the city of Chicago.

The days were long, emotional, and exhausting, but all in good ways. We did a lot, and I learned so much. We talked about a lot of different topics, including (but definitely not limited to) culture, racism and anti-racism, Catholic Social Teaching, boundaries, non-violent communication, and community living. Although not all of these were foreign subjects to me, I learned a new angle to look at life and at those who I am serving.

One day in particular that impacted me the most was when we did a Social Exclusion Simulation at Adler University. We were replicating what it would be like for a woman who was recently released from prison to re-enter society. We attempted to find jobs, gain housing, receive medical treatment, and collect resources from a food pantry. The purpose was to introduce us to how the marginalized could be treated by social systems. Let me tell you: it isn’t very positive. In this case, the women attempting re-entry were dehumanized and treated as if their felonies defined who they were, rather than the systems recognizing their accomplishments. Too often, society and social systems look down upon those who do not fit in. These “others” are neglected because they do not have enough or because they are different. But the reality is that all of these people: immigrants and refugees, recently released prisoners, the poor, the homeless, and many other pushed-aside groups of people, are human beings who deserve respect and compassion. And that is why we are doing this year of service. That is why we are dedicating these next months to the marginalized of Chicago.

Hanna (left) discusses the Social Exclusion Simulation with Melissa and Caroline (on the right) at Adler University.

Another thing I am thankful for is Community. I have never lived with so many people, and I love it more and more each day. Orientation gave us such a great opportunity to spend some quality time with each other, as individual communities and as a larger Amate House community. From discussions, to sharing meals, to hanging out, we have already bonded so much. We support each other and lift each other up. These people already mean so much to me, and I can’t wait to see how much stronger our relationships become. 
Chris, Dulce, Melissa and Laura get instructions for their next Irons Oaks team-building challenge. Most Amate House alumni are familiar with this day which usually takes place during Orientation. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Building Community Together at our Table

The following is a reflection by Amate House alumna, Mackensey Carter. Mackensey was a Volunteer in the 2012-2013 Volunteer year. She lived at the McKinley Park House and served at Blessed Sacrament Youth Program. She is currently working at Cabrini Green Legal Aid as a Social Worker. Mackensey shares this story from her Volunteer year which she adapted from a post on her personal blog.

Clang, clang, clang. The familiar noise rang through the converted convent on S. Seeley Avenue. Clang clang clang. The dinner bell: dilapidated from many years of Amate House Volunteers beckoning each other to the dinner table.

Slowly all 12 of us would emerge from our post-work activities and gather around a splintered, worn table.  We called it a table, but in reality it was three tables.  Three rectangles pushed together.  It was a makeshift eating arrangement, but most things were makeshift in our lives that year.

After a few minutes of conversation while awkwardly standing in a large circle, which encompassed this beloved table, we clasped each other’s hands and blessed the food.  This was our routine and we never strayed from it.  With a glorious announcement of what the two cooks for the night had prepared for us, we all eagerly rushed into our often crowded kitchen and returned to our seats with our mismatched plates filled to capacity.

I’ve always wondered what this scene would look like to a passerby wandering down the streets of McKinley Park.  Twelve people around an over-sized table talking rather loudly to each other about anything you could imagine.  When I imagine such a passerby peering into our dimly lit dining room, I usually imagine them thinking: wow, what a crazy bunch. There’s too many of them to be a family. I wonder what they are all doing there?

Ah, but see, they would be mistaken.  We were a family. A crazy family crowded around a huge, unattractive group of tables with an unusual-looking Swan/Santa object that we had found in one of the many closets standing in as the centerpiece.  We were a family and this was our table.

The food on our table never lasted too long, especially if it was what we affectionately called a “solidarity meal,” which usually meant the cooks had miscalculated the correct portions for a group of twelve and everyone better be happy with what they have... but we always had more than enough.

See, the food never lasted too long, but we didn’t come to the table for the food.  No, this table was so much more than a holder of meals and physical sustenance.  We came to the table for each other. We came to the table to be reunited and re-centered every evening.  We came to the table to lift each other up, challenge each other, and truly know each other.  We came to the table for communion.

We made this table our sacred place.  We laughed, cried, shared, fought, debated, disagreed, rejoiced, and shouted around this table.  More than anything this table represented our lives together.  I remember many nights when I rushed through the front door at 7:30 after being called a motherf… I’ll let you fill in the rest… by one of the teenagers at my service site or after a day when every kid decided to dump their “hot chips,” which is an enticing combination of Flaming Hot Cheetos and bagged nacho cheese, on the library carpet or a day when the guys had made yet another hole in the Swiss-cheese-like drywall with their soccer antics. I remember many nights when the last place I wanted to be was around a twelve person table.

But I came to the table.  Those nights, I came to the table with the worst attitude.  Those nights, I came to the table in hopes of finishing my food as quickly as possible so that I could escape to my room for the rest of the evening.  Those nights, I came to the table exhausted, burnt out, defeated, and frustrated.  Those nights, I probably didn’t deserve to come to that sacred table.

Yet despite my greatest efforts to remain in a terrible, self-pitying mood, something always happened.  To this day I’m still not sure how, but it happened after every crappy day.  I would come to the table miserable and leave in a much different place.  Let’s get this straight, though, this table had no special powers that zapped bad moods out of you after a “Bless Us Oh Lord.”  No.  Usually I would bring my crappy day to the table and like any normal human being try to spread my crappy day to others… I’d complain about the kids, I’d be a little snippy when the Costco-size bucket of butter took a few minutes too long to get to my side of the table, I’d ignore the glorious details of my housemates’ days.

That would only last so long, though, because I would always realize that I could never disrupt the joy that lived constantly around this table.  When four of us had bad days, there were eight others to remind us of ourselves.  To remind us of the strength that we all had, to remind us of the importance of what we were doing, to tell their own stories of victory and encouragement from their day.  We were never alone. We were never alone in our misery or our triumph.  And that’s what we learned around the table.

Each day we would travel to our respective service sites.  Bearing the weight of social injustice, non-profit dysfunction and the suffering of the individuals we served on our own.  But we always did so with the hopeful knowledge that each evening we would share that burden together around our table.  No matter the defeats or victories of the day, the table was a constant reminder.  A reminder that we are in this together.  A reminder that we will all join in communion once again.  A reminder that we are one crazy, huge, dysfunctional family that shouts, cries, laughs, and shares with each other.   A reminder that whenever the twelve of us gather around this table, we create something sacred.

I think about that table often now when the world around me seems to constantly reject what our community was able to create.  When it takes only a click of an unfriend button to remove someone from your life.  When politicians and world leaders urge us to distrust and distance ourselves from each other. When violence and fear threaten the sacredness of our existence together.  When creating community depends more on convenience than necessity, that’s when I return to that table.

Community is built by showing up day in and day out, despite fear or threat, to be a presence to one another.  Community is built by assuming the best in each other even when we show our worst. Community is often built by hard, inconvenient work and always built through celebration of each other.  Community is a necessity not a convenience.  Whatever our tables look like, we must choose to return to them and be nourished by the people around them every day, just like we did during our Amate House year.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Building Relationships for a Lifetime

The following is reflection prepared by Kelsea Manion, a Volunteer in the North House community. Kelsea shared this reflection as part of her community's Pentecost Reflections, which explores the movements of the Paschal Mystery. Kelsea reflected on Christ's Ascension, and how she has experienced ascension and transformation through her service at Exodus World Service and in her experience of community living.

It can be very difficult to move on from negative experiences without holding on to some of those old grudges. Often we are told that hard times make us into better people, that without struggle we wouldn’t know joy. While that advice may be true, rarely are we told that on a deeper level, we should let these struggles bless us. That is an interesting thing to consider. Let those negative moments bless me? Yet, if you identify with the Christian faith, one of the greatest examples is the Passion of Christ. He endured a horrible death, some of his best friends were not at his side, and at one point he felt totally neglected by God. But in his Ascension, we see Jesus completely at peace. He has appeared to his disciples, reassured them, and letting his past experiences bless him (and all of us as a bonus), he moves on to be with God.

Reflecting on this year as an Amate Volunteer, there are times I can identify with this sense of peace and blessing, and there are times I’m still working on finding peace.
As the year comes closer to the end, I think a lot about ending well and how I will transition out of this experience. At every transition point in my life, I’ve been very good at looking toward my next steps and not worrying about staying connected with people from my past. Aside from a few close friends, I don’t mind keeping things to just casual Facebook updates, and although I like to think that I can move on with a carefree attitude, I also know that I’m pretty good at holding grudges when an experience has really hurt me. In many negative circumstances or tense ex-friendships, I can honestly say that I haven’t been able to let these things be a blessing. But I can say that I have experienced something completely different this year at Amate House.

Moving in with 8 strangers was pretty nerve-wracking for me, but I quickly realized that this year was going to be different. Whether it was laughing together on an individual “date”, talking about happy and hard decisions while cooking dinner, or experiencing some grace when I get over-passionate about a certain topic, my housemates have shown me genuine friendship that I can’t easily forget. I do not anticipate moving on from this year and resorting back to occasional Facebook updates because I’ve built a different type of trust and care for these friends. Perhaps recognizing these differences has been the start of letting my harder experiences bless me, and I hope that it will allow me to receive the fullness of the future of these friendships.

Another insight I’ve reflected on this year really started during my junior and senior years of college, when I began having a lot of questions and not feeling connected with my faith community. I was studying pastoral ministry, and while I enjoyed the subject matter, I couldn’t see myself working in a church setting anymore and I was becoming frustrated with stories I was hearing from other women who were in this setting. I began considering every word that was said in the mass and I felt alienated when none of the other students in my theology classes seemed concerned with language about women written by many renowned theologians. Nothing I read was really speaking my language anymore and I was beginning to think that feminism and Catholicism were never going to mix.

Maybe they still don’t mix perfectly, but luckily I had truly wonderful professors who guided me toward what I was looking for. I began reading feminist theologians coming from the Catholic and other faith traditions and I have been intrigued ever since. Finally, someone was speaking to my heart and giving me a sense of solidarity with other women around the world who have been feeling the same struggle.

Coming into my Amate year, I was free to re-discover my faith and create a spirituality that made sense in my life. I’m definitely early in my journey, but I can see that this was a healthy step for me and also that these initial struggles and frustrations really did become a blessing. With guidance from my spiritual companion, I know that I don’t have to hold on to all of my old ways of prayer or reflection; it’s okay to acknowledge that some things work for others and don’t work for me. From experiences at work, I have been inspired by people who put their faith into action by welcoming refugees to Chicago. Again and again I am humbled by refugee families who arrive with so little, yet insist that I sit down and drink tea or soda that they’ve brought from their home country. I’ve learned so much from my roommates who come from different backgrounds and experiences and who are willing to be vulnerable and share their lives and experiences with me. All of these pieces from my year in Chicago have become a part of my spirituality and my connection with the Divine, and I know that these pieces will still be a part of me as I move toward the future.

Similar in theme to Jesus’ Ascension, all of us Volunteers are getting ready for the next step. We probably have all had both difficult and truly wonderful experiences this year at our work sites and with our communities. I hope that like me, you have discovered something new in yourself by letting go of the things that were painful and embracing the fullness of friendship, community, and the future. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Recognizing and Receiving Gifts of the Spirit

The following is a reflection prepared by Stephen Umhoefer, one of this year's North House Volunteers. Stephen shared this reflection as a part of her community's Pentecost Reflections, which explores the movements of the Paschal Mystery. Stephen spoke of living out the Pentecost and the spiritual gifts received and recognized through service. 

The following words were written by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Circles. “Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being. Of lower states, of acts of routine and sense, we can tell somewhat; but the masterpieces of God, the total growths and universal movements of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable.” I have included these words because to me they give shape to the Pentecost experience, an experience that I have realized has been quietly occurring, below the surface, throughout my time in Amate.

Back at the beginning of this year in August I knew that I had started on a new journey. I was living in a new city with people I had never met and was working at a school that I had never been to. It was a time of change and transition into a new way of life. In my work at St. Thomas I envisioned myself to be a difference maker. Going into the year there was an image in my mind where I would be working day in and day out tutoring students and everything, be it reading or math, would make sense to them at the end of the day. They would listen closely and be excited to work with me. My smarts, I thought, were my gifts that were going to make the biggest difference. These expectations proved to be wrong.

My position at St. Thomas this year has been much more muted than I thought it would be. From having a lack of supervision, the classes when a teacher doesn’t have anything for me to work on, to feeling stuck when a student doesn’t understand something after I’ve tried to explain it four times, my time at school has often been spent wondering what difference, if any, I was making. Most days have followed the same pattern and schedule with little to no variation. The “lower states, of acts of routine and sense,” as Emerson puts it.

But as I have been reflecting on my time at St. Thomas I realized that my gifts are not in my smarts as I thought they would be. My gifts have been revealed to me in the handful of moments, moments that I cherish, where a student has expressed their gratitude for the time I have spent working with them. There is the Christmas gift I received from an 8th grader I helped with reading, the uninhibited hug from the first grader I helped with math, and hearing the words “I like working with you” from a fourth grader I’ve only worked with two or three times. With none of these students was it my smarts that made an impact, but my giving of time, attention, and assistance to someone who then needed it. It was in these moments, unplanned and unexpected, that my gifts were revealed to me.

Emerson says life is a series of surprises, and the masterpieces of God, the growths and universal movements of the soul, are hidden and incalculable. The times when the impact of my gifts were shown to me are not as frequent as I may like them, but that is not up to me, but neither does it take away from the fact that my gifts were in action whether I am aware of them or not.

The Pentecost embodies the life and energy that we receive from learning and growing from our experiences. I would say that this life and energy also may come from the times when the impact of our gifts are revealed to us. When we realize that we do have a capacity to reach out and connect with those we serve, though often it will seem otherwise. At times unappointed and unplanned God will give us a glimpse at the effect of our efforts. It will be a surprise. Brief and simple these moments may be, but they show us that something has been going on the entire time, just beneath the surface.

What have been your moments this past year, or at any time in your life, when you were given a fleeting peek at the impact you have? What was revealed to you as your gifts in those moments? What are the surprise masterpieces of God in your life, and how do you allow them to give you the energy to live out the Pentecost?