Monday, November 19, 2012

Spinning, Fallling, and Getting Back Up

The following is a reflection written by Matt Cunnane, one of this year's Little Village House Volunteers.

“Ya know, if you spin around in a circle for about a minute, then I shine a flashlight in your eyes, you’ll fall right to the ground.”

“No, Beth, that can’t be true.”

“It’s true.  I can explain the science to you.”

“Forget the science, grab the flashlight.”

So we walked off into the middle of the empty field, flashlight in hand, stars overhead, and that’s how it came to pass that after 30 seconds of spinning around like a loon, Beth knocked me clean over with nothing save for the bright exposure of flash light, the both of us laughing like children understanding the “orange-ya glad I didn’t say banana” joke for the first time.

Believe it or not, but my community experience is exactly like the above story.  I started off in the dark, completely unaware of my surroundings, creatures of the night lurking, completely invisible except for rustles made in the wilderness.  Then, we passed through orientation.  Suddenly, I felt companionship, a sense of belonging in the urban wilderness of Chicago.  No longer alone, but with guides.  Stars slated to point me North, if ever I found myself off track in my journey.  After orientation I began work at my service site, the Lawndale Christian Legal Center.  More stars emerged in the form of my supervisor and another support system, people who have my best interest at heart and wish for me to succeed, both for my individual benefit and for those whom we serve.

So far so good.  Community life began to make sense.  I started to learn the patterns.  Who gets upset when you leave dishes in the sink, who is willing to put all things aside in order to help you out with a problem, and what causes others distress.  Then the spinning started.  Tasks at work started to pile up, chores at home began to suffer because when I’m at work I’m thinking about community and when I’m in community all I can think about is what has to be done tomorrow at work.  I didn't realize it until I felt like I was about to throw up, but I was spinning like a loon, taking in the stimuli as best as I could with a brain that was too disoriented to know which way was up.  This continued on until finally...Bam!  Light flooded my vision, I hit an emotional breaking point, I fell to the ground, the inescapable result of a lack of footing, mixed with cochlear confusion and the sudden brightness.  “Just get to the ground,” my brain fired, “Wait for the spinning to stop, then we’ll get back up and take on the challenges of this world.”

In community, you have to fall down in order to know what standing is.  You have to be overwhelmed in order for your eyes to adjust to increasing amounts of light.  What Beth had wanted to tell me on that night with the flashlight were the facts, the hard science of the matter.  She tried to save me from falling down in order to learn the truth, but if community has taught me anything thus far it’s this: you can’t be told these things, you have to see them for yourself.

So, how do you cope?  How do you stay present, stop spinning, find your footing, and stand when the light is blinding?  Each community group has to answer this for themselves, but in Little Village House, we do simple joys.  Each evening at dinner, Monday-Thursday, we go around the table and we say one thing that gave us joy that day.  Each community member speaks, and all listen.  We even dubbed Kara the “Viceroy of Joy” so that if side conversations begin to take over there is someone to hold us accountable.  “Today, my boss congratulated me on helping him with a task”, “Today, a little boy told me that he liked my lunch bag”, “Today a young man came to our organization with nothing but the clothes on his back, and we were able to help him”.  It doesn't matter how big or simple the joy is, what’s more important is what it provides.  Simple joys not only remind us to be attentive to the experiences of those in our presence, but they also allow us to answer two very similar questions, “For what am I grateful today?” and “Where did I see God today?”

I've found that these two questions are tantamount to having a positive experience while in community.  For one thing, they keep me focused on the positive.  Each evening I know that I will be asked to speak an experience of my day which is life-giving.  You’d be surprised how many times you see God when you’re looking for him in the street, in the office, in the car, or in papers strewn across your desk.  From there I've noticed that I have grown in my ability to see God in each experience.  Of course I fall on my face and get frustrated just as much, if not more than, the average Joe, but when my mind is oriented towards asking where God is, I focus my attention when I see him that day.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Building Community

The following is a reflection written by Davidlee Klimchuk, one of this year's South House Volunteers. 

The current of ongoing change that has been propelling our lives since arriving in Chicago just over three months ago took a refreshing detour on October 19th as all three houses loaded up their trusty Amate House vehicles and sojourned forth to Watervliet, MI for three days of spiritual exploration, community development, and fellowship.   Such a break was well needed from the grind and beautiful chaos that is our new lives in the Windy City. Having personally grown up in a small rural town in Western New York, I was beginning to long for the rolling fields, quiet starry nights, and humble farmhouses that defined my childhood.

I received all that and more as our Amate caravan rolled up the long gravel driveway to the dining hall of Ronora Lodge. The clear and fresh air that entered my lungs as I pulled myself out of the car served not only to remind me of my upbringing but also to bring me back to Christ and make me all the more grateful for the opportunities and experiences that I have been afforded this year. There is always some element of nature that succeeds in reeling us in and placing us fully in the presence of God and all the gifts and graces He has placed upon us.

The next 36 hours were jam packed with so many amazing talks, activities, and interactions that would unfortunately take me six pages single spaced to delineate in full, so I will zoom in on a few of the highlights:

Saturday morning the North House community got our first full day of retreat off to an optimistic and hopeful start with a silent affirmation exercise. In this activity the group stood in a circle with their backs to the center. A handful of people would be selected at a time to enter the center, and, while a plethora of positive and affirming attributes were read by one of the leaders, they would quietly tap the shoulders of all the people in the circle who they believed to exemplify those qualities.  The element of silence in this exercise was a powerful assurance to all those being tapped that they are individuals of value and worth. It does not matter who it is that thinks so; the point is that there is someone out there who believes in you for one reason or another. In our challenging and fast paced lives as volunteers we at times lose site of the aspects of ourselves that make us a person worth knowing and respecting. We tend to forget about the gifts that we have to offer our community and the world around us.  Though small and silent, these gestures of praise are meaningful and this affirmation circle was a great tool for preparing us for our next group discussion which centered on the theme of trust.

Throughout the rest of the day we engaged in a trust partner exercise, a trust continuum activity, and had several hours of free time in which there were so many options for things to do. We were fortunate enough to have a beautiful lake available to us just a short walk down the hill from our living quarters. Many of us took advantage of admiring it while having thoughtful conversations with new and old friends. Others utilized the extensive library of spiritual and social justice themed texts that our loving house coordinators were gracious enough to bring for us to enjoy. I myself began to page through a book of prayers and reflections by the influential Salvadoran priest, Oscar Romero. Others chose to use this silence to catch up on journaling, or another hard to find necessity…sleep!

The day ended Saturday night when we all gathered in an open field for a bonfire accompanied by s’mores and Ryan’s gift of song.  For several hours we opened our hearts and minds to the beautiful gift of nature that we have missed out on since coming to the city.  The skies, though cloudy, still shone with stars and several constellations were recognized. We all rallied around Ryan as he serenaded us with everything from The Beatles to Mumford and Sons.  There couldn’t have been a more fitting way to wrap up a weekend of prayer, new friendships, and community. Even as the fire burnt to its last ember we were all warm with love and the promise of good things to come the rest of the year.

As we packed up our vehicles once again on Sunday after mass I thought back on the discussions and group talks we had over the weekend and one element that came to mind was that of trust. I have been slow to trust most of my life and still am, but North House’s activity and the partner exercise helped me to recognize its importance and how fruitful it could be to take a risk for its sake. We all had to trust in ourselves and God when we chose to do what many of our friends and family back home scoffed at; a year of volunteer service. So far we have been guided rightly and all that is left now is to begin to place that trust in those we live with. Having faith that one’s intentions are pure is a scary thing but what is even scarier is not trying and never knowing.  The union of nature and prayer this week managed to put into perspective all that we had been through together and the roads that were still left unexplored. Now is the time for me and my fellow volunteers to give ourselves to this year and to each other. This is the point in our lives where the objective is not to hide from being hurt but to be pained by not having been.  There are so many beautiful things yet to be experienced.