Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Significance of the Small Things

The following is a reflection by Deirdre Kleist, one of this year's South House Volunteers. Deirdre shared this reflection during the annual Amate House Stations of the Cross Community Night.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed. (Matthew 27: 57-60)

At this station, we reach the end of Jesus’ journey of suffering. After persecution, torture, crucifixion, and ultimately death upon the cross, it seems that Jesus’ time on earth has finished. And yet, our journey goes one step further – following Jesus to the tomb. It is here that we meet Joseph, and learn that he was a disciple of Jesus. When we first hear this story, we may be inclined to think – who is this Joseph? Where has he been all along? If he was truly a disciple, why have we never heard of him until after Jesus has died?

I like to think maybe Joseph was a little like me. I imagine he was quiet, maybe a little introverted; a devout believer but not an outgoing evangelizer. My guess is Joseph didn't do anything as bold or significant as the other disciples may have, but he was a loyal follower who happened to blend into the crowd most of the time.

There’s another thing I imagine Joseph and I have in common: we see the significance of the small things. Picture the scene of the crucifixion after Jesus has breathed his last. The crowd has been literally and figuratively shaken, people are crying, angry, and confused, and the body of the man who many now believe may truly have been the Savior is limp and lifeless, nailed to a cross. It seems that, for all intents and purposes, hope is lost. Still, Joseph decides to take action rather than stand idly and mournfully by.

The actions he takes are not grandiose. They are simple, and small, and may almost seem like too little too late. Joseph didn't throw himself in front of the guards, beg to take Jesus’ place, or do anything else to intervene before Jesus was killed. Perhaps it was because he knew there wasn't
 anything he could do to stop the process. So instead, he did what he could. With love and care, he carried Jesus. He cleaned him up, gave him fresh linens, and laid him in a resting place. He showed him dignity, compassion, and love when everyone else looked the other way.

This reminds me of what I do at Cabrini Green Legal Aid. My role as the Client Concierge places me at the front desk of our office where I interact with clients and potential clients over the phone and in person. My job is not glamorous, and my duties are not substantial. Quite frankly, sometimes, I feel a little useless and hopeless. I answer phone calls, chat with clients in the waiting area, and perform office-type tasks to assist my coworkers. I spend a lot of my time listening to stories that make my heart ache. I have listened to a mother cry on the phone as she tells me her daughter has been taken away and she doesn't know what to do. I have looked into the angry eyes of a man who swears the system has done him wrong. And I have hugged the woman begging for help for her incarcerated son who has been accused of murder. But here I am – not the attorney who can stand in court and fight for justice, not the social worker who can find resources and support for a struggling family, just the girl sitting at the front desk taking everything in.

So, I am charged to do what I can: I sit and I listen. When it’s appropriate or I am asked to, I provide tissues or hugs, give words of comfort or share in prayers. But mostly, I open my heart and I listen. Most of the time, I cannot fix the problems our clients are facing, and I cannot save them from pain or frustration. Like Joseph, all I can do is show them the dignity, love, and compassion they can’t seem to find anywhere else. I hope that with my time and patience, I offer them a brief respite from the pain of a difficult journey, and push them onward, like Joseph prepared Jesus, toward the hope of new promise and new life.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Serving Like Simon

The following is a reflection by Annie Swenson, one of this year's South House Volunteers. Annie shared this reflection during the annual Amate House Stations of the Cross Community Night.

They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. (Mark 15: 21)

I've always had the very strong desire to save the world—to be the hero, to be a savior, to have a whole chapter about Annie in a history book fifty years from now because I was so important that everyone must know about me. But if there’s anything I've learned this year, it’s that I was not sent to Chicago to be a hero or a savior, and I definitely won’t be in any history books because of anything I did this year. If anything, this year has taught me that I need to be a little humbler. I wasn't put here to save the impoverished community in south Chicago, much like Simon wasn't sent to be a savior to Jesus. Simon’s purpose was to help Jesus carry out his mission. His job was to help carry the cross. That’s my job. I will never, ever as hard as I try, come even close to solving all the problems that my clients face, but I can walk with them, humbly, and help carry their crosses.

I assume that we all, at some point this year, have felt incompetent in some way or another. I often worry that I’m not being the support that my clients need, the friend that my housemates need, that I simply don’t know enough to be in this field of work, that I need to change myself and work harder to accommodate the needs of others. I believe it was Simon himself, or maybe Bill Cosby, who said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” I’m not perfect. I’m simply incapable of being what everyone in my life needs. I don’t know what Simon thought or felt when he carried the cross, but I imagine he probably didn't feel quite like he was up to par for his particular role. Peter was probably the more obvious and logical choice. My boss has actually told me that I was not really the most qualified Amatian she interviewed. But she thought that I would get more out of working at St. Sabina—out of my comfort zone—than the person who was the far more qualified and obvious choice. Simon walked into the picture as a nobody, like I walked into St. Sabina. I doubt that the impact I make this year will have any remarkable lasting value. But I recognize that, like Simon, what I do—while seemingly insignificant—does matter.

A couple months into working at St. Sabina, I took an elderly woman back to my desk to assess her for access to our food pantry. As we walked down the hallway, she complained about how long she had been waiting, how no one in social services actually cares about anyone, that we just do it for the money. “Hmm...” I thought. I don’t ever recall any time during my undergrad or in my time spent researching social work, anyone making any claim that I would ever make much money. As she yelled at me that she had been waiting in our lobby for two hours, which I knew was impossible because we had only been open for 45 minutes, my frustration started to get the better of me. She dictated to me how I felt about my clients and my motives for working in social services. At some point, my tolerance gave out. “Ma’am, I volunteer here full time. I don’t do it for money. I’m here because I care about you and everyone else here. I don’t appreciate you telling me that I don’t care about you.” She replied, “You’re young—you don’t know. You've never suffered. You don’t know anything I've been through.” “You’re right,” I said. “I have NO idea what you've been through. But I still care about you.” She stared at me, shocked, then proceeded to tell me her about her previous experiences with other social services agencies, in which she wasn't treated with much respect or dignity. An hour later, I had heard all about her late husband, her daughters, and her son who was absolutely her whole world and could do no wrong. As she left my cubicle, she was hugging me, kissing my face, and telling me that I’m smart and that the world needs more people like me. I didn't feel that I had contributed any meaningful words to our hour-long conversation, but that didn't matter. She just wanted someone to listen to her. She needed to take a load off her heart, to have someone else to help carry her cross.

I clearly remember a time when Dave and I were at Mass at St. Sabina. Father Pfleger spoke some simple words that always find their way to the front of my mind when my insecurities being to overwhelm me. “Your purpose is greater than your pain.”  I came here knowing that this year would not be about my comfort; it’s about walking humbly beside my clients and helping them to carry their burdens. This purpose is far greater than any pain or discomfort I have or will experience this year. As a detailed reminder to myself, I keep the Litany of Humility taped above my sink. It reads:

O Jesus! Meek and humble of heart, Hear me. From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus. From the desire of being loved, from the desire of being extolled, from the desire of being honored, from the desire of being praised, from the desire of being preferred to others, from the desire of being consulted, from the desire of being approved. From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus. From the fear of being despised, from the fear of suffering rebukes, from the fear of being ridiculed, from the fear of being wronged, from the fear of being suspected. That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me to the grace to desire it. That others may be esteemed more than I, that, in the opinions of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, that others may be chosen and I set aside, that others may be praised and I unnoticed, that others may be preferred to me in everything, that others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should. And may the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be glorified in all places through the Immaculate Virgin Mary. Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bearing the Cross

The following is a reflection by Tara Smith, one of this year's South House Volunteers. Tara shared this reflection during the annual Amate House Stations of the Cross Community Night.

When the chief priests and the guards saw (Jesus) they cried out. “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no guilt in him”…They cried out. “Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them “shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered “We have no king but Caesar.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called to the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha.  (John 19: 6, 15-17)

There were a lot of experiences I was looking forward to when I first learned that I got accepted to Amate House. I won’t give you the whole list but a few included meeting my community members, forming relationships with the girls that I would be serving, retreats, a warm St. Patrick’s day, and Amate Magic, but this reflection was by far on the bottom of my list. However, in the 7th month of my year of service, living in community and at my placement, Girls in the Game along with the spirit of the Lenten season, I have learned what a gift vulnerability can be and by taking up our own cross, we come humbly before God with our brokenness.

I am pretty sure there can’t be an Amate event without a quote from Jean Vanier and so I felt compelled to uphold tradition tonight. Upon reflecting on this station I found words that mirrored Christ’s call for us to take up our cross and follow him. Vanier tell us, “If we are to [enter into personal relationships of love and communion with others], we shall have to die to all our selfishness and to all the hardness of our heart.” With these words in mind I began to think of what gives weight to the cross that I carry this year in Chicago. Immediately I thought of the girls and their families in the 4 public schools that I coach in my after school program very week.

Every day I come into contact with the injustices that my girls endure at such a young age. Most days I feel like a really patient older sister to my girls as they come to me with their problems like poor self-esteem, bullies, low grades, their impending engagement to Justin Bieber, and, more seriously, problems at home. Every day I walk into schools that have their own crosses to bear, especially this year with the teacher’s strike and school closure list. I got a front row seat to the broken educational system that exists here in Chicago. Something I have always thought about in the Lenten season are the moments where Christ is surrounded by hundreds of people following him as he carries his cross, and yet how alone he must have felt in that crowd and even perhaps from his Father. I think it is so easy for kids to be invisible in a school of several hundred kids and what I love most about working in an after school program is giving my girls a safe place to feel special and to find their voice.

Several times this year I felt that the weight of my cross was falling on incapable shoulders. How was I qualified to be a role model to my girls when I am still finding out who I am supposed to be? How can I make a lasting impact when I only see a school one day a week for only one hour and half? I feel like the woman at the well, carrying her insecurities along with her water as I carry so much more home than a bag of soccer balls. I, like the woman long to hear Jesus say “I know” and to heal the broken cycles my girls are fated to endure. Most of my prayers this year have been a call of strength to continue to carry my cross, even and most especially when I fall under the weight.

On those tough days I have counted down the weeks for this weight to be lifted and for me to move on to the next chapter of my life, but as I look towards the future I crave the weight of my service. When Jesus says to take up your cross and follow Him, He is asking us to give up some of our comforts. While I still don’t have an answer to the dreaded question, what are you doing after your year at Amate, I will most likely not be an after school coach. And as I share stories of funny things my girls said or be able to show off my newly developed lacrosse skills, I hope that the weight of the crosses my girls bear will also stay with me keeping me mindful to seek out justice.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Helping Community College Students "In Work, In School, and In Life"

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

Imagine yourself, a first generation college student, taking four classes at the local community college, and working part time to pay rent.  You are trying hard to better your life, but cannot seem to handle the stress from work, school, and life.  Class is going well, but Math is giving you the biggest challenge.  Fail the class and you could potential lose the federal grant given to low-income students.  Where can you turn for support?  Nobody assists community college students!

In the heart of downtown Chicago at the corner of Jackson and Franklin sits the City Colleges of Chicago district office.  Within the building, however, a nonprofit has emerged and is leading community college students to succeed “in work, in school, and in life.”  This is the motto of One Million Degrees, to assist community college students both academically and professionally.  Working with the seven City Colleges and two colleges just south of the city limits, One Million Degrees (OMD) is supporting students who otherwise would not receive any type of personal or financial support.  This is where my role in Amate and AmeriCorps comes into play.    

As a Program Assistant at OMD I work with a caseload of students, or scholars, ranging in age from 18-50 years old.  Most are the first in the family to attend college.  Some are new to America, and are trying to figure out what type of career will help improve their life.  Almost all earn below the poverty line, whether themselves or their support system at home.  The students I work with face a number of challenges on a daily basis, but their desire to learn is what motivates them to succeed.

I check-in regularly with the students in my caseload and work on everything from goals to academic plans.  Through phone calls, emails, and in-person meetings, I am able to deliver personalized support and refer students to outside resources in the Chicago area.  Further, once a month I help facilitate workshops that help students develop professionally.  Working on everything from resume development to speed networking, it is a unique opportunity for individuals in the program, and an excellent learning experience.  In fact, recently thanks to a partnership with Brooks Brothers, all first year scholars in the program were fitted with professional attire for them to use for things like interviews.  One Million Degrees is an incredible learning experience for all those involved.  I knew I would enjoy interacting with the students in the program.  I knew some would learn from me, and my previous experience.  Finally, I knew I would learn something from them.

I had a unique experience recently with one of my students.  He came to me unannounced, visibly stressed, uneasy, and upset.  We talked for over an hour, and I hardly spoke a word.  He told me his experience growing up, the neighborhood in Chicago he still calls home, and his hopes for the future.  He also told me the guilt he sometimes feels for bettering his life, when many of his peers are struggling or in jail.  Finally, he shared with me his personal struggle growing up a minority, in a racially divided city.  I studied Sociology while an undergraduate, and know the terms, theories, and general struggles.  Never had I heard someone give a firsthand account so candidly though.  His story was personal, alarming, and eye opening.  It made me reconsider the work I was doing, the “difference” I was making, and my overall thought about the students in my caseload.

Looking back, his story makes me think of the sociological term “luxury of obliviousness.” If you have never read the book Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan Johnson I encourage you to find a copy.  In the most basic terms this phrase references a number of notions directly related to power and privilege in our society.  As a white, college educated male, I know I am one of the most privileged individuals in this country, let alone this world.  I recognize that given my privilege it is up to me to work towards social change.  However, being white I still had the “luxury” of not having to think of the minority experience on a personal level.  If I chose I could remain “oblivious” to the stories and experiences of the students I work with, but how would that help me understand them on any kind of personal level?  As fate would have it, my students would not let me be oblivious to their experiences; and I am definitely thankful that many of them are willing to share.  Though I may not be making a huge difference in Chicago, and certainly not in the communities the students live in, I can only hope that I am making some difference in their lives.  Sometimes I am skeptical, but having a burning desire to assist my brothers and sisters is what motivates me to work in the social services sector.

Recently, at dinner, we had a guest from a local church where many of my housemates attend service.  The Pastor of the church said something that I found very fitting for this blog.  We are not meant to change the world.  It is not necessarily our responsibility.  We cannot solve all the world’s problems.  In my short, one year at Amate House, I will not make a significant difference.  I will not change multiple lives, nor will I be remembered far past the next volunteer. But I am fine with this because I know for this short period of time I am doing what I should be in a struggling community.  Though I cannot change the privilege I have, nor can I shift privilege to another group, the least I can do is work towards social change and equality.  To do otherwise would be an injustice.

May I leave you reflective over this quote allegedly said by Saint Francis of Assisi. “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Don’t speak the words of Jesus.  Live it in your everyday life.  Love thy neighbor, and recognize his or her struggle. Finally, do something.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Electing a Pope

For each of the past several years, Cardinal Francis George has been gracious enough to join our Volunteers and Staff for a meal and an evening of conversation. The Cardinal enjoys learning about the Volunteers' experiences and where each of them are serving.

During the Q&A portion of the night, it's fairly common for one of the Volunteers to ask about what it's like to participate in a papal conclave - Cardinal George was one of the electors who participated in the 2005 conclave after the death of Pope John Paul II.  Once again this year, the Cardinal spoke about this unique experience. What made this year's encounter especially distinctive is that less than 2 weeks after this evening, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.

How illuminating it is to watch this clip again, knowing that the process the Cardinal speaks of is happening once again, as this is being published!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Replenishing our Living Water

The following is a reflection written by Lizzy McDonald, one of this year's North House Volunteers.

Recently, all three Amate House communities braved the beginnings of a winter storm and traveled to Jones, Michigan for a much-needed winter retreat.  In the days leading up to the retreat, my housemates had expressed a variety of reasons why they were looking forward to spending a full three days focusing on prayer, reflection, and fun.  I personally was looking forward to the opportunity to rest, “unplug” from technology, and renew my commitment to this year of service.

Upon arriving at Bair Lake Bible Camp in Jones, we participated in a Taize prayer and read the gospel passage in which Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well.  This time at the beginning of the retreat for listening and prayer helped set the stage for the entire weekend.  One of the main themes of our reflections and discussions during our time on retreat was thinking about how our lives relate to this story of “the well,” especially in light of the Lenten season.

On Friday, we started the day with a beautiful prayer and reflection from the Little Village community.  This activity allowed us the opportunity to write down something that we hoped to be able to gain or work through while on retreat.  It was incredibly comforting and unifying to remember that not only is everyone facing their own issues, but also that we can all be there for each other as a larger Amate community.  I appreciated the opportunity to have a fellow community member pray for me as I also prayed directly for another community member’s concerns.

The rest of Friday included additional time to reflect and consider how the story of “the well” can relate to us individually as we, like the Samaritan woman, also work toward healing the broken areas of our lives.  We were also given a fair amount of unstructured time to simply reflect and recharge in whatever way worked best for us.  It was nice to have such an opportunity to just sit and "be," as it can often seem difficult to find time in our busy lives to truly rest our hearts and minds.

There were a variety of activities available for us at Bair Lake Bible Camp on both Friday and Saturday, from a pool hall to a tubing hill to an ice wall to an indoor basketball court.  The free time we were given on retreat was a wonderful chance for us to reconnect with our community members and take the time to simply have fun.

We began the day Saturday morning with a thoughtful reflection and relaxing Tai Chi activity led by two of my North House community members, Andrew and Ali.  This time allowed us all to begin our second full day of retreat with calm and peaceful hearts.  Saturday included a session on “burn out” and self-care.  The timing of this discussion seemed especially appropriate since we are at a time of the year when many of us have felt ourselves “burning out.”  Furthermore, with all of our various daily commitments, self-care can often be the first thing we eliminate from our lives.  Between the frequent gray days and often frigid temperatures, I’ve personally found that February in Chicago can sometimes feel like the longest month of the year.  Therefore, it was even more important as a community to think about how to minimize burn out and renew our commitments to self-care so that we all can be the best possible community members going forward.

Saturday evening included a small, intimate mass led by Chicago priest Father Ed Shea, and after dinner that evening we had the opportunity to participate in reconciliation.  Later that night, we sat down for the “2013 Amate House Film Festival.”  During that time, we watched the videos that each of the three houses had created as a way to showcase what makes each of our communities so special.  At this point in the year we have all had the chance to get to know each other fairly well as both individuals and communities, so it was a lot of fun to see what each group chose to highlight in their video.  Although it was pretty hilarious to create our own house skit, it was even more fun to see what the other houses had done for their videos.

Our final morning of retreat opened with a meaningful and inspiring reflection prepared by South House before we began our last session of the weekend.  Our closing session allowed us to spend some time talking with the prayer partner that we had met with at the Amate fall retreat. We concluded the session by offering both a blessing of the body and a prayer for our partner.  There was something simple yet powerful about reaching out to bless our partner’s forehead, ears, eyes, feet, and hands, then receiving such a blessing in return.

Between the treacherous snowy travel conditions and a sense of restless anticipation, our drive to Michigan was somewhat reflective of how we felt going into the retreat that weekend: tired, weary, and maybe even a little anxious.  However, the ride back to Chicago seemed quieter, relaxed, and more peaceful—similar to how we all felt after a weekend of prayer, rest, and fun.

Even though we still faced a heavy downpour on our drive back from the retreat, the fact that the snow had changed to rain reminded me that both our literal and spiritual “winters” will always prepare us to welcome the renewal and promise of spring.  The time we spent on retreat allowed us to replenish our own personal “wells” in the same way as the Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus.  Even more than that, our time away helped us to prepare our hearts and minds so that we can wholly embrace the  Lenten season and final weeks of winter, ready for all that God has in store for us.