Monday, November 17, 2014

"This I Believe" - Spirituality Night at Little Village House

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

Amate's tenet of spirituality is, I feel, the most versatile, challenging, and widely interpreted. Does spirituality involve your belief in God? Religion? Reflection? Hope? What is it? One night in Little Village, our spirituality night focused on what we believed in. “What does that even mean? What do I believe in?” Exactly…It would mean something different for everyone, much like spirituality does. We were faced with the challenge of reflecting on what one idea, concept, word, or mantra we believed in, how we came to this belief, and how we live it out in our lives. “This I Believe” has become an organization that promotes the sharing of core values with one another and with the world. These beliefs of people everywhere have been articulated through essays, printed in books, played on NPR, and now, written in journals in Little Village. Meaghan and Therese, the facilitators for the night, read a few essays from the book. One essay was about believing in getting angry and the other was about giving.  After they finished, they gave us instructions. They told us to write about what we believed in. We had 25 minutes, some inspirational tunes in the background, a journal and a pen, and were expected to come up with something to share with the group in 25 minutes… Cool, easy… Not. How can you choose just one thing? To my surprise, at the end of those 25 minutes, everyone shared a piece of themselves, and it made me feel more connected to everyone’s being. Everyone’s response made sense to who they were, and everyone’s heart really showed as they all read their testimonies aloud. The following words will be my story, and excerpts or ideas from everyone else’s in our home. I believe in…

“I believe in honesty - the kind of honesty that comes straight from one’s own heart to the heart of another - an honest outlook, honest words, honest love, and honest fear. Growing up in a household where honesty was valued is part of the reason I believe in this. When I was 13 and my current life goal was to become a journalist, my brutally honest dad told me to reconsider because he loved me and he didn't want me to have to work hard for a job like he had to. He told me it would be cutthroat, competitive, and ultimately wasn't a good life choice. Well dad, today I want to be a teacher. And today, he supports me in every way possible because he raised a daughter with honest intentions and a good head on her shoulders. My dad’s honesty rubbed off on my sister and me growing up and made us strong and determined. We always spoke our mind and told people what we were thinking and how we were feeling, sometimes coming off harsh or abrasive. My mom, whose gentler honesty saved us from our own honesty at times, kept us grounded. Her genuine and honest care for the two of us reminded us to always be ourselves, but to keep the well-being of others and their feelings at the forefront of our minds. She raised girls with good hearts who always spoke from the core strings of them, but always reminded us to use our minds, to not only feel, but to think of ourselves and others.

"Our home was always full of open communication, ideas, and honest love. When I went away to college, I lost sight for a moment of my belief in honesty. I trotted off to Los Angeles with a long-term boyfriend and tried to start a new life there. Somewhere along Interstate-15 I lost my roots. I was honestly afraid, but refusing to admit it. I was living a lie for a while. I pretended it wasn't important for me to find a home at LMU. I pretended the only important things about being in college were the classes, and I convinced myself that my boyfriend at the time was the only friend that I needed. My year of dishonesty caught up with me when I met some people that wanted to be my friend when I was genuinely being myself and opening up my heart - something that I hadn't done for a while. It was Caitlin and Kailey who brought myself back into me – who restored honesty by giving me honest friendship when it was a dim subject. Upon acceptance into Ignatians, the service organization that I was involved in, I didn’t think my life could be any more in line with my values. The recruitment theme one year was “ignite the fire within”, and to say that I experienced this that year is an understatement. I learned to be honest in a room full of equally, if not more honest people where we learned each other’s beliefs, challenged one another, and honestly and respectfully disagreed with one another. I learned to believe in the honest challenge of connecting with someone who might seem hard to connect with – that’s how I met Mimi. And I believe in honest conflict and honestly telling someone how badly they've hurt you – that’s where Mimi became my sister. I believe in honest friendship – that’s where the Nora’s, Brooke’s Mackenzie’s and Emmy’s of the world come in. I believe that honesty is what has shaped and connected all of the different stages and parts of my life, and I can attribute that value to who I am today. I believe in living honestly to find out who you are. Today, I sit in a room of 8 women who are honestly themselves, who teach me something new every day, and who all exhibit honesty in different ways… to honestly complain about the groceries or chores, to honestly admit to feeling left out, to honestly telling someone that you like them, or honestly telling the dinner table that you have to poop – one thing we all exhibit, in one way or another, is honest intentionality – an honest effort to form a year full of growth and love. I believe in being honest so that others feel that they can be honest – to not over-analyze, to just know, to be vulnerable, and genuine. For all of these reasons and more, I believe in honesty." –Cristina

Being where your feet are…
“I believe in being where your feet are. "People wait all week for Friday, all year for summer, and all life for happiness." It always seemed like I was waiting for the next big event in my life. I would wish time would move faster through what I deemed as monotonous or boring, and when that thing I was waiting for finally rolled around, I would wish the opposite, hoping that time could slow for the happy and fun moments so I could enjoy them a little more. But I've found that life is a series of ups and downs and speeding through those downs won't let you appreciate the ups when you do have them.  Being fully present means finding joy in the little things and what’s happening around you right now. You don't have to wait for the next big thing. There is joy all around you, sometimes you just have to pause to find it.” –Meaghan

Treating others with genuineness and integrity…
“I believe that each person deserves to be treated with genuineness and integrity. We are all individuals and we all deserve a chance to be evaluated as such. No one is a stereotype and no one is a number.” –Katie

Broken Hearts…
“I believe in broken hearts. I believe hearts are meant to be broken; to open up, to learn, to accept and heal, and to motivate. Broken hearts are behind powerful movements and ideas, allowing compassion within action. I believe broken hearts are the birthplace of beautiful things.” –Stephanie

“I believe that love, although imperfect at times, is the greatest gift one can give and receive.  I believe being in relationship with others, giving every ounce of yourself, and choosing love, even when it is difficult, is what makes us human.” –Christina

“I believe in deep connection with others—connections that teach you more about human nature and yourself and others. Connection which lets you experience love. And I believe in being self-aware and knowing your gifts and areas of growth and paying attention to the connections you feel to Truth so that you can be the best version of yourself in this one, short life.” –Lydia

“I believe in hope. I have hope. I crave for hope because without hope I would be living a dead life. I only have it because my teachers had hope in me, my family and friends have hope in me and for some reason God hoped in me.” –Carlavee

“I believe in happiness. Although there is much terror and sadness occurring, I remember hope. I think of the goodness I see in my family, friends, those I work with, my roommates, and from strangers on a daily basis. I see hope in the pureness of children and hope in smiles and laughter; hope in kindness and compassion. All of these things bring me immense happiness. Therefore, I believe in happiness! I believe that happiness causes a ripple effect and for me, a world of happiness is a world of love.” -Therese

The important thing about this exercise was sharing a piece of ourselves with the rest of the group, and feeling connected to one another. I felt closer to people after they read their raw, quickly written thoughts – that made it more authentic. I felt like in some way, I was adopting the beliefs they were sharing I felt that our home was adopting these beliefs as a whole, since we all make up our Little Village community, and live and breathe as a result of the actions of others. This is a part of what spirituality is for me – feeling connected to people and the world based on common values, noticing the beliefs present in humanity, and reflecting on how these things effect my life. Once we feel like we know what others believe in and what they are about, we find common ground and connection, and are able to unite on a deeper, more meaningful level - ultimately forming trust, friendship, vulnerability, and new beliefs. Each member had these beliefs individually, and now Little Village shares pieces of these beliefs as a unit. I believe in “This I Believe”, and Little Village believes in honesty, being where your feet are, love, broken hearts, happiness, connection, hope, and treating others with genuineness and integrity. What do you believe in?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


The following is a reflection written by Mary Kate O'Connell, one of our second year Volunteers.

I’m currently in my second year with Amate House. This year I live in South House and serve at Heartland Alliance’s Youth and Residential Services where I work with unaccompanied minors who have traveled up from Central America to be reunited with their loved ones in the United States. This is not a far cry from my position last year – I worked to welcome newly arriving refugees into the United States with the Christian organization Exodus World Service. Through my experiences in working with both of these organizations and in my time at Amate House, I’ve realized the importance of finding a safe place to call home. I’ve worked with strong, resilient families that have decided to uproot themselves for the sake of safety in order to build a new life in a foreign country; I currently work with children that make the harrowing, dangerous journey alone to the US-Mexico border to be reunited with their mothers that they haven’t seen in 10 years or an uncle that they've only ​met in person​ once or twice; and, personally, I've created two homes, two families, with Amate House here in Chicago – not exactly a stone’s throw away from my home in New Jersey.

I’ve become passionate about the marginalization of immigrant populations because I’ve seen it firsthand through the work that Amate has allowed me to do. During my time at Exodus, I learned how to facilitate an interactive simulation that gives a brief insight into the journey that some refugees face while leaving their home countries. Every group that I led through this simulation seemed to come away from it with a connection to the population and an understanding of how it feels to be uprooted, even if it is just for a short time. I asked the staff if I would be able to facilitate this simulation for my fellow Amate volunteers as a community night, and, because they’re so wonderful and open, they agreed.

I was always very comfortable giving presentations when I worked with Exodus. There was something exciting about telling people information that is completely new to them – I visited middle schools, high schools, colleges, even adult church groups and I was met with the same curiosity in all of these settings. However, there is something different about getting up in front of a group of 28 people that you know – that are your friends. Amate House has several sites that allow volunteers to work with refugees or asylum seekers specifically; there are even more sites that serve immigrants who have similarly dreadful journeys. So how was I supposed to take what I know and present it sensitively to people that might have already heard a client recount their story? On the other hand, there are some Amate volunteers that don’t work with refugees or immigrants at all and never will in their placement this year. How was I supposed to make this valuable for them?

So I decided to approach the facilitation of this community night with a more personal spin on things. I went through all the steps of the simulation as normal, but after each step I tried to tell a personal connection that I had to it. There is a section of the presentation that puts the participants in an enclosed, dark, uncomfortable space without letting them out and without giving them any idea of how long they would be in there. After I would perform this step last year, I would sit the group down and talk about how Iraqi refugees are typically kidnapped; this time I talked about how I met an Iraqi man that had been kidnapped for 3 months. His wife told me that she had no idea where he was and she thought he had been killed. It wasn’t until he finally escaped and was forced to live in house with dozens of other people – he, his wife, and his 2 young children had to sleep on a floor for weeks with minimal food and no place to bathe – that he decided to flee his country. In my work this year, I have met Central American girls that have been kidnapped and labor trafficked for months while trying to get across the border into the United States. They are kept against their will in warehouses, often facing repeated sexual assault, and are never told how long they will have to wait, why they are waiting, or when this type of torture would be over – when they would get to see their moms and dads.

Taking this very personal approach to a simulation that I’ve done many times made me feel extremely vulnerable – talking frankly, openly, and sincerely about something that you care about is a very nerve-wracking thing. What if they don’t connect with it at all? What if they think it’s a waste of time? What if they just stare at me blankly while I’m spilling my guts on the floor? Every other time I gave this presentation, I was not worried about these questions. Because every answer was, “Well, it’ll be okay, because I’ll never have to see these people again.” A college volunteer group doesn’t connect to the simulation? Fine. I can just go home and that’ll be that. A ministry group thinks it’s a waste of time? That’s okay. I tried my best. A college class stares at me blankly when I ask if there are any questions? No big deal. I am certainly not the first person to experience this. Not the end of the world. But facilitating this simulation to a group of people that I know personally was so different. I do have to see these people again, I even have to drive home with some of them! There are few things more heart-breaking than the people you care about being indifferent towards the things you care about.

But, of course, this did not happen. While it would have been crushing to watch my friends stare at me blankly while I tried to convey to them how much I care about this subject, it was an entirely different thing to watch them evolve into caring about it too. Watching the other volunteers be concerned about this topic was a huge source of pride for me. It’s not often that people are put into this situation – being able to unabashedly lay your biggest passions on the line and say, “well, this is it, this is what I care about. I hope you care about it too.” And it is even rarer to have your peers pick up those things and run with them. There were no moments of blank stares or awkward silences while I waited for people to give feedback or ask questions. The other volunteers were quick to jump in when I asked them how they felt about a certain part of the simulation and actively listened when I shared experiences from my own work with immigrant populations. Several people came up to me afterwards with positive feedback, saying it was the best community night so far. Facilitating this activity was a great experience for me and I’m lucky that I was able to do it.

Opening yourself up and being vulnerable is extremely frightening – almost paralyzing. However, giving this presentation to the other Amate House volunteers taught me that the payoff is worth the risk involved.