Thursday, June 11, 2015

What Remains: A Look Back on a Year in Chicago

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

It is a natural tendency of mine to spend a good amount of time in reflection, and this year spent in service has given me much to reflect on. In this time I have had many strong and ever-changing feelings and insights. One such insight continues to stare me down in the face and refuses to be forgotten or brushed aside. It is, simply, that sometimes living in Chicago bothers me. It challenges me and it forces me to see the world, not as I would like it to be, but as it really is. The shocking reality that I have come to know, is that Chicago, while beautiful and brilliant, is a broken city. It is broken by poverty, segregation, economic inequality, and violence. And that is something I have struggled with.

“I see a skyline that only half the city gets to touch.” This is a line that really stuck with me from a play I recently saw about the devastating effects of the violence that occurs on Chicago’s south and west sides. These words were especially jarring because of my own love for Chicago’s beautiful skyline. Since I was young, seeing the giant skyscrapers reflecting silvery light or brightening up the night sky has always filled me with a sense of wonder and awe. It stands as a symbol of all my hopes and dreams for the future, and its unwavering presence gives me comfort and confidence. Even after living here for nearly ten months, that view has never gotten old or tired for me. But as I thought about those words from the play, I tried to put myself in the place of someone living in a Chicago much different from the one I’ve come to love. Someone in a city that seems to show no mercy, no care or concern if you live or die. A city that has segregated you, failed your schools and your community, and seemingly left you to fend for yourself. In that situation, my beautiful skyline becomes nothing more than an ugly reminder. A reminder of a place that has hopelessly trapped you. What I see as a symbol of dreams and potential is only a tease of possibilities that are so incredibly far beyond reach. This realization has been one of my many struggles this year.

I struggle with the frustration of knowing that life is so difficult for half the people in this city. It is same sense of frustration I often feel when I find myself driving through different parts of Chicago, watching as the neat and orderly streets of affluent neighborhoods fade into run-down, poverty stricken ones, marveling at how a ten minute drive in one direction can lead me into a seemingly different world. It’s the frustration that I have as I see church after church nestled in between dilapidated, boarded up homes and wonder how the God who watches His faithful pack those churches each Sunday can be the same God who watches children gunned down as they play in the park or walk home from school.

I struggle to reconcile my faith with the world I see around me. At a mass at St. Sabina’s Church on the south side, I was blown away by the strength of the faith that surrounded me. The people present were not there out of some sense of obligation or right-doing, but out of a true need for spiritual strengthening. Here were people struggling with poverty, violence, and injustice, experiencing a deep and spiritual connection that I don’t know if I’ve ever felt. They had every reason in the world to abandon faith, but there they were. I was amazed and inspired and wondered if I’d ever be able to have such unwavering faith in God’s love for the world.

I struggle with my job. I meet with clients nearly every day, and as I listen to their stories I wonder how on earth they are able to get through each day with lives that are constantly thrown into chaos. I wonder what events in their past lead them to where they are today, knowing that at one time they were probably just like me, young and filled with hope as they began to make their way in the world. I marvel at the fact that in the Lakeview neighborhood, one of the nicest and most well off in the city, there are over two thousand individuals each month who come to the pantry to get basic necessities. And I continue to see many of the same faces month after month, realizing that we give only a temporary solution to a much bigger problem that’s way beyond our control.

Then there are all the folks coming in from other neighborhoods, where pantries are either non-existent or woefully inadequate at meeting needs of the community. These individuals are served once by Lakeview Pantry and then referred to a pantry closer to where they live. There was one client I spoke to, at the pantry for the first time, who had come over an hour by public transit from the far south side, just to get some food for her family. She was a young woman, my own age, a single mother with three children, the oldest not more than four. In that moment, I realized that, had my life circumstances been different, I could have been in her same situation. It was a jarring thought. I talked her through the process of getting food and then gave her a referral to another pantry, my heart heavy. All I could do was hope that the other pantry would be able to help her and her family. It’s hard to turn people away, but our food supply is limited and we simply can’t help everyone. There is more need in the city than we will ever be able to remedy. Realizing that has been a struggle too.

And as I think about these experiences, thoughts, and, especially, struggles that I’ve had, I’ve begun to recognize something else Chicago has shown me. Like the city itself, I too am broken. Broken by my doubts and insecurity, unsure of myself and my future. Broken by my inability to feel as though I’m truly making an impact. Broken by my seemingly endless lack of faith.

So, with the year coming to a close, what remains? What do I take with me after my realization of a broken city and a broken self? Well, what remains is, that in all honesty, we are all broken people, broken by different things at different times. And with that brokenness comes the opportunity for healing. That’s really what this year has been about, recognizing our brokenness and the brokenness around us and working towards healing. I am not na├»ve enough to think that by giving out food to a family once a month or by sitting down and helping a young women with her resume, that I can even begin to make a dent in the brokenness of Chicago. But maybe, just maybe for that family or that young woman, I can help them along the path to healing their own human brokenness. And in doing that I am brought to healing as well.

What remains is that one true definition of service, two lives coming together to heal the brokenness of life. What remains is the journey of a lifetime, that path of personal healing that we all find ourselves on.

This year has given me the tools to press on in that journey: a willingness to serve, a desire to learn and grow, a faith to deepen and explore, and a love for others that I never could have imagined. Now I can go with purpose and with hope on the path of healing, for myself, for those around me, and for this beautiful, broken city I’ve come to call home. I’m thankful for that, thankful for all this year has given me. Thankful for the chance to become whole. And that is what remains. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

True Gifts

The following is a reflection written by Hilary Froelich, one of this year's North House Volunteers. She shared this as a part of the North House community's Pentecost Reflections, which took place May 20th.

You know how you walked through all of your classes before the first day, peeking into the classrooms, mapping out where you would sit, how fast you would have to walk to get from one class to the next? When it comes time to actually go there, you already know what you’re doing, where you’re going. That’s how I felt walking up to North House on that first day of August. I was confident. Confident in both who I was as a person and how I thought I would live out my life this year, and also in the position I thought I would have at my service site. It was like my class list was already memorized. My life here in Chicago would be an extension of the incredible year I had just finished at John Carroll – the one where I found myself through singing, prayer, and every campus ministry activity known to students. It was my turn to be the campus minister, to provide my students at Jospehinum Academy with the peace and enlightenment I had received from campus ministry, to use my quiet leadership and listening skills to connect with my housemates. As Saint Ignatius would say, I was ready to “go forth and set the world on fire.”

My fire started to turn into brightly lit coals, however, as I discovered that many high school girls aren’t using their faith life as a main topic of conversation. My attempts to start a youth group failed. Finding girls who would willingly stand up at the podium during Mass to read was almost impossible and the Sacred Silence I had found so important during Mass at John Carroll was filled with muffled chatter and giggles. That perfect image I had of this year being an extension of last year? – not so perfect. I found myself feeling both restless and hopeful as the year continued. I knew I was supposed to be at Josephinum, but my heart felt like it was constantly searching for something more, some sort of bigger fulfillment. I started spending more time in classrooms and less time in the front office, hoping to figure out just what it was that these girls needed in order to open up their hearts to faith and spirituality. I didn’t find anything to help them in their faith, but they certainly helped me.

My relationships with the girls began to blossom. I realized they didn’t need me to be a campus minister; they just needed my listening ear. Every day I was hearing about boy problems, school struggles, what they were doing over the weekend. My heart was being opened up for them, and I was drinking in all of their words, trying to love them as best as I could. I don’t know that I realized it as it was happening, but when I started working on retreats for each grade level second semester I knew what the girls would want, what sort of activities were going to be beneficial to them, which reflections and prayers would help them to open their minds and hearts. I’m not sure where this new courage and faith came from, but it was something I knew I needed to embrace and explore. I didn’t need to be the all-star campus minister; everything with campus ministry didn’t need to go perfectly to my plan. I just needed to be whatever my students needed me to be – a listener, a supporter, a shoulder to cry on, or a smiling face. My time at Josephinum has been a journey. I’ve walked with many people, but the Holy Spirit has always been by my side. It’s sometimes hard to recognize those difficult moments, where all you feel is lost, as a moment of grace, pointing you back towards the Lord. In Luke 24:13-35, we hear about the Road to Emmaus. The two men walking were filled with grief because the Lord had been gone; they didn’t realize that the man walking with them was, in fact, Jesus. Jesus has been walking with me throughout my year at Josephinum, I just needed the fire in my students’ eyes to recognize He was there.