Friday, March 25, 2016

Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem

The following is a Stations of the Cross reflection prepared by South House Volunteer Meaghan Sykes.

When I heard this station, I first thought of the women I work with. New Moms is a small agency, and our staff is comprised of almost completely women. Our clientele served is also women - pregnant and parenting teen moms, and their children. In this station, Jesus meets the women who have been following him on his journey. When he meets them, he tells them not that “it doesn't do anything to cry, what is required is action."

This reminded me of an encounter with a new volunteer that I was training. I was going through the procedure for servicing a client who came to receive diapers and formula. I started explaining that we can’t always serve women who are too old for our housing program, or have too many children to be eligible, or if we just don’t have an available apartment. I showed her our list of outside resources that we give out with referrals to other programs.

“Meaghan, I’m getting this feeling that I sometimes do when I think about global warming and climate change…it seems like no matter what we do, our effort is so tiny. How are we to work to end homelessness and hunger with these young moms when we can only give them two cans of formula in an entire year? How do you deal with that??”

I’ll admit that I was really surprised by her question, and at first unsure how to answer. Maybe she’s right. Maybe the work that we’re doing won’t be able to save the world, or end homelessness. But then I thought of the Mother Teresa quote, which says, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if the drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of the missing drop.”

So I started thinking of the “drops” that I contribute at New Moms and in my community. Whether it’s working at the front desk and greeting each resident by name, giving stickers to the kids who walk by, enjoying lunch with my coworkers, or welcoming my roommates with a big hug and asking them about their day when they get home.

I told her, “Well, I think I try to think of it on a smaller scale. Sure, when you think of the whole world and all of the suffering in it, it’s so easy to get discouraged. But think of this community. Think of the people of Austin that we’re able to serve, or better yet think of each family that we’re able to help. Though it may not seem like much by itself, know that for a moment their life is better.”
It can become overwhelming to think of our lives in a sea of “can’t”s. But when you think of actions, rather than sadness for what can’t be accomplished, you’ll realize that actions do speak louder than words.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Jesus Bears the Cross

The following Stations of the Cross reflection was prepared by South House Volunteer Jacob Storck.

“This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

What a miraculous thought: patiently to trust our heaviness-patiently to trust our burdens and the crosses that we carry throughout life.  But why trust? How can we be patient with something that is so difficult to endure? If we are not patient, then how will we emerge? If our burdens are too great and numerous, then what if they break us before we can fly, as the quote suggests?  These questions and many more float through my mind.  This quote by Rilke is one of my absolute favorites, because it reminds me that each experience, each moment that we are alive, each burden that we bear is teaching us to trust our own heaviness. This heaviness he is speaking of comes from the various burdens that we carry throughout our lives. Jesus most likely felt the same heaviness that Rilke speaks of, metaphorically and physically, as he carried the cross on his back in the 7th station. As I was reflecting on this, and the image of Jesus carrying the cross, I immediately felt myself calling to mind individual students that I have worked with throughout this year at Perspectives Middle Academy, and the experiences that they have shared with me.

The other day a student revealed to me that his cousin had been shot 3 times. He told me casually, in the middle of the advisory class that I teach, as though he was telling me what he had for dinner the night before.  It took me a moment to register exactly what he was saying, and to question him a bit further. It turns out that his cousin had been walking up to a house and a couple of guys that he didn’t even know shot at him. The attack was not fatal…he is alive, but he will carry those scars for the rest of his life. My student will carry those scars the rest of his life as well, even if he does not know that right now. To us, the privileged, this is an event that would shake us to the core, maybe even break us.  To the youth who live in Auburn-Gresham, this event is something that occurs on the daily.

If there is one thing that I have learned from my Amate year it is this: being a 12-year-old on the south side of Chicago is no easy task. There is the constant fear of violence, the reality of living in a food desert, the fact that many are growing up in single parent households, where that single parent works nights and is never home to help them with their homework. Then there is the pressure that comes with trying to fit in, while also remaining true to yourself, as well as the challenge of discovering who you are and your place in the world.  They carry so much…heavy crosses that society has placed on their shoulders.  I suppose when phrased in such a way, these situations seem pretty bleak.  I mean, how could anybody emerge stronger from this? Well, I do believe that it is possible.

If you are not familiar with Father Gregory Boyle, he is a Jesuit priest who has done a great deal of work with at-risk youth, including those formerly involved with gangs and recently incarcerated. I would like to share with you one of his most powerful quotes, partly because I am inspired by him, and partly because to me it beautifully illustrates this station of the cross. “You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.” When I first read this, I was astounded. This sums up my Amate year in so many words.  My students do not have the privilege of growing up in a rich suburb.  They do not have the privilege of being white in a world where being anything other than that is a heavy load.

When I begin to get frustrated with the disruptive behaviors that they often display, I try to remember: they carry so much. Their bad behavior is the vocabulary of the deeply wounded. Their “lack of success” in the classroom is not a time to abandon them, it is a time to stand by their side.   In the end they will be so much stronger due to their burdens, and it is my duty as an educator to stand by their side. It is my duty and my privilege to help them bear those burdens.

I believe that when we are examining and reflecting on the 7th station, as Jesus carried the cross on his back, it is key to remember one thing: he was never alone. Not only were there people walking beside him, but God was there always.  In our communities this Amate Year, we strive to be vulnerable so that we can support each other in all of it, through each joy and each burden.

As we journey through life, there will never be a time when we do not carry any crosses. There is always something that we will be carrying on our shoulders.  This weight will change and shift and evolve and affect us in different ways throughout our lives, but it will never disappear.  The beauty comes when we are able to support each other during the times when the weight threatens to become too much.  This is living.  The moments when I am supporting others, as well as in the moments when I am being supported are the moments when I feel my humanity most fully. It is the crosses that make us whole, and from the crosses that we received the most strength. One of my favorite songs from the musical Carousel says “At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky, and the sweet silver song of a lark. Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.”  As you journey from this space tonight, please remember…we each have our own crosses, and as they change and shift and evolve and help us to grow stronger, what is most vital to remember is that you never have to bear them on your own. I am here, and all of the people who love you are here, and God is here, and you will never walk alone.

Jesus Speaks to his Mother and the Disciple

The following is a Stations of the Cross reflection prepared by South House Volunteer Tia Clifford.

Working at the Academy of St. Benedict the African, my site placement this year, has challenged me to utilize skills that I have had in the past, but not used in this way. I practice organization when sorting items for the classroom. I practice compassion when the students get frustrated or injured, and I practice patience when I repeat a direction over, and over, and over again. When I first started working as a kindergarten assistant I called someone who has been a great source of constant love and support in my own life, my mother’s former co-worker and best friend and my pretend Aunt Dorothy. My mom and aunt Dorothy worked in adjacent Kindergarten classrooms for 31 years and I’ll admit, some of their stories scared me away from ever wanting to work with five and six year olds. Naturally, when I did find out that my site placement was me in Kindergarten, I reached out for advice. Aunt Dorothy explained working with kindergartners to be a unique experience that is a mix of being compassionate and motherly as well as being a relatively stern disciplinarian.

Many of the students in my class had not been around adults or children that they are not related to before this year. I look at the young mothers who drop off their crying children at school and I imagine how difficult it must be to leave and walk away from your struggling child for the sake of their growth and development. [It is a wonder how they ever do it. On my own first week of Kindergarten, my mother followed the bus in her own car and came into school to watch me from the window of the classroom every day until she was asked to leave.] Many times I have been pulled out of the classroom by mothers asking me to talk to their child to convince them to stop their tears and come into school. In many ways it feels like these mothers are passing a “motherly baton” over to me for 9 hours and trusting me with keeping them safe and passing some wisdom and tools to keep them safe. After all of the growth that I’ve witnessed and been a part of, all the hugs and I love you’s in the middle of lessons, all of the conversations that lead to changed behavior and nicer words, and after being called “mommy” a few hundred times I really have begun to feel like the kindergarten class at Academy of St. Benedict the African is a part of my family.

When Jesus spoke to his mother and disciple from the cross, he said “Woman, behold, your son” and to the disciple, “Behold you mother”. The ties of family are so important that even amongst the physical pain and emotional turmoil that Jesus was experiencing at the time, he looked down from the cross to make sure that his mother would be loved and taken care of in his absence. While the two or three jobs that the mothers of my students leave for are not as final and arduous as Jesus’ passion and death, it still requires an incredible amount of trust to leave your child in the care of someone else. It is truly an honor and blessing that I am someone a parent can put their trust in to take care of their child.

Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry the Cross

The following is a Stations of the Cross reflection prepared by South House Volunteer Grace Holland.

In the eighth station we see Simon the Cyrenian pressed into service to carry Jesus’ cross. He is chosen to bear Christ’s burden even without ever offering to. Despite his reluctance, Simon accepts the burden, easing Jesus suffering, fear, and exhaustion. Simon, as most of us in that situation, I’m sure did not want to be called into service, and had serious reservations about whether or not he could possibly hold all of that weight and endure even a few moments of Jesus’ suffering. Simon showed his strength and love in his willingness and ability to get involved as only a passer-by.

Amate means Love in Action. This is something I have heard all throughout my year at Amate House, and have strived to live out on a daily basis. Serving individuals around the Chicago community at Chicago Legal Clinic, I knew coming into this year all my days would not be easy. There is no end to the challenges and joys and unexpecteds that life throws at you, especially in a work place. Working directly with clients who are learning the foreclosure process and how to navigate the court system can be both very trying and very rewarding. In striving to display love in action every day, I will admit I find it much easier to show love to my friendly, appreciative and easy clients. It is a whole different story when it comes to those who are loud, aggressive and opinionated. But nevertheless, both types of clients, and all of those who fall somewhere in between, deserve my best effort and every service available to them.

Why did Simon get involved? What stopped him from denouncing Jesus, from fading back into the crowd and leaving Jesus to bear his own cross? In our own lives, how do we know when to get involved, when it’s best to stay and when we should really remove ourselves and walk away? I think the shared factor that helps us all relate to one another is our common humanity. It is our common humanity that allows us to decide why we get involved, what stake do we have in a situation and more bluntly, why I should care. Thinking about the service many of us do every day, let alone the individuals we encounter on at our sites, on our commutes, and even at home, it’s hard to know what crosses are my crosses. Why do I care? Simply because I should? No, it’s more than that. It’s a shared humanity, a common but different looking life experience. It’s part of what it means to be human and a Christian, seeing God in others.

Jesus Prays in the Garden of Gethsemane

The following is a Stations of the Cross reflection prepared by South House Volunteer Helene Bansley.

In the first station, Jesus is preparing for his death. He goes to the garden to pray to God because he is overwhelmed with sorrow and distress. He is fearful of his impending death and the suffering he is about to endure.  His heart is heavy, yet he utters these words:

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will but as you will.”

This simple, yet powerful prayer spoke deeply to me the first time I read it. In that moment, I saw Jesus’s human side, that he was capable of feeling sorrow and fear, and in turn I recognized myself. It made me think of the many times in my life and during this year that I have been scared, that I have felt this sense of panic, that empty feeling in my stomach that everything is wrong. When I began my Amate year in August, I struggled immensely to adjust. My first night here, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. My bedroom was 90 degrees, I had just crushed a spider, and my sink wouldn’t drain. I thought, God, get me out of here. I immediately doubted the plan He had in store for me, and I wanted to run away.

Adapting to change is definitely not my strong suit. I missed my former life, my old friends, my independence, being in college, surrounded by people who knew me and accepted me and loved me as I am. I desperately craved that sense of familiarity and comfort, and I wondered: how I could possibly find that again? I never imagined the close bonds that I have now created with my eight housemates or the fun, loving, compassionate community that we would build. Not to mention starting a brand new job at One Million Degrees, integrating myself into a workplace and community that had been long-established before I got there. I felt anxious and worried all the time. I was filled with doubt and questioned if this was where I was truly meant to be.

One of my favorite sayings is, let go and let God. I tried to quiet the doubts in my mind, and let things happen naturally. I prayed to God constantly during this time—when I woke up in the morning, on the train to work, on my walk home. I prayed that He would give me a sign that I was where He wanted me to be. That He had not forgotten me, but rather the opposite; His plan was unfolding just as He intended. And gradually, day by day, I watched things change. I experienced the joy of beautiful friendships developing. I began to feel more confident at work, taking on projects of my own, answering the phone without hesitation, joking around with coworkers that I had initially been intimidated by, and becoming good friends with my inspiring supervisor Katie.

Most importantly, I began to truly love and adore my housemates. I felt our community grow closer and create a place we could call home. And as the days passed, I felt more and more comfortable showing my true self. A person that laughs so hard I will start kicking my legs in the air or even roll on the floor uncontrollably. A person who when giving hugs, always holds on a little tighter and a lot longer. A person who feels so deeply and loves so fearlessly. I have become proud of this person, and my community has helped me to embrace my unique holiness. Looking back, I realize I just had to give it time.

Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will but as you will.”

I think this is my life long struggle, trusting God’s will, and trusting that He has a plan for me, and just because it doesn’t always align with my own plan, God knows me best, better than I know myself, and He will grant what my heart truly desires. I think that is the point. God always comes through and He is always with me. During my joyful moments and during my darkest moments. He is by my side through it all. He puts challenges and trials in our lives not to make us suffer, but so that we can become the person He wants us to be.

A person who befriends their brokenness and embraces their flaws, knowing very well that it is only through our brokenness that we are whole; it is only through our flaws that we are perfect, and it is only through God that we are beloved.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Beloved by God - Reflections from Winter Retreat 2016

The following is a reflection written by Kelsea Manion, one of this year's Uptown (North House) Volunteers. Kelsea serves at Exodus World Service, an organization that mobilizes the local Christian community to welcome newly-arrived refugees.

“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

This passage is quite a memorable story from Mark’s Gospel. Personally, I have heard it more times than I can count, but it never became a story that held much meaning in my own spiritual life. Of course, John the Baptist’s humility is inspiring, Jesus’ insistence on being baptized is interesting, and God’s movement of the sky is impressive. But as for the voice from heaven, it is speaking to Jesus, it’s not exactly speaking to me.

Henri Nouwen would disagree. In his opinion, God is speaking to all of us; we are all beloved by God. This fact is not only proven by this passage, but from numerous instances of God’s love in Scripture and through Christ’s ministry. We must claim and live our belovedness, even when it is difficult to hear that message in the world today.

During winter retreat, I was given the opportunity to hear this message and reflect on its significance in my own life. Our sessions were split into four parts of this message: Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given. I’d like to share my own thoughts from this weekend, in the hopes of capturing my experience in Amate House thus far.

Taken: God has chosen me. Honestly, this is a hard thing for me to grapple with. I hear it over and over that I am beloved by God, that God has called me to accept my belovedness. The thing I did accept during this winter retreat is that my relationship with God is distant. I’ve been going through the motions for awhile, doing the things that I think are “religious” or “spiritual”, trying to foster a better prayer life using the same tools. None of this is giving me life because deep inside me, I’m not sure I ever accepted that I am chosen by God in the first place.

Why? Because I’m not sure that I am created in “his” image. The language I keep hearing tells me that God is a man, even though theologically I know this is not accurate. Just recently, I am beginning to admit how much this affects me. This is a leap in my spirituality and I’m eager to continue exploring what it means. I’m eager to foster a relationship with God that is unique and life-giving.

Blessed: God has chosen me, and so I am blessed in many ways. This one isn’t as hard for me to accept; I like hearing others compliment me and I would consider myself a confident person. I am also big on verbal affirmations from others. During retreat, I had a new experience of affirmations which made me reflect more deeply. Standing in a circle facing outward, I kept my eyes closed as the leader read statements like, “Reach out and touch someone who has allowed you to be vulnerable,” or “Reach out and touch someone who challenges you to be better”. For about twenty minutes I heard these statements and felt my community members squeeze my shoulder or gently place their hand on my back. This was heartwarming and moving, but the one that really made me think was, “Reach out and touch someone who you want to get to know more.” There were three or four hands on my back this time, and I realized that I agreed with them. I want to get to know myself more too. Perhaps my obsession with needing verbal affirmation isn’t allowing me to hear my inner voice. Instead of cultivating a deep sense of self I am making others tell me who I am and what my talents are. I think it was good for me to stand with my eyes closed through this activity and not know who was affirming me. It was even better to be given this reflection and realize that I need to work on my vulnerability with myself and with others.

Friends, I want you to know me more. I want to know who your inner selves are too.

Broken: Now, this one is pretty difficult. Think of a time when you were broken and connect this to your blessedness. Like many others, I’m not one to admit when I am broken. I like to put on a strong face and shield my pain or frustrations from people. Although I’ve learned that it is helpful for me to process my feelings with others, I first have the attitude that I can figure it out by myself. Living in community makes it difficult to keep up this attitude. My housemates see me when I’m quiet at dinner, they can hear my voice shake when I describe a frustrating day at work, and they can ask a tough question that makes me share more.

Joining this program, I have made a commitment to build intimacy with my community members, which means I have to share my brokenness. I began to think of this in a new way as we discussed the idea of “wholeness” on retreat. Wholeness means acknowledging all the parts of yourself, positive and negative. It’s the idea that all of your experiences have made you into the person you are, whether those experiences were hard or great. I’m more whole when I cry because work is hard; I’m more whole because I had my trust broken in the past; I’m more whole when I’m frustrated and my heart hurts at hearing hate speech directed at refugees, who are my friends; I’m more whole because I admit to my spiritual director and my housemates that I’m struggling with my faith. Recognizing my brokenness isn’t something that I should be ashamed of or hide, because it all adds to my wholeness, which I think is a beautiful thing.

Given: The last piece of acknowledging and accepting our belovedness involves what we do for others. It’s a common Christian message that we should give back and share our blessings. I took this also as sharing myself, in a real and vulnerable way, with others. As a continuation of all of my reflections during winter retreat, this is a common theme I plan to put into action during the last few months of my Amate year.

Thank you for reading this long thread of thoughts and thank you for letting me practice my vulnerability in this reflection.

Amate House is seeking young adults who are seeking an opportunity to live out a year of service, community, and faith formation in Chicago. Our final application for the 2016-2017 program year is March 15 - to apply, please visit our website: