Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Recognizing and Receiving Gifts of the Spirit

The following is a reflection prepared by Stephen Umhoefer, one of this year's North House Volunteers. Stephen shared this reflection as a part of her community's Pentecost Reflections, which explores the movements of the Paschal Mystery. Stephen spoke of living out the Pentecost and the spiritual gifts received and recognized through service. 

The following words were written by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Circles. “Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow, when we are building up our being. Of lower states, of acts of routine and sense, we can tell somewhat; but the masterpieces of God, the total growths and universal movements of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable.” I have included these words because to me they give shape to the Pentecost experience, an experience that I have realized has been quietly occurring, below the surface, throughout my time in Amate.

Back at the beginning of this year in August I knew that I had started on a new journey. I was living in a new city with people I had never met and was working at a school that I had never been to. It was a time of change and transition into a new way of life. In my work at St. Thomas I envisioned myself to be a difference maker. Going into the year there was an image in my mind where I would be working day in and day out tutoring students and everything, be it reading or math, would make sense to them at the end of the day. They would listen closely and be excited to work with me. My smarts, I thought, were my gifts that were going to make the biggest difference. These expectations proved to be wrong.

My position at St. Thomas this year has been much more muted than I thought it would be. From having a lack of supervision, the classes when a teacher doesn’t have anything for me to work on, to feeling stuck when a student doesn’t understand something after I’ve tried to explain it four times, my time at school has often been spent wondering what difference, if any, I was making. Most days have followed the same pattern and schedule with little to no variation. The “lower states, of acts of routine and sense,” as Emerson puts it.

But as I have been reflecting on my time at St. Thomas I realized that my gifts are not in my smarts as I thought they would be. My gifts have been revealed to me in the handful of moments, moments that I cherish, where a student has expressed their gratitude for the time I have spent working with them. There is the Christmas gift I received from an 8th grader I helped with reading, the uninhibited hug from the first grader I helped with math, and hearing the words “I like working with you” from a fourth grader I’ve only worked with two or three times. With none of these students was it my smarts that made an impact, but my giving of time, attention, and assistance to someone who then needed it. It was in these moments, unplanned and unexpected, that my gifts were revealed to me.

Emerson says life is a series of surprises, and the masterpieces of God, the growths and universal movements of the soul, are hidden and incalculable. The times when the impact of my gifts were shown to me are not as frequent as I may like them, but that is not up to me, but neither does it take away from the fact that my gifts were in action whether I am aware of them or not.

The Pentecost embodies the life and energy that we receive from learning and growing from our experiences. I would say that this life and energy also may come from the times when the impact of our gifts are revealed to us. When we realize that we do have a capacity to reach out and connect with those we serve, though often it will seem otherwise. At times unappointed and unplanned God will give us a glimpse at the effect of our efforts. It will be a surprise. Brief and simple these moments may be, but they show us that something has been going on the entire time, just beneath the surface.

What have been your moments this past year, or at any time in your life, when you were given a fleeting peek at the impact you have? What was revealed to you as your gifts in those moments? What are the surprise masterpieces of God in your life, and how do you allow them to give you the energy to live out the Pentecost?

Grieving the Old and Celebrating the New

The following is a reflection prepared for Ashleigh Knoeferl, one of this year's North House Volunteers. Ashleigh shared this reflection as part of her community's Pentecost Reflections, which explores the movements of the Paschal Mystery. Ashleigh spoke of "The Forty Days before the Ascension", and the themes of change and reception of new life.

The 40 days before Jesus’ Ascension: described as a time for adjustment to the new and for grieving the old. It seems like an appropriate description for Amate House, doesn’t it? This time last year, we were certainly grieving the old. Grieving our four years spent in our undergraduate, all the friends we made, the memories we shared. It doesn’t seem fair that we only had a year to adjust to this new life outside of school. But Amate House offers more than just time for adjustment. It offered a brand new look at reality. One that is uncomfortable, intentional, and counter-cultural.

The apostles spent the 40 days before Jesus’ Ascension doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus told them to do. Go out and change the world? More like hide in their rooms in fear of persecution. But really, I am not one to judge. I like to seem braver than I am. No one knows this about me, but on move-in day, I actually started crying out of nowhere when I was only ten minutes away from what my community members and I now affectionately call “NoHo.”

Was I nervous about moving to a new city? Was I not ready for community life? Honestly, I will never know, because I did not allow myself the necessary time to reflect and move on; I just brushed it off and put on a face. I realize now that I have been too eager to move on to the next. Allowing yourself a little time to adjust is a healthy part of self-care. Thankfully, Amate has been a HUGE advocate of this time for reflection. I think that is a lesson that will stick with me well beyond this year. In order to care for others, you must first take care of yourself.

So really, we need this time for adjustment. We need this time to grieve the old. Even me, who has always believed I can adapt to anything. This in-between time of grieving and adjustment is not weakness. In fact, it is a necessary part of moving forward.

Now, I am thankful to live in a house that recognizes how perfectly uncomfortable this year has been, and what a pivotal experience this is for us. What do I mean by “perfectly uncomfortable”? I mean that my house has challenged me to open up in ways I never thought I could. When my roommates start a conversation with “Let’s get intimate!” you know you’re about to discuss something really deep. Whether it comes from a memory from your past or from a musing about a workday, it’s more than just a personal story; with my “NoHo” community, it’s contemplation and reflection that challenges you to really think about the situation and put it in a different perspective.

This opportunity to reflect out loud will not always present itself so easily when we are released into the real world. Who is going to ask me to “get intimate” after this year? Who will prompt me to open up and reflect? This is something I will need to prompt myself. But then again, that was the whole purpose for this year, wasn’t it? To learn from the discomfort and create these habits so that we can lead just lives and, hopefully, touch the lives of others around us. What a difference this year has made for me! From unfounded nervous tears to intentional daily reflection with my fellow Volunteers, self-care and contemplation has become all but second nature to us.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Healing Wounds through Cooking Group

The following is a reflection prepared for Christine Caldera, one of this year's North House Volunteers. Christine shared this reflection as part of her community's Pentecost Reflections, which explores the movements of the Paschal Mystery. Christine spoke of "Easter", and the themes of change and reception of new life.

Easter Sunday reminds us that we must welcome change for continual self improvement.  We are encouraged to embrace new life and be open to change in order to undergo personal transformation. Throughout my year serving at the Marjorie Kovler Center as a case manager for torture survivors, there have been many moments of joy, uncertainty, sadness, and friendship.  As I reflect upon the last nine months working with a vulnerable, yet resilient population, I find that I have gained a sense of new life and perspective to carry with me. I foster social connections with clients through accompaniment, accessing resources and services, but most of all by participating in a Kovler cooking group.

If you ring the Kovler Center’s doorbell on a Friday night, there is a good chance that I would welcome you to join the joyful chaos that is a cooking group. Twice a month, the occupational therapist arranges a cooking group to share a delicious and authentic meal from a survivor’s home country. One or two survivors serve as head chefs, teaching other clients and staff how to prepare traditional food. This group immerses you in international cuisine, which tends to evoke memories and stories of home. Connecting with a client while behind my desk and computer can be challenging, yet, in the kitchen there are no barriers to forming a life giving relationship. Cooking group cultivates a better understanding of others because I immerse myself in the culture and stories that are shared. This group provides survivors an outlet to feel at home, which tends to be a foreign feeling to survivors in a new country.

Although we ought to embrace new life during Easter Sunday, we may not readily accept change. During this year of Amate House, I am trying to be more open to leaning into discomfort and uncertainty. Cooking group occasionally takes me out of my comfort zone in simple ways, but also in ways that help me grow as a person.  This personal growth can be as straightforward as expanding my palate. I have eaten chicken gizzard from a traditional Cameroonian dish, tasted Haitian Independence Day soup, and learned how to use injera as a utensil while eating cabbage and potato wat from Ethiopia. There have been simple, but meaningful moments such as explaining to a client from Ivory Coast what asparagus is and seeing the look of curiosity after trying this vegetable for the first time. The taste and smell of a guava reminded many clients of home, which awakened a connection to their past life, but one that was shared amongst clients of different languages and countries. In the most recent cooking group, an Argentinian client taught participants how to dance the tango, which I failed miserably at. Trying traditional meals or dance is a meaningful way of connecting cross-culturally because those activities are universal rituals. I appreciate the quality time spent with Kovler participants during a cooking group, as this time spent together rejuvenates me as well as the clients. This group embraces diversity, fosters community and wellness amongst Kovler clients and staff, and empowers survivors. For this reason, cooking group has proven to be one of the most transformative and enjoyable moments of my time serving as a case manager.

In the words of Miriam Adeney, “you will never be completely at  home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place”. As my time at the Kovler Center is coming to an end, I occasionally find myself avoiding the goodbyes. I feel at home when I walk through the front door and am in the presence of Kovler clients. I opened my heart to the participants, so I could better empathize and be in solidarity with the clients. My heart is forever broken after hearing the torture and trauma narratives that Kovler clients experienced. Torture creates a permanent wound, but the hope that emanates from the survivors at Kovler inspires me. Without having an open heart, I would not have had fruitful experiences and relationships that give me life as I have now. The goodbyes will be difficult, but I am lucky to have a place and group of people so difficult to say goodbye to.

Death and Rebirth

The following is a reflection prepared for Allison Guntz, one of this year's North House Volunteers. Allison shared this reflection as part of her community's Pentecost Reflections, which explores the movements of the Paschal Mystery. We began with "Good Friday", and the themes of death and loss.

In order for me to talk about death, we have to talk for a minute about what death means in the context of this year so full of life. To state the obvious, I am not dead. My housemates are not dead. I haven’t witnessed the death of any of my clients. However, there have been figurative deaths. I feel that I have lost parts of myself, that pieces of me have been shed, perhaps to give way to something new. In abstract ways, I have died to myself, and I am reborn, and I am not reborn.

I think back to the first few weeks of my work at Lakeview Pantry when I was making professional goals for the year. I was going to a) implement a composting system for bruised or oozing fruit we have to throw out, b) overhaul the way we store and rotate our entire stock, and c) single-handedly write a grant to get a wheelchair lift installed so people can get into our basement facility (which would naturally mean getting the entire space redone to become ADA compliant). Oh, and I was going to learn Russian. Did I mention all of this was in my first six months on the job?

What a colossal joke. As I settled into the daily realities of work, I realized it was practically all I could do to make sure I got my data entry done each week. I mourned the death of my work goals. As time passed and all of the items on my ridiculous to-do list remained unchecked, I felt less certain of the impact I could make. I began to recognize that as I accepted that I would not accomplish all of these things, I was also allowing some of my go-getter self, my “I’m-going-to-fix-a-broken-system” self to die. Slowly, and with some sadness, I realized that in some ways, that was necessary. I had to become more practical about my abilities. I have had to acknowledge the limits of my body, my time, and my energy. There is something liberating in that realization.

In the interest of full disclosure, though, I need to tell you of another loss I saw in myself this year.

I began the year ready to confront a system – the system, the capital-S System – that marginalizes and excludes the people who come to the food pantry. I thought my job was to alleviate the injustices of the System, and it is a little bit. But I think that I also am the System a little bit, too.

A large part of my job is interviewing people when they come to the pantry for the first time. I assess their needs and I explain the process. Often, though, my clients want to explain why they ended up in a food pantry – what they’re up against. And sometimes I have a line fifteen people deep and I can only spend two or three minutes with each person, and the machine does not keep running if I hold their hand and pass them the Kleenex, you know? I feel myself dehumanizing them to be able to do my job.  I feel it dehumanizing me too, to myself. I was so horrified to prod the clients along in the beginning, and then one day a woman told me she’d just left a situation of domestic violence and – I do not say this with any pride whatsoever – I didn’t care. I don’t mean this to say that that is the day upon which I ceased to care about the lives and pains of my clients, but I say this to explain that one stressful and trying day, I sat next to a crying woman and I didn’t care. I fear I am a cog in the grand machine that is the System, and that’s a death too.

But I think that’s also what makes me human. I thought it was my empathy. That’s one of the things I like most about myself, and it’s something that I’ve lost touch of in some moments, but again, I had to become more practical about my abilities. I have had to acknowledge the limits of my body, my time, and my energy. It turns out that compassion fatigue is a real thing, and it is very human, and I had to accept that, no matter how powerless and ugly it made me feel at times.

My fantastic supervisor Carrie hung up a quote from Edward Everett Hale next to my desk, and as the year has progressed, I have committed it to memory and taken it to heart: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”

Ultimately, I thought I came here to fix something, but in the end, maybe I was only here to bear witness to it. And maybe that’s okay.