Monday, August 29, 2016

Getting Started at Amate House

The following is reflection prepared by Melissa Tsuleff, a Volunteer in the McKinley Park Community. She shares her thoughts on Amate House Orientation and how it has prepared her for her year of service and community living. Melissa is serving at the Marjorie Kovler Center this year.  

Looking back on our first couple weeks with Amate House, the main thing I am feeling is thankful. I am thankful that God has provided this opportunity for me to grow in community and spirituality. I am thankful for my family and friends for supporting me every step of the way. I am thankful for the presence and support of the Amate House Staff and Alumni. I am thankful for the McKinley Park and Little Village Communities, my Service Site, and for the abundant love I receive daily.

One other thing I am particularly thankful for is the Orientation we had before beginning at our Service Sites. Each year Amate House Volunteers begin the year with a two week Orientation introducing them to the logistics of the program, its five tenets (Faith, Community, Service, Social Justice and Stewardship) and the city of Chicago.

The days were long, emotional, and exhausting, but all in good ways. We did a lot, and I learned so much. We talked about a lot of different topics, including (but definitely not limited to) culture, racism and anti-racism, Catholic Social Teaching, boundaries, non-violent communication, and community living. Although not all of these were foreign subjects to me, I learned a new angle to look at life and at those who I am serving.

One day in particular that impacted me the most was when we did a Social Exclusion Simulation at Adler University. We were replicating what it would be like for a woman who was recently released from prison to re-enter society. We attempted to find jobs, gain housing, receive medical treatment, and collect resources from a food pantry. The purpose was to introduce us to how the marginalized could be treated by social systems. Let me tell you: it isn’t very positive. In this case, the women attempting re-entry were dehumanized and treated as if their felonies defined who they were, rather than the systems recognizing their accomplishments. Too often, society and social systems look down upon those who do not fit in. These “others” are neglected because they do not have enough or because they are different. But the reality is that all of these people: immigrants and refugees, recently released prisoners, the poor, the homeless, and many other pushed-aside groups of people, are human beings who deserve respect and compassion. And that is why we are doing this year of service. That is why we are dedicating these next months to the marginalized of Chicago.

Hanna (left) discusses the Social Exclusion Simulation with Melissa and Caroline (on the right) at Adler University.

Another thing I am thankful for is Community. I have never lived with so many people, and I love it more and more each day. Orientation gave us such a great opportunity to spend some quality time with each other, as individual communities and as a larger Amate House community. From discussions, to sharing meals, to hanging out, we have already bonded so much. We support each other and lift each other up. These people already mean so much to me, and I can’t wait to see how much stronger our relationships become. 
Chris, Dulce, Melissa and Laura get instructions for their next Irons Oaks team-building challenge. Most Amate House alumni are familiar with this day which usually takes place during Orientation. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Building Community Together at our Table

The following is a reflection by Amate House alumna, Mackensey Carter. Mackensey was a Volunteer in the 2012-2013 Volunteer year. She lived at the McKinley Park House and served at Blessed Sacrament Youth Program. She is currently working at Cabrini Green Legal Aid as a Social Worker. Mackensey shares this story from her Volunteer year which she adapted from a post on her personal blog.

Clang, clang, clang. The familiar noise rang through the converted convent on S. Seeley Avenue. Clang clang clang. The dinner bell: dilapidated from many years of Amate House Volunteers beckoning each other to the dinner table.

Slowly all 12 of us would emerge from our post-work activities and gather around a splintered, worn table.  We called it a table, but in reality it was three tables.  Three rectangles pushed together.  It was a makeshift eating arrangement, but most things were makeshift in our lives that year.

After a few minutes of conversation while awkwardly standing in a large circle, which encompassed this beloved table, we clasped each other’s hands and blessed the food.  This was our routine and we never strayed from it.  With a glorious announcement of what the two cooks for the night had prepared for us, we all eagerly rushed into our often crowded kitchen and returned to our seats with our mismatched plates filled to capacity.

I’ve always wondered what this scene would look like to a passerby wandering down the streets of McKinley Park.  Twelve people around an over-sized table talking rather loudly to each other about anything you could imagine.  When I imagine such a passerby peering into our dimly lit dining room, I usually imagine them thinking: wow, what a crazy bunch. There’s too many of them to be a family. I wonder what they are all doing there?

Ah, but see, they would be mistaken.  We were a family. A crazy family crowded around a huge, unattractive group of tables with an unusual-looking Swan/Santa object that we had found in one of the many closets standing in as the centerpiece.  We were a family and this was our table.

The food on our table never lasted too long, especially if it was what we affectionately called a “solidarity meal,” which usually meant the cooks had miscalculated the correct portions for a group of twelve and everyone better be happy with what they have... but we always had more than enough.

See, the food never lasted too long, but we didn’t come to the table for the food.  No, this table was so much more than a holder of meals and physical sustenance.  We came to the table for each other. We came to the table to be reunited and re-centered every evening.  We came to the table to lift each other up, challenge each other, and truly know each other.  We came to the table for communion.

We made this table our sacred place.  We laughed, cried, shared, fought, debated, disagreed, rejoiced, and shouted around this table.  More than anything this table represented our lives together.  I remember many nights when I rushed through the front door at 7:30 after being called a motherf… I’ll let you fill in the rest… by one of the teenagers at my service site or after a day when every kid decided to dump their “hot chips,” which is an enticing combination of Flaming Hot Cheetos and bagged nacho cheese, on the library carpet or a day when the guys had made yet another hole in the Swiss-cheese-like drywall with their soccer antics. I remember many nights when the last place I wanted to be was around a twelve person table.

But I came to the table.  Those nights, I came to the table with the worst attitude.  Those nights, I came to the table in hopes of finishing my food as quickly as possible so that I could escape to my room for the rest of the evening.  Those nights, I came to the table exhausted, burnt out, defeated, and frustrated.  Those nights, I probably didn’t deserve to come to that sacred table.

Yet despite my greatest efforts to remain in a terrible, self-pitying mood, something always happened.  To this day I’m still not sure how, but it happened after every crappy day.  I would come to the table miserable and leave in a much different place.  Let’s get this straight, though, this table had no special powers that zapped bad moods out of you after a “Bless Us Oh Lord.”  No.  Usually I would bring my crappy day to the table and like any normal human being try to spread my crappy day to others… I’d complain about the kids, I’d be a little snippy when the Costco-size bucket of butter took a few minutes too long to get to my side of the table, I’d ignore the glorious details of my housemates’ days.

That would only last so long, though, because I would always realize that I could never disrupt the joy that lived constantly around this table.  When four of us had bad days, there were eight others to remind us of ourselves.  To remind us of the strength that we all had, to remind us of the importance of what we were doing, to tell their own stories of victory and encouragement from their day.  We were never alone. We were never alone in our misery or our triumph.  And that’s what we learned around the table.

Each day we would travel to our respective service sites.  Bearing the weight of social injustice, non-profit dysfunction and the suffering of the individuals we served on our own.  But we always did so with the hopeful knowledge that each evening we would share that burden together around our table.  No matter the defeats or victories of the day, the table was a constant reminder.  A reminder that we are in this together.  A reminder that we will all join in communion once again.  A reminder that we are one crazy, huge, dysfunctional family that shouts, cries, laughs, and shares with each other.   A reminder that whenever the twelve of us gather around this table, we create something sacred.

I think about that table often now when the world around me seems to constantly reject what our community was able to create.  When it takes only a click of an unfriend button to remove someone from your life.  When politicians and world leaders urge us to distrust and distance ourselves from each other. When violence and fear threaten the sacredness of our existence together.  When creating community depends more on convenience than necessity, that’s when I return to that table.

Community is built by showing up day in and day out, despite fear or threat, to be a presence to one another.  Community is built by assuming the best in each other even when we show our worst. Community is often built by hard, inconvenient work and always built through celebration of each other.  Community is a necessity not a convenience.  Whatever our tables look like, we must choose to return to them and be nourished by the people around them every day, just like we did during our Amate House year.