Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Embrace the Unexpected and Say Yes

The following is an Advent reflection prepared by Maggie Lamb, a Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. Maggie is working at Lawndale Christian Legal Center in North Lawndale and she shared her story at Amate House’s Las Posadas evening of reflection on December 14, 2016.

About a week before I moved to Chicago, I realized something.  I was incredibly, gut-wrenchingly nervous. Would I be able to do my job? Could I handle simple living? What does it even mean to be in intentional community? At every transition before this, I’d had others who could tell me what to expect. Friends above me at my high school told me to get my skirt shortened before I arrived. Everyone I met offered some advice for getting along with my first roommate in college.  No one who I know well has done a year of service before.  I didn’t know anyone in Chicago. For the first time, I was really moving into the unknown and had no idea what to expect.

Learning to embrace the unexpected and the unknown has truly defined my year so far and has given me so many questions that occupy my mind.  In this season of advent, Mary is a beautiful model in accepting the unexpected.  When I think about Mary, I am usually caught up in her “yes.” I am so enamored by the way that she was able to fully accept a terrifying new experience with love and grace.  This year, however, I am more interested in her questions.  Mary’s “yes” is surrounded by uncertainty and confusion. When the Angel Gabriel appeared to her, she is initially troubled.  In fact, the very first words she utters in the Bible are a question: “How can this be?” After the birth of her Son, upon hearing others again discuss things that seem extraordinary, “she pondered them in her heart.”  This year, I am called to consider the questions that I am asking of God and of those around me in the face of so much I did not expect.
Maggie shares her reflection at Las Posadas at
Our Lady of Tepeyac High School.

At work, I am challenged by injustice and pain.  I have witnessed young people targeted and hurt by a system that that breaks every rule of justice. A few months ago, a young girl told me about the hurt that she was experiencing. It was pain that I had never experienced and I was caught in a spiral of shock.  I knew that this kind of suffering existed but I had no idea how to respond.  A few weeks later, a young man was surrounded by police officers with drawn guns and held overnight despite being cleared almost immediately.  He was on his way to receive an award for all of his hard work.

There are days when some of this just seems like too much.  I did not expect this to be such a pervasive reality and I am unprepared to emotionally handle this.  Like Mary, I look to God and to those around me and ask “how can this be?” I barely get an answer. But I do witness Mary’s “yes.”  I have never been so frustrated - and yet I have never seen God so clearly.  Our attorneys from the top tier law schools say “yes” when they accept low paying jobs without health insurance to fight daily against a flawed system.  Our case managers say "yes" when they drive twenty minutes out of their way on a weekend to give kids bus cards so they can get to school on Monday.  Those I work with say “yes” every day that they glare through tears at computer screens, fighting their own heartbreak in order to make the lives of their young people better.  And they say “yes” every time we love each other and offer each other support through our craziest days.
Jimmy and Maggie pose after Las Posadas! Great job LV!

And I wouldn’t be able to offer my own “yes” if my community didn’t help me.  I had questions at home too. What does it mean to practice unconditional positive regard? What does intentionality mean? Seriously, what the heck is a chia seed and why are these people putting them in cookies?  I know that I am so blessed to live with people who pose these questions and help me find answers.  I thought I might make some friends, but I didn’t expect to find role models in my own home.  But I did. I found people who have shown me such love and generosity that I never could have expected from people who I really just met.  I like to be in control, and the word “unexpected” has always been associated with negativity.  In our little home on Ridgeway, I learned that the unexpected can carry unimaginable beauty.

I have so much that I ponder in my heart this year.  I am learning so much so quickly and can only scrape the surface in this moment.  I just hope that, like Mary, when I am asked to embrace the unexpected and the unknown I can take a deep breath and calmly and confidently say “yes.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

Welcoming the Stranger

The following is an Advent reflection prepared by Caroline Musslewhite, a Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. Caroline is a first grade teacher’s aide at Our Lady of Tepeyac Elementary School in Little Village and she shared her story at Amate House’s Las Posadas evening of reflection on December 14, 2016.

As I was preparing for the Little Village Las Posadas evening of reflection, surrounded by a group of giggling Little Village-ers, I thought back to when I first moved to Chicago. I was nervous about my placement, working as a teacher with no prior experience. I was uncertain about my neighborhood, having been forewarned by many family, friends, and strangers about my safety. I was apprehensive about my housemates, envisioning potential conflict or lukewarm acquaintances. In a nutshell, I feared many layers of being a stranger – feeling incompetent, misunderstood, unprepared, and unknown.

The experience of being a stranger expressed itself in many ways. Going to mass by myself in Spanish and mumbling through the mass parts. Failing to appreciate the mistake a teacher can make by sending too many boys to the bathroom at the same time (essentially, giving them your blessing to play in the bathroom). It came in not knowing which was the safest route to take to the train or, more seriously, how far away was the sound of a gunshot I heard in the night.

These moments, significant and small, compounded to an overwhelming feeling of being an outsider. But then again, I only can appreciate how much I felt like a stranger then because in the past I have felt known, at peace in a community, understood, prepared, and competent. I am so blessed for these moments that I haven’t felt like an outsider. I’ll come back to that…
Caroline shares her story at Las Posadas evening of reflection at
 Our Lady of Tepeyac High School.
One of my highlights of the month of September was when I got my library card. I checked out “Tattoos on the Heart” by Fr. Greg Boyle. Fr. Greg is a Jesuit priest living in L.A. who runs Homeboy Industries, an organization that provides employment, services, and a community of support for gang members. Fr. Greg quotes a Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, who said of God’s love for people “Behold the One beholding you and smiling.” This line hit a chord in me. Throughout our experiences of being a stranger, throughout the tumult of feeling incompetent, misunderstood, unprepared, and unknown, there is One who knows us fully and is wholeheartedly proud.

But it takes fearlessness to welcome the stranger. The stranger is the outsider in the room, the awkward new student, the one who doesn’t speak the language or understand the social rules. The stranger is the child who we have given up on trying to understand, being constantly baffled by their actions. The stranger is the one who is always behind in class, always asking the question after the explanation has been given hundreds of time. The stranger is the one easily forgotten because they drift into the background, quietly struggling.

In so many facets of our education system, in our homes, in our daily lives, we can ignore, mock, and even hate the stranger. But in Advent, we are called to worship a man who was the stranger. A man who was born into poverty, hunted as a baby, swiftly put into exile, and who came from a place that was said: of it no good can come. Jesus certainly was not the stereotypical image of a messiah.

And so as a teacher, as a friend, as a person, I am called to remember to welcome my heart to the ones that don’t quite fit in. To know that even if I struggle with it, there is One who is “beholding them and smiling.” To reevaluate how I unconsciously rank people in my mind, evaluating their worth based on how effectively they can navigate our system. And to remember the moments when I have been a stranger and the gift others have given me by welcoming me into their hearts.

My closing prayer is that we notice those that we let stay the stranger in the room--those that we are content to remain ignored, mocked or hated—and that we can extend gratitude to the people who have reminded us that we are worth smiling about.

Preparing For Forgiveness and Repentance

The following is an Advent reflection prepared by Leslie Carranza, a second year Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. Leslie is working at Catholic Charities West Suburban offices in Cicero and she shared this story at Amate House’s Las Posadas evening of reflection on December 14, 2016.

On the morning of November 9th I sobbed at the news of our presidential election results. For the next 48 hours I would sob on and off until I would remind myself that I am safe. Then I would remind myself of the people I love that could be targeted by the people and policies that could be put in place in the next year and sob a little more. Eventually, I would remember that I am in a position of privilege and that I am a free agent and that, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson: “This is the end of nothing. This is the beginning of something new and solemn and so important. You must be part of what comes next…"

We often put so much of our faith in one person for the sake of having something to believe in that we get lost in the future—the utopia that could be. On the other hand, it’s tough to get past what has happened historically and caused us to believe that our input doesn’t make much of an impact. With the Electoral College and protester arrests and even just Twitter—I’ve felt helpless. However, it’s because of Twitter that I’ve been awakened by the words of Neil: “The future is never gone, never hopeless. No one has ever lived in the best possible world. There has always been a fight to fight.”
Leslie shares her story at Las Posadas which took place at
Our Lady of Tepeyac High School.
How I’ve come to understand repentance up until this point is as an admission of guilt, sincere regret, or remorse—which is not necessarily wrong, but not 100% right either. John the Baptist called to the people of Jerusalem to repent, but we need to think about what we actually mean by repentance. These people were brought forth to acknowledge their sins, not necessarily feel regret or remorse for them and carry the weight of that with them. In its original Greek, the word often translated as “repentance” can be more accurately defined as a change of heart and mind to account for and focus on the present. But “repentance” has more baggage than that; it includes “sincere remorse,” regret, sorrow, and even guilt. These things—sins—happened and that is nothing more than a fact once you’ve repented. Let that fuel this change in your heart—place more value in the present than the past or future.

Alumni gather with this year's Volunteers to celebrate Las Posadas.
Regret. Remorse. Guilt can be paralyzing. Guilt makes us feel like there’s something we could’ve done differently, even if the wrong “we’ve committed” wasn’t even within our control. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but at least for me, I can find a way to beat myself up about pretty much anything. In a way, it gives me a sense of control in a world where I don’t feel like I have much power at all. It makes me think that if I had just done this one thing differently my whole life would be more fulfilling and content, but let’s be real: I have a time turner; it doesn’t work.

With that said, I’m a lot more forgiving of others than I am of myself and I’m working on taking issue with that a bit more. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I yell at them, and then give them the benefit of the doubt; normally, I follow it up with “they’re probably in a hurry or just have been having a bad day.” When I accidentally cut someone off, I acknowledge my reason for doing so, and then find some way of telling myself what I could’ve differently to have avoided putting myself in this position. “I could’ve left a little earlier” or “gone to sleep earlier” or however else it could be my fault.

But, as one of my favorite literary characters once said “There is no point in driving yourself mad trying to stop yourself going mad. You might just as well give in and save your sanity for later.” Sometimes this means caving in and bingeing on dark chocolate and tangerines. In my case, it often means stepping outside of my own head.

One of the perpetual dialogues going on in my head is whether I’m worthy of love. I need to not disregard others’ love of me. Therefore, I’ve needed to transform a bit… change my heart and mind—be a bit kinder to myself because it’s affecting how I give myself to others. I need to not hurt them—not belittle myself and let my insecurities get in the way of their love of me because I am worth loving regardless of what I have or haven’t done, or won’t do.

In the book of Mark, the first words spoken by Jesus are “The time has come.” He said “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” The kingdom is in a constant state of becoming. We could even say it’s outside of time—and the best we can do is prepare the way of the Lord and ourselves.

With that, I’ve challenged myself to acknowledge that we are at a constant state of becoming. I am constantly becoming the best possible version of myself and the journey hasn’t been linear. This nation is a testament to the ongoing saga of oppression and liberation of opposing groups of people and I’m sure you don’t need me to say who is on what side of that power dynamic; you likely know.

To continue with the post-election Tweets of Neil deGrasse Tyson: “We are here. We find ourselves with a job to do, no matter how hard, no matter the pain in our hearts. Do not shrink away. No jokes tonight. Do not laugh and look away. Watch this. Stay here. Burn this into memory. Wake up tomorrow: the fight will await you.”

Action in Waiting: Horticulture and the Kingdom of God

The following is an Advent reflection prepared by Theresa Schafer, a Volunteer living in the Little Village Community. Theresa is a teacher at Our Lady of Tepeyac High School in Little Village and she shared her story at Amate House’s Las Posadas evening of reflection on December 14, 2016.

I live at Our Lady of Tepeyac High School. I spend my days split between room 102, room 301, and the Library. Tepeyac is my Amate House placement, therefore my home. Aaaaaand all of what home means: joys and sorrows, belonging and figuring out how to belong, growing and challenging and being challenged: all of that happens there, on the daily. Today I’d like to talk to you about what this home has taught me about the daily and horticulture and the Kingdom of God.

Every now and then, when days are really bleh and I can’t seem to make sense of why on earth I have found myself in a teaching position; when although I like teaching, I have never felt like teaching is my particular calling; when the last class I taught refused to quiet down for what felt like hours, and I finally called on one girl and thought she was going to contribute something to our meaningful discussion, but instead she asked if she could go to get a drink of water, and all I wanted to do was give up and walk out of the room and hide, but instead I say yes you may but please come back quickly, and then I turn my attention back to a group of girls who really just want sleep and don’t want to talk about the connection between feminism and biblical interpretation or the value of social justice; when I spend the next three minutes trying to get them as excited as I am about the breaking news on the Dakota Access Pipeline and all the feedback I’m getting is an assortment of slightly cross-eyed and sleepy stares…

…when these things happen, I have to mentally and emotionally fortify myself by falling back on two simple words: planting seeds.

Theresa shares her Advent reflection with the Amate House family at
Our Lady of Tepeyac High School on December 14th.

When I was in college, one of the prayers that came across my path was the Archbishop Romero Prayer by Bishop Kenneth Untener. I came to love this prayer because it was practical.  It acknowledged limits, and rejoiced in their invitation. And most of all, it spoke to me of faith. By faith, I don’t really mean beliefs, but faithfulness. Dan Berrigan said, “Faith is rarely where your head is at. Nor is it where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!” But I’ll get back to that. First, here’s the core of that prayer.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

All of this: limits and promise, tension and hope, acknowledgement and grace, patience and humility, all of it is wrapped up in the profession of teaching. And in the middle of an exhausting moment at Tepeyac, the words planting seeds echo in my mind and remind me that I am called to simple love and active waiting and diligent persistence.
Volunteers gather with alumni, staff and friends for Las Posadas evening
of reflection at Our Lady of Tepeyac High School.
I was in a meeting with my supervisor, Ms. Noonan, sharing the story of a particularly difficult afternoon, looking for some wisdom and guidance, when she said: “you know, one of the most difficult things about teaching is that you may NEVER see the results of your efforts. You just have to pour in, and then trust.”

You just have to show up; you just have to plant seeds.

And so it is with Advent. And so it is with the Kingdom of God.

Waiting for the coming of Christ and building the Kingdom of God is a magnificent enterprise, as the prayer above said. Sometimes, it is so far beyond me that I doubt that all this work is actually contributing to something real. It’s uncommon for any of us to have those epiphany moments where all of the puzzle pieces of our lives fall into place and we can see the whole picture. Instead, it comes back to faithfulness in the work, and faithfulness to the people in our lives. And in the face of doubting that this Kingdom, “beyond our vision,” is actually being built, what can we do? Narrow our vision.

See, the other wonderful bit of advice that Ms. Noonan shared with me was the absolute necessity of holding onto the little things, the little moments of victories in teaching. When I can remember to, I jot a note down when a class discussion was really engaging; when one student had that lightbulb look on her face; when an essay was powerful; when a student was willing to share something deep with the class; when an answer made me laugh out loud . . . . bear with me as I get a little carried away with the horticulture metaphor- those are moments when just a LITTLE green sprout pokes its head through the dirt. And you can SEE IT! And the angels rejoice and sing GLORIA! Well, maybe they don’t. But I sure do.

It’s not every day that I am able to see the beauty in the tension of waiting for those moments of victory. It’s not every day that I can humbly accept the fact that in many cases, I may never see the sprouts when they finally grow. It’s not every day that the daily “showing up” of faithfulness makes sense to me. But Advent is the perfect season for me to refocus my spirit with the gently whispered mantra “planting seeds, planting seeds,” and lean into the tension, acceptance, and faithfulness that both waiting for Christmas, and waiting for the Kingdom of God requires.