Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Using Creativity and Faith to Guide Vocation

The following is a reflection prepared by Chris Yates, a Volunteer living in the McKinley Park Community. Chris is serving at the St. John Paul II Newman Center at UIC and shares this story about his passion for photography and the gift of being able to translate that talent into his service.

Photography has always been a large part of my adult life. This is just a nice way of saying that it has taken over my life, in the best way possible.  It is the way in which I view the world and more importantly, tell the stories within it. I remember sitting on my phone a few years ago, scrolling through the movies coming out that weekend.  One in particular caught my eye:  The Salt of the Earth.  It had a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and even though I knew nothing about it, I was extremely interested.  So often, our lives are chronicled by those moments where our hearts are lit on fire, and this was certainly one of those moments.  The Salt of the Earth follows the well-known social justice photographer SebastiĆ£o Salgado as he embarks on his final photography project: Genesis.  For over 20 years, Salgado has traveled the Earth, documenting the most horrifying human tragedies and human rights issues along the way.  He became depressed after all that he witnessed, so his last project aimed to rediscover the inherent beauty in the world.  After being inspired by his work and the documentary, I realized that I could not separate my creativity and my faith, which, in tangent, guide my vocation.

About a year and a half ago, this passion became my practice.  I went to a Jesuit school and was very involved in Campus Ministry, where I was exposed to a number of the Jesuits who lived on campus. Throughout my four years, I came to realize that there is a deep disconnect between how society views priests and who they really are. Following in the footsteps of Salgado, this prompted me to create my own photography project — Emmaus: The Nature of the Way — which documents the lives of 22 Jesuit Priests living at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  Through personal stories of life experiences combined with photographs that exhibit these men's passions, this project brings back their humanity, which is all too often lost.  The project has been picked up by a publisher, and we will be releasing this coffee table photography book in April 2017.  You can check out the book at www.natureoftheway.org.

Before I began working at the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I was hesitant that I would not be able to bring all of myself — my passions, interests, and creativity — to the job.  Luckily, my site supervisor, Fr. Pat, and the team here fully embraced this notion of looking at ministry and social justice through a different lens... literally.  Over this past semester, I created five, separate, hour-long guided reflections on social justice issues, rooted in the work of photographers throughout history, titled: Through the Lens: Social Justice and Photography.  I began the series with looking at racism through photographer Edward Curtis' work known as The North American Indian.  Along with recognizing the inherent biases that all of us possess, we began to question reality itself, struggling with the question, "Can a photograph tell the truth?"  Throughout the next few months, the students and I came to realize that pulling the trigger of a camera is sometimes more deadly and often times way more powerful than pulling the trigger of a gun, that we cannot judge photographers because we will never see the "full truth," and that photographs must always be taken with a grain of salt.

Oftentimes in society, and especially in places like Campus Ministry, the exposure we have to social justice issues can make us numb to their harsh realities.  The opportunity to look at these same issues that have been discussed many times in a new and refreshing way has reignited the fire and passion of students to become more knowledgeable and engaged.  Bringing this series to the Newman Center has also encouraged the students to explore issues in the Chicago area creatively.  The Good Shepherd is a project I have started with the students to explore "Renew My Church," — an Archdiocese of Chicago initiative to reevaluate resources and inevitably close a number of parishes and ministries — through photography.  We will go and experience a daily mass, meet with the pastor and take photographs of him within his parish.  These programs have had a great deal of traction within the community as it gives the students a personal relatability to those things going on within their communities.

It is truly a blessing that my work site is supportive of "unconventional" forms of viewing and relating to issues going on in this community.  Being able to bring my passion for photography has given me great life within my work site, making me truly want to be there each and every day.  I continually challenge students to find what they are passionate about and bring it to the table, because you never know where it may take you.  Being able to work at a place where I get the much needed support, has transformed my experience of a year of service.  I look forward to continuing my ministry into this next semester at the Newman Center, camera in hand.

Friday, January 06, 2017

The will of God will never lead you where the Grace of God will not sustain you

The following is a reflection prepared by Clare Potyrala, a Volunteer living in the McKinley Park Community. She serves at St. James Food Pantry on the near south side of Chicago. Clare first visited Amate House one year ago as part of an immersion trip through her university. She spent a week with the McKinley Park community and visited service sites around the city. This January Clare and her housemates will be hosting another college service group at their house.

2017 is a breath of fresh air. It is also the marking of the almost half-way point of my year of service with Amate House…which is strange to say, because routine and life in community has become the new normal for me. I attended and graduated from the University of Dayton this past May and had chosen to pursue a year of post-grad service early on during my senior year. Formed in the Marianist tradition, teaching, and spirituality, I had previously lived in intentional community for 9 weeks in Appalachia on a mission trip in college. I gained many valuable thoughts, feelings, and lessons from that experience and wanted the challenge of living together in a committed community for a year.

Amate House pulled me in last January. UD does Service Break-out trips during our winter breaks and I was asked to lead the break-out to Amate House by my Campus Ministry. My lay Marianist community member, Tia, was already there serving her year and because I was looking into Amate House as one of my options, I jumped at the chance to visit and explore Chicago. I took a group of about 10 students up to Chicago and we stayed a week at South House in McKinley Park, visiting different service sites each day and spending reflection time together in the evenings. I’m a firm believer that God has this funny way of working in our lives and His presence was made known during this trip. One of the places we visited was a food pantry, called St. James Food Pantry. We participated in handing out groceries in the morning and left before the homeless lunch program, which happens every afternoon. When I walked into this building, it felt like home. The volunteers and staff were extremely welcoming and I began to picture myself in this place if I ended up choosing to apply to Amate House. I met my current boss, Peter, and I could tell the Holy Spirit was hard at work. Time would tell where I would end up...

Clare shows off the stocked shelves of the St. James Food Pantry.
Fast forward to August 2016: St. James became my placement site. To give some stats, St. James serves two different zip codes and about 1700 families each month. Some human rights issues I am passionate about are poverty and hunger. I felt that St. James would give me hands-on experience in serving the marginalized, learning more about food scarcity, and pull me out of my comfort zone. While I enjoy my job as Volunteer Coordinator here, this position has not been without its challenges. Some of my homeless clients, I see every single day, which is heartwarming because at least I know that they are receiving food. But it has been a struggle to recognize and sit with the feeling of ‘wanting to do more/fix their situation’ when in reality, all I was giving to them was this lunch. It hurt my heart knowing I couldn’t do more to help them in their lives and it took me a long time to let go of my frustrations of complacency. However, I have learned, lunch isn’t ‘just lunch.’ It is a smile given to my clients and recognition of their name and acknowledgement of their worth and human dignity as a child of God. So often I’ve thought about the last time some of my clients heard their name, because I feel like our current society labels and dismisses the vulnerable and marginalized as  the ‘Other’ or ‘less than.’ Just because someone is homeless or experiencing a hardship of any kind, does NOT give any of us the right to dismiss their dignity and worth. In God’s eyes, we are all His children, and who are we to judge?

My experience at Amate House has taught me about sacrifice, especially recently during the Christmas season. I had to work on Christmas for the first time in my life this year because St. James puts on a Christmas Lunch for the homeless. The entire week leading up to Christmas, I was experiencing this anxiety, dread, and jealousy because not only was I attempting to pull enough volunteers together for this lunch, I was watching my community members get excited about going home to see their families for Christmas. I’m not proud of my feelings, especially the negative ones, but I won’t discount them because they were real, valid, and it was my right to feel whatever I felt.

I had to remind myself that this year of service was not about ME. It wasn’t about what I wanted or how this year could serve me. It is about how God is breaking me down…flooding me with His Grace in order to mold, shape, and use me this year to serve others. I am sure I will gain something from this entire experience, but this year is about giving to others and being a servant leader as Jesus calls us to be. I was giving up my Christmas in order to be with those in need; people like me who otherwise wouldn’t get a meal or get to experience a place of warmth if St. James did not have a lunch program. Thankfully I ended up having enough volunteers and Christmas Day went pretty smoothly. We had about 220 people come to lunch and we able to give out gifts to kids and their parents. I saw such joy on people’s faces as they received their buffet lunch, laughed with their families, kids visited Santa, and listened to the live music. I went home that day with a full heart and am extremely thankful I was able to experience this Christmas program. Christ was present amongst everyone that day, more so this Christmas than any other recent Christmas and I was blessed to experience the richness God can provide us.

Now, it is back to work and the everyday life, but it is a start of a new year and a clean slate. For the rest of my year of service with Amate House and throughout 2017, my constant prayer is for God to use me. Use me. Love me. Use my hands, feet, heart, soul, words, and actions to bring Your kingdom to life. Break me. Break me down in order to bless me up with Your abundance of mercy, grace, love, and compassion… Help me seek the richness in the extraordinary and normal moments. To give me the eyes to see the richness in the thin places in my life. Be this force to continue to stretch and push me out of my comfort zones. Not my will, but Yours be done, Lord. 

I want to walk away changed from this year. My prayer for you is that you will not be hesitant to seek His will in your lives. Because He’s never going to leave you in this place where His Grace will not sustain you… I firmly believe God’s will for me is to serve through Amate House. And this year, I want to be as present as I can for the remainder of my time.