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Ashes to go

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 10:15am
By Cody Maynus
Current volunteer with Visitation Internship Program
Sr. Karen Mohan, VIP director, and former VIP volunteer, Anna Dourgarian,
who participated in the Ashes to Go ministry
I live, work, and pray among prophets. 
Not the camel-hair-and-locusts or the bushy-beard-and-divine-judgement varieties. My prophets are six nuns who individually and collectively love more deeply than anybody else I've known. 
The Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis are prophets and pioneers. 
Responding to whispers from the Holy Spirit, my Sisters uprooted their monastic stability in St. Louis and St. Paul in order to move to the "hood" of North Minneapolis, a neighborhood marked in the media and popular opinion as a ghetto of guns, drugs, and prostitution. 
These women moved to the racially, religiously, economically and culturally diverse northside in order to pray contemplatively and to be a non-violent presence. Not to found a clinic or a school, an agency or a program. To pray and to be. 
Cody divides ashes into a "to go" container
for Sr. Mary Virginia to distribute on the
streets of north Minneapolis.In doing so, these six nuns have revolutionized my understanding of God, of service, of love. They engage with their neighbors, not as wise elders (which they are) or trained theologians (which they also are), but rather as friends of God (which we all are.) Whenever the door bells, the Sisters answer it, confident that they will meet God in the person of their neighbor at the door. 
On Ash Wednesday, the Sisters listened once more to the whispering of the Holy Spirit and took another leap of immense faith. We brought ashes--the ancient Christian symbol of rebirth, renewal, repentance--beyond the monastery walls and into the streets of our neighborhood. 
About fifteen of us--nuns, companions, friends--gathered together in the chapel following our Ash Wednesday Mass, prayed together, and set out, stocked with little dishes of ashes, prayer cards, and several layers of clothing (the temperature without wind chill hovered right around 0 that day.) 
We brought ashes to our neighbors not because we believed ourselves somehow holier than our neighbors. We brought ashes to the streets because our humanity and our neighbor's humanity are intricately bound together in God's plan for salvation. We do not come to God alone, but as a whole beloved community, bruised and broken, forgiven by a God who loves us fiercely and passionately. 
So many of our neighbors looked at us a little funny--these mostly white, mostly women--people pouring out of the monastery and asking to smear ashes on foreheads. Many of our neighbors are not Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, or other traditions that celebrate Lent and Ash Wednesday. Many of them are not Christian or were once Christian, but have not practiced in a very long time. Some people were hostile, assuming that we were proselytizing or hounding people about their sins. Many were receptive, eager even to have a nun or somebody associated with the nuns smudge a little dirt and tell them that they were forgiven, that God loved them, that no matter how big or how many their sins, God would always forgive them. 

Ash Wednesday Mass in the monastery. That's the power of the Gospel right there. God-in-Jesus meets us, not as divine judge and sinful penitent, but as human and human. In his Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales, co-founder along with St. Jane de Chantal of the Visitation, tells us that God planned to become human in Jesus, not because of our sinful nature, but because of God's supreme love of humankind. Francis writes of God's desire to "communicate [Godself] such sort that [humanity] might be engrafted and implanted in the divinity, and become one single person with It" (Treatise, Book II, Ch. IV).
Ash Wednesday Mass in the monastery.Taking ashes to the neighborhood taught me that God never forgives us begrudgingly, because God desires communion--union with--us. Our sin sometimes gets in the way of our relationship with God, but God quickly scrambles to forgive us and wipe all of that sin away. The ashes, blessed and distributed annually, are a reminder of our rebirth in the waters of baptism, of our being marked as Christ's own forever. 
"Turn from your sins," God tells us as God smudges the foreheads of our hearts. "Because I already have." 
Live + Jesus,Cody 
What to submit your own volunteer reflection or program article? Email Larissa Dalton Stephanoff at

Second Sunday of Lent Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 03/01/2015 - 9:30am
"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."
Mark 9-2-10

By Julie McElmurry, Director of Franciscan Passages and Former Jesuit Volunteer

Jesus invites Peter, James and John to witness something so indescribable that words fail them and words fail even the Gospel writer himself.  Of the Transfiguration, the writer can only tell us that Jesus’ clothes became the brightest white imaginable. In the shock of seeing Moses and Elijah there with Jesus, our three astonished heroes could only think of offering housing to them. On top of all of this excitement, the actual voice of God booms onto the scene, telling our guys to listen to Jesus. Peter “hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.”

An encounter with God dumbfounds us too. We scramble to make sense of what just happened and then we scramble to articulate it for ourselves. At times, we try to articulate it to others, at other times we are too afraid to talk about such deep things. Words are inadequate since they are merely symbols, pointing beyond themselves to a greater reality. Words can never fully capture that feeling, that vision, that moment when, in my heart and mind, I know God just saved me, comforted me, or guided me.  My descriptions will not sufficiently paint the whole 3-D picture of such an encounter, but I’m obligated to try to share it anyhow.

Focus on the Four Pillars: Spirituality: Ask God to dumbfound you this week. Be open to what comes next.

Social Justice: A rough-looking guy came up to her truck as we sat waiting. When asked, my boss from the homeless shelter gave him a few dollars out of her purse. “How can you do that, knowing what you know?” I asked, to which she responded “How can you sit there and not do that, knowing what you know?” During a lull tomorrow, ask your boss to explain their perspective on something you disagree on. Listen and consider what she has to say.

Simple Living: They thought I was nuts. I didn’t know how to describe this “year of service” concept to my co-workers at the homeless shelter. Do your colleagues understand it? Do they ask you about it? Choose a co-worker and sit down with them, recounting in a simple way, the journey from deciding to apply to accepting the offer which brought you here today.

Community: In his terror, at least Peter managed to come up with an offer of hospitality (providing a tent) for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  On Facebook today, tell the story of a time you made a feeble yet sincere offer to others in response to an astonishing incident. Ask others to share their stories.

This reflection is a part of our Lenten series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Sheild of Privilege

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 12:33pm
By Matt Whalen
Current volunteer with Cap Corps Midwest

Protest march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014
From 4-6pm at the Maria Kaupas Center (MKC), my ministry site for Cap Corps, there are on average 60 kids ages 9-18 inside the center at once. As we can all imagine, some days there seems to be complete chaos and others days there is relative calm. On most days though there is a mixture of both. A little bit of singing, dancing, arguing, studying, breaking tables (on accident of course), and just being, all happen in this two our window. In this “just being” phase of the day is when I get to know the teens better, in particular the older guys.

One day though, after reflection ended and we were all making our way out of the chapel, I noticed three guys that stayed back and gathered in a pew. While this is not a rare occasion, this time I felt the need to go over to them and just check to see how their days were going. After a few minutes of casual talk, one of the guys told me he saw me walking around the neighborhood on the weekend and was surprised to see me around outside of school hours. He then continued to ask where I shopped for clothes, because according to him “my style doesn’t match the stores around here.” We both laughed and I told him I mainly shop at thrift stores.

This little spark of interest led a handful of others guys, about 5, to come into the chapel, which led to a two hour conversation. In the conversation I shared more about why I was volunteering, that I live in their neighborhood, and other parts of my life. All the guys graciously shared much about their past and I am grateful they did. They were surprised that I don’t get paid, that I walk home, and that out of the whole country I chose to live in Southside Chicago when all they want to do is leave it. They shared with me the realities of living in Southside and the daily struggles they face. Some of them even opened up about things I could not imagine going through.

Matt and youth at Maria Kaupas CenterToward the end of our conversation, the same guy who called out my wardrobe choice said this: “Life is hard out here Matt. But no matter how long you live here you will never experience it because you have a shield on and it’s called being white.”

With the recent Eric Garner and Mike Brown incidents and protests, we as a center have openly discussed race relations and the teens have been so open in sharing their feelings. The guy who told me “life is hard” is one of the most vocal and his statement could not be truer. What I have realized more than anything else in the past few months at MKC and in Cap Corps is that I wear this “shield of privilege” that protects from the realities people of color face. This shield of privilege is something that I cannot take off because it is engrained in my skin tone and in the middle class suburban upbringing I had. When I tell people I live in Southside Chicago, most people cringe and apologize that my safety is at risk.

Quite the opposite though, I am probably one of the safest in my neighborhood. For example, I can walk through different gang territory and am never mistaken as a part of the other gang. When I walk into a store or church, the clerk or clergy does not follow me around. I don’t have to worry about looking suspicious if I wear my hoodie up and even where I lived is surrounded by an iron gate. This shield of privilege has layers upon layers and not matter how hard I try to strip down to the core, there will always be another layer that either protects me or propels me into the stream of easy living.

It is complex and institutional, stereotypical, and exclusive. I can do things to help dirty the shield, like protest, live in the neighborhood I work in, give up some of the non-essentials, but my past already gives me a one up. I have a college education and I actively chose not to make money this year! Plus, I would be lying if I say the privilege I have is not beneficial, I just wish it wasn’t for a select few.

Protest march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014 So as the year continues, the best thing I can do is recognize that this shield is always with me. From there I can start using it to protect people of colors’ rights, maybe swing the shield to the left to be exposed for a while, or a least get it dirty through activism, expanding my perspective, inviting more diverse people into my life, and having more conversations with the kids I work with. For people of privilege, the first step is to recognize our privilege. Not to try to hide from it and say history is behind us and everything is hunky-dory, as we can see in Ferguson, New York, Sanford, the education system, and so on. What I can do is be a voice, an educator and more importantly a learner of my privilege and fight for equal rights of all my brothers and sisters through firm resilient love.

See the original post here.

First Sunday of Lent Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 02/22/2015 - 9:30am

“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Mark 1:12-15
By Jim Lindsay, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff

Have you ever experienced times in the wilderness --- you know, those occasions when we are in the desert --- feeling lost?  Those times can be great opportunities to find out more about ourselves, about God’s plan for us and about what is most important in our lives.
In today’s gospel, we venture into the wilderness with Jesus. Times in the wilderness can be challenging.  The questions we might ask are these:  How do we deal with these challenges?  Are these challenges the same as temptations?  What is the difference between temptations and the challenges they cause?
Temptation is a very real part of life and is especially challenging in our times in the wilderness.  We are down, disheartened, afraid, and isolated.  But every temptation we encounter brings with it a consequent challenge.  Meeting those trials head on is how we rise above the inducement to sin.
Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted.  Jesus knows what it is like to be challenged.  Jesus knows what it is like to be in the wilderness.  And it was in this wasteland, following his Baptism, that Jesus struggled, mourned, questioned and endured great temptations.  
Jesus teaches us that we encounter the challenges of the wilderness by meeting God daily.  Jesus was prepared to meet the challenges in the wilderness because he was in contact every one of those forty days with God.  This is how Jesus knew God’s will for his life.  It is also the way we learn God’s will for OUR lives.
Focus on the Four Pillars:
Spirituality: The wilderness is the place of devastation and danger, of being tempted off one's path and also of meeting God. Jesus finds God's path for him in the wilderness. Prayer is a wilderness time. It can be perilous for it brings us in touch with the evil as well as with the good in ourselves. With practice, it makes known to us the peace of God in Christ - the harmony that can be found in the desert. It is also the place of recommitment to God and of finding the strength that God offers us.

Reflection: What spirit motivates me in the things I do? Is my heart a home for the Spirit? Could the Holy Spirit be inviting me to take more quiet space? In the scriptures, the ‘wilderness’ is a place of disclosure and of intimacy with God. I need to put secondary things aside to meet God. God is found in emptiness as well as in fullness.

Social Justice: As Lent begins, I might promise God that I will be faithful to the quiet space and time that sacred space offers me. I want the reign of God to come near me. I want to believe more deeply in the good news and to seek to bring about God’s justice on the earth.

Reflection: What difference do I make to other people’s lives? What do I do, within my limitations, to help remove the abuses which are part of our society?  These are just some of the questions I can ask myself during these six weeks.

Simple Living: In our wilderness times we are seduced to listen to the voices that lead us away from God. These voices tell us that the good in our lives is represented by money, power, security, and fame. All of these can be good things.  But good things turn evil when we become persuaded that we don’t need God in our lives.  We get confused about what is truly meaningful in our lives and what gives our lives genuine purpose.  The challenge in all of this is to live our lives knowing that God will provide everything we need.

Reflection: As I enter this Lenten journey, I will examine the areas of temptations, misdirected desires and loyalties in my life. “Repent and believe” involves a process of re-focusing on what is really of value in my life.

Community: Only God could be so human as to withstand temptation. Mark’s Gospel depicts Jesus as divine but also deeply human. He enters the wilderness for one reason only: to find God, to seek God and to belong to him completely. Only then does he go to Galilee and proclaim good news to others.

Reflection: What type of person am I in relation to my family, friends, work colleagues and other people with whom I come in contact? How involved am I as a member of my Christian community, e.g., my parish?

This reflection is part of our Lenten Series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Ash Wednesday Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 9:30am

Lent begins today. This is a sacred and prayerful time for the Church. Catholic Volunteer Network has partnered with Catholic Apostolate Center to bring you a reflection guide that looks at the Lenten season through the lens of our four pillars of spirituality, social justice, simple living and community. Each reflection is written by a different contributor, and each offering their unique insights and experiences. Many of the contributors are also former volunteers who are actively working to keep service and prayer as integral components of their lives. Some will provide you with thought-provoking reflection questions, while others share practical suggestions of how you can apply the virtues of the four pillars to your Lenten observance.

You can come back to this blog every Sunday to read the new reflection, or download the entire reflection guide here.

Ash Wednesday Reflection
“When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

By Katie Mulembe, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff and Franciscan Mission Service Returned Missioner

Every Ash Wednesday for the last eleven years, I’ve found myself reflecting back on that one time in 2004 when I did Lent right. I gave up chocolate, television, the internet, shopping, alcohol, talking on the phone, and wearing makeup. I didn’t get into a car even once, instead I walked everywhere I needed to go. I wrote letters to my family and dearest friends and was sure to tell them how much I loved them. I spent time every morning and evening in prayer, and I journaled every single day. I didn’t even cheat on Sundays. It was amazing.

Okay, okay, I will come clean – I didn’t actually choose to do all that for Lent, it just sort of happened that way. At the time, I was starting my mission experience, and was taking language courses in a small, remote village in Northern Zambia. I had to travel light because I only had room for one backpack on the long and crowded bus journey to the village. Life was simple out there. My days were spent taking language classes, making new friends in the village, learning how to wash my clothes by hand, and tasting new foods (sadly, there was no chocolate to be found). But every day the sun would set promptly at 6 p.m., and I was left to myself in the quiet darkness, most often only lit by the dim glow of my kerosene lamp. It was just me and God then, and I found myself experiencing a closeness that I had never known before. Through the long silences, I learned how to open up to God and share about my fears and needs. I took comfort in God on those nights when I felt especially homesick. I finished up language school on Palm Sunday, and moved back to the big city just in time for Holy Week. That year, Easter seemed to take on a whole new level of meaning for me.

I have tried to replicate that 2004 experience by giving up or taking on small things here and there. None of it seems to have the same effect. I haven’t yet regained that intense awareness of God’s presence that I felt during those simple days. Of course, it would be nearly impossible to give up all that I did in 2004, but today’s Gospel got me thinking that maybe it’s not what I do to observe Lent, it’s how I do it. Jesus reminds us that when we do good deeds, or give to charity, or fast, we should not boast about them. We should do them in the quiet. So, maybe it is the quiet part that I’ve left out of my recent Lenten observances. As I strive to live more simply, and love more deeply this Lent, I am also taking up the challenge to carve out room for silence to hear how God is speaking to me through this Lenten season.

Focus on the Four Pillars: 

Spirituality: If you struggle with silence, Lectio Divina may be a great way to ease it into your life. This practice involves careful and repetitive reading of a particular passage in order to gain new insights. It is a quiet and introspective way to pray. Consider spending time with Psalm 139:1-18 to reflect on the constant presence of God. Want to learn more? The Carmelites provide a helpful guide to Lectio Divina here:

Social Justice: During his first Mass of 2015, Pope Francis urged us to take action on behalf of those who bear the burden of slavery. “All of us are called (by God) to be free, all are called to be sons and daughters, and each, according to his or her own responsibilities, is called to combat modern forms of enslavement. From every people, culture and religion, let us join our forces,” he said. Statistics indicate that nearly 36 million people are experiencing enslavement today, most of them suffering in silence. Take some time this week to learn more about modern slavery, and determine which steps you would like to take to stop it. Visit for more information.

Simple Living: Have you decided to live more simply this Lenten season by giving up a favorite food or activity? Consider saving the money you would have spent on that item and making a donation to a local soup kitchen. If you are giving up an activity, carefully consider how you would like to use some of the free time to give back to your community.

Community: You do not have to walk this Lenten journey alone. Sharing the experience with your community will help you stay committed to this important time of prayer and fasting. If you live in community, suggest a weekly meeting when you can all support one another throughout Lent. If you do not live in community, consider reaching out to some friends to form a supportive prayer group for this time. You may consider starting out by taking time to reflect on past seasons of Lent and recalling how you have grown through those experiences.

Lasallian Volunteers learn about Privilege while Serving a Diverse group of seniors in the Bronx

Mon, 02/09/2015 - 9:00am

By Katie Christensen
Event Coordinator, Lasallian Volunteers
and Bryana Polk
Assistant Occupancy Clerk, Lasallian Volunteers

 Serviam Gardens is a fairly new and affordable senior housing development in the Bronx, NY, housing more than 300 residents in 243 units. The demographic make-up of Serviam Gardens makes this property extremely unique. A majority of the residents are Hispanic (Dominican and Puerto Rican), Korean, and Black (Caribbean, African American, and African). The residents from this senior housing come from all walks of life. The socioeconomic backgrounds range from doctors, teachers, artists, musicians, and scientists. Though many of the seniors live alone, a handful of them live with a spouse/significant other, a child, or a sibling.
Serviam Gardens provides subsidized housing for the residents, and also many amenities and services. The property is gated with 24 hour security protection. Serviam is composed of three buildings and each one includes a laundry facility and a special recreational area. The property has a library, theatre, gym, game room, community spaces, computer lab, picnic area, garden, and access to a green roof. The social services department provides classes, health presentations, free tax preparations, and recreational trips for the seniors. They can also receive help with immigration, citizenship, and SNAP benefits. The management department offers assistance with completing necessary paperwork for their subsidized housing. Services for senior citizens at Serviam Gardens are limitless.
 Katie Christensen, Event Coordinator, Second Year Lasallian Volunteer              

Moving from Denver, Colorado, to the Bronx in New York took a huge leap of faith and a lot of courage. Working with senior citizens was not new to me but it also was not something I had a great deal of experience with. Add-in doing social work after majoring in International Affairs and I was obviously out of my league.

It became a sink or swim situation. Coming from a smaller city, going from the majority to the minority, and working with a population that is significantly older than me, I started to see things differently. The older populations become vulnerable as they age. Times change and speed up as they start to slow down. Technology changes, documentation begins to get harder to understand, and transportation is not as easy anymore. 
It is entertaining to watch a group of 65-year-olds, or older, learn to operate a cell phone. Not everything is translated, making things very difficult for a group of people that mostly speak Spanish and Korean. 
I have realized in doing this work that I am very privileged and blessed. I am in good health, grew up in a technologically advanced time, and have all of the opportunities in the world to learn new languages and skill-sets. A lot of the seniors I work with have very few family members alive or living near them.  I have a ton of friends and family. From the people I work with and live with to all of my family back home in Colorado, the amount of love and support I am given is immeasurable. 
I am also privileged in being able to work with seniors because they have so much wisdom and knowledge to share. I gain so much growth in numerous ways by hearing the stories and experiences they share with me. They want me to succeed. They want what is best for me, and because of them I can truly say I am a better person. Moving across the country was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Bryana Polk, Assistant Occupancy Clerk, Second Year Lasallian Volunteer
The idea that I would be working with senior citizens never crossed my mind when I applied to Lasallian Volunteers. A year and a half into my service at Serviam Gardens, I couldn’t see myself elsewhere or working with any other population. I’ve learned a lot of things being in the company of the seniors; some of those lessons came from conversations or by simply observing them.

While many of the seniors at Serviam are completely mobile and independent, a fair portion of them aren’t self-sufficient. Some have home health aides (HHA) who assist them with daily tasks, but it can be a tricky process in receiving one. It’s unfortunate to see some of the seniors who really do need the assistance not be granted or br eligible for that help. As mundane as the topic of HHA can be to us who don’t need that kind of service, it’s a major privilege for the elderly. Not everyone can get it. I’m fortunate to have the choice to take care of myself without aid; I’m not necessarily dependent on someone.
More important than HHA services, a privilege I have that some of the residents don’t have here is close family and friends, and the realization of that is tea- jerking. There are people here who don’t have families that stay near; or maybe they do, but they don’t visit often. Some of them spend their time in their apartment alone; witnessing that makes me want to create lasting relationships, be considered reliable to others, and maintain the solid relationships that I already have with my own friends and family.

Knowing this makes me want to confidently feel that I am loved and cared about by someone. That I can love and care about someone without any reservations. The spectrum of residents here is truly vast. There are residents who can’t keep people out of their apartment, always have children, spouses, and grandchildren at their home; or they visit their children and grandchildren. Then there are cases of the polar opposite. Those residents don’t seem to emit as much internal happiness or joy. This by far is an example of privilege that stands out to me here.
Working with the seniors at Serviam has been challenging at moments, but it’s an absolute blessing to be here. Compared to other Lasallian Volunteers who work with populations who are just embarking into life, Katie and I are able to see how decisions and consequences from the earlier years have impacted lives in the later years, good or bad. It makes me think about how I want my life to be and how I can start or change some things to make sure that I can look back on my life when I’m 70 and feel no regrets or loneliness—only abundant joy and contentment.

What to submit your own volunteer reflection or program article? Email Larissa Dalton Stephanoff at

Reflection on international aid

Sun, 02/01/2015 - 11:29am
By Ben, Cap Corps Midwest volunteer in Nicaragua

 When we donate time or money to a cause, we want to know that what we gave is making a positive difference.  We don’t want to spend time on things that don’t matter, and we don’t want to waste money.  I think that makes a lot of sense, but in the year and a half that I’ve been in Nicaragua working at a local NGO, I’ve found that this impulse on the part of foreign donors can have unexpectedly negative repercussions.
AccountabilityWhen the youth center where I work gets grants to do a project, say an after-school program to 50 under-served youth with classes in Spanish, English, Math, and Dance, the grant providers want to be sure that we are doing what we said we would.  They cant follow us around constantly to see that we are keeping our end of the bargain.  So the most common form of accountability are attendance lists that every kid has to sign at every event. The lists ask for things like name, date of birth, ID number, telephone, and signature.  The lists have to match up, so the kids cant make mistakes.  The lists cant have tears or stains.  Heaven help you if the kids use a red pen.  In a normal week at my youth center there are around 30 attendance lists that need to passed around and monitored so the kids don’t draw on them.  Projects also require periodic reports, photos, and testimonials.  I understand why.  But I also understand that all the time we spend obsessing over lists and writing reports to prove that were doing work reduces the amount of work we can do.  All the paperwork draws staff away from kids who need attention and love and toward mind-numbing tedium and burnout.
EfficiencyAnother thing that donors look at when deciding which organizations to donate to is their efficiency.  I remember a couple years looking through Guidestar at the percentage of a charity’s budget allocated to direct service versus administrative costs.  I thought, my money will go farther if it is directly reaching the people.  That’s reasonable if we are giving to a hand-out kind of organization, but if we look solely at efficiency as a standard it is going to push us away from donating to organizations seeking to create social change (because socially oriented work requires more staff, i.e. greater administrative costs).  I’ve seen how my coworkers are underpaid and overworked, in large part because of requirements by the grant providers that limit how the money we receive can be spent.
GoalsThe trickiest funding issue for me is related to the goals people fund.  The NGO with which I work is based in “Popular Education.”  Popular Education is a method for working for social change that starts with the needs and dreams of the people, and then works from there.  The realities of non-profit funding stand in complete contrast.  Well meaning donors will fund a particular project.  We have several projects aimed at reducing violence against women.  That’s a great goal.  The problem is that it is a goal for Nicaraguans coming from non-Nicaraguans funding the grants.  When goals are set outside of the community trying to reach them, it undermines their effectiveness.
My Take?If we are blessed to be able to put a portion of our time or resources toward a cause, we need to be able to balance personal responsibility that our gifts are being effectively used with trust that allows organizations to adapt to and work well with their context.  That’s easier to do when we have relationships with the organizations we’re involved with, but that’s not always possible.  I also fear that this sort of perspective could push people toward only supporting domestic causes even though the international community has so many needs and opportunities.  Ultimately, I take my experience as a challenge to give more freely and trust more deeply.

Jumpstart your career with post-graduate service: reflections on trajectory to success

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 11:04am

By Laura Castro
CVN Recruitment Associate
Former Cap Corps Midwest Volunteer in Peru

I graduate on May 20, 2012. I have done everything I am supposed to do to secure a well-paying job and continue my climb up the corporate ladder busting through that glass ceiling. I spent my summers interning for a Fortune 500 company and saved the money I earned for the school year; I maintained an exceptional GPA and would receive various scholarships for my commitment to academic excellence, student involvement and community service; I built relationships with key professors who would advise my self-directed study and write letter of recommendations; I studied abroad to immerse myself in another culture and learn Spanish; I had great mentors who would help me strategize professional moves; I even choose a work study that would align with my career goals.

It’s February and I just nailed an interview with my company for a full-time position at headquarters. All my hard work is paying off and I am talking full benefits with a relocation package. I have used the past four years wisely. I am ready to graduate.
This was my story two years ago. I did not have room for error or flexibility and I felt entitled to be recognized. Looking back now I can understand why I felt betrayed when it all fell through and I thought that all I had sacrificed meant nothing. I was the product of a consumer-centric system that promotes merit, initiative and planning as the ONLY means to success. A concept we seem to equate with money and power. This narrow ideology I adopted had me in a constant state of planning and strategizing. Popular culture tokens this as the “rat race” and I wanted to win! Sure I had beliefs and hopes to change the world, but I would hold that journey off until I was at the top. Then I could make the changes I wanted to see in this privileged country.
The idea of not having a job secured after graduation scared me. My sister, a former long-term volunteer, encouraged me to consider service abroad.  I liked the idea but didn’t want to let go of my corporate track until one day I had an epiphany, which unfortunately occurred in the middle of a job interview with a PR firm. I prepared as I always prepared for interviews: I researched the company, looked up LinkedIn profiles of current employees, identified common ground, dry cleaned my suit, knew my resume, contacted references, etc. I was ready to spin whatever question he asked. Then the question came, “Why do you want to work here?” It’s a pretty standard interview question, one that I had prepped for, but for some reason, it resonated differently in that moment. The answer I was about to deliver suddenly felt too cliché and hollow, and not authentic. I was blown away by this epiphany that occurred over an awkward silence, and then I finally said “I don’t know.” 
I couldn’t take back what I just said, and I broke down in frustration. I felt that I had worked so hard. My passion has always been community service but I felt like couldn’t go down that path without first getting a “real job.” It was a hot mess. I am so grateful for the interviewer who was patient and kind in response, “it seems like you are going through something and that you really know what you want, but you are afraid to go for it. Just do it!”
Beyond all I did to secure my future after graduating, I still didn’t do enough. I know now that it isn’t about doing enough or being enough because it’s never enough. I eventually found my way to Cap Corps Midwest, a full-time volunteer program that offered me the opportunity to serve in Lima, Peru. I began as a tutor and mentor for at risk boys at Ciudad de Los Niños, a non-profit I was able to support with volunteer coordination and document translations. Going into my service year I had an open mind that gave me the flexibility to make the most out of my commitment. The 18 months I spent there came with challenges that showed me strength I didn’t realize I had. Amidst the sorrow I witnessed, I also experienced the beauty of community-based cultures where the health of the whole group supersedes the individual. This experience changed me profoundly, and helped my better understand the career path I wanted to take. 
My advice for any college student thinking about their career is to take the road less traveled to stand out. You need to know how to market yourself, present your best strengths and one of the best ways to do that is through a service year. Instead of investing thousands of dollars in a degree directly after college, consider gaining field experience as a paralegal with a legal clinic protecting families from deportation. Instead of taking an entry level position that will bottleneck you at a major corporation, diversify your skill-set as a business volunteer at a fair trade organization. Instead of pursuing a narrow path to idealized success, consider a radical lifestyle change that is simple but more sustainable. Lastly, know that it is never too late. 
With over 200 programs and thousands of placement options, RESPONSE 2015 is the most comprehensive guide for faith-based service opportunities. Catholic Volunteer Network provides the directory online or hardcopy order.

Further Reading: 1.       Invitation to a Dialogue: Working for Nonprofits, New York Times Opinions2.       Why Service is a Foundation for Strong Careers and Stronger Communities,  Chelsea Clinton3.       Volunteering=Career Development,

A moment of compassion and peace

Sat, 12/20/2014 - 7:20am
By Kelsi Holmes
On mission in India with Heart's Home

When we arrived at the room of Pathamma, she was in the same place and position that she had been in the day before. She had not moved in some time and was lying in days worth of her own waste. Near her head sat a bowl of untouched food. The hum of flies surrounding her unmoving form was audible. There were ants in her mouth.

We were seized with pity for this woman who had long since been abandoned by her family because of her illness. No one cared for her. No one loved her. This human being, this soul, this supreme creation of God was left alone to wallow in the degradation that had befallen her and not a single person cared. Filled with the compassion of Christ, we boldly proclaimed: “We will care for you. We will love you. And if you have no one else in the world... you have us.” Girded with the amour of prayer, we stormed the gates of this woman’s personal hell willing to do everything in our power to alleviate her misery, even if just a little bit for just a little while.

We had next to nothing in the way of supplies but made do with what was available to us. We asked her neighbors to lend a few things, a pot to heat the water, a wall to hang the saree to dry. None of them were very fond of her so it wasn’t easy but we managed to scrounge up what we needed and then got to work. We washed her saree, cleaned her room, and then came the hard part...bathing Pathamma. We were generally inexperienced which made the situation somewhat stressful and to see a human being in such awful conditions is no easy thing but we did best to put on a smile and to sing while we worked.

We suspect that she hadn’t been eating or drinking for a while and as a result, she was a little out of it. I think she didn’t have the energy or the presence of mind to speak to us. She said a few words of refusal when I tried to feed her but that was about it. But while we were bathing her, she reached up and began to wash her own face and at that moment, she gave us smile as bright as the sun. Then, just before we left, she clasped her hands in front of her face in a silent gesture of gratitude. Those two actions, as small as they may seem, meant more to me than a thousand thank you’s.

We told Pathamma that we would return and we told ourselves that, next time, we would be better prepared. That was the last time I saw her alive. She died just a few days later alone, and in the same state that we had found her. When we came to pray over her before the burial, we were dismayed to find that even in death, she was uncared for. Her family was notified but no one came so only the bare minimum was done for her and I can tell you that for a lonely leper lady, it isn’t much. There was nothing I could do to change it so I tried my best to accept it. Her funeral consisted of Father Oliver, Latha, Chrisanne, a few men who also had leprosy, and myself. It was very short and very simple.

After the funeral, one man approached us and thanked us for the work we had done for her. He said that after we helped her, other people took notice and started to do little things for her also. In saying this, he showed us something that we very rarely, if ever, get to see. He showed us the fruits of our mission. Not only had we brought compassion to this poor woman but it touched those around her also. I feel in some way that by providing me with the opportunity to see this grace, Pathamma gave me a much greater gift than I ever could have given her.

God is with us – now!

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 11:42am
By Jim Lindsay
Executive Director, Catholic Volunteer Network

Christian Appalachian Project summer camp counselors enjoy a weekend of reflection and rest
as they explore Eastern Kentucky.
Jesus informs us that the Son of Man is coming at a time when we least expect him. There are many ways to explain this saying. Let’s begin by posing the question, “When do we least expect him?” It seems to me that the time we least expect him is right now, today.

We have faith that Jesus came long ago as a babe in Bethlehem. We trust that he will appear someday on the clouds of the sky. But, we do not anticipate him to come today to our home, our job or even our church. Therefore, this must be the most probable time and place for us to find him, right here and right now.

Christ House volunteer Rita Lis served as
a Nursing Assistant in Washington, DC.Let’s admit it; most of our life is ordinary. Only in films, novels or on television are people always experiencing some kind of crisis or excitement. For the most part, for you and me, the story is quite different. We work, eat, sleep and then we get up and start all over again. On weekends there might be a bit of variety - do the laundry, clean the garage, buy groceries and then, for a real change of pace, we might go out to dinner. On Sunday we go to church, and then on Monday morning we get up and start all over again.

This is the true stuff of which life is made. Someone has termed it “blessed monotony.”  I think that is a fitting description of most of our days. If Christ is to be a tangible part of our lives, this is where we must discover him. After all, this is where most people seem to have met him. In the New Testament, the only real spectacular encounter with Christ was the blinding vision that Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. But, that was the exception, not the norm.

Peter and Andrew met him while cleaning their nets beside the Sea of Galilee. For them, that was an ordinary thing, and it was something they did every day. Christ came to them, and they followed him; the rest is history. James and John met Jesus in the same place, on the same day. The woman of Samaria met him while she was at the well drawing water. It was something she did regularly. Matthew met him while working in his tax collecting office, something he did on a daily basis.

That is how people encountered Christ when he walked this earth, and that is where we will find him in our day. We must look for him in the mundane and learn to recognize him there. The challenge is that the Lord travels incognito with his true identity concealed. He is the master of many disguises.

Jonathan Tyler served at the Bernadine Franciscan Sisters' mission in the Dominican Republic
where he taught English to children and adults.One day, he will show up as an old woman in a wheelchair at a nursing home. Another day, he will be a child wanting someone to read him a book or a patient in the hospital desiring a visit. Another day, he will be a teenager needing encouragement. Today, he might be a single mother wanting a babysitter and tomorrow, a wife craving a hug.

Yes, it is well and good for us to anticipate the coming of Christ at the end of the world or to look back longingly to his coming into this world as a baby. But, in the interim, we can expect him to appear behind some crafty masks. Most days, if we find him at all, it will be in the midst of ordinary living in the people we meet each day.

Amate House volunteer Jackie Fielding served at
Ravenswood Community Child Care Center in
Chicago, providing childcare and mentoring for
teen parents and local families.For more than fifty years, lay volunteers serving with Catholic Volunteer Network, throughout the U.S. and around the globe, have sought to see Christ in the eyes and feet and hands of those they serve – the poor and oppressed and those on society’s margins. Last year, we helped place more than 22,000 women and men, young and old, single and married, with or without children, in a myriad of sites, where they provided healthcare, education, social services, pastoral ministry and a host of other good works.

As we remember the birth of Christ as a human person, and look forward to his coming again to fully save us, please help us at Catholic Volunteer Network to also see his presence in the everyday needs and wants, the joys and sorrows, of our sisters and brothers across the world. Your support will make a real difference in allowing volunteers to reach out to Christ hidden in the lives of the poor and neglected. This Christmas season, please consider a one-time or recurring gift to Catholic Volunteer Network by visiting our safe and secure site at:

May you experience the presence of Christ in this holy time! Please be in touch with us this new year with your ideas about faith, service, and Catholic Volunteer Network’s role in helping people to see the intersection between the two!


Jim Lindsay
Executive Director

{Vatican Radio} Pope Francis: voluntary workers are builders of peace and harmony

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 10:41am
By Linda Bordoni
As posted on Vatican Radio

A Project FIAT volunteer works alongside a local villager to prepare food for the community in Salvador, El Salvador.
(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis thanked voluntary workers across the globe describing their work with men and women in difficulty as a living witness of the tenderness of Christ, who walks with humanity in every era.

Speaking to members of FOCSIV, an International Federation of Christian Voluntary Workers whom he received in audience on International Volunteer Day (December 5), the Pope says voluntary workers offer an image of a Church that rolls up its shirt sleeves and bows to serve its brothers and sisters in difficulty.  

Pointing out the fact that poverty must never be an occasion for someone else’s gain, the Pope invited voluntary workers to persevere on their unselfish path.

He notes the changing face of poverty in a world in which – the Pope said – the poor themselves want to become protagonists of their lives putting into practice solidarity amongst those who suffer. He told the volunteers that they are called to take notice of the signs of the times and to become instruments at the service of the activism of the poor. Solidarity, he said, is a way to make history together with the poor, turning away from alleged altruistic works that reduce the other to passivity.

The Pope points to an economic system that ransacks nature as one of the main causes of poverty. Mentioning deforestation, environmental catastrophes and the loss of biodiversity in particular, Pope Francis says it is necessary to remember that creation is not “property of which we can dispose of to our benefit, and less still is it the property of few”. Creation – he says – is “a wonderful gift that God has given us to take care of and utilize for the benefit of all, with respect”. And he encouraged volunteers to continue in their commitment “to safeguard creation so that we can hand it over to future generation in all of its beauty”. 

Other causes of poverty the Pope singles out are tied to “the scandal of war”. He says that working for development, volunteers cooperate in the making of peace and the building of bridges between cultures and religions.

He says that even in the most difficult situations voluntary workers are sustained by their faith; he says their presence and their activities in refugees camps are a tangible sign of hope for so many people in the world who “fleeing from the horrors of war, or persecuted for their faith, are forced to abandon their homes, their places of prayer, their lands, their dear ones! How many broken lives! How much pain and destruction!” Before all of this – Pope Francis says – “the disciple of Christ does not turn the other way, but tries to take some of the burden from suffering people with his closeness and evangelical welcome”.  

Migrants and refugees
Finally the Pope turns his thoughts to migrants and refugees who attempt to leave harsh conditions of life and dangerous situations behind them. And pointing to the necessary collaboration of all: institutions, NGOs and ecclesial communities to promote new policies and measures for peaceful cohabitation, he calls on the commitment of States to effectively manage and regulate these phenomenona.

The Pope’s message comes on International Volunteer Day during which an annual Prize is awarded. This year the Award went to Maria Luisa Cortinovis: wife, mother, grandmother, teacher and missionary. She received the Prize during a ceremony held at Vatican Radio.

See the original piece and listen to the radio version here.

Home is where the heart is at peace

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 7:50am
By Molly Magri
St. Joseph Workers volunteer serving at St. Joseph Center

I’ve always had a difficult time trying to explain where my home is, or where I’m from when I’m asked those questions.

You see, unlike many people I know, I’ve moved around the country quite a bit. I started off in California, then made my way back and forth across the country for a grand total of seven moves. For those of you who struggle with math, that’s an average of 1 move every 3 years. Now you can see where the identity crisis comes into play.

Molly at her desk - or "office home"I’ve never stayed in a place long enough to say “I’m from [blank]”. The best I can come up with at this point is “I’m from the Midwest”. I lived in Chicago 3 different times, went to school in Cincinnati and my parents recently moved to Cleveland.

Nowadays, when I tell my story to Californians, they always tell me that I’ve come home, since this is where I was born. I only lived in San Juan Capistrano for the first 2 years of my life, so that’s a little hard for me to justify. The fact of the matter is, I’ve been asked this question, “Where are you from?” for my entire life, and I have a feeling it’s not going to stop any time soon.

Once I came to this realization, I started thinking of “home” as less of a physical entity and as more of an abstract idea. 

Some of the first images that pop into my head when I think of home are my friends at Xavier. I had the time of my life those four years in Cincinnati, and one of the most significant reasons for that is because of the family I made there. I loved every minute of it, the good and bad, because of the people who were with me along the way.

House blessing by Fr. Greg BoyleAnother thing I think of when I hear the word home are my parents and dog, Max. Even though the place where they live changes frequently, they are always my family, and they will always be my home. Ironically, I’m writing this as I sit on an airplane enroute to my “home” in Cleveland.

And finally, I’ve recently started to discover my home here in Los Angeles, amongst the palm trees and the Pacific. I’ve found a home at Visitation parish. It’s a church right up the street from my house and from the first time I stepped through the doors, I felt a sense of comfort; I felt like I belonged. As soon as I registered as a new member, the pastor Fr. Jim wanted to set up a meeting just so he could meet me. He was so impressed with my year of service with the St. Joseph Worker program and my willingness to move to a new city where I didn’t know anybody. He even asked for my parents’ phone number so he could call them and tell them how impressed he was with me! So that is one place I now call my home.

Molly gives diapers to a clientAnother home I have been adopted into is at my placement site, St. Joseph Center. From the day I started working there in the food pantry, I felt welcomed into the family. We had our annual staff retreat recently, and as I participated throughout the day, I got to observe this loving family in action. People from completely different programs and departments come together to form this family where everyone cares about each other. I never could have imagined working at a place like this amazing, but now that I’m here, I never want to leave.

Every day I get to interact with clients from all walks of life: my clients come from Mexico, Russia, as well as the streets of Venice. I feel more and more at home at St. Joseph Center every day. There’s a pretty famous quote you’ve more than likely heard before, “home is where the heart is”. I agree with that, but I like to add a little to it. My heart can be anywhere in the world, but if I’m not at peace wherever I’m at, that’s not home in my opinion. “Home is where the heart is at peace” is a little closer to reality. I’ve found peace in many corners of the world, and I’m happy to say one of those corners is Los Angeles.
Molly prepares food with Chef Dereck

Loving with an Open Hand

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 11:16am
By Ariana Rangel
AmeriCorps Member at Maggie's Place

There is a beautiful image of Mary and Eve that I really love in which Mary is comforting Eve. The colors are vibrant and the message it conveys is a comfort to me. As Mary crushes the serpent that is wrapped around Eve’s leg, she holds Eve’s hand to her rounded belly, sharing with her the hope of redemption in Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, clothed in her own hair, Eve clutches a small, red apple to her chest.

Two months ago, I came to Maggie’s Place – a home for pregnant and parenting women in need – with a mission to be like Mary, bringing comfort to the women I’d be serving along with a simple yet resounding message of love and hope. I thought I could be the Mary and they could be the Eve. I thought I would be the strong one, the one that rides in and casts the darkness from their lives with a sweep of my hand. I thought I could crush their serpents with my little foot.

But when I’ve looked in the mirror these past two months, it is I who am consistently clutching that little red apple to my chest. In this story, the real story, our moms are the heroes, God is their strength, and I’m just along for the ride.

My first contact mom at Maggie’s Place was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met. At 38, she was the oldest mom in the house and the grooves in her face told the story of a hard and sorrowful life. On that same face, her smile beamed joy at her newborn son whenever she held him. She was the living image of my definition of Maggie’s Place: a place where joy and sorrow go hand in hand. She was so motivated to leave her old destructive life behind and start fresh with her son, and I was going to do everything I could to help her. Together, we would change her life!

In my head it was inevitable; it was basically a done deal. She would be a classic Maggie’s Place success story and her picture would flash across the Maggie’s Place website for years to come.

 Then one evening, just as things were looking promising for her, she didn’t come home. I waited and waited past curfew, staring down the front door, praying that she would walk in. Any minute now. Any minute. But she didn’t. And she never came home the next day, or the next. And she never answered her phone.

I was angry and hurt for her. How could she do that? How could she just disappear from our lives without even a memo or a goodbye? It didn’t seem fair. I may never know the reason why she never came home that night and I could stay upset about it forever, or, I could let go of that apple that I was holding onto so tightly and trust that God was in control of the situation. I wanted so badly to love her the way I knew how, the way I thought was best, but God was asking me to love in a greater way. God was asking me to love with an open hand.

 In his book “Community and Growth,” Jean Vanier explains that, “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets.”

Here at Maggie’s Place we get the chance to witness moments of great wonder and beauty, moments of deep sorrow and hurt, joy and cheer, fear and confusion, and we thank God for all of it. For whatever our sorrows, whatever our joys, whatever our current situation, we must trust that God is giving us our greatest chance for holiness. He is carrying every mother and her child down a winding, unique, and sometimes bumpy path and all we can do is walk alongside each other and live in that wonderment each day. God is asking us to let go of the apple and simply love with an open hand because it is then that we can truly witness the way he is giving us our greatest chance for holiness.

Like the first time a mother invited me to feel her child kicking inside of her, Mary invites Eve to feel her Son. I can only extend my hand to that invitation if I have nothing clutched within it. I can only be a witness to God’s wonderful work in her life if I’m not clinging to my own agenda. He calls us to love with an open hand because no matter what our situation may look like, He is there to give us our greatest chance at holiness.