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Learning from weeds

Thu, 06/25/2015 - 9:07am
By Annemarie Barrett
Current missioners in Bolivia
with Franciscan Mission Service

At the end of the day, I am learning that Mother Earth is our greatest teacher.

When we look close at the garden, it is all there. “Greatest teacher” of what? What is “all there”?

In reconnecting with the Earth and the communities that work her land, I have been reminded of the significant challenges that lay before us.

I have known for a long time now how grave the situation is that our planet is in. But I have only recently started to share work with communities that have been and will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

And yet, for as apocalyptic as the future does look, learning from the wisdom of Mother Earth has deeply renewed my faith in the potential we have to respond to these crises.

When facing these seemingly insurmountable challenges, her wisdom grounds me and offers me a new perspective.

Learning from the task of weeding in the garden offers some great examples.

Lettuce combined with fava beans in the parish garden.Since joining the Plataforma Regional de Protección de Suelos, a regional organization of NGOs that practice sustainable agriculture here in Bolivia, our Pastoral de la Madre Tierra has attended various workshops they offer.

In these workshops we have learned to study Mother Nature in order to transform the challenges we experience in our work.

In the garden, we constantly deal with weeds.

Instead of spraying the weeds with chemicals we are learning about companion planting. We are learning which seeds to plant together so that they mutually benefit one another, a practice that can significantly reduce weeds as well as pests.

In these workshops we have learned that the values at the root of companion planting are collaboration and coexistence, not competition.

When growing plants are faced with weeds that threaten their growth and even their existence, they can move towards collaboration, to learn how to live together instead of compete.

Great production of lettuce harvested from 
the combination with fava beans.These lessons are learned from the relationships that naturally occur in our environment. If we look at any ecosystem, we see the ways the different species coexist and even collaborate.

When confronting harsh realities like that of climate change, what would it look like to take a step towards humility as a human race? Instead of relying on competition to save us, could we take time to learn from the wisdom Mother Earth? Could we invest in collaboration and commit to coexistence?

In these workshops we have also learned that not all weeds are bad, not all need to be removed. Instead of fearing weeds, we learn to work with them. We let them grow and stay around the seeds we have planted until they enter into competition, because we trust that those weeds, when small, can also maintain the life in the soil.

Many times while weeding I have found myself meditating on the process of weeding as a spiritual practice. What are the weeds, or weaknesses, or shadow sides in me that keep me from God and others? How can I coexist with those weeds instead of denying they exist, so that I might grow?

In reconnecting with the Earth, I am learning to focus less on scarcity and more on the abundance of wisdom we have available to us through our relationship with the Earth.

In the midst of great challenges of an ever industrializing, globalizing and isolating society, returning to the wisdom in our natural interconnectedness, I am learning that our connection to the Earth it is not only essential to our physical survival but also a deep source of spiritual revival.

The community of Santa Rosa with the Santa Vera Cruz parish community.

Connecting to the land

Tue, 06/09/2015 - 9:55am
By Annemarie Barrett
Current missioner in Bolivia
with Franciscan Mission Service

Living in the city, shopping at grocery stores, and watching a lot of TV, I never had to think much about how my food arrived at my table. I could answer that easily, “From the grocery store.”
But how did it get to the grocery store?

In high school I was blessed with the opportunity to attend POWER Summit, a small youth summit in Saint Paul, Minnesota, hosted by Celeste’s Dream a youth ministry sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph. It was the first time that I was invited to think about where my food came from and the first time I met people growing their own food.

But it was not until living as a Franciscan lay missioner here in Cochabamba that I really started to share daily life with people and whole communities who came from farming families, to work side by side with people who have grown up connected to the land.

It was then that I realized that my television never got around to teaching me about plant recognition.

I had never seen a turnip in real life.

I did not know the difference between an apple tree and a peach tree. I did not know the first steps in planting a seed.

A woman in Santa Rosa with the tomatoes she
produced in her home garden.
Living disconnected from the land, it was easy to laugh at tree huggers and other stereotypes, really because I had no idea what it might feel like to care enough about a tree to hug it. Why would you do that? My cell phone cares for me, sure, but a tree? I did not get it. I am exaggerating, but you get the point.

Then I met Casta, my Bolivian boss in the garden who was raised in a farming family. I listened to her talk about caring for the garden in her home. She spoke about each plant with affection, like it was her own child or friend.

She invited me to work with her, caring for the plants in the parish garden. I spent many days weeding and digging and watering. And little by little, I started to understand.

Through contact with the land, I woke up to the mutuality; the relationship one can form with the plants, as they live and breath just like us, as they nourish us while we nourish them.

Meal prepared in one of the homes in Santa Rosa.In connecting to the land as a mother, it became harder and harder to imagine using chemicals in our work. The more I learned about how plants and trees are both delicate and resilient, just like us, I became more careful of where I walked in the garden, aware that I was walking through a space filled with living beings, not products to be consumed and thrown away.

And the women in Santa Rosa taught me as well. They pointed out all the little seedlings in their home gardens. They invited me to meals made with the fresh vegetables they produced. And they still make fun of me for not being able to adequately plant potatoes.

Did you know that in the campo you need to know how to plant potatoes well before you can think about getting married? Because in the campo you produce food and income for your family, so you need to know how to produce to be able to start a family. I did not know, but these women have taught me.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it?

Harvesting potatoes in the parish garden.If we live connected to the Earth, we realize that we depend on her just like she depends on us. When our food depends on our harvest and not the supermarket, we learn to respect the cycles of the soil, the seasons and the production. We learn to live in relationship to our Mother Earth and the people that work her land.

And as a Franciscan lay missioner, I have learned that solidarity in practice here means sharing work with these marginalized farming communities, valuing their culture and their wisdom, choosing to learn from them and their connection with the Earth. Recognizing that my reliance on imported food, corporate controlled food systems, and contamination producing large city living is unhealthy for both me and my community, local and global.

5 Things 5 Year-Olds Teach You

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 10:18am
By Grace Yi
Current volunteer in Philadelphia with Mercy Volunteer Corps

[Jesus] said to [the disciples], “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.(Mark 10:14-16)
I’m sure many of you have heard of this passage before, and how Jesus especially loves children. Since August 2014, I have been surrounded by little humans age 2 to 5 (“5 Things 5 Year-Olds Teach You” rolled better than “5 things 2 to 5 Year-Olds Teach You”). I serve as an assistant teacher for a preschool classroom at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries in Philadelphia, and I wonder if Jesus knows…
I wonder if Jesus knows the horror my troublemaker places in my heart as I yell at him from across the classroom to stop swinging between the chairs, only to watch him in slow motion – first ignoring me with a wide grin as he looks straight in my eyes, then slipping and falling face first onto the tile floor. A second of cold silence hangs in the air for him to fill up his little lungs, then the loudest wail ever snaps everything back to life as he looks up at me with tears and bloody lips.
Or how they test my patience every day with their sassy “No!”s, and doing the exact opposite of what I ask them to do.
Or what little germ sacs they are, touching everythingand anything, and putting their bacteria culture hands straight on me (I must say, my hand-washing habits have improved significantly since I started working with them). 
So exactly why does Jesus love these disastrous little humans so much?
Well, they are so irresistibly cute that it’s easy to forget about their mischief. On a more serious note, they somehow shine God out of their little bodies and bring His desires alive to the present, to the now in my life. So here are five things I learned through my kids.
*Names of the students have been replaced with a pseudonym for confidentiality.
1. Eyes for the “small things”  “Miss Graaaaace, I have a booboo on my finger.” “Oh no, let me see. Where is it?”“Right here.”“Where??”“Right hereeee.”
And there it is, an itsy bitsy red dot you could barely see with naked eyes.
“Can I have a band-aid please?” “Oh, I don’t think you need a band-aid for that.” “BUT IT HUUURTSSSS. PLEASEEEEEEEE.”
I’ll be honest. When this happens – several times a day – I get a bit annoyed, and I give them a band-aid more for my sake than theirs.
But their little eyes that notice their little booboo’s are also the first to notice little cuts or scratches on me that I didn’t even know about. They stare at my tiny wound for a good while, and ask in a soft voice filled with concern, “Are you okay, Miss Grace? Does that hurt a lot?” In that moment, I could not feel any more cared for. And I think God intended for everyone to feel that way.
2. Life is full of little cheering things!  One day, we passed out tiles of various colors and shapes to each student for a lesson on patterns and shapes. As I was walking past Cole, I casually asked him what color was his tile. It took him a second to realize that it was “ORANGEEEE!! MY FAVORITE COLOR!!!”. He was so joyous that he literally couldn’t contain it in himself and jumped out of his chair.
Replace this orange tile with just about anything at any given moment. I recently saw an article that said preschoolers laugh about 300 to 400 times a day, while adults only laugh an average of 17.5 times.
Catherine McAuley, the founder of Sisters of Mercy, wrote in one of her many letters, “I would like to tell you all the little cheering things that God permits to fall in our way”.
It is often easy to fall into a trap of finding daily routine repetitive and fatiguing. To combat this, I began to look out for little cheering things throughout my day to find more joy and gratitude. My goal is to get as good as my kids. 
3. Transformation is possible  “Repeat after me, okay? Es, aitch,” I say as I point at the letters on his paper with the tip of a pencil. “Es, aitch.” “Ey, double yoo, en.” “Ey, double yoo, en.”“Good. Now can you spell your name by yourself?” I anxiously ask Shawn. “Deeeee…”“No, no, no, which letter does your name start with?” “I don’t know,” answers squirmy Shawn with a half-embarrassed, half-playful smile.
It is beyond my understanding. We just went over how to spell his name about thirty times, if not more. And every single time, he fails to remember these five letters. What is more frustrating is that we have been doing this every day for several weeks now. With my hopes crushed and patience stretched thin, I wonder if I can ever help Shawn learn how to spell his name.
Then one day, I hear Shawn spelling his name all by himself. Surprised, I walk over to his table and I ask him to repeat it. With his eyes full of smile, he proudly recites his name out loud. In the next few weeks, he starts writing his name with backward S’s and a couple of letters missing, and in another few weeks, he can write his whole name by himself.  
Shawn is not the only one who has shown me that transformation is possible. LayLay, who has given me the opportunity to change diapers for the first time ever in my life, is now completely potty-trained and Pampers free. My little two-year olds who started off the school year unable to speak anything are now calling me “Mitt Gwayth” and defiantly yelling “NO!” when I ask them to do something that doesn’t suit them. Sometimes I miss the good old days when they just sat quietly, but whenever I watch them talk to each other, I am in awe.
My kids assure me that slowly, but surely, transformation takes place. I have no doubt that every one of my students has the potential to transform and do what they dream of, and become whoever they want to be. It is so easy to believe that.
So why is it so hard for so many of us to believe in ourselves and in each other? Because I’m sure God feels the same way about us as I do about my kids.
4. How well God knows us  I have come to know my students by more than just their name. I know their parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunty, uncle, and godparents. I know what backpack, folder, jacket, shoes, sweater, hat, gloves, and scarf each of them have. I decipher their little whispering voices and call them out by name with my back turned toward them. I can tell which crooked handwriting belongs to which kid. Each child gets the same blanket to sleep with every day. I know who has asthma, who is lactose-intolerant, and who simply doesn’t like to drink milk. The list goes on and on.
Now, just imagine how much better God must know us if I got to know my students this well in just a few months. 
5. How to welcomeHands down, my favorite time of the work day is walking into the dining hall in the early morning when the kids are eating breakfast. They greet me by flying out of nowhere to give me (or my leg) a tight hug and looking up at me with a wide smile as if my appearance is the best thing that had happened to them so far in the day. Every morning, no exceptions. 
From the very first day, my kids had no inhibition in expressing this kind of welcome towards me. Here I am, a complete stranger, not to mention the only Asian in the whole day center, and my kids either don’t notice it or don’t care.
Caring less about creating barriers between us and them with external differences – socioeconomic status, age, religion, sexual orientation, race, and whatever else – and caring more about welcoming others into my life with mercy is what I’m aiming to grow in during this year of service and beyond. 
We may not be able to stop grey hair from sprouting out (which is increasingly becoming my problem), or be blessed with turbo speed metabolism and unending supply of energy. But we can all still be a kid at heart, right?

Embracing God's plan

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 9:24am
By Amanda Ceraldi
Current volunteer in Guatemala
with Franciscan Mission Service

I have been a planner my whole life. I rely on my color-coded calendar, countless to-do lists, and multiple email tabs everyday to keep myself organized and structured. I generally don’t enjoy being spontaneous or going with the flow. When I committed to FMS I liked knowing that I had a plan and a goal for the next two years, but I quickly started trying to figure out what I would be doing in 2017.

As much as I try to deny these things about myself, I know it’s my personality. However, these traits are not always conducive to mission. During formation we often talked about the importance of flexibility on mission and how to adapt to situations. For me that flexibility can be stress-inducing, anxiety filled, and difficult to deal with, but stepping outside of my comfort zone has helped me embrace the adaptability of mission life.

That said, I couldn’t have been prepared for the curveball that was thrown at me when I arrived at Valley of the Angels.

Ever since I found out that I would be working at a boarding school everyone has asked if I would be teaching. Every time my response was the same—“No.” When I was younger I liked to play school in my basement with the overhead projector my sister received for Christmas one year, but I got bored easily and would give up after a few minutes.

I would get anxious in college when my friends majoring in education would talk about lesson plans and classroom management. My whole life I have had incredible teachers who have inspired me and whose value I recognize, but teaching was never a path I wished to pursue.

Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” Some might translate this loosely to “we make plans and God laughs.” I made plans to do anything but teach on mission, but God determined through an outbreak of chicken pox and a pregnant English teacher that I would be teaching English to second and fifth graders.

 This endeavor has not come easy. I fumble through Spanish in order to teach my students English. I struggle to explain the concepts I’m teaching. And the most difficult part is recognizing the struggles these students face based on systematic problems they have no control over.

Amidst these struggles I find a sense of joy within me. Joy at the ability to embrace my fears of flexibility. Joy in the challenge to do something I never thought I would be capable of doing. And most of all joy in the smiles and hugs I receive from my students every time I walk into the classroom, or every time they see me around Valley. While the plans I made seemed like the best path for me, I am glad that God opened my heart to His plans.

Why do teachers keep doing what they do?

Tue, 05/12/2015 - 10:45am
By Kate Ulfers
Current volunteer in Detroit with Mercy Volunteers

Teaching is hard. As a student I took my teachers for granted; I complained about the tactless and unpassionate ones, and mildly sassed the effective but boring ones. As a student I had zero appreciation for the time and energy my teachers spent on incorporating benchmarks into their lesson plans, on creating tests and assignments, or on the never-ending grading.  
 Now that I have served as a high school teacher for the last 7 months, I have a whole new sense of awe for what teachers and educators do. But one aspect of teaching has still eluded me… why do teachers keep doing what they do? 
I personally want to be a teacher when I grow up, but I don’t know if I will be able to continue the momentum of teaching for the next 35 years or so. Essentially, I am at a loss as to why veteran teachers continue to persevere in the classroom, long after the glamor and new-car smell has worn off. It’s not for the great pay or flexible hours. It’s not for the prestige or celebrity status. 
So why?
I gained a small insight into this recently on a particularly grey and dull Monday.  It was a Monday after a long weekend and I was anticipating untamed and uninterested students whose behavior would range from barely able to stay in their seat to barely able to stay awake. I told myself the night before to give up on trying to predict how horrible this Monday would be… how uncontrollable and talkative the kids would be, how unprepared and incomplete my lesson plan was, how over the long weekend I had probably lost my classroom confidence. On evenings when all of these insecurities are invading my mind, I chant to myself:
“KT, there is zero point spending a whole evening stressing over just two hours of classroom time. You need to prioritize your time and energy, and dreading the unknown is not a priority.”
Remarkably, I felt pretty good when I got to work that morning and classes (as always) were fine. Sure, some kids were a little bit chatty, some a little antsy, but after the first 15 minutes, everyone was relatively calm. My lesson plan was also fine. Considering I made the kids do most of the work, it landed on them to be productive (or not). And my confidence trickled back throughout the class. Good day, all in all.
I was content with this. I survived and now the next 3 hours was to be spent preparing for the next day. Golden.
At lunch time I headed downstairs to carbo-load and I ran into one of my favorite students. He has the lowest grade in both of my classes, and is at risk of not being able to graduate if he doesn‘t pass my class. Thing is, his attitude in class (and out) is funny, sweet and genuine, and he really does try hard in my class. This year he was diagnosed with a learning disorder which might explain a large portion of his academic struggle, but unfortunately he is under the impression that the reason he is struggling is because he’s stupid. 
This drives me CRAZY because intelligence cannot be reflected in a grade; some random letter or percentage does not dictate anyone’s IQ. But in a system where grades are given such emphasis, it is very frustrating that all his hard work does not reflect in his grade… is it any wonder that he is discouraged?
Anyway, when I bumped into him I congratulated him on his last test. He looked confused because he hadn’t checked his test grade online yet. When I told him he scored a 72% (highest grade he has received on a test or quiz so far) he looked shocked, and then he just BEAMED. He thanked me (I am not sure why) and I told him that I didn’t have anything to do with his grade, that the 72% was all him and his hard work. He beamed all over again.
That look on his face, oh man, THAT is why teachers continue to do what they do. THAT is why they still work even though they are paid next to nothing and work hours and hours at home. THAT is why they go into so much debt in order to get that stinking Teaching degree. THAT is possibly one of the most rewarding reactions/looks that a student can gift a teacher with. THAT made my day.

Lessons through Lax

Wed, 05/06/2015 - 9:26am
By Nate Marsh
Communications Associate at Franciscan Mission Service

I was lucky enough to have a tremendous coach when I began playing lacrosse in 2006 at the age of 14. While I wasn’t the slightest bit athletic, or motivated in any way, he found a way to make me both, as I went on to start all four years on an NCAA team and graduate magna cum laude.
What was most amazing about his coaching, however, was his ability to make everything we did in practice correlate to challenges we would face later in life, or just planting the idea in our heads that how we act now reflects the kind of person we will become. If we take the lazy way out or don’t put the effort in now, then we won’t in college or a job.

It is because of this man that I have such an intense love of sports and the lessons they teach. And it is also because of him that once I joined FMS and moved to Washington, DC that I sought to find a team to help coach. I was lucky enough to find WINNERS.

While lacrosse is typically seen as a preppy, suburban sport, WINNERS is trying to rectify that. Many of the inner city schools in DC don’t have a lacrosse team, and WINNERS provides one. They also supply the equipment that could easily cost $1,000 each season on equipment and dues.
WINNERS also stresses many of the same life lessons that my coach instilled in me. Every week there is a particular trait each coach is preaches to his athletes, like eye contact, respect, teamwork, etc.

However, the lessons are not limited to the kids, but the coaches learn as well. I do anyway.
Ever since graduating high school in 2010, I have returned to my alma mater whenever I could to help my coach continue the program to the same standards and expectations he always has. But high school students are pretty easy to deal with, all things considered.

I have little to no experience with working with middle school children, and the first practice was certainly a wake up call. But working with kids this young is the best way to make lifelong impressions on them, and learning an interactive environment is a very impactful way of doing it. It has taught me more effective ways to explain fundamentals and drills making me a better and more concise speaker, and ultimately a more patient person, all while bettering myself and my community through serving.

What WINNERS has done for me more than anything, though, is remind me what the root of the sport is: fun. It has brought me back to my freshman year of high school when I was just learning to hold the stick the correct way, and it amazes me how far ahead of me these kids are than when I was their age, learning the game at least three years earlier than I had. Their potential is limitless, and I’m proud to contribute even an ounce to that.

Teaching these kids the importance of hard work, if I can be even a quarter as effective as my high school coach, will pay dividends for them the rest of their lives. Just as I used to be stuck in class all day, begging for the final bell to go out to practice, I watch the clock tick down at work eager to shape the future lacrosse players of tomorrow.

A Year of Global Health with the United Methodist Church

Tue, 04/28/2015 - 9:00am
By Holley Hooks, MPH, CPH
Missional Intern with Young Adult Missional Movement

When I graduated with my master’s degree in public health last May, I wasn’t really sure what would come next. Little did I know, God had big plans for me. As in, all-the-way-across-the-world plans. 
By that time, I knew that global health and development were something I was really interested in but I had never spent any time abroad except for a mission trip to Mexico and a month of studying abroad in India. I also knew that in order to make my way into this field, I would have to spend significant time working in other countries. Quite frankly, that thought terrified me.
I decided to get my feet wet by participating in the United Methodist Church’s Global Justice Volunteer program (GJV for short). The GJV program is a great opportunity to spend two months in a new country to learn about social justice issues occurring in that country. 
I was placed in the Philippines and one of my assignments was working with the Typhoon Haiyan relief in Tacloban City. The idea of going to a disaster zone was a little daunting, but as soon as I arrived, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. It was clear that much help was needed and I felt strongly in my heart that I could use my skills and training to work with the community to make life a little easier. I had a blast living with locals and assisting with various areas of construction and community health. 
When the time came for my program to end, I didn’t feel like my time in the Philippines was over. I made connections with Norwegian Church Aid and made arrangements to join their hygiene promotion team. As a hygiene promoter, I worked with an amazing group of people to create a community hygiene campaign that aimed to prevent diarrhea and vector-borne diseases. At the end of the campaign, our follow-up showed that community members learned from us and even used some of the tips and skills we taught! 
What was supposed to be a two-month immersion turned into four months of incredible experience and mentorship. I learned that living in a foreign country isn’t so scary after all. It’s something I’m good at, and something I want to continue doing.
After serving in the Philippines, I joined the Young Adult Missional Movement (YAMM), a program put on by the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The purpose of this program is for young adults to live in an intentional community and help local churches with missional outreach. My placement is in Jacksonville, Florida, where I live with three other YAMM interns. I work at Avondale United Methodist Church and Campus to City Wesley Foundation. 
Through this program, I have had the chance to participate in activities pertaining to HIV/AIDS outreach and human trafficking awareness. I have also been able to continue work in global health. I am currently building a relationship between Avondale UMC and a group of women in Montroius, Haiti. I visited Montrouis on a mission trip with the church and while I was there, I learned that there is a huge gap in knowledge and information on women’s health. My pastor has allowed me to take this opportunity to use my skills and passion to build a women’s health initiative that I will be taking to Haiti later this spring. I am really excited to see what the future holds for this ministry.
The verse guiding the GJV program was John 10:10:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
I let this verse guide me in my life and career aspirations. The way I see it, a lack of equal access to health care is a thief that steals and kills and destroys. God has blessed me with the skills and passion to make a difference, however big or small. By following my passion, I want to serve God by helping others to have an abundant, healthy life.

Staying thankful – and healthy – on mission

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 9:48am
By Valerie Ellis
Current missioner in Cochabamba, Bolivia
Franciscan Mission Service

This post is about my health. Now before you get all squeamish, even though this is regarding the stomach and all sordid details, I promise to leave out the gross ones.

It starts with amoebas. Yes, they are little creatures living in your stomach, but I assure you that this is not the gross part.

“What’s the big deal about amoebas?” you ask. “I heard they were really common in Bolivia.”
Yes, they are. It is not as common to get them twice in three weeks. At which point your stomach turns into a breeding ground for bacteria. Then, you walk around all the time with an “inchado,” or bloated stomach.

These are the symptoms I will leave you with for now, as I promised not to get graphic.

Just picture this – you’re following your doctor’s orders, which means following a super strict diet, and then you find out you have developed gastritis. Which is caused by citrus fruits and vegetables. Which you have been consuming an unusually large quantity of, because you are only allowed to eat certain proteins, fruits, and vegetables.

The road has not been fun. However, I have been able to maintain a healthy outlook on this, if only through the sheer grace of God. Here’s what I am thankful for:
  • I am able to seek medical attention. Sadly, most of the population of Bolivia simply does not have the resources to do so.
  • I have stopped eating all junk/things that caused damage to my stomach before: cake, cookies, and any added sugar; dairy especially including cheese; and any added preservatives.
  • I have started working out on a regular basis. This not only helps my stomach process food, but it also helps my sanity!
  • I have learned a lot about what the people of Bolivia go through on a daily basis. This is accompaniment and solidarity in the strongest sense.
And now, since I have focused so much on food and would like to alleviate the mood, I leave you with my favorite silly song about food cravings:

Beauty in the Potential

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 9:04am

By Sr. Sara P. Marks, OSF
Director of Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain
Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia

Spring is upon us, spring—the great season of possibility. Spring the season of planting, the time of first fruits, the time that reminds us of brighter and warmer days, the time that leads us to hope. This potential that spring holds is nowhere more evident to me than on Red Hill Farm. As I look out upon the readied fields I imagine the transformation that will occur in the coming weeks. The brown that dominates the landscape will soon be leafy and green. Hands will work diligently to rid the beds of weeds to give life to the crop.

One summer, while working the farm, we were in the midst of harvesting the squash. One of the seasonal farmers plucked an oddly shaped yellow squash from the bush like vine announcing, “Look at this one!” Quickly another yelled, “Eat it!” None of us were accustomed to eating squash raw—sauté it in butter and garlic right? But the farm manager, in sharing that there was nothing wrong with raw squash, walked over and took a bite. Soon the oddly shaped yellow squash was being passed around the community of dirt-covered farm hands, each partaking of its goodness. Was this not Eucharist? The breaking, blessing, and sharing of the “fruit of the Earth and work of human hands”?
My time on the farm was a time of great transformation in my life. Never had God’s creation been so obvious to me, the distinctive nature of each plant speaking of the Gospel message of truth—peace, humility, and patience. It is for this reason that as we as a congregation set out to create a new volunteer program that we include Red Hill Farm as a ministry site. As Franciscans we hold deep reverence for the Earth and all creation. This home of ours is total gift from God and it is ours for which to care and share. Red Hill Farm is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) owned by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. Community Supported Agriculture allows community members to connect with a local farm and support their local food economy. 

Pope John XXIII, the Pope who called on the Second Vatican Council, a man who understood with great courage the concept of potentiality, says, “Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.” The Sisters of St. Francis believe deeply in “consulting our hopes”. This is why we have made the effort to bring Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain to reality.
I share my story to encourage others to consider an alternative way. Can you see the potential in these fields? Can you see yourself as the farm hand with earth-stained hands harvesting what the land yields? A Franciscan Volunteer will be placed on Red Hill Farm to work with the Farm Manager, Lilley, and the full-time farmer, Dylan along with other seasonal workers. If you see potential beauty in these fields please feel free to contact us to start the process of becoming a Franciscan Volunteer. We are taking applications now to fill volunteer slots for September of this year! No Risk, No Gain!
To learn more about serving at Red Hill Farm with Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain, email Sr. Sara at

Physical health and mental health as a volunteer

Mon, 04/13/2015 - 10:53am

Megan Davison
Former Lasallian Volunteer

Exercise taught me that nothing is insurmountable. Trust me, that lesson carried me through the majority of my 2 years of service.
I vividly recall standing in the doorway of the Brothers house, shoes tied and my iPod charged and ready. I remember exhaling as the street lights came on and running down Indiana Avenue towards Lake Michigan. Those after-dinner runs on the south side of Chicago were absolutely pivotal in my experience as a Lasallian Volunteer. Day after day, night after night, I settled into a pace, ran down the streets as a transplant in my new neighborhood, and out of nowhere, the daily run was the most important part of my day.
The correlation between physical health and mental health truly became apparent to me in my first year as a Lasallian Volunteer. Exercise enabled me to clear my mind at the end of a trying day, demanded that I prioritize my self-care during the service year, and pushed me-from running 1-2 miles to 10-12. 
My first real test? Running a ½ marathon for Lasallian Volunteers. Annually, LV’s run in a different city every year to raise money for the program that supports our infrastructure. That infrastructure allows Lasallian Volunteers to receive support from their local community and national community of staff, De La Salle Christian Brothers, and colleagues.
The Annual LVs Run stemmed from a few volunteers running the Chicago Marathon to raise money for the program they were a part of to becoming a weekend-long event filled with community, friend-raising, and celebrating our fundraising goal.
To date, the race has raised several hundred thousand dollars to honor the work of the Lasallian Volunteers and ensure that future volunteers are able to have the same faith-filled experiences. 
To me, fundraising was the easy part. It was trusting in the training that was difficult. Some days, it is so easy to write off the run you had planned, in favor of doing something else, anything else!
But the effects of running and training spilled over into other parts of my life. I was able to prioritize work at my service site, feel well-rested after a weekend in community, and have confidence in myself that wasn’t exactly bubbling to the surface. Especially living on a stipend, running is a very inexpensive way to get a great workout and see the city that you are living in.
In my second year of service, I had the pleasure of working with several Lasallian Volunteers in planning the annual run. We each had a tangible role and our success was contagious! We raised over $85,000 in one year and I still look on that experience fondly.
Today, those fellow LV’s are my closest friends.  The best part? After my service year concluded, I signed up for my first marathon and ran it last fall. Every training run I thought back to my nights running after community dinner, planning the annual run, and where it’s taken me since.
I leave it all on the trail and always remember, nothing is insurmountable.

From A Convent In Queens

Tue, 04/07/2015 - 10:14am

By Alyssa Keller Mercy Volunteer Corps 

 I am completely inspired by my community. Not only because it is comprised of amazing individuals, who each bring their own unique flavor to the table. Nor solely based on the fact that they produce great ideas for living in the spirit of Mercy. It is mostly because they act upon these ideals of spirituality, simplicity, service, and community, that I am grateful to be part of such a group.

SpiritualityThere is no doubt that weekly spirituality nights strengthen our volunteer experience as a whole. The action-based sessions stand out to me. At the mid-way point for the year, we wrote letters to our end-of-the-year selves, expressing the best parts of the year so far and what we hope to accomplish by the end of our service. For the Christmas season, we made a wall tree comprised of post-it notes. Each piece of paper has something we are grateful for the day we wrote it. The most challenging assignment was writing notes of encouragement and passing them out on our work commutes. Most strangers were immune to paper distribution, thinking we were spreading an agenda, but it felt good when people ultimately accepted what we had to offer. Outside of spirituality night, we as a community have decided to give up meat during Lent. Not only is there hope to be spiritually strengthened by this, but we are using this as a prolonged act of simplicity.

SimplicityIt was agreed upon that we take measures every day to live simply, including unplugging electronics and utilizing the standard reduce, reuse, and recycle method. However, we wanted to take it further with a weekly Simplicity challenge. Each spirituality night we draw a paper from our jar, which dictates what extra measure will be taken (or more often, what we will go without) for the duration of the week. Examples include: 4 days without Netflix, cutting shower times in half, no name brands, 4 days of candlelit dinner, and cutting AC use in half. Sometimes the challenge bleeds into the next category of serving our neighbors.

ServiceAside from collecting spare change and handing it out on our commute, our community does absolutely no other form of service. JUST KIDDING! I am amazed that on top of a 40-hour week of service, there is still the energy and drive to search out extra volunteer opportunities. So far, these include a park clean-up, a morning at a soup kitchen, and the co-teaching of ESL classes. One of our members noticed there were few altar servers at Mass and made an offer to our parish to do some youth outreach and coordination. While many of these efforts have been made on an individual basis, there is an intentional effort from all, with all, to strengthen the community.

CommunityHave you heard the phrase, “The family that prays together, stays together”? Well, we believe eating can be a form of prayer, and when food is around, we are stuck like glue. Besides dining together at least two times a week, we bond by going to parks, watching movies from collective library runs, and challenging each other to work out. (Although I think all of us would like to hit the exercise machines more often than we do.) Museums are a common interest in the group, and we are all excited to take advantage of the new NYC municipal ID cards that will give us access to these and other cultural institutions. It is a pleasure to be a part of such an inclusive, exploratory community.

It is evident why the individuals of the NYC community were drawn to Mercy Volunteer Corps. Mercy’s tenets of spirituality, simplicity, service, and community are appealing to us as agents of positive growth. MVC and its mission has caused our group to challenge each other in our development, and that is something I believe will impact my lifestyle long after this year is over.

Easter Sunday Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 04/05/2015 - 9:30am
"When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place."
John 20:1-9
By Monica Thom Konschnik, Catholic Apostolate Center Staff and Former Jesuit Volunteer

Imagine how it must have felt for Mary Magdalene to go visit Jesus’ tomb and to find it empty. Consider the thoughts that must have been running through Peter’s mind as he heard what Mary had to say. Having, in their own ways, gone through the experience of seeing their teacher and their friend crucified a few days prior, one can only imagine the range of emotions they must have been feeling seeing that empty tomb.

I think back to my year as a Jesuit Volunteer in New Orleans. We were the first group of JVs back after Katrina devastated the city. Having never visited the city prior to showing up for my volunteer year, I tried to think about what it must have been like for my co-workers and neighbors – watching their city destroyed by a flood. They must have been like Mary, Peter, and the other apostles – scared and unsure of the future after the water receded.

But as we know, Jesus was raised from the dead and the city of New Orleans continues to rebuild. For all of the darkness in the world, we need to remember that after every death, whether literal or figurative, there is new life. If we don’t go through times of uncertainty and sadness, we can never experience the true beauty of the resurrection.
Focus on the Four Pillars:

Spirituality: Take some time to read each of the Gospel stories of the resurrection. How do each of the stories differ? Where are they the same? Which is your favorite? Why? How do the stories apply to your life? Where do you see yourself in these Gospels?

Social Justice: Even though it has been nearly ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, the city is still continuing to rebuild. Learn how you can help by donating time or resources. Visit for details.

Simple Living: During Lent, you may have given yourself extra simple living challenges. Why not continue those on? Try another type of fasting, prayer, or almsgiving during the Easter season.

Community: It’s Easter – celebrate! Lent is over; the Lord is victorious over death. Gather together your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and other volunteers to celebrate Easter.

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

Reflection: 5 Favorite Memories with the Sisters of Mercy

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 9:43am

Lauren TatanusCurrently serving with Mercy Volunteer Corps at Hands on HartfordHartford, CT

As a second year Mercy Volunteer, I have been exposed to the Sisters of Mercy in many different facets. This year, in particular, is memorable since our community is laying the foundation for future volunteers in Hartford, CT. In order to demonstrate the love and compassion that we have received as a community, I want to list my top 5 favorite memories with the Sisters of Mercy:
5. Grocery shopping with one of the sisters each weekend
Since we rely on public transportation (usually the bus), our support staff, Sisters Lorraine and Judy, graciously organized a schedule for us to go grocery shopping once a week. During the week we contact the sister or associate listed on the calendar and arrange a time for all of us to grocery shop. This has presented us with the opportunity to meet different members of the Mercy community and to humbly accept our reliance on others for transportation.

4. SHELBY! The day that Alex, Sonia, and I arrived in Hartford, Judy and Lorraine hosted a wonderful cookout in their backyard. Before arriving at their home, we were exhausted from a day full of travel and moving into our new apartment. Our groggy moods quickly changed once we met Judy and Lorraine’s cocker spaniel, Shelby. This 13-year-old rescue dog exuded more energy than all 3 of us new MVCs combined! She woke us all up and entertained us at the sisters’ home. We always look forward to spending time at Judy and Lorraine’s home, especially because we get to see the always-smiling Shelby!
3. Spontaneous tea parties Along with having Judy and Lorraine as support staff, we also have many other sisters taking care of us. For example, Sister Beth Fischer, who works at University of St. Joseph (USJ, a local Mercy college), recently stopped over on a Friday evening to chat over a cup of tea. Both Alex and I frequently see her at our service sites when she brings nursing students to the different programs throughout Hands on Hartford, but we realized there is not much time to catch up while at work. I know I felt honored and excited to spend an evening talking with such an inspiring woman like Sr. Beth! 
It is amazing to see how interested the Sisters of Mercy are in our lives as young ministers of service in the city of Hartford. They frequently ask us how we are doing as a community, spiritually, with our service sites, and in living simply. Since Sr. Beth is connected to a college campus, she has also offered to keep us informed of events taking place at USJ. I look forward to many more shared cups of tea with other sisters as well!
2. Making our house a home A few days before leaving for orientation was when we figured out our official housing. Keri, an MVC Community Coordinator, had magically found a recently renovated apartment not too far from the bus line that would take us right to work. With only a few days until we arrived, the sisters and associates of Mercy from all over the North East gathered up items to fill our apartment. There is a rocking chair in each bedroom as well as two in the living room.  The whole kitchen was stocked with pots, pans, utensils, and everything we would need for the year. Upon entering the apartment for the first time, we were also greeted with the sight of welcome baskets in the living room, kitchen, and each of our bedrooms with essentials for the year. Sr. Judy also kindly placed her crocheted doilies around our new home. Only in the Mercy community could this apartment come together and become a true home for all three of us.
1. Hospitality Hospitality seems to be an important quality when it comes to mercy. As a community we keep jokingly spelling Hartford H-E-A-R-Tford because ever since we landed in Connecticut, we were greeted with open arms by Sisters Judy and Lorraine. Following our introductions, they invited us to a cookout at their home with several other Sisters in attendance. While this could have easily been an overwhelming experience, especially after a busy day of travel, we certainly felt right at home. 
It feels as though I have about 15 aunts here in Hartford that I can turn to whenever needed. I know that my parents were appreciative of this hospitality when they visited me over Labor Day weekend. As soon as I told Judy and Lorraine about their planned trip, they invited the whole Hartford MVC community as well as my parents for a cookout. My parents were overwhelmed with gratitude at their welcome. I could tell that my parents left the dinner a lot more confident that I was in good hands with the Sisters of Mercy.
Overall, I cannot wait to see what the rest of this year has in store. We have already met several amazing people in the Circle of Mercy, but apparently there are many more who are anxiously awaiting to meet us! The best is yet to come!

Reflection: Do It Anyway

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:21am

By Gabby Mejia
Holy Child VolunteerBatey Lecheria, Dominican Republic

I have been serving as a missionary in the Dominican Republic for about 8 months. It has been an incredibly humbling, challenging, adventurous, overwhelming, crazy time. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about this culture, but most importantly, I have deepened my relationship with Christ by serving His people. 
Gabby Mejia (far right) with the Holy Child sisters
and another volunteer in the Dominican RepublicThis experience has not been how I thought it would be, in reality, it has been better. I thank God every day for calling me here and for trusting me enough to serve His people in this way.
I found out I would be moving to the Dominican Republic in February of last year. It always seemed far away. I thought, “I’ll be leaving in 5 months” or “oh whoa I can’t believe I’ll be leaving in 2 months.” As the time for my departure drew near, I started to think about all the ways my life in the next year would change. I realized I was being given an opportunity to live in a beautiful country for a year. I was going to be able to spread God’s love to people who the world seems to have forgotten about. That’s why I was going. 
The first couple of months were difficult. Getting accustomed to a new culture, new people, new everything proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. There were times when I doubted my ability to stay here. However, I always repeated to myself the quote that says, “The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you.” I definitely found that to be true.

The first couple of months came and went and I found myself in a much better place. Sure, there were still some things I was getting used to, but the doubt that once cluttered my mind was no longer there. Instead, I found myself building relationships with the kids, with my fellow teachers, and with my community. 
I’m serving as an assistant teacher in a school in one of the bateys in the Dominican Republic. Bateys were once used to house immigrant Haitians that came to work the sugar harvest. However, since the cane industry dried up, bateys are now home to Dominican and undocumented Haitian families and are some of the poorest areas in the Dominican Republic. 
Many of our kids have behavioral problems. Many witness family violence regularly. Many are victims of abuse and maltreatment. Many are hungry. All of them, however, are beautiful children created in the image and likeness of God. All are worthy of love. That is what I have tried to share since I got here. My mission has always been to spread love. Though sometimes I may not know what I’m doing as a teacher, I know that these kids, mykids, know that I love them. To me, that’s all that matters. I am incredibly grateful to get the opportunity to serve these lovely kids and people who show me every day that Jesus is alive and works in us.
As I embark on my last few months here, I can’t help but look back at the last 8 months and see how much this experience has impacted me. It has changed the way I see the world. It has helped me grow as a person. It has also taught me a lot about faith. This experience is something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.   
I know that once I leave, these kids’ lives will continue on as normal. They will grow up and may not even remember me, but I will always carry them with me in my heart. I have always loved the poem titled “Do It Anyway” by Bl. Teresa of Calcutta and I think it sums up my experience as a missionary beautifully. The end says, “The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give it your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

Reflection: The lives of vowed religious are reminders of our own paths to holiness

Tue, 03/24/2015 - 10:04am

Alexis ParkCurrently serving with Mercy Volunteer Corps at SafeNetErie, Pennsylvania

Do you enjoy rocking out to pop hits like “All About that Bass” by Meghan Trainor? 
How about enjoying a glass of wine or a beer at a friendly gathering?
Do you recreate by going out to watch a play or spend some time at the local casino?
Would you believe it if I told you that these are also things enjoyed by fellow lay people consecrated as sisters in religious orders? That’s right, the three questions I just asked contain ways I have seen or been told Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph have fun! Yes, they are normal people, just like you and me! 
For the sake of formalities, HI!!My name is Alexis Park, and I am a Mercy Volunteer stationed in Erie, PA. I serve at a domestic violence organization called SafeNet. When I am not busy with tasks like processing volunteer applications or doing outreach at local schools, I love learning more about the Erie community. One of the ways I have especially done this is visiting the many Catholic churches and religious orders. Yes, Erie is a very Catholic area, which works out for me. For those who know me, I am a proud Catholic woman!
Alexis with her spiritual director, Sr. Mary AndrewDid you know there is actually a difference between nuns and sisters? Nuns are vowed religious who are cloistered and live by very strict rules. They also wear habits. You know, they kind of look like something Whoopi Goldberg wore in the Sister Act. They may come off as serious and very prayerful. A great example of nuns in Erie are the Carmelite sisters. The most I see of them is at Mass behind a closed gate in the chapel. This may seem strange for those of you who have never heard of this. Yet, when one takes a closer look, their way of life is very beautiful. They are answering their calls to devote their lives to pray for souls and the needs of the world. Being away from the world is difficult and brings a great deal of suffering. Yet, greater joy lies in their devotion to God and the sanctifying grace brought by their way of life. 
Meanwhile sisters are vowed religious who have a calling to live out an active ministry in the secular world.This is where orders like our awesome Sisters of Mercy come in! While a routine of prayer is integrated in their daily lives like community prayer and daily mass, they also have professions to fulfill certain ministries.Many are teachers and nurses.They can also be a social worker, like my friend, Sr. Kelly from the Sisters of St. Joseph, or a feminist author and lecturer, like the famous Sr. Joan Chittister from the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. Some sisters act as spiritual directors. For example, I am receiving direction from Sr. Mary Andrew, who just celebrated 50 years as a Mercy sister. She is one of the coolest individuals I have ever met! 
Depending on personal preference, sisters can choose to wear a habit, jeans and a sweater or even a combination of both. As I mentioned earlier, they are the ones you are more likely to find stepping out to enjoy life in their free time. This isn’t to say you can’t find the luck to crack a joke with a nun (I have in the past ☺), but it may not be as easy due to their cloistered lifestyles. 

Alexis with Sr. Kelly after her first vows
celebration as a Sister of St. Joseph.
As you can see, there is a broad spectrum in the lives of vowed religious. No way of life is holier than the other. Not all vowed religious stay inside a monastery to pray, and not all vowed religious wear habits. If anything, the lives of vowed religious are reminders of our own paths to holiness. We are called to be the individuals God made us to be. 
In the spirit of ordinary people called to holiness and that many Mercy Volunteers are recent college graduates, I would like to share an excerpt by Pope Francis I from his World Youth Day speech in 2013:
"We need saints without cassocks, without veils - we need saints with jeans and tennis shoes. We need saints that go to the movies, that listen to music, that hang out with their friends. We need saints that place God in first place ahead of succeeding in any career. We need saints that look for time to pray every day and who know how to be in love with purity, chastity and all good things. We need saints - saints for the 21st century with a spirituality appropriate to our new time. We need saints that have a commitment to helping the poor and to make the needed social change.
We need saints to live in the world, to sanctify the world and to not be afraid of living in the world by their presence in it. We need saints that drink Coca-Cola, that eat hot dogs, that surf the internet and that listen to their iPods. We need saints that love the Eucharist, that are not afraid or embarrassed to eat a pizza or drink a beer with their friends. We need saints who love the movies, dance, sports, and theater. We need saints that are open sociable normal happy companions. We need saints who are in this world and who know how to enjoy the best in this world without being callous or mundane. We need saints.”

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

Sun, 03/22/2015 - 9:30am
"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."
John 12:20-33
By Laura Castro, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff and Former Cap Corps Midwest Volunteer

In today’s reading, Jesus reveals his death to his disciples knowing they soon would be welcomed and celebrated in Jerusalem. He sets up his teaching with a metaphor: “just as a grain of wheat must die to produce fruit, we must die to ourselves to encounter the fruit of eternal life.” This teaching stretches us to live for something beyond this world, a place we only know through our faith. We can relate to Jesus’ humanity because we see how he might have found doubt in this invitation when he says, “I am troubled now.” He understands the heaviness of what lies before him, yet he follows this moment of confusion with an affirmation of his purpose in the world and ends the teaching with hope. The reading shows the complexity of Jesus and his faithfulness to God and humanity.

As Jesus reminds the people of his death, do we remain hopeful? What in our lives makes this difficult? What inspires us to be hopeful? Through our service and ministry – how have we found hope in the darkest places?

Focus on the Four Pillars:

Spirituality: When speaking to the youth, Pope Francis stated, “Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad!” he said. “Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person,” he said. “We accompany, we follow Jesus, but above all we know that he accompanies us and carries us on his shoulders.”

Social Justice: Catholics have essential beliefs and teachings around social justice that give us direction to encounter Christ in all people and all creation. The seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching can be implemented in your daily life. Visit Catholic Apostolate Center’s Catholic Social Teaching resources page for more information:

Simple Living: Living simply has its challenges, especially in a consumer-centric society. You may feel daunted by the idea of adopting practices of simple living and making a lasting commitment to this new lifestyle. Don’t let those worries prevent you from giving it a try today. View this Lenten season as a way to experiment with new forms of simple living – and once you’ve tried it, decide which practices you want to maintain for the long haul. Also, remember that integrating some practices of consuming less are forms of solidarity with those who are living in poverty.

Community: Robert Greenleaf said “The servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” How are you utilizing your leadership positions to lift up your community?

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

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

Sun, 03/15/2015 - 9:30am
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life."
John 3:14-21
By Carol Lackie, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff

This is one of the most frequently quoted passages of the Bible. For many believers, simply mentioning “John 3:16” or declaring it on a bumper sticker evokes strong feelings of humility and thankfulness regarding the life and sacrifice of Jesus – especially as that sacrifice was for each one of us as individuals. As we ponder the power of this faith tenet during the Lenten season, I invite us all to challenge ourselves about what the on-going message of Jesus’ sacrifice requires of us since that message is timeless and very much alive and dynamic.

Our Christian faith proclaims we are all children of God. As such, aren’t we bound to practice the same self-sacrifice that Jesus exhibited? It is said that Jesus is the human face of God. If Jesus now lives in each of us, isn’t it true then that we all reflect the face of God and are called to serve each other as Jesus served those around him? This is the simple plea of Pope Francis – that the Church would put aside secular trappings of power and wealth and serve the poor.

There is another powerful declaration in this short phrase that qualifies our service – it must be compassionate. John states that Jesus was not sent to condemn, but to save. The compassion of Jesus is one of the qualities of his ministry most often cited in the Gospels. He reached out to all peoples – even those shunned by society – and he made clear that his healing power was available to all. When we engage in our ministries, is our embrace as free and nonjudgmental as that of Jesus?

Focus on the Four Pillars: 

Spirituality: The theologian Philip Sheldrake defines Christian spirituality as “the way our fundamental values, life-styles, and spiritual practices reflect particular understandings of God, human identity, and the material world as the context for human transformation.”  One’s spirituality is particular to a time and place and experience of life – an ordering of what is important and how those values reflect an understanding of and relationship with The Divine. The call to model our lives after the sacrificial life of Jesus may challenge us to reorder our priorities. During this Lenten season, perhaps we can spend time thinking about whether the true motivators in our lives – whether those things we hold dear – are truly reflective of the Divine love and compassion with which we, ourselves, have been so blessed.

Social Justice: The concept of social justice flows naturally from John. God’s love for all people is a consistent theme of his gospel and in Chapter 10:10, he quotes Jesus as saying “I have come that they (all people) may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In our ministries, have we developed a Christian appreciation what it means to “have life” – have we discussed this with our fellow servers? Then, once we have considered that, what does it mean to possess or share this life “more abundantly”? Do we leave room in our hearts for the variety of responses to these questions that God, undoubtedly, treasures?

Simple Living: Loving everyone always seems so daunting to me – especially as I realize my very human flaws in liking some people and disliking others. Where does one begin to tackle this most challenging commandment? I try and consider this – loving means sharing. Each of us is gifted by God in some special way. We have a unique contribution to make to this world and that is why we are here. The gift we are has never walked this earth before and it will never be repeated. My challenge then is to discover that gift and to share it. I believe that the sharing of that gift brings true, heartfelt, inner joy. I believe that feeling that joy helps overcome the pettiness of limiting, human fears and resentments. A heart filled with joy has no room to hate. Simple.

Community: Sometimes it is easier to apply the teachings of Jesus in the broad, abstract way than a particular, concrete one. Make it a regular practice during Lent to check-in with those in your ministry team and ask each other if you have lived the sacrificial example of Jesus and have you done so without judgment?

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

Discernment story: Called to become

Fri, 03/13/2015 - 12:01pm
By Sr. Margaret Culloty
Former volunteer with The Volunteer Missionary Movement
From Service to Sisterhood Vocation Story

We all have dreams and one of mine was to go to Africa. Following my graduation from university I had a profound sense of gratitude in my heart. I felt truly blessed for all I had received in life and had a desire to contribute something positive to society, to give something back. Deep within me I felt a tug at my heart to go to Africa.
I did the usual homework by looking at different volunteer agencies and finally settled with V.M.M. – The Volunteer Missionary Movement. This movement was founded in 1969 by a lay woman Edwina Gateley. Edwina had worked in Uganda as a teacher and this led her to founding VMM. Having gone through the application and interview process I was accepted and the excitement I felt was uncontainable. My dream was becoming a reality.
With other hopeful pilgrims I attended a six week preparation course and during this time received my assignment. I would be going to Kenya, East Africa. This was a real joy for me with the added bonus that my mission was to an English speaking country as I am weak at languages. 
I would have two companions, one was a nurse/midwife and the other was an accountant. We would all work in the same compound. Here there was a school, where I would be teaching, a clinic and the office from which this great project would be administered from. We would live as a Christian Community.
We worked in a slum or shanty town in the city of Nairobi. It was a small area with over 70,000 people. Everybody was extremely poor, living in tiny houses only 10 feet by 10 feet, made of mud or sometimes cardboard and plastic with sheets of corrugated iron for the roof. There was no electricity, running water or sanitation. There were a few pumps in the slum where the villagers went each morning with their jerry cans to bring water back to their homes. There were also a few latrines but often as the queues were long, some would just go to the rubbish dumps to relieve themselves. I often wondered and marveled at how the people survived in those conditions and not only survived but emerged each day with a smile on their faces, thanking God for another new day. In the midst of their poverty they saw opportunity.

The project where I worked was initiated by the Sisters of Mercy and from humble beginnings it grew and grew. At that particular time in Kenya parents had to pay for elementary school education and for many they could not afford it. Consequently the children could not attend school. Needless to say when the school was opened by the sisters and it was free, hundreds of children flocked to it. To teach there was an amazing privilege. Imagine having students who really desired to be there. They were extremely eager to learn and worked tremendously hard. It was truly awesome to see how quickly they progressed - what a sheer joy to be with them.
During vacation time I had many opportunities to see different parts of this beautiful country and experience the Kenyan culture – their rituals, music and dance are a real treat. To take a safari is a must.

These experiences of being with the Kenyan people who were so happy although they had little and being with other long term missionaries who were giving of themselves for the greater good touched me and changed me. I began to question and ask myself what really is life all about? What is God asking of me in all of this?
Upon reflection I sensed that God was asking me to be myself. To be true to the person I was called and created to be – to listen to my heart, to be in tune with the movement of the spirit within.Following this two year volunteer service I felt called to make a more long term commitment and sometime later joined a religious congregation and became a Franciscan Missionary of Mary.
I believe God gave me this volunteer opportunity to help me to step back a little from the fast moving treadmill of life and to see what is truly important. As pilgrims on the journey of life, God travels with us and God gives each one of us a special mission. God does not force us, he gently invites but are we listening? 

Called to become (by Edwina Gateley)You are called to becomeA perfect creation.No one is called to becomeWho you are called to be.It does not matterHow short or tallOr thick-set or slowYou may be.It does not matter Whether you sparkle with lifeOr are as silent as a still pool.Whether you sing your song aloudOr weep alone in darkness.It does not matter Whether you feel loved and admired.Or unloved and aloneFor you are called to become A perfect creation.No one’s shadowShould cloud your becoming.No one’s lightShould dispel your spark.For the Lord delights in youJealously looks upon youAnd encourages with gentle joyEvery movement of the spirit   Within you.Unique and loved you standBeautiful or stunted in your growthBut never without hope and life.For you are called to becomeA perfect creation.This becoming may beGentle or harsh.Subtle or violent But it never ceases.Never pauses or hesitates.Only is -----Creative force ------Calling youCalling you to becomeA perfect creation.

For more resources on discerning your vocation through service, click here.