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Wed, 08/17/2016 - 9:00am
By Kaitlyn Miller, Mercy Volunteer Corps Kaitlyn Miller (far right) and her community members

I have been fascinated by the language of the Diné (Navajo) people since living on the Rez. In the nursing department we have been trying to keep up with learning a new “Navajo Word of the Day.” The language is quite a difficult one to learn as it uses sounds and syllables that my English speaking mouth just can’t seem to make happen no matter how hard I try.

One of the words (that I can actually pronounce!) I find particularly interesting. It is the word hózhǫ́ (it kind of sounds like ho-shown). It occurs in two important ceremonials called the Blessing Way and the Beauty Way and is found in many Navajo songs and prayers. My co-workers tell me it means, “walk in beauty, a place of harmony, blessing, a state of holy being, or a peaceful place.” From asking around and from doing some research, I was amazed to come to know that not even a hundred English words can truly describe what the word hózhǫ́ means to the Navajo people.

In short, this word seems to encompass beauty, order, harmony, and the idea of striving for a balanced life. According to Navajo culture and traditions, every aspect of life is related to hózhǫ́. Even more so, the Diné people believe that this doesn’t mean to pray for what you do not have, but rather to pray for balance with what is going on. For example, while others may pray for rain during a drought, the Navajo hold ceremonies to put them in balance and harmony with a drought.

The whole idea of hózhǫ́ recognizes what is beyond our control to change. Hózhǫ́ is changing one’s attitude to fit the situation, not to try to change the situation to our attitude. We need to try to become content with the inevitable. This harmony is a choice that we can pick each and every day. It calls us to be flexible in all situations, yielding adaptive skills and learning how to thrive under radically new conditions. Another English word that falls under this idea of hózhǫ́ is gratitude. Hózhǫ́ calls people to be grateful in every situation, both the good and the bad.

It is said that the Navajo do not look for beauty, rather they are engulfed in it. When it seems disrupted, they restore it; when it is lost or diminished, they renew it; when it is present, they celebrate it. Often it is said, “with me there is beauty (shil hózhó),” “in me there is beauty (shii’ hózhó),” and “from me beauty radiates (shaa hózhó).”

This makes me think of how Christians view God. He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. We are engulfed in His love. When our relationship with Him seems to be disrupted, we try to restore it, when it feels lost or diminished, we try to renew it, when we feel His presence, we celebrate it. We are taught to be grateful in all things and to praise Him in both the good and the bad times. He is with me, in me, and from me His light and love radiates.

This year has been crazy so far, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When we get stuck in the mud but God helps us find a way out, I think hózhǫ́. When we get to go hiking and be surrounded by God’s creation, I think hózhǫ́. When there are days when nothing seems to get accomplished at work or I feel like I didn’t make a difference, but I made a student smile, I think hózhǫ́. And lastly, when I see these four amazing women I get to share this year’s experience with, I think hózhǫ́. Being on the Rez this year, we have seen beauty and light with us, in us, and radiating from us, as we continue to live out what God has called us to do.

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, please click here

Diversity is Beautiful

Wed, 08/10/2016 - 9:00am
By Rebecca Lane, Mercy Volunteer Corps 

Mercy Volunteers serving on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona enjoy hiking as a communityShe turned around abruptly to look at me and with sureness in her voice, the words, “I have never been friends with anyone like you before” echoed off the walls of our new apartment. She was probably right. Our interest and outlooks surely didn’t streamline together in a perfect way. It was no secret, we were undeniably different. We were placed together for a year of service, but that did not constitute a friendship. Our humor did not match, our lifestyles were polarities, and I thought we were headed for a year of turmoil. 

It wasn’t just her and I at opposite ends of the life spectrum. As a community, we all had stories to share of where we came from, and who we are today. None of which corresponded. Placed in an entirely different environment: college, a party, or a workplace, would we still have built a friendship with one another? The odds are slim. We are wildly unique, chasing our own lavish dreams. Even with three nurses in the house, they are each sprouting in various directions. Yet cohesively, we lived together, we worked together, and we adventured together. Truth be told, it isn’t easy. Robotic we are not. Each of us is wired with deep passions and strong thoughts on what community in the Navajo Nation should entail.

Packaged in our fleshy nature are concepts and ideals that have been unknowingly manifested in our psychological pathways and present themselves daily. They are caused by how we were raised, experiences we had, and a moral code we have developed. Most individuals are unaware of these concepts and ideals until they are forcefully removed from an environment that accepts them as normalcy. 

One ideal that may not appear as a dilemma but can shake other’s routines is washing the dishes. Four of the five Saint Michael’s Mercy Volunteers are from the East Coast where droughts and water shortages do not plague a community. One of us, however, is from the West Coast. Growing up in eco-friendly Colorado, her ideals are rooted in water conservation, composting, and gardening. As I write, there is a beautiful box garden growing on our windowsill. Therefore, continuously running water as one washes the dishes strikes a nerve in her. As we sit down at the dinner table nightly, each one of us brings assumptions like these on how daily chores should be done, how to make decisions, and different lifestyle choices. The beauty is none of us are wrong, we are simply different. 

Because of our diversity, we are learning a great deal. Yet, we did not simply learn about each other, we teach other. Living with nurses, I learned far too much about infections, medical terms, and how to be an advocate for others and myself in a hospital setting. As for the Speech Therapist, she shows me how to teach my non-verbal student to begin to speak and the importance of communication. For me, I have the opportunity to teach my community members American Sign Language and how to manage difficult behaviors in a classroom setting. 

Informally, we taught one another how to cook from delicious Italian meals to meat and potatoes and every other oriental dish in between. Winter nights were best spent learning to crochet and using them as “living simply” Christmas gifts. Summer months were spent learning to face the fear of height as we hiked all over this beautiful desert. In our downtime, we painted, we completed puzzles, and we learned which roads were best not to take after a rain shower. In 1 Peter 4:10 it states, “Each of you should use whatever gifts you have received to serve others, as a faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” We were each unique gifts and destined by God to serve in Saint Michaels, Arizona to not only serve our community, but to serve one another and teach each other every day that diversity is beautiful. More importantly, we taught one another that although assumptions are inevitable, to step into another’s life in intentional community is life-giving.   

Community forces yet fosters deeper relationships. We are unable to hide behind our exterior, instead everyday demands us to pour out a little of our soul on to the table for each member of the community to probe at and infer their own judgments. In the beginning, it was excruciating. By the end, it was liberating. To be a part of a community that freely allows you to be who you are, despite differences, makes for a pleasant abode. We are truly blessed. 

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, please click here.

Learning to Pray in Appalachia

Wed, 08/03/2016 - 9:00am
By Matthew Junker, Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center

When I was an atheist, I liked to say that prayer is selfishly asking for every atom in the universe to be rearranged just for your own interest. Having mocked it for so long, I had a very difficult time with prayer when I came into Christianity. Unwilling to be completely vulnerable, my first response was to intellectualize it. I bought a book of prayers originally intended for seminarians and poured over the writings of Augustine, Catherine of Siena, the Little Flower, and other great spiritual teachers. But despite the beautiful prose, these prayers meant little when read as poetry or fragments of theology. This kind of intellectualization was a cautious half-step into the spiritual life, and although it kept the door propped open, I had yet to experience the full richness of prayer.

This half-stepping didn't last long after coming to eastern Kentucky to work with the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center. Together, we pray at the beginning of each day in our chapel. We pray before each meal, and we pray at the beginning and end of each work day with those we serve. People here don't shy away from displaying their faith, and it wasn't long before others began asking me to pray for them. By friends and strangers alike, almost everyday I'm asked by someone new to keep them in prayer. It's easy to see that these kinds of requests aren't just pleasantries. When people here ask for prayer, they really mean it, and I knew if I was going to be honest, I had to follow through. As the director here said to me one day, “there's nothing worse than saying you'll pray for someone and not doing it.” 

This kind of religiosity is so often mocked in the wider culture. The tragedy is that this hostility isn't just out of disagreement, but out of a profound misunderstanding of what faith actually is, a misunderstanding that deepens as our societal literacy in philosophy and the liberal arts slowly deteriorates. Prayer seems ridiculous if one is expecting the miraculous regression of tumors or the sudden reappearance of sight, as some televangelists might promise. But seldom do we encounter God in this way. Rather, we find God in the passion and intelligence of those advancing medical science. We find God working through healthcare practitioners who turn down offers with higher pay in order to serve those with greater need, and we find God in the sacrificial love of friends and family when illness strikes. 

Despite poverty, illness, and all of the other reasons here for people to lose trust in God, I've encountered a people of relentless faith. The passion of the kids in our youth program, of the community leaders I've met working at the food pantry in town, and of my neighbors while visiting them in their homes has acted like a mirror to point out those shallow areas of my own spirituality. Their faith does not weaken because they recognize God everyday in the face of good neighbors and loving families. They see God acting through the hundreds of people who, despite having every reason not to, choose to come here anyway to swing hammers and dig ditches. And most importantly, they see God in themselves as they muster the strength to press on. Although these encounters are more commonplace, they are no less extraordinary than miraculous healings. In fact, the regularity of these encounters is what makes them so extraordinary – that we are continually brought back to love in a world filled with great darkness.

During my time with the Mission Center, I have learned that prayer is not just an intellectual exercise, some sort of meditation on metaphysical reality. Prayer is not passive; it is a generative act that strengthens our spiritual bond. As social and economic divisions grow, prayer asserts our radical equality before God. We are brought together to the common table where we learn to see the world from others' shoes and to recognize each other's value as uniquely-created and equally-treasured beings. We see darkness spreading by dividing and conquering. We pray so that we can tear down these walls and strengthen our spiritual solidarity, so that, together, we can walk that righteous path toward liberation.

My time in Appalachia has taught me to come down from my head and into my heart, and out from my heart into my hands. We do not pray because we expect sudden intervention from on high. We live in a world of great abundance, overflowing with talent, skill, intelligence, natural resources, and everything else we could possibly need to build a world that benefits all. The only element we lack is love. This is why we pray - to strengthen our ability to love, that deep, sacrificial kind of love that no other power can stop. The kind of love that heals wounds, uproots oppression, and builds anew. I pray so that I may love, so I must come to love to pray. This is what I have learned volunteering alongside the people of Appalachia.

To learn more about Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center, please click here

My Two Cents

Wed, 07/27/2016 - 9:00am
By Lauren Mifsud, Mercy Volunteer Corps

Mercy Volunteer Lauren Mifsud plays at recess with
three of her students at St. Peter's School in San
FranciscoIf there is one thing that I have learned this year as a Mercy Volunteer, it is how to pay for things with change. My community member, Bianca, laughs at me when we go to the corner store and I present Ali, our favorite cashier, with my quarters, nickels, and dimes, rather than dollars. “Money is money,” I’ll say to them. I shove all of my coins across the counter and we head out to make the walk down the block home. Coming into my volunteer year, I never expected to be in a community of two. When I first heard “community” I instantly thought of five to six people packed together into a small, San Francisco apartment.  This past summer, I was shocked to receive an email sharing that my community would consist of only Bianca and myself. While I entered the year with some anxiety about how such a small community would function, I have come to find it a tremendous blessing. Since it is just the two of us, we have had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in not only our own service sites, but in each other's as well. From day one, I have felt like a member of the St. Peter’s School family, where I volunteer, and also a member of the Faithful Fools family, where my community member Bianca volunteers. I have participated in some of Faithful Fools weekly programs, I have attended several of their “street retreats,” and even brought the street retreat experience to the 7th graders at St. Peter’s School. After lots of planning and preparation, the 7th grade class and the Faithful Fools team gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Cathedral Hill. We divided up into small groups and explored the streets of the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, a neighborhood that is home to many people that are experiencing poverty and homelessness. Students had the opportunity to eat in a soup kitchen and interact with anyone they encountered, all while keeping the Faithful Fools mantra in their heads: “What holds us separate? What keeps us separated? As we walk the streets, what still connects us?” After several hours, we all gathered back at the church for reflection and sharing.

The thing that I love most about street retreats is something that any Faithful Fool knows as “The Penny Story.” This is shared at the end of every street retreat. It tells the story of Faithful Fools co-founder, Kay Jorgensen, and how she came to realize that her true mission was in the creation of the Faithful Fools organization. As Kay was walking to the market one day, she felt something hit her arm. Kay looked down and saw two pennies on the sidewalk at her feet. She picked them up and carried them on her way. At the market, Kay was by the refrigerator getting a drink when a man approached her and asked, “Do you happen to have two pennies? If I had two cents, then I could buy this drink.” She reached into her pocket, handed the pennies to the man, and then headed to the cash register. As Kay was paying for her lunch, one of her favorite songs came over the loudspeaker and she knew that she had experienced something special. Kay soon noticed that pennies seemed to show up whenever she was confronted with a moment of doubt or questioning. She came to see their presence as encouragement along the way. Pennies led Kay and her friend and Faithful Fools co-founder, Carmen, to find the location where Faithful Fools Street Ministry is located today. Kay’s penny story reminds us that, “we have what we need before it is asked of us.”

Pennies have become a recurring theme over the course of this past year. Bianca and I always seem to stumble across them when we least expect it. We found three during the last mile of the San Francisco Rock and Roll Half Marathon. Bianca finds that they appear to her when she needs an extra dose of hope.  And when I made the call to decline a job offer that I wasn’t quite sure was right for me, I looked down from my bench in Golden Gate Park and saw one glistening in the sunlight. Catherine McAuley once said that Mercy was, “the principal path,” or a crazy roadway of twists and turns that ultimately help us to follow God. Bianca and I have come to see pennies as personalized breadcrumbs, left behind by God for us to snatch up as He tries to lead us right where we are supposed to be. 

I feel so blessed to have spent this year at St. Peter’s School as well as Faithful Fools Street Ministry. Both of these amazing sites, and Bianca, have taught me so much about the true meaning of community. We don’t always know which way to turn. We will never have all of the answers. All we can do is have big hearts and strong shoulders for people to lean on, for however brief a time, while we navigate our path.

Much like a Mercy Volunteer, the penny is small, but mighty. By itself, it’s just one cent, but throw two together, and you’re making real change.

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, please click here

Let Go and Let God

Wed, 07/20/2016 - 9:00am
By Helene Bansley, Amate House 

"Do not ask yourself what unique talent I possess, but rather, who am I for others?"In the first station of the cross, Jesus is preparing for his death. He goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray to God because he is overwhelmed with sorrow and distress. He is fearful of his impending death and the suffering he is about to endure. His heart is heavy, yet he utters these words:

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will but as you will.” 

This simple, yet powerful prayer spoke deeply to me the first time I read it. In that moment, I saw Jesus’s human side, that he was capable of feeling sorrow and fear, and in turn I recognized myself. It made me think of the many times in my life and during this year that I have been scared, that I have felt this sense of panic, that empty feeling in my stomach that everything is wrong. When I began my Amate year of service in August, I struggled immensely to adjust. My first night here in South House, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. My bedroom was 90 degrees, I had just crushed a spider, and my sink wouldn’t drain. I thought, God, get me out of here. I immediately doubted the plan He had in store for me, and I wanted to run away. 

Adapting to change is definitely not my strong suit. I missed my former life, my old friends, my independence, being in college, surrounded by people who knew me and accepted me and loved me as I am. I desperately craved that sense of familiarity and comfort, and I wondered how I could possibly find that again? I never imagined the close bonds that I have now created with my eight housemates or the fun, loving, compassionate community that we would build. Not to mention starting a brand new job at One Million Degrees, a scholarship organization that supports low income, highly motivated community college students throughout the city. Integrating myself into a workplace and community that had been long-established before I got there seemed like a daunting, if not impossible task. I felt anxious and worried all the time. I was filled with doubt and questioned if this was where I was truly meant to be. 

One of my favorite sayings is let go and let God. I tried to quiet the doubts in my mind, and let things happen naturally. I prayed to God constantly during this time—when I woke up in the morning, on the train to work, on my walk home. I prayed that He would give me a sign that I was where He wanted me to be. That He had not forgotten me, but rather the opposite; His plan was unfolding just as He intended. And gradually, day by day, I watched things change. I experienced the joy of beautiful friendships developing. I began to feel more confident at work, taking on projects of my own, answering the phone without hesitation, joking around with coworkers that I had initially been intimidated by, and becoming good friends with my awesome and brilliant supervisor Katie. 

Most importantly, I began to truly love and adore my housemates. I felt our community grow closer and create a place we could call home. And as the days passed, I felt more and more comfortable showing my true self. A person that laughs so hard I will start kicking my legs in the air or even roll on the floor uncontrollably. A person who when giving hugs, always holds on a little tighter and a lot longer. A person who feels so deeply and loves so fearlessly. I have become proud of this person, and my community has helped me to embrace my unique holiness. Looking back, I realize I just had to give it time. 

Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will but as you will.”

I think this is my life long struggle, trusting God’s will, and trusting that He has a plan for me, and just because it doesn’t always align with my own plan, God knows me best, better than I know myself, and He will grant what my heart truly desires. This year, my heart yearned for a sense of belonging and purpose. I yearned to love deeply and be loved deeply in return, and that is exactly what I found through Amate House. In the beginning, sure I had my doubts, but 8 months later, I am left with a renewed faith and an even greater closeness to God.

I think that is the point. God always comes through and He is always with me. During my joyful moments and during my darkest moments. He is by my side through it all. He puts challenges and trials in our lives not to make us suffer, but so that we can become the person He wants us to be. 

A person who befriends their brokenness and embraces their flaws, knowing very well that it is only through our brokenness that we are whole; it is only through our flaws that we are perfect, and it is only through God that we are beloved.

To find out more about Amate House, please click here

All Will Be Well

Wed, 07/13/2016 - 9:00am
By Gianna Carleo, Colorado Vincentian Volunteer 

“Reflect and Be Transformed”: This photo is of Tommy Ryan (left) and Kaela Alton (right) during a fall retreat with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers. This is one of the last photos taken of Kaela before she passed away.Few things in nature compare to the company of a winding river. There is a special posture of presence, an invitation to prayer, when one enters a river space. It is the paradox of rushing and calm—a simultaneous acceptance of great mystery paired with rooted contemplation. Every now and then, winter rivers freeze over but still have frigid waters rushing underway, creating a unique sound of frozen knocking. Spring waters take many different forms, and as summer comes, water raises the rivers higher, finds its way to the roots of our plants, is harsh at times and breathes coolness into the dry Colorado heat. It is a lovely experience to witness the movement and change of water. Through these changes I find perpetual invitations to prayer in communion with all beings of transformation. 
On October 14, 2015 another gentleness became a part of my prayer and has continued to transform me since. It left a heavy brand on my heart. A simple, four words: all will be well. It was the night of Kaela’s accident. We had gathered for women’s night and quickly moved to hopeful prayer, then panic as we rushed to the hospital after we received word of her accident. Lynne remained calm as she took my car keys, knowing I should not drive us. She handed me her cell phone and said to find the playlist, “Tune Your Heart”. “Play the song, ‘All Will Be Well.’” she said. Her voice filled the car, allowing me to find oxygen through my gasps. All will be well became my prayer as we made our way to the hospital. Tears rolled down my cheeks—water-staining streams of what would soon be unexpected transformation for all of us. 

An autumn rain came the day after Kaela died. As Karli wrote in a poem, “Even the skies were crying today—they poured the sadness a human cannot withstand... the sun will return to rain your light upon us... to blanket us with your warmth”. 

That water and rain overcame each of us that day and all the days after. It transformed us to know deep wells of our very selves and each other. We sat together a lot in that time—holding each other, crying or trying not to cry or praying and not knowing how. I tried to cling to all will be well, but it was difficult. But somehow, through some prayer, we bend and move like the strong weaving, melting, breaking waters and the sun warms us and all will be well. 

The last eight months have been filled with beautiful prayers of the communion of transformation—a communion of CVV staff, alumni, supporters and the incredible volunteers of year 21 . It is my community at EarthLinks, my friends in Denver becoming friends with the CVV community, it is dance, stress, sadness and all the undeniable facets of self that together hold us. It is the water forms we take on and the prayers we pray. 

New people and experiences will soon transform us once again. Some of us may move far from Pearl Street, others might stay close. Still, I pray that all will be well. Regardless of the paths we take, may we be united in a prayer of breath—unending gratitude to the unimaginable God whose creativity of peace brought us to communion with one another. And the sun warms us. And all will be well. 

To learn more about the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, please click here.

Discovering Trust in a Baltimore Hospital

Wed, 07/06/2016 - 9:00am
By Elizabeth Modde, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry 
A Baltimore Graveyard: The irony of our Baltimore benches is a poignant symbolAs a patient advocate, I am immediately drawn to the patients who do not seem to be happy with their care or those who do not understand their care plan. When I found out that one of my favorite patients had refused to get the procedure that his doctor was recommending, I put on my advocacy hat and followed up to see why he had decided on this. The question was over draining fluid off of his lungs with local anesthetic or by putting him to sleep. In his case, the risks were going to be much higher with general anesthesia, but the patient insisted on “being out” for the procedure. With his complicated health history I knew he made his choice with an acute understanding of poor health outcomes and what they meant. What caught me off guard was what he said next. In his slow, belabored but articulated speech, he explained. “See, I look at it this way: I don’t wake up, well then I see God. If I do wake up,” he smiles, “then I see you!”
This perspective caused me to pause. Many of the patients in our West Baltimore neighborhood, have a powerful trust in God. Perhaps this is a product of simply having nothing else, but perhaps it is more complex than this. Maybe there is an awareness and engagement with self and the outside world that only vulnerability can bring. Despite a seemingly low quality of life (at least as many would measure it), I have seen inexplicably high levels of joy in these people. This particular patient has had a rough childhood, questionable support network, unstable and inadequate living environment, and an ongoing struggle with disease. Yet, if there is one thing that impresses me about him, it is his zeal.
When one cannot trust the systems around him or her, trust in God can be one of the powerful tools to help people see the good. Trust in God gives us faith to keep going. It allows patients to keep a positive outlook and sense of peace amidst dire health prognoses that unfairly arise from the social determinants of health. Trust means my co-workers can see their roles as a vocation and can offer up the hard or overwhelming days to God in order to keep finding inspiration in the little moments. Trust allows my neighbors to continue working hard for self improvement in an environment stacked against them. Trust allows me to relinquish my need to fix the world’s problems, giving in to God’s time and God’s guidance.
As Oscar Romero put it, “We are prophets of a future not our own.” The present can be devastating. However, trust brings us peace when there is nowhere else to turn. It enables us to hope again. It transforms us to take right action.
There is another lesson I have noticed about trust this year. Placing trust in God requires the belief that God works with us and will take care of us. If God invests personally in us, then we must be worthy. Faith in God should mean faith in oneself. Trust inspires self-confidence.
Moreover, if God promises to provide for us as a people, then our community must be worthy. Faith in God extends to having faith in our community. It extends to having faith in others. What a change from the shaming messages that external systems and society seem to place on inner city, economically poor, predominantly black groups. Seeing the value and holiness of our community and in the individuals that make it up brings a heightened awareness of human dignity. There is God in each of us and in the place we live. In recognizing this we can do as Jesus did: we can act out of Love and we can act with love.
It is beautiful when I get to see love derived action at the hospital. I see it in a nurse who touches her patient with care and explains her work as inserts an IV. I see it in a nursing assistant who draws a flower on the Styrofoam cup of water she brings to her patients.
Recently, I spent a lot of time with a patient who shook uncontrollably and irregularly. During one of our conversations, she took me over to her window and pointed to a statue of Jesus in the courtyard. We stood there together, holding hands. Soon, our hands clasped, her shaking became my shaking. This is what Life seems to be about for me. Connecting to a greater Love, we intentionally place ourselves in the presence of each other. We find the rhythm we have in common and begin moving in intentional, unpredictable harmony.
Elizabeth is currently volunteering with Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry. To find out more about this program, please click here