“Happy Thursday! Groceries! Sister Connie!” Accompanied by a loud knock on each door, it’s a welcoming greeting to Plymouth’s most vulnerable, repeated numerous times two days a week by PHJC Volunteers delivering food and supplies. PHJC Volunteers provide food and essentials to one trailer park and two transient hotels twice weekly. Sister Connie is ensuring that 60 migrant farmworkers have sack lunches and morning coffee, to supplement the single daily meal their employer offers.
With consistency and bereft of fanfare, the PHJC Volunteer program has made a community impact for Plymouth’s most vulnerable residents. Plymouth’s two transient hotels and a trailer park behind the Duke of Oil attest to the unstable housing in the area. These stats for the first half of 2021 also indicate food insecurity:
- Sack lunches – 3,280
- Extra Sandwiches – 1,295
- Cultivate frozen meals – 2,940
- Grocery bags – 3, 928
- Hygiene bags – 384
Additionally, she provides clients with diapers, baby wipes, home linens, and personal care products, which everyone needs but cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits. Currently, the program is in need of donations. Groceries are increasingly more expensive, and it takes money to feed those most vulnerable. VTO hours can also be used to both pack items and for the twice-weekly deliveries.
There’s also a story that stats don’t tell. Sister Connie has built a coalition of stakeholders in Marshall County who are dedicated to eliminating hunger. They include the Community Foundation, the United Way and the Food Council, all of Marshall County, Cultivate Food Rescue of South Bend, and the Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center tobacco cessation program.
The PHJC Sisters have a long history of service to the migrant communities where they serve, both in the U.S. and abroad. In the 1980s, Sister Edith Schneider taught and assisted migrant children of workers picking tomatoes and peppers in Marshall County. She went on to serve in both Nicaragua and Mexico. Sister Connie Bach has taken myriad trips to the border and into Mexico to serve those awaiting entry into the U.S. and those newly arrived. It’s a volunteer full circle with Ernesto serving twice a week on the delivery trips into Plymouth.
As we currently live in a time in history where uncertainty is the name of the game and quarantining and staying home are the rules, what do you do when you haven’t all the resources required to play? For many in Plymouth and the surrounding area this is unfortunately the case; and for several community organizations including our very own Volunteer program spearheaded by Sister Connie Bach, that is an unacceptable reality.
With a 10.9% poverty rate in Marshall County, we are ranked the 45th poorest county in the state stats.indiana.edu, a statistic only exacerbated by the recent pandemic, rising unemployment rates, in addition to the looming end of the moratorium on evictions. Sister Connie and many other community leaders via a recent round table discussion regarding these staggering facts have decided they aren’t about to wait for the game or the rules to change. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday these amazing and selfless individuals consisting of many, many additional volunteers have been coming together to feed the homeless in our community as well as provide them with additional items needed to keep warm during these cold winter months. “Several afghans have been received, and Sisters are feverishly making hats, scarves, and mittens” said Sister Connie. “However we are also in need of hygiene products as well as many other items that can be found on a list distributed throughout the Motherhouse, we are also accepting monetary donations delivered to the Development department earmarked for the PHJC Volunteer Homeless Project” she continued.
As with any incredible opportunity to help the community, leadership has granted employees Volunteer Time Off (VTO) eligibility to assist in this effort. Many have been gathering weekly behind Cana Hall to pack sack lunches and distribute items to those in need as well as lend an ear and a voice for many who feel lost or alone during a time when all any of us want is to be together and safe. Sister Connie states that this is an ever-evolving process and one that will continue as long as housing and safety are an issue for our community members. If you would like to participate in these ongoing efforts, please reach out to Sister Connie for additional information on times and growing needs. Let us also rejoice in our love and faith of one another and the knowledge that despite the situation at hand we are never truly alone when we hold God in our hearts.
I was thinking about how lovely it would be to walk on the beach today! Our weather here in the Midwest has been a little crazy lately. One day last week it was nearly eighty degrees and the next day we had three inches of snow!
I love to walk on the beach! Recently I took a group of volunteers down to the border in McAllen, TX and Matamoros, Mexico before COVID-19 caused us to shelter in place. We finished our time of service a little earlier than normal and were heading back from Matamoros before flying home to Indiana the next day.
I said to my six volunteer companions, “We are going to take a detour!” We took a right turn and headed east to South Padre Island for a few hours. I had not been there before but knew there was only one way to go – east, toward the gulf! We worked our way into the area and drove around a bit, taking in the endless beauty of the blue sky, water, beach, and sun!
I found a break between two buildings with a walkway leading to the beach and turned into the parking lot. We made our way as fast as we could with the wind blowing in our hair and the smell of the water tickling our noses. Before long, our feet were sinking into the sand as we headed straight for the water. Curious seagulls squawked overhead. People passed by walking their dogs and picking up seashells. We each found our own space where we could “take it all in” and, I suppose, commune with God in our own ways.
Soon the cameras came out and fingers were snapping shots as fast as they could tap the buttons. Before you knew it, I picked up a stick and drew a great big heart in the sand. It seemed almost an automatic thing for me to do! Inside the heart I drew the letters, PHJC. You can imagine why! We gathered around this simple symbol representing who were together. We had created a community of communion with one mind and one heart, and in such a short time!
We each chose to put aside the demands of home and work, traveling over 1,500 miles to serve total strangers. We chose to give of ourselves completely to some of those greatest in need in a place ravaged by poverty beyond what any of us have ever experienced. We were each, in our own way, moved by the Spirit and by Saint Katharina Kasper to make a difference through service, compassion and the gifts of time and energy.
What does this have to do with writing in sand, you might ask? I guess I realized through this experience that time is fleeting, that experiences are sometimes only once in a lifetime, and opportunities come and go like messages written in sand and then blown away with the wind or swept away by the tide. They can be here and then gone before we know it, both in time and in memory.
But what should never leave us is our gratitude for our past experiences, for our loving God who places such opportunities before us and who gives us the will to respond. If we are really attentive, we can link such opportunities together to see how God has always been present in our lives offering this and that choice; opportunities to be enriched, to love, to serve, to grow – and to give praise!
During this pandemic, I am most grateful for the time I have had to pray with and be present to my sisters in our local community. I am grateful for time to create mandalas, write music, work in the yard and appreciate creation. I am grateful to be able to connect through various technologies with family, community, friends and loved ones. I am grateful to check off many items on my “back burner” list.
I am also grateful that, while putting together a photo album, I ran across the photo of the heart in the sand! The photo brought back wonderful memories of experiencing community in communion and recognizing that God is present in everything, especially in my experiences.
For all this and more, I say…
Entering the tent city of Matamoros for the second time on our PHJC Volunteer trip in March engaged my senses. Much had changed since our initial trip in December, 2019. I felt the heat and wind first. The wind never ceased blowing during the week we served. Everything was so much greener than back home. Then the smells hit. First, the smell of campfires everywhere, both for heating and cooking. Next came the latrine smells, so vile that it would be an olfactory assault on the most seasoned camper or summer concert goer. The visuals were somewhat more complicated.
It would be easy to dismiss the tent city as crowded and chaotic. It’s what most see on their initial glance. Look deeper, and you’ll find truth, beauty, and community, which are always there for those who seek them. Families looking for a better life and opportunity for themselves and their children comprised the people we met. The Sisters and co-workers serving on this trip included Sisters Connie Bach, Rosemary Jung, and Barbara Kuper. Poor Handmaid co-workers were me, Marcy Heil, Warren Johnson, and Steve Weinert. What we saw and were able to do once again changed our lives.
One of the first things Sister Connie and I noticed, different from December, was the change in products we packed at the Humanitarian Respite Center of McAllen, our home-base for the week. Instead of making endless peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches to wrap and transport, we packed 350 pounds of masa flour, 300 pounds of beans, 125 pounds of salt, 125 pounds of sugar, 23 gallons of rice, 6 gallons of canola oil, (repackaged in smaller bottles) 60 pairs of shoelaces, 60 Chap sticks™, and 60 rosaries for delivery to the tent city residents. We repeated packing this list daily. Sisters Rosemary and Barb cleaned everything in the kitchen, making it shine like new. Steve also put batteries in the clocks at the respite center, since each one reflected a different time. Time is relative when you’re playing a waiting game.
The trek into the tent city was much longer this time, too. Two big dumpsters filled the area where we had previously set up our offerings, so we walked about a ¾ of a mile longer with ten heavy wagons each day. During these walks, young men and boys from the tent city would come up and pull the loads for volunteers, walking in Saint Katharina’s shoes beside us. They also carried the empty wagons down a staircase for us on the trek out.
There were cell phone charging stations, a place to do laundry (by hand) and wash dishes, and mercifully, the presence of other volunteer groups like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF to help ease what must be a harsh life. Children created art and attended lessons in the UNICEF tent while their parents and caregivers carried on with daily life. New on this visit was a group of barbers offering haircuts to those awaiting entry into the U.S. with them.
The community we bore witness to was truly an inspiration. Marcy enjoyed games of “hot hands” and thumb wrestling with kids waiting in line, who despite the language barrier, understood the games’ objectives and laughed even in defeat. (She’s good!) On our last day, several of us broke out in the song “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” also while serving the tent city residents. A gentleman joined in, singing the verses and chorus in English. Laughter ensued before he got somber and told us how much he loved America and Americans. Steve warmed all of our hearts when he bought watercolor paper and paints to share with Mia, age 4, a guest at the respite center from Congo. For a few brief hours, Mia got to learn from a world-class artist, splash paint at Steve and laugh, and return to her childhood.
On this trip too were the constant warnings on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which presented a challenge to us and to those who we served. How do you practice social distancing in a tent city? In a respite center? Among your fellow volunteers while you’re working to care for thousands already challenged? It was a quandary we did our best to overcome.
Sister Connie planned a return trip to the border in June, but it’s now postponed. Participants from the March trip will present a lunch and learn about our experience, also at a future date.
Our program has extended its mission to serving abroad. This past year we have served with our Sisters who live in Mexico and we have served at the borders with our immigrant sisters and brothers in and with the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, TX. We are planning another trip for the spring and already have seven interested parties signed up. We are also hoping to serve the very poor in Holly Springs, Mississippi for a week.
I knew when I returned from El Paso after volunteering at the border that people would ask me what it was like. I knew, after the first week, that I would talk about the eyes of the migrants we were working with. The migrants’ (referred to as guests from here on out, as this is how we referred to them at Annunciation House) stories we heard were each unique in their tales of fear, of suffering at the hands of gangs, government, and everything in between. However, the emphasis and empathy allowed in sharing a language was dwindled and replaced with reliance on body language, and as they are the windows to the souls, our eyes.
The eyes of the guests were weary during intake, hopeful after their phone calls to their sponsors, and relaxed when they were in the kid’s room watching their children play while talking with other parents. Through the whole experience of being able to welcome these asylum seekers to the U.S. there are no adequate words to the spirit that runs through the shelter, other than that it is of God. Somehow, there were always enough supplies, food was always provided, and tensions were dispelled. Ironically, what was missing was an overflow of guests- not that there is a shortage of migrants, but that they’re not being released from the detention centers. If you are asking yourself how you can help, I encourage you to volunteer, to see the shelter, to see the expression of relief through body language for yourself.
If you cannot spare the time or money to visit, which is understandable, I encourage you to call your congressmen and women, to support the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, and Annunciation House, so that more of these people may receive the dignity of moving from ‘migrant’ to ‘guest’ on their journey to their new homes.
I just returned from 15 days on the border with Sr. Connie Bach and five other volunteers. Our experience was to live and work at a refugee shelter, Casa De Refugiado, in El Paso. What an exhausting and thought provoking experience this proved to be. Together with the rest of my team, we spent 14 days working much more than our eight hour shifts. As the guests arrived at our shelter (a former warehouse) from their ICE bus, they were greeted with food and water. Next came an intake process, a visit to a hygiene room and clothing room to get what they needed. A playroom was set up while we were there for the many children at the facility. And a makeshift clinic was also available. We prepared food, mopped, passed out supplies, sorted donations, took guests to their airport and bus station, made phone calls, watched children, did laundry, packed food, vacuumed, cleaned showers and got a small taste of what it is like to be someone seeking a better life in another country. Along with the latter comes the realization of how lucky we are to live in a safe country. While there we had many discussions about our responsibility regarding the border crisis. . . as Americans, as humanitarians, as Christians. One longterm volunteer shared her response when overwhelmed with so many issues. She asks “What’s mine to do today?” What a valuable takeaway . . . whether working at the border or in our regular, everyday life.
This is my second volunteer experience with Sr. Connie and I’d like to thank her and the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ for providing me this opportunity. I’m still processing it, have shared what I learned with others, and will continue to ask, “What’s mine to do today?”
Catholic Volunteer Network is proud to be a part of the Serve America Together coalition, which is working on a campaign to raise awareness about the effectiveness of voluntary service in addressing some of our greatest challenges as a nation. The goal is to make a year of service a normal part of growing up in America, something that every young adult is aware of and has the opportunity to do.
Today is the official launch of the campaign, and it kicks off with a call to all presidential candidates to release their plan to expand national service. Most of the other coalition members are national, secular service organizations. We believe that as faith-based service organizations, we play an important role in this national conversation and we aim to raise awareness about our service opportunities.
Diving and splashing, the ten of us (student volunteers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Sr. Connie Bach relished the warmth of the pool we had been looking forward to swimming in all week. We were approaching the end of our time with the Poor Handmaids and had plans to return to UW-Madison to meet the end of our winter break. In between all of the laughter and pool antics one of us observed, “There’s really nothing on this trip we haven’t done.” We nodded. We volunteers, at that point, had spent time and MoonTree Studios and served in various ministries including Casa Catalina, Nazareth Home, Sojourner Truth House, Ancilla College, Maria Center, Catherine’s Cottage and the Catherine Kasper Home. We cleaned and arranged books, handed out countless cans of butter beans, and sorted mounds of baby clothes while also being able to play with the adorable kids. Having the opportunity to serve in so many meaningful ways, interspersed with conversation and prayer with the Sisters and residents, was what made this experience remarkable and filled with meaning.
We grew to love the Sisters as their love for God and their work was apparent in every conversation, every word of advice or question. Hearing about their education and ministries was captivating and wholly inspiring. Starting off each day at breakfast asking about favorite ministries over eggs and oatmeal soon became a motivating reason to wake up before the sun rose. And painting symbols on our hallway mural to represent our experiences from each day each kept us up long after it had gone down. There was always one more memory, one more notable piece of our service we wanted to record.
Sister Connie’s guidance in our prayer and service throughout the week helped open us up to doing God’s work, and gave us the energy and brightness to keep going even as the days became long. We were glad to go to bed exhausted each night knowing we were doing God’s work, and learning to appreciate the powerful ways in which God works through others.
The post-trip survey asked what my main take-away from the week was, and the first thing that came to mind was all of this love. The feeling was almost overwhelming to me when I first set foot in the Motherhouse Chapel. It’s true that hardly any of us knew each other at the start of the trip. But how could we not come together with all of this camaraderie and reflection, and willingness to pair up and do whatever work was needed? In the words of Sister Eileen Sullivan, “This is all a part of God’s plan.”
It is easy, especially as students, to be consumed in school and friends and forget the importance of why we walk with God in our lives. This week impacted me through how vividly I experienced God’s love through those around me, and the connectedness I felt in this opportunity to serve in God’s name. I bring that love back with me, and I only hope others have the joy of experiencing the love and strength of spirit in the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.
“Keep in mind that it’s the journey and not the destination that counts.” These words of wisdom were given to me on a tiny slip of paper gently slid across the table by Sister Marybeth at a Denny’s Restaurant in Gary. I had been at the Sojourner Truth House (STH) for only four days at that point, yet I had already been to a rally for immigrant rights, started volunteering at Sojourner, and had the opportunity to go to the beautiful Motherhouse in Donaldson and meet many amazing Sisters. She did this as we said goodbye, and it left me wondering, would I fall victim to focusing in on the day I left, and just count down the days? With a little help from God, the Sisters living at Sojourner Truth House, and a jam-packed schedule this did not happen.
As I dove into my volunteer work I began to realize how much there was to learn, not only about work, and interactions with experienced and interesting people, but about life itself. I quickly formed connections with the staff at STH, the children I worked with, and Sisters Nkechi and Loretta. My appreciation for these two Poor Handmaids can take up thousands of pages, but I will limit it to say that as a congregation you should be ecstatic to have them as part of it. They took me on many adventures including three trips to Donaldson where I had a life-changing encounter in the chapel, two trips to Chicago, a drive to Fort Wayne to connect a client and her family, and quality dinners at Golden Corral. Each adventure proved more interesting than the last, but what I found that was truly special – the ability to have conversations and tell the Sisters things that not even my family knows about me. It is rare to find such pure and noble hearts, but the inhabitants of Sojourner Truth House possess those qualities.
By living at STH I also became a part of the Gary community. I realized the risk of living in such a place, even hearing gunshots at night, but it is not the violence that defines Gary. What defines Gary is the community that I found every Sunday at the parish of Saints Monica and Luke. People living in a broken city, but injecting life into it through their love and laughter. When the choir would sing, tears would fall down my cheeks at seeing hope incarnate. No matter how many buildings and bricks may fall down, the people of Gary will rise, and I believe this is what defines the city.
Additionally, in Sister Nkechi’s honor, I attempted to immerse myself in the African culture, (specifically Nigerian and Ethiopian) and found many similarities, but also positive and uplifting differences. I realized that American culture has a way of sugar coating (sometimes with literal sugar) conversational problems that exist. We interact on a very surface level of small talk without bothering to ask, “What are your dreams?” “What makes you who you are?” I challenge any of you who are still bothering to read this article to open yourself up to others, and they will do the same for you.
So rather than count down the days until the end of this experience, I am shocked by how quickly they passed and how much I wish they could continue. But for the sake of adventure, and for God’s will to be where God needs me, I must press on. My experience here has given me more faith, hope, and love than I could have ever imagined. In living in community, I also found myself. Not many people can say that from only a six-week experience. I would like to thank all of the Poor Handmaids who have encouraged me throughout this journey. I will never forget this experience. And to Sister Eileen Sullivan, I will be thinking about you all the while during my stay in Ireland. I hope to return to Indiana one day to reconnect with the Poor Handmaids. Whether that be in Sisterhood or Association, only God and time can tell. Just know you are all, and forever will be, in my prayers. God Bless!
Because of your generosity, the PHJC Volunteer Program powerfully contributes to the lives of many different people, including PHJC Sisters, the volunteers themselves, and the many people served through the volunteer activities at various ministries.
Many PHJC Sisters have expressed new hope and new energy as they see the spread of their charism as a community endeavor through the volunteer
program. Having the PHJC Volunteer Program participants work alongside the Sisters brings out the best in everyone. Sisters have stated how uplifting it is to see the wonderful volunteers interested in serving others and connecting with their way of life.
PHJC Volunteers have shared that they have furthered their understanding and commitment to Catholic Social Teachings, and that they will continue to serve in ministries and participate in events that support social justice. Throughout their experiences, volunteers continue to grow in their understanding and practice of the PHJC Mission, Vision and Core Values. Every single volunteer agrees that they have an intensifying interest and commitment to a life of service by participating in the PHJC Volunteer Program.
Since its inception in 2015, the PHJC Volunteer Program has relied on grant funding and generous donors that continue to fund the activities made possible by this impactful program. The PHJC Volunteer Program has hosted twenty-seven volunteers who have served in week-long immersions or up to eleven months of direct service with PHJC ministries. These volunteers have served alongside nineteen Poor Handmaid Sisters in fifteen different ministries, including two in Mexico.
Ten different convents, including various Sister communities at our Motherhouse, have hosted women volunteers in their homes. Two Sisters have given regular chapel and heritage tours. Countless Sisters and co-workers have joined the volunteers in prayer, meals and fun events. Several volunteers have helped to promote the PHJC Volunteer Program during and after their service term by writing articles, sharing testimonials and inviting others to consider participation in the program.
As the PHJC Volunteer Program moves into its fifth year we are grateful for your continued gifts that will help us expand the program by inviting other baptized, Christian women as well as college and high school groups in answering the call to service as Partners in the work of the Spirit.
Despite the winter weather and rush of the holidays, four enthusiastic volunteers joined us for the December 27 – 30 for an immersion experience with the PHJC Volunteer Program. This collaborative venture with PHJC ministries, co-workers and Sisters forged new understandings of our mission and core values lived out individually and collectively.
Involved in the efforts were six ministries: MoonTree, Lindenwood, Ancilla College, Catherine’s Cottage, the Catherine Kasper Home and Environmental Services. The volunteers and co-directors of the program were moved by the touching stories of Sisters and co-workers who have lived our core values for decades! In addition, the volunteers shared how moved they were as well that the Sisters stayed right with and worked right alongside them in these ministries, mutually sharing God’s presence in each moment.
Two testimonials shared from volunteers were:
“I liked seeing and interacting with people as we worked. The people made the job into a prayer and sacred moment with the God within them.” -Mercylynn Mbuguah, 19
“I grew personally and spiritually by seeing God in the ordinary moment. I saw myself grow throughout the days as I began to notice beautiful and sacred moments during the planned activities.” -Olivia Ely, 19
Please consider sharing time with us and/or share the information provided in our advertisement here within!
In beginning my time serving with the PHJC Volunteer Program in Mexico, what took my breath away even more effectively than the wall of heat and humidity that raced up to meet me as I stepped off of the plane was the overwhelming hospitality and generosity of the community that I was stepping into. Everywhere I turned, I was greeted with such warmth, welcoming, and love. The Sisters took me into their home, shared their lives with me, laughed, prayed, and relaxed with me, guided and counseled me…The people breathing life into the various ministries that I was invited into, both those being served and those serving, encouraged and instructed me, welcomed me to walk with them, offered me another perspective, answered my endless stream of questions with saintly patience…Even the seemingly disperse range of neighbors, Church members, and Poor Handmaid associates who so eagerly embraced me quickly formed another supportive circle of community for me, mentoring me in Mexican life and customs, uplifting me with ready smiles and warm hugs, and offering their wisdom and insights in ways big and small.
The lessons I’ve learned and graces I’ve received from this incredible mix of beautiful souls are too numerous to count, but one of the aspects of life here which has been most profoundly moving for me is the powerful witness of true generosity so effortlessly lived out by people young and old. From the unhesitating readiness to give to those most affected by the devastating earthquakes to actions as small and seemingly insignificant as the care and attention shown to visitors, who are always enthusiastically received with the offer of a seat and usually some refreshment, welcoming the other as Christ and caring for them as self seems to come so naturally, to be ingrained in the very fabric of life.
Yet what truly astonishes me about this immense charity of spirit is where it is found. Those who most deeply delight in giving, who are most eager to share what they have, are those with the least to spare. The generosity I have encountered here is the generosity of Christ; it’s a living, breathing testament to a Gospel which calls us out of ourselves, challenging us to give not of our leftovers, our scraps, our extra, but of our need, of our very selves. It’s the generosity of the poor widow in Mark 12, who offered more with her two small coins than the wealthy contributed with all their riches combined. My heart is deeply convicted by this example of true selflessness and love, which rocks my comfortable world and summons me out of my self-preoccupation and concern. As I reflect on my own life, on the many opportunities to pour myself out for others which I have let slip past unanswered, I can hear the words of Christ ringing in my ears, piercing my soul: “She, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”(Mk 12:43-44).
As I reflect back on the year, I find I still struggle with thinking that the everyday things I do, really matter. I often felt my job was not enough, it needed to be “something” bigger, something I wasn’t being paid to do. This year has helped me to realize that even if you “do small things with great love” (Mother Theresa) – they really do matter. I’ve always appreciated the co-workers I had who kept a smile on their face, a sense of humor, and served with love and compassion rather than spending 8 plus hours just “putting in time”. So as I again witnessed the variety of personalities while working through the home – I realized I truly am gift. As it was reflected upon during my last Spiritual Companioning Reunion: “you yourselves are a letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all people; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”. (2 Cor. 3:3) So once again I have been blessed with a year of mutual writings upon the human heart, sometimes I was the author, but often times, others were writing upon my own heart.
Let me not forget:
Christ has no body but ours,
No hands, no feet on earth but ours,
Ours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on the world
Ours are the feet with which he walks to do good
Ours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Teresa of Avila
We are where God intends for us to be, as it is written in the book of Isaiah and again reflected upon once again in one of my recent Spiritual Companion reunion retreats, “Am I in the right place?, have I done the right things? Despite any mistakes, God’s providence means that wherever I have gotten to, whatever I have done, this is precisely the road to where heaven begins. However many clues I have missed, however many wrong turns I’ve taken, however unnecessarily I have complicated my journey, the road still beckons and the Lord still ‘waits to be gracious to me’”. (Simon Tugwell, Prayer: Living with God) God has gifted and directed me to this year to live in the Openness of the Spirit. I have grown in learning that the voice of my heart is truly the God within, that which when kept open, leads to a path God has set forth.
So as I end this year, I reflecting on the beauty of what I have experienced:
I’ve seen the beauty of the ocean, the beauty in nature’s destruction; I’ve seen the beauty in poverty through the eyes of hope and the beauty of the untrusting and often lonely soul of the rich; I have seen the beauty of the rising sun and the beauty of the setting sun; the disappointments in life and the beauty of new life; I’ve seen the beauty of giving and the beauty of receiving; the beauty of the spring and the beauty of the fall; the beauty of black, brown, and white; the beauty in aging and the beauty of dying; the beauty of endings and the beauty of new beginnings; the beauty of unexpected good-byes and the beauty of new friendships forged; the beauty of history made and the beauty of history that awaits to be made; I have seen the beauty of silence and the beauty of voices heard; all the beauty of God’s love, grace, and mercy that abound when the eyes and heart are wide open.
Right out of college, I entered the Peace Corps as my heart has always gone out to the third world countries where there is so much need. A recent experience, however, brought me to a halt. As a part of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ Volunteer Program,
I was offered the opportunity to travel to Holly Springs, Mississippi on a pilot mission program for the PHJCs and the Catholic Volunteer Network in conjunction with the Southern Sacred Heart Ministries. The real beauty of this mission was that those we worked alongside and with, all became community!
There was no notice of age, race, religion, or sex, but rather a sharing in one mission to serve and be served without question. While I participated in a short program last spring in helping clean-up from the tornado damage of late 2015, we were not afforded the opportunity to be as actively involved with the victims of the disaster since they were unable to live at the site.
This time, was a totally different experience as we plunged into the lives of the people.
I traveled and worked alongside Sister Bernadine Gutowski, OSF; Sister Sharon Glumb, SLW; and Sister Marykay Brooks, SSND. We began by arriving at the humble volunteer house where we would spend our nights and evenings when not working.
On another day, we assisted the team in clearing out furniture and possessions from a room in a house that had been used as a beauty parlor. As with construction, that day did not go according to plan. It seemed
there was more mudding and dry walling to be done to completely correct the water leaks and damage. While some of us stayed with the construction crew as an extra set of hands we listened to the vast array of experiences they have encountered. Others would spend time with Ms. Wilkins and her daughter, listening to their story and allowing them to share and be heard. All agreed it was not a day wasted but a true day of ministering in a way we had not expected – sometimes, God has other plans.
By the end, after the experience and listening to the encounters of the Southern Sacred Heart Ministries, all I could think to myself was, “Am I really in the United States? Is this really 2016? How do we legally allow some of the acts of our politicians to continue to cut out the people in need? Where have my eyes, my hands been?”
There is no real need to leave the country when our own brothers and sisters are living in poverty and oppression. I am but a drop in the bucket!
Later as Miss Kelly, a ministry team leader, explained that insurance had threatened to cancel the Ms. Wilkins (as is often the case) due to the water leaks if not fixed. This would have lead to the loss of her loan for the house and ultimately the loss of her house. Leaving her and her daughter who is medically unable to work, virtually homeless was not an option. Being unemployed, she could not afford to fix her home. Suddenly, it was not just a coat of paint, but the saving grace to this woman and her daughter. The gratitude of the owner, her bear hugs and laughter were rewards of the heart.
We spent the mornings each day visiting the school. Some of us tutored individuals, and others worked with an entire math class. Thankfully, God knew our gifts and where to place us. Mine was not to teach the entire math class! My background is in social work and administration. So I was very surprised at how at ease I felt in settling in as a tutor. Kids are so open and accepting. I was lucky to be assigned to little Sam, a pre-k student, whom I’ve kept close to my heart for several reasons. I also tutored a student in reading who had a stuttering problem. I couldn’t hold back his excitement as he kept trying to tell me how the story ends since he had watched the movie the night before. The glow on his face again was a reward of the heart, something never expected but freely accepted!
Holy Family School, while a Catholic school, consists of 98 percent non-Catholic students. Once again, however, it was of little importance as you could see, feel, and witness that the building was full of support, love, and care provided by the beautiful teachers under the supervision of Miss Isom, the principal. I fell so in love with the school, the teachers, and the children that I made contacts with the Catholic school back in Olney, Illinois where my own children attended school and found that the 4th and 5th grade teachers at both schools are interested in setting up pen pals! I am so excited for the cultural exchange that is possible as well as the broadening of the world vision for all of these children. We are but only one!
One night we were honored to serve at the Garden Café, a soup kitchen that provides a free evening meal on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I had hopes of the possibility of some of the little children from school drifting in, but as one of the Sisters said, “Wouldn’t they be embarrassed to see us there?” I told her she would feel differently when she experienced the atmosphere of the Café as I had experienced it earlier this year. It is such a warm and inviting place with laughter, joy, and conversation filling the air. Old friendships were strengthened and new friendships forged. The food is so deliciously prepared by the wonderful chef who has a background in restaurant management and serves everything with a warm smile. We were astonished again to hear that, in Mississippi, it is illegal to open any new soup kitchens; therefore, this is how they work around the rules to fulfill people’s hunger. Sacred Heart Missions finds a way – that is what is so wonderful about all of those working with them. It is also illegal to build any new homeless shelters or low income housing. But, as you can guess, they were throwing ideas around and, if I know them, they will find a way to work within the rules and yet meet the many needs. God provides!
As I type this story, I am again moved to tears of having witnessed God’s love and joy. I cannot stop sharing the story! In fact, I know I left a piece of my heart in Mississippi. The Southern Missions of Sacred Heart has volunteers of all kinds that come here to serve. They have sororities, fraternities, colleges, churches, families, retired contractors who come to “vacation,” who show up with little knowledge and great knowledge, little skills and great skills. Yet, they seem to accommodate and teach as they go, never missing an opportunity. Perhaps this is the trip you need to jump start your spirituality, your heart, or just to experience the diversity of our own country. For whatever reason you feel called to it, you will be moved and changed by the love and hope of Mississippi and the works of the Southern Sacred Heart Missions.
From June 26 – July 1, three charismatic women joined Sisters Connie Bach and Marybeth Martin for an immersion experience of PHJC ministries in
the Donaldson, Northwest Indiana and Chicago areas. Not just volunteering, these women were immersed in and witnessed the PHJC core values, mercy and social justice. They learned first-hand what it means to “walk in Catherine’s shoes.”
Sisters Katie Bobber, Mary Kevin Ryan and Michelle Dermody housed the group at St. Henry Convent in Chicago. Each day the group began with morning prayer and traveled to various ministries, including
Nazareth Home in East Chicago, MoonTree Studios and Catherine Kasper Home in Donaldson, Casa Catalina in Chicago, Salvation Army through HealthVisions Midwest in Hammond, and Sojourner Truth House in Gary.
Volunteers had opportunities to work directly with individuals seeking simple basic necessities, including, food, clothing, shelter, preventative
healthcare, child care and presence with the elderly. Volunteers also worked with their hands organizing,moving furniture, packing food bags, mulching trees, pulling weeds and working with the earth.
Meals were shared with the Sisters in each area, and evening prayers and reflections on the day’s events were shared.
PHJC long-term volunteer, Libby Riggs, shared:
“What a great week of building community with other volunteers, the people we served and those who serve in these ministries every day. I’ll be processing this week in my mind for weeks. What a great opportunity. Thanks to Sisters Connie Bach and Marybeth Martin for planning the details and for the support of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ for sponsoring it.”
Now and then we all have those God winks or nudges that cause us to sit back and say, “What, me? Why me? Surely you aren’t serious.” Then you go on about your daily duties, but God just keeps nudging (and sometimes you even elbow back); but God just keeps right on winking.
I have given thought over the past couple years of changing careers after nearly 30 years of working in homes for adults with developmental disabilities. Not sure of what I really wanted to do, I kept an open mind, well really, my job kept me from taking the time to give it much more thought. During that time, I jumped at that last minute chance to sign up for the Spiritual Companioning course, thinking I might be called to spiritual direction. I told the class as it ended, I felt I was being called to something else, but not sure what. Again, I remained open (and again way too busy).
Then came that wink, that nudge. I was sitting in the Gathering for Associate Community at Lindenwood last fall. Sister Connie Bach gave a short presentation on the new volunteer program that they were initiating through the Catholic Volunteer Network. I had received emails about this, but paid little attention, assuming it was for people who volunteered at the many ministries they offer, but knowing I lived far from all of them, shrugged it off. Hearing more about it, immediately, I got that undeniable feeling, I was being nudged. I remember looking around at the crowd, thinking, “Really, out of all these good people, why are you looking at me?” I couldn’t stop thinking about it throughout the day, or God wouldn’t leave it alone, I should say. It just so happened the speaker presented on discernment. Sometimes things happen for a reason, and so it seemed was this.
The PHJC Volunteer Program continues to connect women with our ministries for volunteer opportunities to live in intentional community with our Sisters while offering their gifts and talents to those in need.
Meet Ellie Sink! She served as a short-term volunteer, sharing her compassion and energies at Sojourner Truth House for three weeks. Ellie is 21 years old and hails from Davenport, Iowa. She has been studying in Florida but offered her services while on summer break before heading to Ireland for a retreat.
Ellie was a GREAT asset to Sojourner and hopes to return for a longer stay in the future. We are grateful for her presence and enthusiasm!
Here is a poem Ellie wrote about her experience at Sojourner Truth House. Thank you, Ellie, for your spirit, your courage and your presence in our lives!