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.

Christina Byrd with Sister Nkechi Iwuoha, PHJC

“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).

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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.