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

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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.

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!