Jesuit Volunteers: Juntos en el camino (Together on the journey)
St. Therese of Lisieux reminds us so eloquently in one of her well-known prayers to "trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be." As I sat in the first pew of the church on Ash Wednesday watching the youth of the parish distribute ashes to the community, I witnessed their faces beam with delight, and I shared their joy. As I sat next to a client when she mourned the loss of her mother, I placed my trust in God's presence. As I sat in closing prayer with the youth after laughing unceasingly from our game, I felt an overwhelming sense of God's grace and knew that this was where I was meant to be.
I had started a journey with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, not knowing what the upcoming year would entail. I did not expect the challenges that would come, the joy I would experience, nor the life lessons I would learn. I had not envisioned how my journey would soon be blended so intricately with the people I live with and serve. But here I am — a witness to a life changed by the extraordinary.
The JVC is a Catholic organization that offers individuals the opportunity to pursue an intentional lifestyle based on four core values — social justice, community, simplicity, and spirituality — derived from the work, life, and spiritual reflections of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Jesuit volunteers work in a variety of not-for-profit organizations that strive to bring justice to those most in need. They work with the homeless, refugees, the elderly, former gang members, the mentally ill, the abused, children and youth, and so many others seeking assistance and acceptance. Through the nature of their work, the volunteers witness the realities of injustice, develop an understanding of the systemic issues that threaten human dignity, and become advocates for change.
The volunteers also dedicate their time to living together in an intentional community, relying on each other for companionship, encouragement, and growth. They support themselves on a modest stipend and live among the people they serve, usually in low-income neighborhoods. Through their desire for simplicity, they focus on sustainability and time spent in relationship with one another and with those in the larger community.
The Jesuit volunteers commit to spiritual reflection. They strive to deepen their awareness of God's presence in their everyday interactions and experiences and respond in a way that brings insight into their lives.
Currently, more than 300 Jesuit volunteers are serving in 39 cities in the United States and in six other countries.
My journey toward the JVC began when I was a student at the University of San Diego and an active participant in University Ministry. I engaged my spirituality wholeheartedly and quickly discovered that I found God among the poor of Tijuana, Mexico. To be with the people in Tijuana stirred up feelings of belonging and compassion, but also sadness and confusion. My heart broke as I witnessed the poverty, inequality, and tragedy that saturated the city. However, through their trials, the people always reminded me, "Dios es muy grande," "God is very great." I felt myself come alive as I spent more time in Tijuana and acknowledged that my faith called me to respond to a deeper commitment. As time passed, I listened to the movements of my heart, which only affirmed my desire to work and live among those who were vulnerable, marginalized, and disenfranchised. As I discerned what to do after graduation, I learned about the JVC through friends and university staff who were former Jesuit volunteers. Touched by their stories and inspired by their personal transformations, I applied to the program.
I began my term of service with the JVC in August 2010 in San Antonio as the director of the social service office at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. We serve the surrounding low-income, predominantly Mexican-American community, assisting and responding to the immediate needs of parishioners and people living in the government housing projects. As I began my ministry in the social service office, I confronted the injustices of poverty almost immediately. People were hungry, did not have enough money to pay for basic necessities, and could not find adequate work to support themselves and their families. I grappled with my role as a worker within the social service sector as I witnessed a consistent cycle of poverty that frustrated me. How was I meant to be a part of some transformative change when my actions seemed only to create a temporary fix?
As my frustration grew, one particular phone call changed my perspective. A woman called the social service office seeking financial assistance. Before we ended our conversation, the woman interjected, "Thank you for showing me dignity." Her comment surprised me. She continued, telling me that when she called other agencies, she felt disrespected and embarrassed. She already felt shame in seeking assistance, and when another agency spoke to her in a condescending tone, she asked me rhetorically, "What happened to my dignity?" From that day forward, I perceived my role in the social services differently. I realigned my focus to distinguish each person in front of me for who he or she was and not simply for the services the person received.
Blessed Mother Teresa said, "We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful." When the world seems to be falling down around you and frustration and exhaustion plague you, do you remain steadfast to where you said you would be? Does the love you have for the people you serve override your eagerness to see tangible results? Serving in the social service office, I still struggle to encounter some sort of transformation in the life situations of my clients. Even though I desire to see change and an elimination of injustice, I humbly confess that I cannot combat the web of inequalities that force people to live a substandard lifestyle. Yet despite my inability to fix the systems that cause this financial and emotional turmoil, I have grasped something equally profound along the way. I have experienced the power of presence and the strength required to stand with others amidst their suffering. Even though I cannot pay all their medical bills, I cannot offer them jobs, and I cannot take away the pangs of hunger or the loneliness they feel, I can stand with them, listen to them, encourage them, and hold them in my heart.
When I first met Veronica, she came into the social service office inquiring why there were no donuts on the table for her to eat, "because the nice gentleman before you always had donuts out." I chuckled to myself, thinking about what interesting relationship would inevitably ensue. Months passed before I received a phone call from this same woman, asking for the bag of groceries to be dropped off at her home. When I arrived at her house, I found her in her room crying and in pain — the doctors had amputated her leg a week before. Her pain, loneliness, and dependency caused her to fall into depression. I began to visit Veronica every Monday and soon invited several other parishioners to join me. Our small group became Veronica's whole community. As each week passed, it became evident that Veronica was close to death, falling in and out of consciousness. As I sat at her bedside, I held her hand, rubbing it gently while caressing her hair.
Every time I got in the car to visit Veronica, I prayed for strength and guidance, and I felt God tell me, "Megan, just show up." And so I did. For four months Veronica struggled to hold on to life. She feared that if she died, her beloved daughter would be left to face the impending hardships alone. I could not keep Veronica from dying. I would not be able to take away the long-term pain that her daughter would feel without her mother. We did not know what the future looked like, but I stayed with them as they slowly confronted their reality. There were many nights when we spoke no words. We only sat together, my hand in Veronica's and the other on her daughter's shoulder. I could not fix the pain in front of me; there were no services I could offer. All I was able to do was journey with them and be a witness to the love of God that surrounded them.
I reapplied to the JVC to remain at Our Lady of Guadalupe for an additional year. I hungered for a deeper understanding of solidarity, and it has bloomed into another year of challenges, joys, tears, and laughter. In addition to directing the social service office, I also coordinate the youth ministry program. When people learn that I work with middle school and high school students, their response is usually along the lines of "Good luck to you. They're a difficult bunch. I'm glad someone can work with them." Yes, some of the youth are rowdy, others are giggly, and most are shy. Yes, their worlds are speckled with negative influences, loneliness, insecurities, and lack of familial support. Yet they all come looking for a place to belong, to be affirmed, and to find a truth that will touch their hearts. At times, throughout the journey of figuring themselves out, they have a hard time recognizing just how deeply precious they are. So here I am, determined to love them with all that God gives me.
When working with youth, you are bound to encounter their insecurities, immaturity, and giggles. When you can accept their youthfulness, you open the space to let them discover who God created them to be. When they discover it, they simply glow. I am humbled by the opportunity to witness their transformation. To see them succeed, ask questions, discover their own personal truths, walk away from peer pressures, laugh, care for others, have confidence, and believe in themselves is to witness God's undeniable presence.
The commitment to remain faithful is not always easy; I acknowledge that it is more of a struggle than I imagined. However, it is through the perseverance to love above all else and discover God's movements that I continue to stand here and say yes. The JVC is not simply about the work we do but the lifestyle we live. The values of the JVC enlighten a way of life that challenges us to live more mindfully of others. The experience widens our perspective and allows us to see past the superficialities. Our work reminds us that injustice still exists, and it incites us to strive for peace.
Throughout my time serving in the JVC, I have come to understand that the experience is not about the end result or what I have achieved at the completion of a year; it is about the journey through every moment. Through the journey, we discover God's grace. The JVC motto is "Ruined for Life." Each of us who enters into the life of another, walking with another person on the journey, realizes we can never really go back to the life we lived before. We have been awakened to the realities of the world. As they say in my neighborhood in San Antonio, "Sigue adelante," "Keep going." We are certainly not alone: we are juntos en el camino. ML
A native of San Diego, Megan Kush attended the University of San Diego and earned a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree (summa cum laude) in sociology and Spanish. While in school, she studied abroad in Guadalajara, Mexico, and San Jose, Costa Rica, and through University Ministry coordinated an immersion trip to Tijuana, led various retreats, and directed several community service opportunities. Megan also served at La Jolla Presbyterian Church as a middle school ministry intern. Her current term of service in the JVC ends in August 2012, and she hopes to continue working in parish and youth ministry.