July 28, 2012

On Serving the Poor with the Capuchin Franciscans

In August 2006, I loaded up my car in suburban Chicago with some meager belongings and began my trip to Baltimore, MD.  The solo 13 hour drive afforded me the luxury of reflecting what brought me to that point, of how I came to leave my home, my family and friends, to begin a year of volunteer service with the Capuchin Franciscans in a city that I had only visited once.
I knew that my family—and, in truth, many of my friends—thought it a bit crazy.  Perhaps, they were right.  I had always been the one with my plans laid out—that Type A drive inside of me always crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s.  I had entered my undergraduate studies planning on one day studying medicine.    But, I was a bit lost when I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Life had intervened in those four short years: the death of my   father from cancer, the suicide of a friend, the flame of the Catholic faith re-igniting within.  At graduation, the certainty of my future was no longer an absolute.  I had no idea where I would end up—no idea where God was leading me.  And so I found myself on a 13 hour trek to “Charm City” to begin a year of service with the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps.
It was one of the best decisions I have ever made (or, rather, that God had led me to make).
“CapCorps” was a transformative experience.  It was more than just volunteering.  It was a year of living in community with other volunteers, where we would pray together daily and share a common meal (as well as the joys and sorrows of our ministry).  It was a year of living simply amongst the poor, in a community still riddled with violence and drugs, a mere block away from “ The Corner.”  It was a year of embracing Franciscan spirituality, relying on Deus meus et omnia, trusting in Him.
It was a year of finding Christ in each other.
That’s not to say my year in Baltimore was all “peace, love and happiness.” Long-term volunteering is a completely different experience from your once a month service projects.  Most days it felt more like a job than anything else—except that we did not get paid.  And, there were constant reminders of the crippling poverty that enshrouded West Baltimore: the police sirens that serenaded us to sleep each evening,  the discovery that our volunteer house had been broken into and robbed,  the   “game” of fireworks or gunshots we’d play each summer night.
I worked at the Franciscan Center , a homeless outreach center and soup kitchen that daily served over 300 hot lunches.  My role was officially titled “the floater”—meaning I did whatever was needed in the Center.  Some days I would serve meals in the   cafeteria.  Other days I would man our clothing room or food pantry, or act as the Center receptionist.  My favorite role, by far, was being an interviewer in our Emergency Services department.  It was a personalized approach to homeless ministry—one-on-one conversations with our clients, assessing their needs and helping out with bus fare for job interviews or medical appointments, medications, utility assistance,  food as much as our resources could stretch.  You were able to be there for that person, giving them   your undivided attention and truly listen to their story.  In those moments, the face of homelessness revealed itself to be vastly diverse.
Most of all, the Franciscan Center was a ministry of love.  It was staffed by Franciscan Sisters, secular Franciscans, and retired men and women who would come to volunteer.  Before we opened our doors each day,  the “Prayer of St. Francis” was prayed over the sound system; each Friday, Sr. Mary would lead a prayer service for clients and staff members who wanted to participate.  I formed friendships not only with Center volunteers, like Cora, but also the clients. 
Man stripped of everything can reveal the goodness of God.
Being there, day in and day out, I saw more than most.  I saw His goodness in the simple act of kindness of a homeless man giving his dessert to a child in the soup kitchen.  I saw His love when another man carried the tray of an elderly client who couldn’t on his own.  I felt His presence when a client bear-hugged me, thanking me for smiling and brightening his day—on a day, when I felt like I wasn’t doing anything important.
And, I learned so much that year.  Embrace the moment; take each day as it is.  Love each other.  Find Christ in the poor.  Thank Him for the religious brothers and sisters who do so much good in His name.   Serve others rather than helping them.  Find joy in that service.  Live simply.   Find solace in prayer and community.  Boldly proclaim the Gospel with your actions.
Service in the name of Christ not only builds up the kingdom on earth, but also enriches and transforms us. 
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

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