Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bundt Cake and Bananas

Dominican Volunteer Hannah Abalos shares community with the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose at Immaculate Conception Priory.

I get a lot of strange looks when people learn I live in a convent. And almost every time without fail, they have the same question for me: “Do you have a curfew?” To which I smile and tell them about my first week in the convent, when one of the sisters gave me a big wink and told me to go out that night, have a good time, “and don’t come back till 1 AM!” If that doesn’t assuage their skepticism, the fact that I get free room and board certainly does. In San Francisco, that’s solid gold.

Of all the DV communities, mine is the largest. I live with seventeen other women—fifteen religious sisters and two other Dominican Volunteers. Our community is multicultural: we have Mexican sisters, Irish sisters, a Korean sister, a Polish sister, and of course, American sisters. Many of the sisters are San Francisco natives who have seen the city transform before their very eyes. Our community is also intergenerational: being in our early twenties, we DVs bring the average age of the convent way down; the sisters, on the other hand, range in age from 32 to 89.

In general, community life has been good. I've matured immensely as a result of an intergenerational community. The sisters bring so much wisdom from their experiences in life and ministry. They have so many stories to share, from seeing John F. Kennedy the night before he was assassinated, to the much humbler story of Fluffy the (spoiled, beloved) cat. Years from now, I know I’ll think fondly to the times we gathered around the dinner table, simply enjoying each others’ presences. (I’ll also miss the five-second commute to my ministry at Immaculate Conception Academy, but that’s another story.)

Because our community is so big, there is almost always conflict. Personalities grate, for one thing. And things aren’t helped that nearly everyone has a packed schedule between ministry and social life. We recently had our April Community Chapter, where we convened to continue our discussion on Becoming Community. In our meeting, it was brought to our attention that in the hustle and bustle of spring, one sister felt that we seemed to have forgotten what it meant to be part of a community. To participate in common life—especially with regards to housekeeping.

“For example, this morning in the kitchen,” recounted the irate sister, “we had a mango bundt cake out for breakfast. And you know what? There were crumbs left all over the counter. Just left there, for someone else to clean up! And I know that many slices of the bundt cake were eaten, which meant multiple people took a slice and didn’t bother to clean it up! So thoughtless!”

“And here’s another good example,” agreed another sister. “The bananas. We know we’re a community of monkeys based on how quickly the bananas go. But sometimes, someone will take the last banana and they won’t replenish the supply—even though as we all know, there are bananas just waiting in the kitchen closet!”

Galvanized, various sisters started sharing other foibles they had noticed: the community room door left open and unattended—dangerous, in the city; or a sharp knife left in the dishpan, almost causing one sister to cut herself. Sometimes, the culprits even admitted their guilt: “That was me,” said one sister unabashedly when the butter dish was brought up. “All me.”

Some of these points might seem overly fastidious. Fussy, even. But in an intentional community, it’s these little annoyances, born from complacency, that build up and cause friction. They are a manifestation of a shift from a “We” mindset to an “I” mindset. It is perhaps an inevitable shift—but thankfully, not an irreversible one.

From my seat in the community circle, I couldn’t help but notice that the conversation taking place before me was almost exactly the same conversation that had taken place back in September, at my very first community chapter. One might be tempted to look at the two community meetings as evidence of a failed community, thanks to human nature and the impossibility of change. But perhaps there’s a way to look at the situation positively.

If there’s anything that living in community has taught me, it’s that we as humans fail. Constantly. No matter what goals we aspire to as a community (and believe me, we set pretty lofty goals this year), we will always fall short, leaving our community to deal with bundt cake crumbs and hair in the shower drain. It may be age, or forgetfulness, or even selfishness. But whatever the reason behind absent bananas or overflowing garbage bags, what gives me hope is that there is always an opportunity for an act of charity. For redemption. That act of charity might be cleaning up the crumbs myself—or it might be gently confronting my housemate to let her know what she has forgotten. Either way, if I take this opportunity to act with hope, mercy, and patience—and not just turn a complacent or disgusted eye the other way—our community wins. And together, we grow only stronger. In a way, this struggle is holy, for it is not unlike our own dynamic relationships with God.

In the three months I have left here, then, I’ll continue to do my best to be a member of my community. Together, we DVs and the sisters will continue to become community. And, while I’m at it, I’ll make sure I replenish those bananas when I snag the last one for “breakfast-on-the-go”

Hannah and some of her community

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Embrace the Unknown

Brian Manjarrez is a current volunteer with the Hope Center in Racine Wisconsin

“At any given moment you have the power to say: This is not how the story is going to end.”
This quote has been very inspiring to me ever since I discovered it on my Kairos experience during my senior year of college. For those of you unfamiliar with Kairos, Kairos is a weekend retreat with the aim of providing participants the chance to "contemplate God's role in their lives.” The above quote pushed me to finish my senior year strong and has helped me many times during my volunteer year.

My ministry site is the HOPES Center. The HOPES Center helps those who are homeless and/or have a mental illness by providing counseling and other resources around Racine. It has been a truly eye opening experience to hear clients’ stories. I am very grateful that I have the opportunity to help clients when I can. My coworkers are amazing and have given me wise life advice. I am the only Dominican Volunteer this year in Racine, Wisconsin, which has been difficult at times. There are days that I wish I had another volunteer with me to share my experiences in Racine. I have the Kairos quote on the wall above my bed; this helps remind me every day that I can be sad and cry over the fact that I am the only volunteer – or I can change my approach. I have that power and I will change my story! After my midyear retreat I had to relearn that. It took a while but this is my story, these are my memories, and this is my journey. Sometimes you have to go through things alone to see the big picture. I have no regrets over my decision of coming to Racine. I knew the risks of being the only volunteer; I took the risk and I would probably do it again. I love my ministry site and would never change that.  
Brian and 2 of the sisters with whom he lives in community

Brian and Sr. Christin Tomy singing at a Hope Center event

Through this experience I have figured out my plans for next year. I have been accepted into Dominican University’s Graduate School of Social Work. My hope is to become a high school social worker or counselor. I hope to use what I have learned and experienced during my volunteer year in my future endeavors.

For those of you who are thinking about becoming a Dominican Volunteer, I say to you: Take the risk. Embrace the unknown. Have the power to choose how your story ends. This is a life changing experience. Lastly, have fun. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Conquering Death

Liz Engle is currently a Dominican Volunteer in Chicago at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly

                I have a friend who is Greek Orthodox, and when Orthodox Easter comes around, she spends the whole day telling everyone she meets, “Χριστὸς ἀνέστη!” She is so excited about Jesus’ resurrection that she has to tell each person she sees, regardless of whether they’re Christian (or for that matter, whether they understand Greek). She wants everyone to know that, as she puts it, “Christ has conquered death.” This was, after all, the first gospel, the first good news that the disciples set out to preach, and which we are supposed to preach through our ministry. But how do I preach that Christ has conquered death to people who so often feel that death is conquering them?
                One elder lost her husband a couple months ago. The two of them met in a workshop program for people with developmental disabilities and had been married for 43 years. After she was placed in a nursing home, he came to spend the day with her every day. He was bringing cupcakes to her on New Year’s Day when he had a heart attack and collapsed in the middle of the road. She fought DNR recommendations and had him brought to her nursing home; the staff even moved her roommate so he could stay in the other bed. Now that he’s gone, she’s left with a new roommate and a clock that’s no longer set 5 minutes fast, the way he liked it.
                Another elder is terrified that she’s losing her memory. She writes a detailed daily schedule in her calendar, then forgets to look at the calendar. By the end of a movie, she is unsure of how it began. She once told me that, in between our visits, she can’t remember what I look like, so she always imagines me as the Channel 7 weather girl. It’s only a matter of time before her landlord evicts her for forgetting to pay rent.
                A third elder received a bag of birthday gifts which is decorated with images of hot air balloons. After we’ve gone through the gifts and eaten our cupcakes, she examines the bag, entranced. “I always wanted to go up in a hot air balloon,” she says. “Although I suppose it’s a bit too late for that now.”
                It is in these moments – these times when I can’t tell an elder that it will get better or it will be alright or keep fighting or we can fix it, when I am reduced to simply holding hands and acknowledging pains – that I feel I am most preaching the message of Easter. Christ conquered death not by fighting death, but by dying. Death is part of the story, and God chose to live it, feel it, and suffer it because God knows that it is part of our story, too.