Friday, April 27, 2018

Our Nature’s Fire

Allison Beyer, Co-director, Dominican Volunteers USA

As we approach the feast day of our Dominican St. Catherine of Siena, Dominican Volunteers USA shares the words of our Co-Director, Allison Beyer, from our annual celebration and benefit last Saturday. Like St. Catherine, Allison challenges each of us to be who we are meant to be and set the world on fire. We are inspired by Allison’s work, words, and witness in living out our Dominican mission.
St. Catherine of Siena said, “For a servant of God, Every place is the right place, Every time is the right time.” Catherine was not “a woman of her time.” Catherine lived in the present but was not contained by the social, family, political and religious expectations or boundaries placed upon her. She was free in the love of God and the pursuit of making this love manifest through her prayer life and love of neighbor. Catherine was not naive in her joy or zeal; she lived fully in the reality of the plague, war, sexism and political despondency.

We, Dominican Volunteers USA, do not run from the injustices and despair of our time. Dominican Volunteers USA was born out of the Dominican tradition, of running towards and with the weary, sick, rejected, forsaken. DVUSA partners with organizations around the country that serve individuals and communities that are the poorest of the poor and marginalized. This is the Gospel call. Dominican Volunteers respond to that call with their very lives.

Gustavo Gutierrez teaches that when Jesus said “Take up your cross and follow me,” he was referring not to a personal cross, a cross of individual sin or suffering, but rather to the cross of humanity, the cross that we all bear, because we are One Body. This is the cross of injustice.

Too many of us are hungry in a country of abundance and waste. Too many of us as children are unsafe, uneducated, and disempowered in a country that prides itself on being the best. Too many of us are forced to leave our home countries and are treated like unworthy strangers by our neighbors here. Too many of us are cold, lonely, imprisoned. Too many of us suffer violence and abuse at the hands of our partners, family members, strangers. Too many of us are without shelter, without clothing, without community, without access to health care. All of us are living on a planet on the brink of climatic catastrophe. This is the cross. Jesus calls us to “Take up the cross and follow me.”

This call is as relevant now as it was some odd 2000 years ago. The Dominican Sisters heed this call now just as they have for the past 800+ years. They, like Jesus, invite each of us to come closer. To take up the cross and walk with them, to see where such a curious, demanding road might lead. We find, like Catherine, that the road is marked by needless, contrived, systemic and inexplicable suffering-- and still we continue.

 We are able to continue this work because of the loving companions who share the load and the journey. We are able to continue this work because it is just. We are able to continue working for peace because we have felt peace in our hearts when at prayer. We are able to continue defending the truth that we are all One Body because we feel the joy of this truth in our beings. We continue to seek new volunteers, women and men to preach God’s love through service. Your continued support allows future volunteers to answer the call, to have the opportunity to be transformed in and by and for Love.

Each year, Dominican Volunteers take the opportunity to live in intentional community, minister full-time and enter more deeply into the injustices of our day through study and prayer. Volunteers serve as teachers, campus ministers, coaches, counselors, nurses. They make a difference in organic farms, the United Nations, the Dominican Youth Movement, refugee communities and immigrant centers. They teach children how to read and encourage them to dream. They help refugees find jobs and teach English as a Second Language. Dominican Volunteers answer crisis lines, hold the hands of the dying, organize celebrations for Day of the Dead, protest and advocate.

We thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for coming here to join us as we celebrate our inspiring partner Sarah’s Inn and for Continuing the Journey with Dominican Volunteers USA. We could not do it without you. Thank you.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

"I hope my students are inspired"

DV Julia Butts

Our latest blog post comes from  Dominican Volunteer Julia Butts. Julia reflects on her experience as a religious education  teacher at  the St. Francis Center, a center for low-income families in Redwood City, California and the awe-inspiring privilege to offer life lessons to her fourth grade students.

As a DV, I wear three hats: religious education teacher, English as a second language tutor, and advocacy coordinator for an after school program. That last hat is actually more like lots of hats disguised as a single one, but that’s a blog post for another time. Today I want to focus on the hat that’s surprised me the most: the hat of being a religious education teacher.  

When Sister Christina asked me how I’d feel about being a religious ed teacher, I was practically speechless. I told her I didn’t feel particularly qualified, but I would definitely be willing to give it a go. With a teacher’s manual in hand, I embarked on teaching 4th graders about the Catholic faith.

I quickly realized the gravity of my job. For some of the students, these three forty-minute classes per week are the primary education they have in their faith.  At ten years old, they mostly do what their parents tell them to do when it comes to church. But someday, they’ll decide if they get confirmed. They’ll decide whether to go to church. On a deeper level, and even as soon as today, they’ll believe or not believe. They’ll feel God’s loving presence in their lives, or they won’t. They’ll pray, or they’ll reject prayer. They will feel called to service, or not. These are experiences and decisions they will re-face innumerable times over the course of their lives. And I’m in a position to influence them. It’s kind of a big deal, and so, one I don’t take lightly.

Thus, I’ve found myself reflecting on my goals in this role and on the impact of my teaching. Of course, I’m motivated by wanting my students to have a strong Catholic faith. But I’m more so motivated by wanting them to a) be informed about their faith, and b) to develop gospel values.

As they’re making choices down the road about whether or not they’re going to practice Catholicism, or another Christian faith, or another religion entirely, or no religion at all, I want them to have learned as much as they can about the faith they “started out” in. In my personal experience and the experiences of others that I’ve witnessed, the more one inquires about and learns about their Catholic faith, the more confident and faithful they become. And one thing’s for sure: religion is complicated. My students ask me so many questions. I answer all that I can and look up answers to the questions I can’t. And when the questions enter more complex theology that I could explain, but it’s a bit beyond their level of comprehension, I praise them for their inquiries and encourage them to keep studying and their questions will be answered. I want them to view this learning process as a lifelong one.

What I truly love is that being a religion teacher is about imparting values. My class is time dedicated to developing moral compasses, explicitly exploring and discussing what it means to be good.  We learn about being generous even when we’d rather be selfish. We learn about being kind to our enemies, and merciful to those who hurt and offend us. We learn about respecting the dignity of every single human being. We learn to care for creation. We learn to love. We learn how difficult it can be to do all of these things, but how faith gives us the strength to do all things.

At the end of each day, I hope that my students are inspired. I hope they feel God’s individual and immeasurable love for them, and in feeling God’s love, spread that love in all they do. I hope that regardless of whether they practice religion in a traditional sense, they stand by their values and strive to be good even when (especially when) it’s difficult to do so.  I feel blessed to play a part in the formation of their minds and hearts, and pray that I do my job well.
Some of Julia's teaching materials

Friday, April 13, 2018

“It is beneath human dignity to lose one’s individuality and become a mere cog in the machine”

Our latest blog post comes from 2017-18 Dominican Volunteer Niki Klco.

DV Niki Klco
Niki serves at the Siena House, a homeless shelter for young mothers and their children in the Bronx New York. She reflects on this systemic obstacles that homeless people face and the necessity of recognizing the humanity of each and every person.

In this day in age being homeless is not just for the poor. With rent on a one-bedroom apartment being $1200 per month in the Bronx to $3500 per month in New York City being homeless or scraping for money to pay rent is common. The records say 63,500 people are homeless in New York City. Not only is this number the highest number of people since the Great Depression, but this only counts people spending the night in shelters. What about all of those people spending the night on the streets for which we have no countable number? One source estimates 4,000 more people are on the streets each night. Since working at Siena House Shelter in the Bronx I would even contest the total numbers that I have just listed. Here in the city it is required that residents prove that they are indeed homeless. Simply saying that you live outside or keep moving around from shelter to shelter is not good enough. Prove it! Prove to us that bridge in your picture is where you sleep, prove that you have been up all night riding the subway, and prove that you deserve a place in one of our shelters. With admirable intent in the 1970s a court law was passed that anyone who is homeless in New York City must be sheltered, but what do the consequences become when good intentions turn into making people into numbers on a page? “It is beneath human dignity to lose one’s individuality and become a mere cog in the machine” (Mahatma Gandhi).

            “Amen brother!” is my response to Gandhi’s statement. For, with so many people experiencing homelessness, people become nothing more than numbers… Who is moved in? Who is moved out? How fast? Have we done our required duty so that we can move onto the next case? It is a systemic issue that converts our people to numbers. Not only one person can break the chain. As Bai Ki-moon states, “Our work for human dignity if often lonely, and almost always an uphill climb. At times, our efforts are misunderstood, and we are mistaken for the enemy.” So, what can individuals do to have any impact as we fight against the current structure? I’ve found that if I come to work with the intention of being present to each and every resident daily that it not only creates a relationship, but from there I can share in the one human journey. At this point it doesn’t change the whole system, but I’m hoping that I do some good each day.  I don’t have answers for how to change the system, but I grapple with it consistently. As a start, I urge people to see the humanity in those around them - feeling is truth - and no one wants to feel as a cog in the machine. These people are our friends, family, and neighbors and we cannot let ourselves stoop to approving of them becoming numbers in a system!
Niki and Dominican Sister Gertrude Simpson OP of her Bronx community