By Rachel Dunlap
Franciscan Volunteer: No Risk, No Gain (2016-2018)
We all have expectations when we begin a year of service. Most are well intentioned and focus on wanting to make a difference. Personally, I had an idealistic vision of what the year would entail. I overwhelmingly believed that I would come to a place of greater fulfillment through community, ministry, discernment, and being surrounded by the sisters. I thought my prayer life would become vibrant and provide me with almost unlimited strength for the hardships at my ministry, in community, and life in general. Looking back, I was searching for fulfillment, something I’m not sure exists, at least in the way that we might wish. I guess you could say that God flipped my expectations upside down.
I began my first year with the Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain program in August 2016. I was specifically drawn to it because of its faith formation component and the Franciscan charism. I fell in love with the program when I learned that the charism was about ongoing conversion and being in relationship with all – God, others, and creation. Experiencing the Franciscan spirituality and praying regularly with my community has helped to keep me grounded when it gets hard to live out my faith. It has also introduced me to prayers I wouldn’t have explored on my own, such as the Divine Mercy Chaplet, contemplation, and mandalas.
My newly found spirituality and forms of prayer have opened the door for me to see my experiences in community and ministry in new ways. Through these, God has been showing me that it’s not always about being fulfilled. Yes, that’s great and is needed to keep us moving forward, but that cannot happen if we don’t create space in our lives – space for God, space for others, and space for ourselves. I have found that I often attempt to fill up my time and heart with activities and people (which are both good), but I forget to, or purposely choose not to, leave space for God. Because, let’s be honest, leaving space for God is scary. We don’t know what we might be called to. It’s easier to avoid it than to feel called and not follow. In a volunteer year, there are so many ways that God calls us: to grow in community, to discern future plans, and to accompany the amazing people at our ministries.
Learning to leave space for God led to my call to leave space for others. When I am completely fulfilled, I can forget that we all need each other; I forget that I cannot be my best self when I choose to be independent, rather than interdependent. When I don’t leave space in my heart, and my time, for others, I do not open myself up to hearing and serving. I also do not allow myself to open up to share and be served. Thus, a barrier to authentic relationship is created.
My ministry at Aquinas Center in South Philadelphia was all about authentic relationship. My job title fit perfectly: Encounter Coordinator. My main role consisted of coordinating service, encounter, and educational experiences for service immersion trips from high schools and colleges. While planning, I was intentional about creating a holistic volunteer experience. For us, true service isn’t about doing for; it’s about being with. My hope was that at the end of the week, once they experienced a multitude of service sites (at soup kitchens, urban gardens, food distribution centers, ESL classes), talks (regarding immigration and race), and getting to know our immigrant community, that they walked away realizing that life comes down to one thing: relationship. It’s about creating space to allow God and others in.
This brought up questions in my spiritual life. How do we best encounter one another? How do we open our hearts to listen before we speak, to accept before we judge, and to pray before we go on with our day? How do we recognize the importance of mutuality in our relationships, which leads us to the virtue of humility? I believe that it all begins with creating space. It’s difficult because it can often feel like a sense of emptiness, but that’s more God-filled than a surface level sense of fulfillment. The best thing that we can give one another is the gift of self, both the pure and vulnerable.
Three years ago, I would probably be disappointed to see that I haven’t reached fulfillment, and especially to realize that it’s an illusion that hinders our faith. God becomes most visible in the spaces of our lives. I will take the life-giving experiences and people that God brings to me over my false sense of fulfillment any day. So, no, my service year did not live up to my expectations; it exceeded them. This time around, I’m glad that God flipped my expectations upside down.