Monday, October 8, 2012

My Home

Em asked me to post some pictures of the house so she could get an idea of where I live.  Here are a few to start with, and I'll post some of the inside in the coming weeks :)

Our little garden courtyard.  It was much greener in the summertime...

The Church next door - St. Maurice.  You can see it from the garden.

Some statues in the garden surrounded by plants

The leaves are changing - yaay!

The view walking down 36th Ave toward the house

A view of the front of the House

A beautiful view of the side of the house while the sun is shining
Welcome to Amate House!

"They're With the Band"

If you know my taste in music, you'll know how much I love Matt Maher.  A Christian music artist gradually gaining recognition in the genre, Matt has an incredible gift for creating beautiful music and leading inspiring worship.  I've seen him a few different times both in a typical concert setting and at prayer-centered events.  When I read online that he was coming to a suburb just 15 miles outside the city, I was convinced I HAD to see him.  Thankfully, one of my housemates is equally as obsessed with Matt as I am, and was instantly committed to coming with me even though it was on a Thursday night.

Everything felt perfect.  It was less than a full week away, but it was going to happen.  That is, until I spotted the ticket price: $20.  I stared at the screen for a solid two minutes until it fully registered.  $20?!  All right, any other time in my life I wouldn't have batted an eyelash at that price, especially to see one of my favorite artists.  But, when you're living on $100 a month, $20 is a hefty toll.  In a pitiful last ditch effort, I e-mailed any contact I could get my hold on - the Church, the booking agency, you name it - explaining the situation (i.e. we are poor volunteers serving the city who love Matt).  I got one response after another informing me that regrettably, there was nothing anyone could do.  Then (aaaahhh, hear the angel chorus) a lovely woman from the booking agency offered an out - if we worked the merchandise table, we could have free tickets. SOLD!

The prospect of the concert pulled me through the week at work.  That is, until Thursday came.  It was an average morning at work, until a frustrated coworker got snippy with me.  It was one of those scenarios where any other day, I would have brushed it off and we both would have moved on with our days.  Except instead of being any average day, it was a Deirdre-is-not-in-control-of-her-emotions-and-has-hit-her-breaking-point kind of day.  Instead of brushing off the remark, I stifled tears long enough to walk away from the conversation and return to the front desk.  I then proceeded to cry quietly until a coworker offered to take over the desk so I could take a walk.  I walked around the block until I composed myself, only to walk back into the office and lose my cool once again.  I took a lunch break, crying all over my peanut butter and jelly in a back corner of a storage room.  I met with my boss and a friendly coworker to discuss the incident, and was finally sent home early so I could cry the whole way home and for another hour afterward.  (Before you become alarmed, I feel the need to remind you I am by nature a crier, and yet have somehow managed to only cry a few times in the months I have been here.)

I used the afternoon to refresh and put myself back together.  I sipped tea and read my book and talked to my best friend back home.  I went on the computer for a bit and was surprised to find an e-mail from Matt's booking agency saying they no longer needed us at the "merch" table, but we should just say our names at Will Call and mention that we are on Matt's guest list.  (I'm sorry, what?  His guest list?!)  I took this as a sign that I needed to shake my funk because the day was going to have a happy ending after all.

When my housemate got home from school, we headed out to the Church hosting the concert.  Giddy as little children, we chatted the whole way there.  When we arrived we were bounced around from one person to another as we had to awkwardly repeat what we had been told - we were on "the list."  Finally we found the aforementioned list (a program with names scribbled on it) and told to go ahead into the theatre.  As we approached the doors, though, the two teenagers working as ushers asked us for tickets.  We had to awkwardly go back to the person who had granted us entrance who walked us back to the doors and said, "You can let them in, they're with the band."

Well, we nearly passed out.  It was just too surreal that these people all thought we actually knew Matt, and that we were actually about to see him perform.  Let me tell you, he did not disappoint.  The concert was incredible - my housemate and I laughed, cried, and sang along enthusiastically at different points in the night.  It was hands-down the most spiritually enriching experience I have had since coming to Chicago.  I felt the presence of God so strongly in that place - it was beautiful, and it simply could not have come at a more appropriate time.  (And beyond the spiritual effectiveness, the giddy preteen in me will inform you that I shook Matt's hand after the concert and thanked him for the gift of his music).

On the ride home, my housemate and I had a conversation that was almost as perfect as the concert itself.  We dissected the experience, raving about our favorite songs and the quality of the music, but then we delved deeper.  We opened up about our past experiences, explaining why the music meant so much to us and why we hold certain songs close to our hearts.  We also discussed in depth our faith experience at Amate.  I told her the realization I had come to during the concert:  some part of the sadness and emptiness I was feeling earlier in the day, while triggered by a snippy coworker, had a lot more behind it, and one major element was my lack of active faith expression.  I have faithfully gone to Mass every week and I pray daily on my own and with my community, but I had not managed to live out the faith I know that I have.  All the ways I practiced my faith back at school are missing here.  I don't lead faith groups or coordinate liturgies, I don't lector, I am not a Eucharistic minister, I don't sing in a choir, I don't go to adoration or pray the rosary regularly, and I have not been to reconciliation.  Who am I?

My housemate was very affirming, and said she had experienced similar difficulties over the past months.  Treading a new path for experiencing and living faith in this new place with these new people is a challenge.  We agreed that clinging to the past is not going to bring us forward, but it also doesn't mean we have to leave it all behind and never look back.

So now, with a thankful heart full of grace, I must put myself in true conversation with God to figure out just what it is God is calling me to this year - to understand how to love and serve God in a way that reflects my new life and experiences.

Here's to the journey.


In the process of applying to Amate House, I was asked to consider what challenges this year of service might bring.  I named many things - conflict in community, difficult or unsatisfying experiences at a service site, or even struggles in practice or expression of faith.  While I have experienced each of these things in varying degrees over the past few months, I think perhaps the biggest challenge facing me now is complacency.

As may be evident from my lack of blog posts, things here are falling into a routine.  There are of course peaks and valleys - fun theme parties put on by my house, conflicts over whose responsibility it is to clean out the sink drain, angry clients criticizing my message taking abilities, and quality one-on-one meetings with my housemates - but overall things flow along smoothly without much disruption.  Don't get me wrong, routine isn't always bad.  I like that I know if I leave the house at exactly 7:45am I will make the 7:52am train  and be at work by 8:35am.  I like knowing that every Sunday morning we will have brunch together as a house, and I'll be responsible for the scrambled eggs.  I like knowing which housemate to go to when I need a hug, which one will make me laugh, and which one will listen to me vent.  But sometimes, when you're stuck in that smug complacency where you are content with everything around you, you get too comfortable and you stop paying attention.

Sometimes when you're too content, you don't notice that there's new graffiti at the L station, or that one of the regulars at Mass is missing.  You feel unfazed when person after person calls your office because they're being charged with possession of narcotics or unlawful use of a weapon or even battery of a minor.  When you are too settled in your surroundings you forget that hearing another person got shot a few blocks away is not normal or acceptable.  You forget that you are not entitled to the food you get or the house you live in - they are privileges not afforded to everyone you are surrounded by throughout the day.  Sometimes you're caught in contented peace and forget that you once believed in something more or something better for this world.

So now, the challenge lies before me - to open my eyes and really see what is happening, to be outraged by the violence, to be an instigator of change, to be a speaker of truth and a channel of peace, to not be content with the status quo but committed to a better future.

Here's to shattered complacency in the face of injustice.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Amate Volunteers 2012-2013

If you haven't been on the Amate House website recently, check it out.  The new pictures and info are up for all of this years current volunteers.  These are the people I am living and serving with for the year :)


This weekend, a group of us decided to volunteer at St. Sabina’s Renaissance Fair.  One of our housemates is at St. Sabina’s for the year serving as an intake worker in their social services department.  Evidently, the Renaissance Fair is an annual street festival that is put on by St. Sabina’s to bring the community together.  Named for a local park, the fair spans a few blocks of 79th Street and is not a fundraiser, but rather a fun event meant to offer some free or very low cost food and activities for people in the surrounding areas. 

Five of us woke up early Saturday morning to head over to St. Sabina’s to help set up the festival.  We had all signed up to volunteer until noon, but hadn’t found out what our positions were.  When we arrived, we noticed a list of different activities where people would be stationed – a petting zoo, a ferris wheel, a bouncy house, a face painting booth…and the list went on.  We were all excited as we waited for our names to be called.  The first of our group to learn his assignment was a quiet, docile housemate who is a little taller than me and about the same weight.  “Ok, you’ll be on the corner of 79th and Elizabeth,” the woman reading off assignments said to him.  With a somewhat puzzled face, he waited for the rest of the instructions – a street corner didn’t really mean much.  Realizing he seemed confused, the woman said, “Make sure to grab a black shirt and a name tag.  You’ll be working security.”  It took everything in me not to burst out laughing. 

It may be important here to digress slightly and give a little background on the neighborhood St. Sabina’s is in – it borders Englewood, one of the toughest areas in Chicago.  The neighborhood is called Auburn Grisham, and it is somewhat notorious for its high crime rate and gang activity.  The poverty and unemployment rates are high in the neighborhood and the population is about 98% black.  There are about 56,000 people living in a span of about 4 square miles so the buildings are crowded and there are always people walking around on the streets.   

Anywho, back to the story.  I was barely containing my laughter as my housemate stood, still startled, in the doorway to the room where we were all standing.  Even though the woman had dismissed him, he didn’t move.  The rest of us waited patiently as a few other volunteers’ names were called.  They were dismissed to various places – vendor booths and children’s activities among other things.  Finally my name was called.  “Head to 79th and Throop,” the woman said, “and make sure you stop by the information booth for your name tag and wristband.”  I silently prayed she was skipping my specific assignment because time was tight and she needed people to start moving.  I grabbed my housemate by the wrist and pulled him out the door so I wouldn’t have to go alone.  When I arrived at the information booth, my fear was confirmed – I was handed a black shirt and told I would be working security.  It is truly a miracle I did not pee my pants right then and there.  I mean picture it – I was standing there, 5’2”, 120 lbs, pale skin, blonde hair in a high side pony tail, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and converse.  Does anything about that say “security” to you?

I dutifully put on the black t-shirt (size Large, because it was the smallest they had in security shirts) and walked down a few blocks to my post.  I stood, half laughing at the hilarity of it all and half scared poop-less because I had no idea what the heck I was supposed to do if God-forbid something went down.  The first hour was quiet, there were not too many people at the festival and some vendors were still setting up.  The extent of my job consisted of shrugging my shoulders when other volunteers asked me questions and smiling at people as they passed by.  Thankfully after the first hour, I started seeing actually paid security officers and Chicago Police officers patrolling the streets.  One of the security officers approached me to thank me for volunteering, and reassured me that I was not being asked to intervene if anything bad happened, just to be vigilant and report to an actual paid officer.  This was certainly a relief, particularly because I had had no intentions of intervening anyway, but the conversation assuaged my feelings of guilt over that plan.

In the end, it really was no big deal.  I spent a few hours in the warm sun on a beautiful day being the extra presence St. Sabina felt they needed.  It was a cool way to people-watch, and a nice opportunity to be immersed in a different community than where I have been living or serving.  And now, I can officially say I have “worked” security (and I even have the t-shirt to prove it!).  Just another day in the life here at Amate J

The Failure Keeps You Humble

A few lines from one of my favorite songs have been playing over in my mind a lot lately.  It’s a part of a verse, and it goes like this:
 “Castles and cathedrals crumble/ pyramids and pipelines tumble/ the failure keeps you humble/ and leads us closer to peace”
Sometimes at work, I inevitably feel like a failure.  Sometimes it’s because I can’t remember how to do something I know I’ve already been taught.  Other times it’s because my Spanish skills are lagging that day, or because I realize too late that I missed a pre-screening question and already put the call through to my supervisor.  And sometimes, I feel like a failure because someone flat out tells me I am.

I deal with all sorts of clients (and potential clients) at my service site.  Some are moms, some are dads, some are happy because they’ve been helped by our attorneys, some are sad because they call on behalf of a loved one who is incarcerated, some are young, some are elderly, some are angry at a spouse or a stranger or the world, some are hard-working people facing unfair circumstances, some are ex-felons trying to start life over, and some are mentally ill and have been abandoned by friends and family and society.  While sometimes I am the person that gets to deliver the happy news that we can accept someone’s case or that we can get someone the right services, it seems like more often I am the bearer of bad news.

Sometimes when I have to direct a potential client to another agency, the person is grateful for the referral.  Other times, people are discouraged by being passed along from person to person.  And sometimes, people are just plain angry.  Most of the time, I am able to not take it personally.  People aren’t really mad at me, they are mad at “the system.”  They are mad at the injustices they face, they are mad that everyone seems to be working against them, and they are mad that they haven’t found help.  I think that’s justified – sometimes I’m mad too.  I hear stories from potential clients that get me so angry I feel my own stomach knotting and head aching, and I’m not even personally involved.  I can empathize with their pain and I wish with all my heart that there was something our organization could do.  In cases like that, I try to stay positive for the potential client.  I do my best to make a good referral, and to keep an optimistic tone, and to encourage potential clients not to give up hope.  Sometimes it helps the people, and sometimes I just get an angry grunt or a hang-up in response.  Either way, I try my best not to take it personally.  Admittedly, though, sometimes I can’t help but take the responses to heart.

The time that a client told me I was a terrible person for denying her help when she was both elderly and disabled – I took it personally.  I felt like I was failing her.  In truth, I was doing all I could – there was no way we could get her the help she needed in the timeframe she had, and I tried to refer her to another agency that could move more quickly, but she was already too jaded by the system to listen to or believe me.  Still, I felt like I had failed her because I became just another disembodied voice over the phone offering her nothing but more phone numbers to call, which would only use up more of her time - time that she did not have. 

That’s just one of several stories I could tell, but I think it gets the point across.  But this post isn’t meant to be all negative.  You see, the song says that failure keeps us humble, and in fact leads us closer to peace.  I think that’s true.  Moments where we feel a sense of failure – James Martin would say that’s God bringing us down just a peg, keeping our ego in check.  Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the successes – to feel good about the work you do and the people you serve.  Don’t get me wrong – that’s a good thing.  But when you go a long time of feeling good, sometimes you get too prideful, too self-serving, you forget the point of what you’re doing.  Sometimes we need those moments of failure to keep us humble, to remind us of the bigger picture or to remind us that we are not the be-all and end-all.  And I think when we are humble, we see the way to peace.  When we remember we are all human, all flawed, all inadequate, we can remember to be forgiving of one another; and in forgiving one another, we are better equipped to live in harmony.  And living in harmony, we come to know peace.  

"Well, That's Inconvenient."

One night last weekend, almost all of my housemates decided to go out for a night on the town.  One of my housemates and I decided to hang back since we were both tired from a long week and in the mood to just stay in with a good book or movie.  As we both sat in the living room, we got to talking about different things that had been happening at our service sites and in our community, and just about life in general.  As we were talking about some trivial thing that had happened, she said, “I thought to myself, well that’s inconvenient.”  I agreed, and as a lull came over the conversation and we both were a little lost in thought, she said, “You know, that phrase is kind of what Amate is about, I think.”

At first I didn’t understand what she meant, but as she continued I understood and agreed.  “Sometimes things are supposed to feel inconvenient here.  That’s part of the solidarity, you know?  We don’t need everything at our fingertips.  That’s not how the people we serve are living.”  She was right.  She had put to words what we had both been struggling with recently.  Sometimes it is easy to feel frustrated with the inconveniences we encounter here – things like having to wait a few extra days to cash your monthly stipend check because your train was late and the bank closed before you got home, or having to walk to the store because someone forgot to return car keys to the cork board in the kitchen.  Yes, these are little inconveniences we face living in a community of volunteers that sometimes feel like the most annoying things possible.  But how many inconveniences do the people we are serving face?  Waiting in line at a food pantry and being told you can only select a limited quantity of items from an already limited variety – that’s inconvenient.  Calling a legal aid firm because you’re about to be evicted from your apartment, only to be told no one can help you and that you should try another phone number (and another, and another) – that’s inconvenient.  Having to eat the crummy school lunch put in front of you because your parents can’t afford enough food for the whole family and it might be the only thing you eat all day – that’s inconvenient.  Hell, let’s be honest – those are BEYOND inconvenient.  They are unfair disparities people face because of their economic status.  They are stupid hoops people have to jump through just to survive.  So maybe this calls for a change of attitude.  Maybe my having to wait in line behind eleven other people to put food on my plate at dinner isn’t so inconvenient, because I have a dinner to eat.  Maybe riding the packed, hot, uncomfortable subway train for 55 minutes to and from my service site every day isn’t so inconvenient because at least I have a job to go to.  Maybe this year little inconveniences are put in our way to remind us just how privileged we really are.