My Greatest Education: A Year in Service

The bus doors opened. An impatient, tired, overnight bus driver sat behind the wheel and looked me over as I stood on the corner like a kid on the first day of school. “This bus ain’t going to no Cherry Creek,” she scoffed. I got on. She dropped me off on the block of an old church that had been converted into a day center offering food, clothing and financial assistance to those living in poverty within the city’s limits. Even the church looked tired in the early morning light, in the gray of the city-scape. I found the back entrance of the center and hoped that I would meet the expectations of the organization who had asked for a bi-lingual, social work-type to serve the tremendous community that relied on this organization to make ends meet.

This dilapidated church would be the scene of both my greatest education and the most surprising love story in which my heart would be stretched, broken open and grown.

I moved across the country to be part of a year-long volunteer program in which I imagined myself making a great difference in the lives of those I would serve. After all, I had newly-minted degrees in Social Work and Theology. Surely I would be an asset! What I had not anticipated was just how much I had yet to learn from those living on the margins, how I would fall in love with the cadence of my days in this quirky center and the message of the Gospel that would be revealed to me by folks who would be surprised to hear me say so.

Imagine my astonishment when a nurse I knew from a local hospital showed up to pick up groceries from the food line one afternoon. Or when I was working on job applications with folks living on the street and the man sitting with me shared that he had gone to Harvard. It was not uncommon for a grizzled, recovering alcoholic who slept outside to make sure I got on the bus safely if I worked a dinner shift: “Goodnight, hija (daughter),” he would say. Suddenly I didn’t know so much. Suddenly the biting comments and stereotypes heard on sitcoms and at family gatherings about any number of marginalized people living in this country began to take on identities, to have stories, to have names and faces. I wasn’t serving ‘the poor,’ I was given the privilege of knowing these people and hearing the stories they chose to share, in their own words.

The best description I have ever heard of this option of long-term service is this: “A year of lay formation.” And it’s true. Hands-down this was among the most formational decisions of my life (though I didn’t know it yet). I was too distracted by the unending string of questions about what exactly I had decided to do with my life. The decision not to take a job with a benefits package, but to agree to live a lifestyle of simplicity, prayer, community & service, without joining a religious order was foreign to basically everyone I knew plus or minus a couple of nuns and a campus minister.

Were my parents convinced that this was a wise move on my part? No. Did I have student loans? Yes. Did I know a soul in the city I planned to move? No.

Despite the mixed messages I was receiving concerning this decision, something in my heart knew that I had to do it. Even as a cradle Catholic, it remains among the most difficult decisions I have ever made. Not because I wasn’t compelled by a mission of service, but because it was 100% countercultural and was the source of one of the biggest disagreements I ever had with my parents. Conversely, I can tell you without hesitation that this one decision, which led to a thousand other decisions, changed the trajectory of my life for good.

It’s May and graduation season is upon us. Whether you (or someone you know) are graduating from high school, college, trade school, discerning a vocation or even entering into retirement, I present you with five questions for discernment in thinking about whether long-term service is an option worth considering:

Questions to Consider About Long-Term Service

What gives you life about the possibility of participating in a year in service?

This is a question that spiritual directors and soul friends are great at asking—what about this option gets you excited? In the heart of your prayer life, are you being invited to seriously consider this opportunity as an option?

What kind of service can you imagine yourself doing?

The idea of long-term service can easily be romanticized. What concrete thing can you imagine yourself doing, 40 hours each week, not for money, but because it is the greatest niche you can fill with your specific gifts?

When you share this idea with trusted friends/family/minister, how do they respond?

Very often the response of a good confidant can tell you a lot about whether what you’ve got is a fleeting idea or core to who you are. A friend who nods and pictures you easily in this new role is a resounding affirmation.  Be attentive to the wisdom in their surprised or affirming response.

In what circumstances do you thrive?

In each long-term service opportunity volunteers live in a community. This may be a community of two-three or up to ten. It may be a women’s community, a men’s community, a co-ed community, age-specific, intergenerational, or shared space with a religious community. Some programs have tremendous structure, others provide minimal structure.  In which of these scenarios can you imagine yourself being most nourished?

What questions do you have about such a commitment?

Does anything about the type of service, the expectation of spiritual commitment, living arrangements, charism, safety, city, loan deferments, stipends, concern you? Get in touch withh the organization you are looking at! Call them on the phone. If you are willing to pick up and move in an effort to be of service to a particular community, it is vital that you speak with a person and get solid answers to your questions so that you can make an informed decision and commitment to the folks that you are serving as well as the individuals who coordinate the program.

For a directory of hundreds of long-term service opportunities, visit Catholic Volunteer Network .

I continue to be grateful for the experience of formation and guidance I received from the community of volunteers with whom I lived as we committed to service, community, reflection and discussion, and prayer; the staff who supported us during our service year, and some of the most influential teachers I have come to know who happen to live on the streets or close to it. It is a big decision, but a transformational one. Is Jesus inviting to consider an experience of transformation at the service of the most vulnerable?

Written by Katie Cassady. Find out more about her here.

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