JVC Northwest recently held its annual Advent Gathering, which brings together the extended JVC Northwest family for an evening of food, fellowship, and a prayer service. Read current Jesuit Volunteer Amanda Foggia (Portland, OR ’14-15) and current Jesuit Volunteer EnCorps participant Anne Mildenberger’s (JVE: Portland, OR ’14-15) reflections from this event below.
Amanda Foggia (Portland, OR ’14-15)
With the changing seasons fresh in our mind, it is hard to ignore the fact that winter is creeping closer. As winter approaches, the nights are getting much longer and colder. And with that, we are physically surrounded by more darkness. The season of Advent arrives at the most opportune moment in this cycle of the seasons. It marks the end of autumn and offers time to prepare for the winter to come with our minds set on hope. And inadvertently it is arriving at an ideal moment in my journey as a JV.
My name is Amanda and this year I am serving as the Patient Liaison at the Recuperative Care Program at Central City Concern. The Recuperative Care Program or RCP is a medical respite program that offers emergency shelter, intense case management, and primary care for Portland’s sick and homeless. Since the start of this JV year I have encountered individuals whose lives have been halted in a winter season. They live in a constant darkness, one marked by vulnerability and instability. Some have been there for so long that they can no longer recall the beauty of spring, summer, fall, and most importantly, winter. They have forgotten the beauty of what has occurred in their pasts, what they are waiting for, and the fact that winter has its perks too.
Their lives have been engulfed with darkness so great that it has seeped into the walls of the Henry Building, the building that has supported RCP clients since its founding in late 2005. They are walls saturated with trauma and injustice. There are days when I walk through those halls that I can feel the heaviness of it all. Trauma, anxiety, mental illness, drug abuse, hepatitis c, loneliness, death. All of the dark and messy stuff that many people willfully ignore. A lot of us here have made a choice to welcome more darkness into our lives. We do not have to be where we currently are; there are many other options available that would allow us to ignore the darkness altogether. But we have chosen to walk alongside those struggling to keep faith in this period of anticipation in an attempt to be a source of light.
Putting myself further into the darkness has changed the way I maneuver through this world. There are times when I feel their trauma and anxiety so strongly that I also feel as if I am losing hope in the existence of love and light. I have spent days of this JV year in a fog, consumed by the darkness within the Henry building. The faces of my clients stay with me and their stories run alongside mine. I personally carry many of my clients with me every day. I bring them home to Morris house, to coffee shops, on runs, to Church, and into my dreams. There is one client who remains on my mind everyday despite his discharge from RCP about a month ago. He was a previously prosperous East coast man whose life was altered economically and physically by his addiction. This client informed me that he moved to Portland to die. He came very close to this. But he did not, and after three weeks of being homeless in Portland, he ended up in room 227 in the Henry building.
One morning during rounds, after he had been in the program for a couple weeks, he asked us to key-into his room. We found him lying in his bed listening to music from the 60s. He told us that he had started using music as a way to escape to a different time because things were too messed up nowadays. He laughed, displaying his gold tooth, and then said, “I have been waiting for you all for a long, long time”. He told us that he came to Portland to die, but RCP made him feel alive again.
As I moved him out of the Henry building into his own apartment, he urged me to continue to do this work and to keep a mindset of hope for others. He acknowledged that there would be days where the motivation to continue this work was hard to find. Exhaustion and compassion fatigue would set in through contact with others deep in their own darkness. What he did not know was that I was feeling that lack of motivation at that exact moment, and I am feeling it right now. Questions of whether it is worth it have entered my mind. What am I actually doing for anyone? Does respite care actually work as we say it does? How do I continue to be a source of light for people engulfed in darkness when that same darkness has become a part of me? Would it not be easier to drop everything and return to a life that allows me to ignore the fact that there is darkness at all?
I do not entirely understand what we did for this man, what we gave him that he had been waiting for. I do not have answers to many of the questions that run through my mind at RCP. I do know that I have found motivation in something my community has defined as small victories. They are moments where light and love present themselves in the darkness. They are proof that although we are in a period of waiting for something greater, there is still beauty, love, and signs of what is to come in the present day. This man continues to be a source of motivation and hope for myself. Two weeks ago he came to visit RCP. As he was leaving he told me that he bought himself a bottle of cologne costing $87 because he believed he was worth it. The transformation of a man coming to Portland to die to someone that felt alive and worth it is a small victory I hold close and dear. Many times, these small victories are what pull me out of the fog and allow me to continue my goal of being a source of hope for clients.
The season of Advent is occurring at the most appropriate time. I personally had forgotten about small victories for some time now. I had allowed the increasing darkness around and within me to overpower the love and light that still exists among this sorrow. I had begun thinking of how tempting it seemed to return to New York, work at Nike again, and ignore the injustice in the world. Small victories had reminded me that I would rather live among this darkness than live in the darkness of those who choose to ignore it. A pure, raw, and authentic faith is found at the farthest depths of darkness. There is faith in small victories, humanity, this Earth, and God. There will be many more days when my faith wavers because of the darkness. I know I will walk through the halls of the Henry dragging my feet again. But there are RCP patients that leave grateful for the hope RCP has offered them, there is community, and there is the beauty of the changing seasons. Advent is a reminder to maintain hope that peace has come before and will come again even if it seems far away. It is an even greater reminder that justice exists not only in this distant goal of equity but in the hope we can lend each other a hand on our current journey.
Anne Mildenberger (JVE: Portland, OR ’14-15)
My daughter shared a quote with me a few weeks ago from Audrey Hepburn, “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: one for helping yourself and one for helping others.” This quote is so true and I wish I had read it four years ago when I first retired.
I have retired three times. Yes, 3 times! My first retirement was in October 2010. I was so excited that a year before my actual retirement date, I strung 365 paper clips around my office. As I would leave each evening a clip would come down. Now you would think that someone who was that excited about retirement would have a plan, right? Well we had plans to travel and we did do some traveling but I struggled to find a sense of purpose in retirement, I just didn’t do retirement well. I had worked for over 40 years, I was good at working, I was appreciated at work and the money gave me the opportunity to shop on weekends. I dreaded Mondays and I dreaded the commute but just couldn’t envision any other option, so I continued to work in various positions until July 2014.
Finally I realized that I needed to find something that would give this gift of retirement a true purpose and passion. I knew the answers were there but it still took me almost 4 years to walk away and find my place in the retired world.
The answers to my questions came through my God and my son, Ryan. Ryan is currently in his second year as a JV. I am very proud of his dedication to the JVC Northwest organization. Ryan was chosen to be the JV speaker this past March at the annual Seattle fund raiser. His speech was amazing and inspirational. During the program, I also heard a brief talk on the JV EnCorps program in Portland and their efforts to start a program in the Seattle area. It sounded like something I might consider.
This past August, Ryan was home for a few days prior to leaving for his current placement in Juneau. He asked me “so, mom, what are you going to do next?” I said I wanted to find a volunteer position that would give me the same sense of peace and spiritually that he had gained his prior year. We discussed JVE again and I told him I would pray that God would lead me in a direction where I could best serve him. I was really thinking that I wasn’t sure I could live as simply as Ryan; if I could ignore flushing the toilet while the “yellow mellowed”. But with Ryan’s encouragement and a big nudge from God, I decided to apply and see where it led me.
The program pushed me to find the agencies that best served the most marginal of our small community. I currently assist with community suppers a couple of nights a month, volunteer at the Newberg Food Pantry and Habitat for Humanity in the ReStore, and prepare lunches for the Habitat work crews when needed. I was recently contacted by [ the Oregon Department of Transportation] to work with them on the statewide diversity conference a few hours a month. I am looking forward to assisting in this project.
I have only been with the JV EnCorps program for a few months. My life is beginning to change. I love working with my retiree peers. I love living the simpler life although I still flush the toilet, still can’t just walk away. It is so freeing and liberating to tell myself every day that I have all that I need and so much more. Ryan told me once that he wakes up every day happy and looking forward to his service. I am beginning to understand that feeling as I catch myself smiling more and sleeping better. As part of my simple living plan I have vowed to only purchase used clothing and household items for one year. It’s been 3 months, and it was hard at first, but there is a real sense of peace to leave a store with only the things we need, not the things we want. I take time for silence, meditation, and spiritual growth each day. And I can honestly say that I love being retired.
I am looking forward to this wonderful season of Advent, the season of peace. Our gifts this year to our family will still include a little cash for our teenage grandchildren and donations to our older children’s favorite charities.
For those of you who are current and former Jesuit Volunteers I want to tell you that you are amazing, wonderful men and women. Thank you for being here and for giving up this year of your life to serve others, your rewards will be great. You are truly loved and admired.
I leave you with this final thought from St. Augustine: “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
Thank you so much for the opportunity to be part of this organization. I wish you all a season of joy and peace. God Bless.