Reflections on Re-Centering and Family
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— Joe Wagner (Portland, OR ’19-20)
It was a dark gray day and the clouds had swallowed any hope of having a view of Mt. St. Helen’s. Ice cold rain pelted our rain gear as the wind whipped in, trying to sap any warmth that clung to our bodies. It was not the weather I had hoped our students would experience but smiles abounded among the students.
On our hike, students could be found staring in awe at the wilderness surrounding them. Laughter filled the air, and students posed thoughtful questions to our St. Helen’s educators. Only a few hours ago we had been warm inside of the Mt. St. Helen’s Institute Learning Center and looking outside. I, along with my fellow chaperones, had been sure that given the choice our students would have preferred to stay in the warmth playing games. Instead they unanimously, democratically chose to go hiking and, while out in the cold, chose to go twice the distance we had originally planned.
This year has been full of surprises like these, seeing the grit and determination the students I have been blessed to work with have. Despite their experiences, they are full of life. Some of my students are in households where their parents are rarely home, constantly trying to make ends meet. Some of my students have had to find new homes with family or friends. Some of my students have experienced the incarceration system. All my students have so much resilience, joy, and potential for the future.
My first experience with JVC Northwest was when my brother, Tyler Wagner, was living in the city of Portland, Oregon in 2015-2016. I was surprised by my brother’s decision to commit to simple living and dedicate so much of his life to community living. I visited him a few times during holidays and was always welcomed by friendly community mates and a frigid house. I was impressed by my brother’s choice to commit to those values, but thought that his decision to be a part of this organization was well away from anything I would be committing myself to after I graduated.
My outlook on these values transformed during the winter of my senior year after thinking about a few compelling lectures from my Environmental Ethics professor, Dr. Henning. He brought up the question of what exactly should we be working towards. Should we believe those who have defined what success is when so called “successful” people have created and continue to allow vast forms of inequality, environmental destruction of our planet, social injustices, and lack of concern for human dignity? And what exactly was this idea of simple living? He identified that it was “the selection of an intentional lifestyle that cuts through needless business, clutter and complications. Doing work well, and investing in what matters most – family, friends, community, and your spirituality in relation to the cosmos. Simple living is fostering harmonious relationships with the Earth. It yields lasting satisfactions, instead of fleeting pleasures of consumerism.”
Something I always did enjoy from my childhood was coming home to our family dinners. My parents were very intentional while we were younger that we always had dinner together as a family. My mom and dad would often cook a homemade meal, while my brother and I would set the table. After we said grace or the Japanese equivalent – “ee-ta-da-ki-ma-su” – we would go around and share about our days – the good parts, the not so good parts, and pretty regularly trying to remember “What did I do today?…” because the day always seemed like such a blur. It was a place where I was able to share my accomplishments and challenges from the day with those who loved me. It was this simple act of making space, to actively listen about what was going on in the life of another.
I find this to be one of my favorite parts about community living. Getting to spend evenings together in community and hearing about both the accomplishments and very real challenges of everyone’s service positions brings a sense of recognition, compassion, and understanding in each person’s unique experiences as JV. It brings so much more value to this experience that we don’t do this year in isolation. But rather we are doing this service together because we have the same values and the same commitment to serving our fellow humans, even if we don’t always know how best to do that.
At Mt. St. Helen’s, we arranged the tables together to make one giant table, “family style,” as my supervisor called it. Everyone was invited to the table at the first dinner, and then kind of unexpectedly, the students just kept coming back to the table every meal. At each meal, we grabbed our freshly made homemade food, and came together around this giant table, where everyone’s cold, wet, bright, smiling faces were visible to all at the table. Everyone shared stories – talking about the day’s excitement and harder parts of the day, what they looked forward to in the future, and some even shared about what they were still struggling with from the past. Even well after the last bite of food was finished, students stuck around, in the company at that table.
What is family exactly? I think they are a group of people who are willing to give you the time of day. They care about your well-being, what your life struggles are, and are people you can be honest with. Often times these are the people you grow up with, the people who raise you, but they don’t have to be. Family are the people who care about each other as human beings. Isn’t that what we are all called to do, to care for and love one another? That’s what I am starting to realize: that my family doesn’t start and end with my parents, my brother, my relatives, and the person I may marry. My family are those I get to share this world – this one life with; they’re the people I get to sit around a dinner table, listen to, be heard by, share laughter with, and say thanks with.
As John 13:34 says, “as I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This year I am learning what this idea of love, of family, that Jesus calls us to be a part of looks like.