The Glorious Paradox
If a Jesuit Volunteer Corps community were ever chosen to appear on MTV’s “The Real World,” you might hear words like the following, an altered version of the program’s usual opening credits: “This is the true story of some young adults who live together and pursue the ideals of spirituality, community, simple living and social justice. They will find out what happens when people put aside their own concerns and start living for the greater glory of God!”
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps is a program founded by Jesuits from Oregon and now run primarily by laypersons that offers recent college graduates an opportunity to work with the poor in a variety of settings.
I have been involved with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps since I entered the Society of Jesus over eight years ago. Last year, I had the privilege of serving as a support person for the J.V.C. community in Detroit, Mich. This experience cemented my conviction that the Jesuit Volunteer Corps is one of the most important vehicles for young adult faith formation in the American church today. I would like to explain why I believe this by offering some reflections about J.V.C. gathered under three themes: Response, Witness and Formation.
Many volunteers in the J.V.C. begin their year of service with an attitude similar to the one St. Ignatius Loyola describes in his Spiritual Exercises (Annotation 5). About those who begin the exercises, Ignatius writes that they “will benefit greatly by entering upon them with great spirit and generosity toward their Creator and Lord.” Jesuit volunteers often exhibit a fervor for service and are not afraid to offer their “all,” their total selves, for causes in which they believe. Certainly volunteers may come into the J.V.C. with a romanticized notion about living among the poor and/or inflated ideals about their ability to save the world, but these desires are signs of the spirit of generosity Ignatius was describing. With the grace of God, these holy desires will be refined once volunteers engage in full-time service work, and they discover that glorious paradox of ministry: one receives far more than one gives.
According to the official J.V.C. Web site, “Volunteers must be open and ready to respond to the Gospel.” The first followers of Jesus were called to serve, and young adults in the early 21st century are still responding to this call. Many of the young adults coming into the J.V.C. understand that a bona fide Christian faith calls for an active response to God’s constant invitation into relationship. New volunteers are not always able to articulate what has drawn them to service, but they can attest to how that invitation has changed their lives. Many volunteers defer graduate-school admission or put off finding a job commensurate with their qualifications because the Spirit of Christ draws them to something more. One volunteer I know in Detroit, who was hesitant even to come to the Midwest, was so transformed by her experience that she accepted a full-time offer from the inner-city school where she worked after her year as a volunteer was over.
Jesuit volunteers commit themselves to living out the four ideals of J.V.C.: spirituality, social justice, community and simple living. These ideals are not easy to live, nor are they highly esteemed by Western society. It is not uncommon to hear a volunteer say that her friends and family responded with quizzical glances after she announced her decision to devote a year to serving the poor. Sometimes the decision to enter J.V.C. can even alienate a young adult from family and friends, although this is not the norm. In most cases, leaving college and the comforts of home can sting a little bit. But the example that J.V.’s (as members of the J.V.C. are called) offer to those they leave behind for a year is significant. They are willing to immerse themselves in the lives of suffering people and to try to understand how God is at work there. In so doing, they speak volumes about God’s love for the world.
Jesuit Volunteers are evangelists in the best sense of the word. They give witness to Gospel values to their families, friends and co-workers. They also witness in their interactions with Jesuits. Seeing young adults committing themselves to similar ideals can often invite a Jesuit to reflect on how authentically he is living his religious life. Indeed, volunteers probably do not know the impact they have on some Jesuits. The Jesuit community at the University of Detroit Mercy has hosted J.V.C. members for dinner once a week for several years. During my three years in that community, I noticed the delight with which my Jesuit brothers greeted the volunteers every Monday evening. (They were also constantly amazed at how much food the volunteers could consume.) While it is true that Jesuits can offer a lot to volunteers in terms of wisdom, experience, spiritual guidance and gracious hospitality, J.V.’s can enhance the lives of Jesuits as well.
The J.V.C. promises that each volunteer will be “ruined for life.” Once their year of service is complete, volunteers will never again be able to look at the world in the same way. Each of the four ideals that the Jesuit Volunteer Corps professes presents every young adult volunteer with opportunities to learn important life lessons. As Jesuit Volunteers strive to live out these ideals, they enter into what is ostensibly a one-year intensive formation program. Here is a brief snapshot of the program.
Community. Living in community is radically different from the way most volunteers lived before coming to J.V.C. When four to eight people occupy a small house, simple issues can be blown out of proportion, and the idiosyncrasies of one or two people can quickly come to wear on the others. This is why J.V.C. mandates weekly community meetings. A healthy community requires negotiation, and people need to listen patiently and well to one another if they are going to negotiate fairly and honestly. Issues at a community meeting can run the gamut from who will clean the bathroom next week to how the J.V. community will contribute to their neighborhood. By striving to live together and work out their problems, volunteers gain a sense of communal identity. A J.V.C. community is not a group of individuals who are doing service and happen to be living together. Rather, the community empowers each volunteer to perform that service, and their experiences bring them together to reflect, pray and support one another.
Simple living. We live in a time when the value of human beings is based on how much they produce and how much they earn. Most J.V.’s are leery of this message as they enter their year of service, but they may not know anything different, having grown up in a materialistic culture. Now, entering upon a year of simple living, a volunteer finds himself or herself residing in a poor neighborhood with poor public services. This new situation, combined with a meager monthly stipend and a steady diet of Ramen noodles, can prompt one to long for the comforts of home. But important life lessons slowly emerge during the course of a volunteer’s year. A simple lifestyle is recommended not as an exercise in fortitude, to see who can get by on the least resources (like an inner-city version of “Survivor”), but rather to impel the volunteers to raise questions. How much does one human being really need? Upon whom do I rely for my needs? What more should I do for others?
A “simple lifestyle” is a subjective matter. J.V.’s will make mistakes in the process of determining how they should live simply, both individually and as a community. One volunteer arrived at her new community in August with a car so packed with “stuff” that I wondered how she was able to see enough of the road to drive. Contrast this with the community of four that owned only four dinner plates. When guests came over, two of the volunteers ate from inverted frisbees. It is good to remember that St. Ignatius, who was from a well-to-do family, inflicted extreme mortifications on himself before he arrived at the right balance of simplicity of life. J.V.’s will sometimes err in this regard, but the important thing is that they continue to challenge each other to find that right balance.
Social justice and spirituality. Social justice and spirituality are so interconnected that they need to be addressed in tandem. The ideal of social justice, while not unique to Ignatian spirituality, is certainly one of its cornerstones. In a time when the spirituality of self-help can seem to be the norm, Ignatian spirituality offers an important corrective. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps is interested in helping young adults see the connection between faith and justice, so J.V.C. encourages volunteers to take time away for retreat in order to understand this connection more deeply. Just as Jesus went off by himself to pray, so should all ministers. This is an important lesson for volunteers, for they are products of a culture that encourages overwork. Spirituality is an integral component of a volunteer’s year of service, not an extraneous element. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps works hard to provide the time and space for prayer and retreat and offers volunteers the tools they need for theological reflection on their service. J.V.C hopes that a volunteer will learn that the hardships and graces of ministry are the substance for honest and holy dialogue with God in prayer.
Volunteers often begin their year of service with many questions about their faith. They are hungry for something to nourish their spirit, but they may not be satisfied with what their churches have offered them. Some may even be hostile toward any mention of organized religion. As a faith-based organization, J.V.C. is not afraid to profess its faith. The organization also acknowledges that some young adults are still trying to figure out what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st century. I would characterize many young adults who come to J.V.C. as being in an in-between time. This is an important period, when young people are simultaneously purging the immature facets of their faith while looking for something that is spiritually satisfying. The J.V.C. provides an opportunity to meet this need, which is one of the greatest and most urgent for the future of the church.
Sometime during the weeks following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I was watching a news program about young adults who felt compelled to join the armed forces in response to the horrible tragedy they had witnessed. One 19-year-old woman, who was being interviewed two days after she had signed up to join the army, said that the terrorist attacks caused her to reflect on how lucky she was to live in the United States. She solemnly announced that she was willing to give her life for her country. While I was impressed by the conviction in her voice, I also felt discouraged. I thought, “Where are the young people willing to give their lives for Jesus?” A few days after this experience, the Jesuit Volunteers came over to our community for dinner. As I listened to them recount the stories of their week, I was given the answer for which I was looking. These women and men, full of passion for service and concern for the people they serve, are giving their lives for Jesus. And, as promised by J.V.C., their experience is going to ruin them for life.