Thursday, January 15, 2009

Matt - Life in LA

When I learned I was moving to Los Angeles, I didn’t expect glamour and celebrities at every corner. I didn’t picture fancy dinners on the Sunset Strip or sipping $13 cocktails by the beach in Orange Country. I certainly didn’t imagine making a lot of money – after all, the word “volunteer” isn’t in so fine a print in the job description. The day I made my decision and signed that contract, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the things I would be giving up and saying “no” to by accepting a year a Jesuit Volunteer.

What I didn’t expect was just how much I would be given or how much would be expected of me. [I find the things I miss most about Boston and love about L.A. are different than what I thought they’d be.]

In many ways, my life includes your typical 9-5 workday and time at home with my roommates. On the surface, it appears to be only that: paperwork, meetings, and commuter traffic, chores, waiting for the bathroom, and watching TV. But my work is so much more than a job and my roommates aren’t just people I share a roof with. Together, my placement and my community breathe life into my experience.

At work, I am challenged on a daily basis to reexamine my faith and it how it shapes the way I see the world around me. My clients are former gang members, convicted criminals, and people who I would have grown silent as I passed three months ago. Today, I am asked to get to know them, listen to their stories, and work with them without judgment. You see, I work with the robber and the robbed, the victim and the victimizer. Almost all of my clients have been shot or shot at, and several more have used a gun themselves.

Sometimes the stories are difficult to hear and I almost wish I didn’t know what my clients have been through, witnessed, or done. But then I remember that for many of my clients, this is the first time they’re telling anyone not wearing a badge, suit, or robe such events of their life.

It’s been a lesson in listening, and humility.

Coming home from my placement isn’t the end of my day, but the beginning of an equally important part of life as a JV: community living. Living in community is different than living with roommates. You share a living space with roommates, but in intentional community your living space becomes a living space. Its very function is to breathe life into a place that for too many of us is a place of only seclusion and sleep. We eat together, pray together, share struggles with work and relationships, and, perhaps most importantly, keep one another from getting too comfortable.

The weather and the schedule are adjustments, for sure, but it’s the demand of my placement and community that I’m most challenged by – and most grateful for. Though I’m worn our by the time my head finally hits the pillow, I go to sleep grateful that my exhaustion comes from exercising not only my body and mind hard at work but my heart and soul when I’m at home.

These are the early goings of one Jesuit Volunteer. I look forward to continuing the conversation.


Matt Carroll is a blogger for Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He welcomes questions and comments at

Friday, December 12, 2008

Dermot - Fr. Fred

Fr. Fred

"…The steward was shutting the door to the plane and, finally, I felt some relief. I was being deported from Peru. Then, the door opened and in popped Monseñor Luis Bambarén, the Auxiliary Bishop of Lima. He looked into the cabin to make sure I hadn´t been kidnapped and then secretly taken off the plane. In those days, you know, they were ´disappearing´ many people in Peru…"

It´s about 11am on a Sunday morning. I am gazing out over the Pacific Ocean, relaxing at the Jesuits´ beach house, about a thirty-minute drive from Tacna. I have the 85-year-old Fr. Fred Green, SJ, right where I want him: he is comfortably lounging in his favorite chair, relating another story from his unbelievable past.

Before me sits the legend of Tacna: the founder of two of its most prestigious schools, the builder of whole communities for the poor, the former-World-War-II-bomber-pilot-turned-priest, the Hawaiian-born surfer who has dedicated his life to a dusty Peruvian border town, the near saint completing fifty years in the priesthood.

In Tacna, the name "Padre Fred" is gold: he is a humble super-star, as unassuming as he is effective in the good works he directs. There are teachers at Fred´s schools who say they pass up better pay in other areas only out of gratitude to the man who inspired them to lead in the classroom. As Jesuit Volunteers, if we encounter problems at the border crossing to Chile, we are instructed to drop Fred´s name, as many of the guards are Fred´s former pupils. I know at least three Peruvians who bear the very un-Peruvian first name, "Fred," in honor of this extraordinary gringo.

I will even concede an almost selfish desire for one-on-one time with Fred, and so I was elated to accompany him to the Jesuit beach house, a refuge where Fred has spent almost every Sunday since before most who are reading this email were even born.

Alone with Tacna´s Superman in his own Fortress of Solitude, I have an insatiable desire to know all about Fred`s past. The problem is that Fred is too coy to reveal his cards so quickly: truly, this octogenarian Jesuit possesses a reticent dignity emblematic of America´s "greatest generation." I know his eyes have seen the horrors of war, the injustice of abject poverty, and the triumph of steadfast prudence against the caprice of Latin American despots. I want to learn about all that Fred has experienced, but realize the man possesses an inherent humility—characteristic of so many born in the 1920s—that prevents him from sharing too much of the grandeur of his past.

To get this deportation story out of Fred required a good fifteen minutes of digging. I knew that he had outlasted three Peruvian dictators and that he had had a close encounter with one of them. Now, Fred is relating how, in 1971, he fought on behalf of his teachers at Colegio Cristo Rey for higher wages and how this fight almost cost some of his motley crew their lives.

All the trouble started with an open letter to the Peruvian military junta. In 1971, with Peru in the hands of the tyrannical and pseudo-socialist General Juan Francisco Velasco Alvarado, all available funds were being directed toward the military, at the expense of other vital services, such as education. Fred`s teachers saw their purchasing power shrink mightily, just as Peruvian army bureaucrats saw their salaries rise.

The teachers asked Fred to take a position on the matter and so Fred wrote an open letter to Velasco, noting the discrepancies in salaries and suggesting that the army chiefs take a reduction in pay, to free up more funds for the teachers and to show solidarity with their "comrade" teachers who played an equally important part in Velasco`s revolution.

The response to the letter was swift. Within a few days, it was published in Tacna´s daily newspapers and, within a week, in dailies in the large, southern Peruvian city of Arequipa. Shortly after, unionized teachers in Lima were making hundreds of copies of the letter and using it as a rallying call for a national strike.

With armies of teachers striking and thousands of ordinary citizens attending rallies against the government, Velasco was forced to acquiesce to the teachers' demands or face the possibility of a coup.

He increased the teachers` salaries and even paid them for the days they were on strike. The teachers could claim victory, in part thanks to the catalyzing effect of Fred`s letter.

But, now, Velasco wanted revenge. Convinced that Fred was a CIA operative bent on overthrowing his government, Velasco sent his agents to Tacna and to Colegio Cristo Rey, both to observe this troublesome gringo and to arrest some of his teachers. In a calculated operation, two of Fred`s teachers were "disappeared" to the Peruvian jungle and held there as political prisoners.

Thanks to Fred`s quick thinking, however, more teachers were not captured. Fr. Fred even surreptitiously celebrated a wedding for one profesora in her home and then spirited the new couple away to the Jesuit beach house for their necessarily secluded "honeymoon," in a grand scheme to evade Velasco`s spies. In the end, Fred was able to outfox Velasco: he stayed in Peru and his teachers—after a period of detention—were able to return unperturbed to their classrooms.

As Fred winds down his story, I am once again aware of the immense privilege to be able to spend time with a man who inspires me at times to consider a vocation to the priesthood. And the cause today seems all the more urgent. Fred is the second oldest Jesuit in Peru, yet the rest are not far behind. The Society of Jesus is aging fast and is constantly challenged to support works like the ones Fred started, with an ever-dwindling number of religious. Indeed, meeting Fred at the end of his life, I encounter a humble warrior readying himself for one last fight. Fr. Fred has parried the blows of Japanese fighter pilots, Latin American dictators, and Tacna´s petty bureaucrats; yet now he faces a much more indefatigable foe: his own mortality.

This fight against time is most apparent at Colegio Miguel Pro, a second school Fred founded in 1992, where three of my fellow Jesuit volunteers currently work. Unfortunately, this school is still more dependent on money that Fr. Fred raises on yearly trips to the US than on donations from other sustainable forms of funding.

Amazingly, Fred is still able to find enough money to allow Miguel Pro to offer a well-rounded education (he is able to put one student through the school for $129 a year, despite the falling value of the dollar and rising food costs). The problem becomes what happens when Fr. Fred is unable to keep up with the exigencies of exhaustive fundraising trips.

What will happen to Miguel Pro when Fred dies? Is it our job as volunteers to continue the financing of his good work? Would it be better if Miguel Pro were administered by the Peruvian government? Is it good that Fred´s schools were/are dependant on foreign financing?

Is JVI contributing to an unhealthy dependency on the "West" through our presence at these schools?

These are real questions that Fred and my community-mates tackle on a daily basis. You can only imagine the stresses that build from the uncertainties raised about Miguel Pro´s future. Moreover, as I have mentioned previously, when confronting such daunting challenges, the response can be fear-driven inertia: you don´t know how to deal with the problem so your response is slow or absent.

Here at the beach, though, soaking in the sum of Fred`s life experiences, the focus is not on these elephants in the room. For better or worse, I have stolen a moment to learn of Fred`s past. The fight will continue tomorrow. For now, the two of us sit back, take a break from the stresses of Tacna, and look out over the Pacific blue.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lauren - The Challenge of Community

For some reason, over the summer before I started JVC, I had convinced myself that all my roommates were going to be closed minded, belligerently conservative Catholics. So when I first met my community and everyone turned out to be kind, open-minded, and easy-going, and I was relieved. I came to love them even more throughout orientation as we bounced around all kinds of ideas about composting, farmers markets, prayer before meals, chore wheels, even a social justice movie club. I was ecstatic. To me, we seemed like the perfect community. But of course, no community is perfect, and my first struggle in community was accepting that. My second great challenge was and is, accepting that I was not placed in this community to bring us to perfection.

The first challenge hit pretty quickly after orientation. Going into the year, I had very high expectations for us. I really believed that we were going to be able to implement all the ideas we talked about at orientation. So when we wouldn’t make a point of doing spirituality night, or we’d buy something I didn’t deem very simple, or there was tension over chores, I’d feel anxious and disappointed. How were we ever going to grow into a strong community if we couldn’t even meet some of the basic goals we’d set for ourselves? But as I came to see all the good that was coming out of our community, that anxiety started to disappear. Things like everyone coming together to cook even when there wasn’t a scheduled family dinner, or coming home at night to see everyone in the living-room knitting and watching baseball, or all the ridiculous but affectionate nicknames that emerged, all showed me that even though we may not be living up to all the specific expectations we had established, we were still building a great community.

But even after establishing we could be a good community even if we weren’t perfect, I was left with a second personal challenge: getting out of the mindset that I was in this community to push us closer to perfection. I didn’t even realize I was thinking this way until our Area Coordinator was giving us his suggestions after a week long visit and said, “In our individual conversations, each of you expressed your desire to go deeper into this experience as a community.” Hearing him say that woke me up to the reality that we’re all equally invested in our community. It has helped me re-orient the way I spend my energy thinking about community. Instead of thinking, “I know what we need to do to best live as a community, how can I share this?” I am trying to set aside my pride and think, “We all want to build community, how can we use all our different perspectives to build it collectively?” It’s a challenge I’ll probably work on all year, but luckily, together we’ve already laid the base for a warm, supportive, and trusting community, where we can all work together overcoming the many individual and community challenges of a year in JVC!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Justin - How I got here

How I came to JVC still remains questionable in my and a lot of my family’s minds. How/why does one actively choose a “Life of Ruin” shortly after graduation? Well, during March of my final semester of St. Edward’s University, life was going nowhere fast – so a ruined life seemed an upgrade. Just to give you an idea of how clueless I was moments before graduation, I was a Theology Major with a Minor in English Writing & Rhetoric who had little to no interest in:

Law School


Waiting Tables


Becoming a Full Time Writer

Pursuing a doctorate

Going into Sales

So how does a guy who is seriously challenged in thinking ahead or intentionally come across JVC and actually go through with it? Well I digressed for a moment but I now take you back to March. So I go into a job fair put on by student “ambassadors” (too bad they never go anywhere – so why that title I’ll never know). I come equipped with no resume or any inkling that I’ll find any short term or long term path. While at the fair, I stumble upon a JVC booth.

“Hey, I went to a Jesuit High School in New Orleans. Cool, huh?”

“Umm, so are you interested in this at all?”

“OK I’ll take some brochures.”

Well it was a little more than that but this blog entry is supposed to be 250 words… So for the rest of the semester I sat staring at the bag which contained the JVC information. And as graduation approached, the more and more I thought a year of service would be the thing for me. So finally, a month after graduation, I made up my mind. I was gonna do it!!! And by “it” I mean actually start an application. I waited until almost the last second, aced my phone interview, and realized that orientation was a week away. Whoops. The family was angry, perplexed, but most of all worried that I was getting into this in too much of a rush without any thought. “Don’t worry. I’ve been mulling this over since March.” And it’s true, whether or not I made a list of pros and cons (I didn’t), talked to peers and former JV’s about the idea (I didn’t), got permission from my mom (no shot) I had been intentional in my decision. As a theology major, you get a lot of theories about God and your place in the world. As far as God goes, it’s a Mystery folks. Hate to give away four years of study that quickly. And as far as your life goes, well my life at least, I like to keep my ear to the ground (or the sky if that’s where God lives) and be pulled into the direction I feel I’m sent. Not overly religious, not over-thinking, just willing to go blindly into the realm of transcendence, and begin anew. Welcome to JVC…

Others blindly heading into their year of service and a Life of Ruin.

Being "whooshed" into my new St. Louis community. I'm a lot happier than I seem, I swear . . .