…the stars still exist

If someone were to purchase me a 25 cent mood ring, the swirl of colors would probably overheat and break the ring. My emotions tend to be off the charts when it comes to my current year of service. I’m constantly in a battle of optimism in wanting to change the world and fighting bitter melancholy against the reality. The pressure nags at my being.

The problems we face at St. Vincent de Paul are far bigger than my role. Far bigger than an organization. Telling a mother that only one of her daughters can receive a dresser is humiliating. Noticing that most people I help are incredibly hard workers but do not get paid a living wage is a dreadful sin against humanity. And noticing how the people around me are more likely to know which teams are in the playoffs over the percentage of children in poverty in our community is even more depressing. As Christians we are called to prioritize those experiencing poverty and yet all around me excessive leisure takes the forefront. There is a balance and I’m frustrated because I struggle so much with it. Being good does not feel natural to me. I much rather binge watch Netflix than stay informed on the lives within my community. I would much rather drive to the grocery store than to save resources and walk. It is easier to ignore the person asking for money then to hear a story of complete despair. During my year of service, when I see the struggles of people’s lives each day as I walk into work, the guilt begins to drown me. Poverty is real… Children crying without beds are real… eating excessively while people around me live in hunger is real…

As the Ozanam Service Learning Coordinator, it is my job to help inspire the youth to persevere in the darkness. I teach the causes of poverty in a hopeful plea that students will one day provide solutions. Inspiring hope when hope is bleak is quite the task at hand. It has caused me to dig deeper into my faith than I ever imagined. I recognize that the strength and convictions I have are not my own. It is God’s presence that pushes me onward. There have been times where loneliness pervades and all I want to do is quit and live a “normal” life. I find that being informed is so much more depressing than being ignorant of life’s realities. Yet, somehow through conviction or stupidity, I push forward hoping for the best.

Hope tends to have such a passive tone to it. We are trained from an early age to try hard and then hope the rest goes well. Yet, it seems that throughout my life, I have tended to only focus on the second part. “Well that exam sucked; I hope I get a passing grade.” “I hope I get off work early today.” “The poverty statistics are terrible; I hope people become more kind.” This constant nonchalant banter becomes worth about as much attention as what the weather might be tomorrow. Hope has become frivolous and yet my life depends on it. Hope is the very reason the Society of St. Vincent de Paul exists. The people we serve at St. Vincent de Paul absolutely need it to get past their troubles. Struggling to make hope real is why I sit in disarray. I fidget trying to look for something tangible to believe in.

A good friend/mentor of mine, Fr. Robert “Bud” Grant, once told me that hope is when everything that could go wrong does go wrong; And yet we still believe there is life past it. At first these words seemed strange to me and I did not understand the full weight of what he was saying. Yet as I sit hoping for some tangible form of hope, these words are what I believe it. It is with this definition of hope that I can have confidence in the work I am doing. I might not be changing the world but I still love it for what it is and what it is not. I am unable to help the thousands of individuals and families that depend on St. Vincent de Paul services, but I am able to look past their despair and whole heartedly know that their dignity is not bound by their situations.

I compare this experience to sitting on my back porch. Most nights when I look at the sky, all I see are clouds. Yet, I carry with me that the stars still exist. The truth is that God’s light still shines whether I notice it. It is with this light that I press forward to fight for justice. Poverty might always be real but trying my best allows me to not be bound to it. Serving brings me closer to God because I know that God is not outside these terrible situations. This is the significance of the cross. Christ could not escape the reality of dying, and yet he reached life past it. I pray that I can always put my best effort forward. That no matter how bleak a situation seems, the presence is with me and within me to share and recognize.

VVC 02_2015Luke Greene (top right), originally from San Antonio, TX, brings a unique and valued set of gifts to Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati this year. He spends part of his week coordinating and facilitating immersion experiences, using this Theology degree, and the other part of his week putting his Industrial Engineering degree to work, helping to make our Thrift Stores more efficient. Luke’s sense of humor and commitment to building community serve as an anchor for the Vincentian Volunteers.

This is where I “stay”…

West End

The art of vocabulary is an interesting thing. At times people use a person’s vocabulary as a means to putting them in a box. Someone may be judged to be stupid, egotistical, ignorant, or snobbish simply because of the words he or she uses. A person’s vocabulary should not be a means to judgment and stereotyping but rather an opportunity to learn and understand more about the person.

This opportunity for understanding has presented itself to me frequently in these past few months of service. I spent my first few months finishing my degree at Xavier University, student teaching at Evanston Academy, and I have now spent about a month and a half down at St. Vincent de Paul in the Social Services Department. Both at Evanston Academy and St. Vincent de Paul, I have had the opportunity to work with individuals who are experiencing poverty. I’m having the chance to work to understand poverty both through the lens of children and grown adults.

Through the individuals I work with, one aspect of vocabulary that I am seeing is the use of the term “stay.” Typically if I ask a client or one of my students where they live, they often respond with “I stay on Blank Avenue,”—fill in whatever street name you like. The point is the word “stay.” I haven’t ever responded to a question regarding where I live with the term “stay.” This may seem like a knit-picky thing to notice, but I hope to be able to explain how significant it truly is.

I’ve had to reflect about why this use of the word “stay” is not typical for me. When I think about it, I stay at my grandma’s house for a week each year, but I have lived at the same house with my family since I was three-years-old. In my life the word stay signifies something that is temporary and the word live is directly associated with my home. I grew up in a stable home and my family had the opportunity to live in one place rather than move often. For the majority of the clients I serve, this is not the reality.

Individuals experiencing poverty change where they lay their head at night about as frequently as the seasons change. I certainly do not have full knowledge of poverty, but I do try to work each day to understand and grow in solidarity with the clients. The temporary status of each individual’s living situation seems to cause a home to just be a building, a place in which a person or family could have to pick up and leave at any point in time.

I believe the use of the word “stay” also gives insight as to why low-income neighborhoods are often scattered with trash, broken glass, and abandoned buildings. People can have the tendency to be disgusted by these scenes and even blame the people living in the neighborhood for its conditions. These types of reactions can blind us to gaining a sense of understanding.

The use of the word “stay” indicates that individuals experiencing poverty lack of a sense of place or home. The teacher in me knows that when you give someone a reason to be proud of something that pride often leads to a sense of respect and responsibility. Without a stable feeling of place or home, being shuffled from place to place, pride in where one “stays” is rare. Without pride, there is less of a sense of respect or responsibility to take care of a place. Therefore, streets become trash-ridden when the sense of responsibility to rush after a fly away piece of trash to keep the front yard clean isn’t there. Buildings become worn down and even abandoned from exhaustion of the turnover of tenants. Of course, other factors contribute to the trash, broken glass, and abandoned buildings, but the temporary status of one’s living situation contributes to the lack of concern or care for the neighborhood that may exist.

The feeling of unsettlement is uncomfortable, stressful, and can make a person feel on edge. I personally do not enjoy this type of feeling, for it can loom on your mind even on the happiest of days. Though so much is uncertain in life, having a stable place to go home each night is a form of comfort. For so many individuals and families experiencing poverty, this form of comfort and stability is not there.

As I continue to meet so many families and individuals, I reflect then on where they find this sense of comfort and stability when their world seems rattled with unsettlement. For some there is no solid answer or solution. However, I have been moved by the fact that more often than not, the answer to my question comes in the form of faith. Keeping faith on the forefront of my mind through each and every day is something I continually struggle with. I find inspiration in the clients. For so many, life may change at the drop of a hat, but they know that the thing that will never change is God. My hope is that the clients will gain more stability and have a physical place to call home. I know though that while much remains uncertain in the clients’ lives, many of them carry their faith on their hearts wherever they go. This is clear as day when a client responds to my “how are you?” with “Blessed, because the Lord woke me up this morning.”

So, though individuals and families experiencing poverty may stay from house to house, many live in their faith in God. This new concept of stability is inspiring and eye-opening. For what would life be like if we truly lived our faith in God?

 

VVC 2014-15 orientation

Kelsey McCarty (pictured on the right) is originally from Colorado Springs, CO, and just finished her degree in Education at Xavier University, here in Cincinnati. Affectionately referred to as “Mom” by her VVC community, Kelsey strives to care for all those she encounters.