Finding Peace Within Chaos

by Sarah Spech

Recently, Molly and I went to Smale Park to do yoga in the evening. For both of us, this was a huge step into the uncomfortable. For me, I had to not only begin practicing yoga again–but do it in public. Doing yoga in the park allows me to be both outside in the fresh air and sunshine, and also practice yoga, which heals my body, mind, and spirit. It’s the best of both worlds.

Even though it was my idea, I knew that the only reason I wasn’t turning around was that Molly was walking next to me with her mat into the park.

As she lead us through different poses, I struggled to pay attention to my breathing and my current self. The noises around me–kids yelling, dogs barking, feet running on concrete, bells chiming, cars passing–all called to me, vying for my attention. The world was literally moving around me, and it was my job to find the center within myself even through it all.

Focus, especially sustained focus, has been a barrier between me and many spiritual activities like meditation, yoga, and silent prayer.

I found in that park that I could more easily notice when I lost focus and draw myself back in. Rather than getting lost within my own head, I was being distracted by external stimuli. The physical separation between my mind and the distractions helped me to bring myself into myself.

It’s still a challenge to center within myself and focus on the present moment of simply being instead of the many responsibilities competing for my attention all day. But this practice has finally given me a space to exercise that ability.

It’s a moment of peace. It’s acknowledging the world but making time for myself within its chaos.

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World Environment Day 2017

Photo: St. Vincent de Paul’s garden, in which staff and volunteers grow fresh produce to fill the shelves of the Choice Pantry.

By Maura Carpinello

It was Christmas during my year of service with Colorado Vincentian Volunteers.  I had traveled back East to visit my family for a few days.  I had a mid-morning snack then wandered around my mom’s kitchen for what seemed like minutes, trying to figure out where I should dispose of my banana peel.  (It was probably only 30-45 seconds, in reality.) I reluctantly tossed it into the trashcan, finally realizing there was no compost bin.

This very brief incident has remained in my brain for well over a decade now, a tangible reminder of the incredible power of habits – and the way in which such small acts can be truly transformational.  Not having access to a compost bin for my banana peel has become my often-used analogy for acknowledging the impact that small movements can make and impels me toward greater acts of change, even when I think it won’t make a difference.

I am a tree hugger.  I get laughed at when I walk to the printer twice to manually double-side anything I print. I carry things like banana peels and apple cores with me until I can get to a place where I can compost them. I also carry a reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I try to purchase mostly second-hand clothing and support companies with an honest and serious commitment to the environment. And my family prides itself on having only one bag of trash every week. All of these small things might not make a significant dent in the enormous environmental problem our planet currently faces, but it helps me to know that I use half as much paper than I otherwise would; I do my best to minimize what goes into the landfill; I rarely contribute to the 50 billion plastic bottles used in the US in a year (and when I do, they are most definitely recycled); and I’m making the trash collector’s life a little bit easier by not making him drag a heavy trash can to the dump truck.

And more importantly, for me, these small efforts are part of a bigger picture – an effort to live a more seamless way of life, where Care for Creation stretches well beyond people to encompass the Earth and all of God’s creatures.  Where people and things are treated with dignity and respect. Where people and things are not considered disposable. Where I recognize and act not only for my own benefit, but because I know and am aware of the ways in which my actions have a ripple effect.  Where I know that the ripple effect most negatively impacts my brothers and sisters experiencing poverty, in my own community and across the world.

“It is the poor and vulnerable who disproportionately suffer from the effects of climate change, such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, famines and water scarcities.  These climate change impacts threaten to foster more desperation and suffering in the world that could lead to more global instability and unrest. It is our moral duty…and in our national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and assist the poor and vulnerable among us to adapt.” (Archdiocese of Cincinnati Social Action Office)

Having spent my career walking alongside, encountering, and hoping to do some small thing to support people experiencing poverty, this reality truly grounds me in my convictions and efforts. Knowing that I can – and must – use my privilege in support of those who do not have that luxury challenges me to try harder and do more. People in the West End neighborhood in Cincinnati, who have no access to a grocery store in their neighborhood and few opportunities for education or employment around the corner from where they live, have an air quality level that is much lower than that in my own neighborhood within the city limits. Meanwhile, people in the Ocotillo community in El Salvador suffer from a lack of clean drinking water. No matter where we look, it is our neighbors most in need who suffer most from the effects of environmental degradation. It is unjust, and it is a call to action.

“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” (Pope Francis, Laudato Sí, 23)

We all have the great responsibility to share these realities and struggles, challenges and invitations to live better, more intentionally, more consciously. I have the gift of being able to do so with the Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati. As VVC welcomes a new community each summer, I slowly unveil my banana-peel-carrying oddities, hoping to reveal the depth of purpose, meaning, and intention of each of these seemingly silly acts and hoping to inspire them, too, to look more carefully and more intentionally at their own actions and habits and how they impact others along the way. Just as mentors and role models in my own life have shaped and challenged my way of life for the better, I hope that I can impart a piece of this gleaned wisdom so that our ripple can grow wider.

“Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. (Pope Francis, Laudato Sí, 159)”

Growth Through VVC

By Molly Gibbons

Growth may stem from many different things.: The people I surround myself with, the way I pass time, the mistakes I make and what I do with the lessons I learn. All of these elements, and many more along the way, are the works of true growth. Living outside of my comfort zone has allowed me to uncover rhymes and reasons behind my way of being.

Living out my faith in action through VVC has created a solid platform for me to continue to build upon. Even the strengths that I had before the start of this journey have been sculpted into skills that I can use in both my professional and personal lives. I am not leaving this program an entirely new person, nor would I want to. I am leaving this program with a heightened awareness, true patience, and the deepest form of gratitude I have ever experienced.

I know I have grown because I am moving forward in a physical, spiritual, and mental sense. Using each encounter as a tool to evaluate and reflect on my way of being. Listening to not only the words of others, but most importantly, the words I choose to speak. Exploring questions and finding answers to what it is I stand for and how I present myself to the world. I have learned that these questions will never fully go away, because I am committed to living a life full of passion and purpose.

Continuously putting myself in situations and surrounding myself with individuals who will challenge me and offer me a sense of unity. Seeing the world through another lens, experiencing a different collection of people, not simply observing how another lives, but striving to understand who they are is done through empathy. My empathy has allowed me to go beyond observing how others live and strive to understand them on a personal level.

Understanding the importance to never judge or make an assumption about another person. I am not here to hate; I am here to heal. As much as the work I do can be frustrating and seemingly hopeless at times, when I ground myself into my role of healing, I respond with love. I am not responsible for solving the world’s problems, but I can use my gifts to raise the vibrations that carry us all.

 

Molly Gibbons is a Margate City, NJ native who brings good vibes to this year’s VVC cohort. She enjoys meditation, burning incense to soothe the soul, and has found that everything tends to fall in place when a person approaches life with an open heart.

Restlessness

By Molly Gibbons

Restlessness is a feeling I have gotten to know pretty well during my time here on earth. It’s the feeling that comes up when I have been in one place for awhile, one that appears during times of frustration or excitement, and one that interrupts my peace of mind if I don’t keep a close eye on it. I used to think that it was my responsibility to get rid of this feeling altogether. I am feeling restless? This must mean that something in my life is wrong. This must mean that I need to make a change–and fast! I would do anything to chase this feeling away. I have lived a pretty colorful life thus far, and that has all been intentionally arranged. Seeking out opportunities, meeting new people, and traveling to different places is how I have managed to “escape” this feeling of restlessness. But, sure enough, no matter what my situation may be, I have recognized that this feeling continues to pop up from time to time.

What does this mean? It means that restlessness is a part of life. The trick is not to run from the restlessness, but to accept the feeling. If I feel this restlessness come on, it doesn’t mean I need to immediately jump ship and switch gears completely. Letting myself know that restlessness is a part of life actually ends up subsiding a lot of this feeling altogether. Running away will simply cause this feeling to eventually follow me to my next venture. It is when one is able to sit in the restlessness and continue with their daily rituals that this restless feeling will pass.

One of the many discoveries I have made so far during my year with VVC is that I am capable of accepting this restlessness. Dedication to personal and group reflection has allowed me to understand that it is, in fact, a part of life and not something that I am alone in dealing with. Although I may not have control over many aspects to do with contributing to restless feelings, I always have control over all the thoughts that enter my head. A way I have learned to sit with this feeling is through being mindful in ways of staying present in the now and practicing meditation. Adopting meditation into my daily routine has created space in my mind and invited ease into my approach on all things I deal with.

Meditation comes in many different forms and is meant to be a practice! Beyond silent and still meditation, one can also practice through walking, music, reading, etc. I am thankful for my relationship with mindful behaviors and encourage others to explore a practice that feels right to them. The key to inviting a new practice into one’s life is to listen to your body. Just like anything else, being mindful about dealing with restlessness is something that will take time and dedication. From personal experience, I can say the time you spend on meditation will better serve you than the time you spend on feeling stuck in the hopeless cycle of “restlessness.”

 

Molly Gibbons is a Margate City, NJ native who brings good vibes to this year’s VVC cohort. She enjoys meditation, burning incense to soothe the soul, and has found that everything tends to fall in place when a person approaches life with an open heart.

Our Community

by Rene Betance

Where would I be without community?

Five of us. One from Nigeria, one from Cleveland, one from Wisconsin, one from New Jersey, and finally one from Mexico. A relatively strange group of people if you’re looking from the outside. We all have a very different way of engaging with the world. The five people that signed up for a year of service with St. Vincent de Paul all took very different paths to get here. Yet we have shared in that fulfillment, struggle, community, and passion that comes with being a VVC.

Given the craziness that has been my life the past year, I believe it is fair that I can’t peacefully say that this has been a great year. I’d be lying to you if living in community wasn’t one of my initial reservations about this year of service. You just never know who you’re going to live with. I was taking a chance with living with four strangers. But I can gladly say that these four friends of mine have helped me to overcome a year of political turmoil and change.

Regardless of where you stood during the election, the political climate in the United States is at a point of contention unlike any I’ve ever seen. That certainly made me feel a little hopeless about the direction of this country. Yet having the community I did, along with our ability to have productive political dialogues, made one of the most complicated political realities bearable.

The intensity of the work at St. Vincent de Paul can be daunting for people joining the workforce for the first time, then add in adjusting to a 8:00-4:30 schedule while trying to manage the emotions that come with seeing people who are experiencing levels of urban poverty we were not previously aware of. Despite all of the obvious challenges that a year of service brings, I don’t believe I speak alone in saying the benefits of a year of service, especially being in community, are invaluable.

After our midyear retreat for VVC, I had time to reflect on the progress that we’ve made as a community. Last time we were all on retreat, we were playing Uno and asking awkward questions about each other. Now we’re taking personality tests and saying how each of us fit our personality types. “Oh Fare, you’re such a 9!”

The important question is, how did we get here? I look at our progress as a result of vulnerability, intentional conversations, and challenge. Community hasn’t been easy; there were certainly moments that really frustrated me. I willingly take those frustrations with the joy community has brought me. The next five months are what get me excited. I can’t wait to see how we grow in the next months because, as of now, I don’t know where I’d be without community.

 

Rene Betance spent his first few years in Chihuahua, Mexico, before bouncing around Texas and Ohio. The Xavier grad has a knack for conversation, will tell it like it is, and has never been sarcastic in his life.

The Importance of Retreat

Retreat. /rəˈtrēt/ (n.) an act of moving back or withdrawing.

By Sarah Spech

Retreat. /rəˈtrēt/ (n.) an act of moving back or withdrawing.

As part of our year with VVC, we are able to go on a mid-year retreat. Three days, almost exactly halfway through the program, with no work, (minimal) outside stress, and lots of community bonding. In the two weeks leading up to the retreat, there were many remarks of “I’m so ready for retreat” and the like from all of us.

Personally, it was needed even more as a renewal of enthusiasm for the work I do than anything else. While I thoroughly love the work I do, after so many months, it has become more of a “job” to get done than an act of service with a mission. Entering the retreat, I wanted to renew and refresh that sense of mission and the energy that I had. It’s so easy to grow away from the relational aspect of service and settle into the impersonal, transactional mentality of day-to-day tasks.

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Warm weather, nature, time with community, and time to focus on the reason for the work we do were the necessary medicine.

 

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(And fuzzy cows)

 

It makes me think about how in other years of my life, there was never the same time set aside for true retreat. While vacations can be relaxing, intentional time to reset and refocus while on retreat is rarely given priority (if ever). I have learned the necessity of leaving room for retreat in my future career. Even if that means vacation motivated and filled with my own intentionality to examine my life and goals.

It gives you a chance to refill your own cup. We were able to put intentional time into our individual and communal relationships, think deeply and critically about where we are in life and where we want to go, and center ourselves within ourselves in order to go out into the world, more solidly grounded within ourselves. And with a full cup, we are able to enter back into daily life, ready to give of ourselves to our neighbors in need.

 

Sarah Spech hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Dayton with an English degree. She enjoys music, talking about feminism, a hot cup of fair trade coffee, and dreaming about one day living beyond the borders of the Buckeye State.

Living the Year of Mercy Beyond 2016

Through VVC, I am able to live the Corporal Works of Mercy and my faith in an active, tangible way.

By Mary Ellen Ostrowski

As I look back on 2016, I am struck with how blessed I was to be able to spend part of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy in such a meaningful way, through becoming a VVC and working as a Patient Advocate at St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati.

Through VVC, I am able to live the Corporal Works of Mercy and my faith in an active, tangible way. I am able to comfort the sick through my role as a patient advocate, assisting neighbors in receiving life-saving medication. I cloth the naked, by giving thrift store clothing vouchers to neighbors who sometimes only had the clothes on their backs. I help feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty by assisting in the Choice Food Pantry. I am able to (hopefully) be Christ to those that walked through the doors of our Outreach Center. I pray with people, listen to people, and give encouraging words to people. And even though looking back it seems like only a drop in the bucket, like it was a futile attempt to try and do something in a world so full of problems, I am reminded that even serving one soul makes it all worth it.

A quote attributed to Mother Teresa (a woman who exemplified living the works of mercy) sums it up perfectly, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” As I continue this VVC year of service in 2017, I am challenged to continue having an attitude of mercy with neighbors, with my community, and with myself.

But I encourage anyone reading this to also continue living a year of mercy every year. Do something. Do something big, small, short term, long term, helping one neighbor or a whole community, just do something. Have an encounter of mercy with your own neighbors. Remember that even seemingly small acts of kindness like sharing food or clothing can have an immense effect on those you serve and on your own life as well. Don’t let the immensity of the world’s problems cause you to be complacent or indifferent.

Don’t be afraid to make ripples! You never know what effect they will have on the world.

 

Grounded in her faith, Mary Ellen has an optimistic outlook on life. Through intentional decision making and dedication to personal prayer and reflection, Mary Ellen strives to grow as an individual on a daily basis.

Soul Food Feeds St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati

By Tim Barr

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As people, we share common needs for both physical and spiritual nourishment. Physical nourishment could be anything along the lines of eating, being active, or actually doing something. Spiritual nourishment would consist of self-reflection, prayer, and creating a space to allow God’s presence in.

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St. Vincent De Paul has been a common area where both of these needs have been met in one way or another, whether it be serving our many neighbors with food through our pantry or sitting down for a meal together as a staff. Praying with a neighbor is a staple of the organization and a strong foundation of hope through adverse times. We all share the common experience of our souls and the need for them to be nurtured.

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In February 2015, we hosted the inaugural Soul Food Session potluck, recognizing and celebrating Black History Month and the many souls that have helped and are continuing to help create it. We host the lunch in celebration of black history and to further perpetuate the love culture that exists in it and its home here at St. Vincent De Paul.

Soul food, in essence, comes from a place of love and nourishment for the soul. A lot of the recipes consist of everyday things that people would just have “around the house.” I use that term loosely because, for a lot of black families, it would be the very last of what they had or everything they could afford, which wasn’t much. The beauty in soul food is that it’s made from very basic ingredients, but made with enough love to feed families for generations.

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As we grow as an organization, it’s important to remember what’s at the core of our mission and the work we do: love. A recent study from the University of Chicago (Woolley & Fishbach) has proven that sharing meals or eating the same foods builds trust and cooperation within groups of people. The goal of the Soul Food Session potluck was to increase awareness and spark conversation about all the physical contributions of black culture to American history and the spiritual contributions to who we are as people.

 

Tim Barr is a former VVC and current volunteer coordinator at St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati. His succotash was a huge hit at the potluck, and his recipe was requested many times.

Dissatisfied and Ready

In this year of transition and discernment I feel as though I am standing at a vantage point. I see similarities between my new environment and my place of origin and cannot help to quench the urge to find my niche in our complex society.

By Fare Olagbaju

I smile when I reflect on my journey from Lagos, Nigeria, to the West End of Cincinnati. My upbringing laid the foundation for my personal growth and deliberately conscious way of life. From a young age, in spite of the rebukes I received from elders who believed children were to be seen and not heard, I realized that questions are more important than answers. I stood out among my peers because I actively sought to learn more about the socio-economic mechanisms behind fast-paced Lagos, and the close-knit communities it comprised of. I could not come to terms with what I saw as my compatriots’ apathy about the curious state of our nation. However, as I grew older and became more cognizant of my relative privilege in society, I began to realize that the average Nigerian’s top priorities were not insight and enlightenment, but survival and sustenance.

The apathy I once perceived at home has come back as I leave the collegiate bubble and immerse myself in the “real world.” I left Nigeria at the age of seventeen to broaden my perspective of the world, but in the U.S., I have come to observe that people have been stripped of a sense of human dignity; in the land of the free and the home of the brave, I have found that many people still struggle to survive and sustain. My curiosity pushes me to pose the question, “Why?” But in my four and a half years in the United States, I have found that the inequality is not hard to see, especially for someone who looks like I do.

It has been a struggle to discern for myself who I am, but this year there is a new identity that I have taken on: I am a Vincentian. I have been called to live a holy life, to be humble, and to be of service to the poor. With the injustice and lack of love in the world, I have found that it is easy to burn out, especially when one takes on such a calling at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Dissatisfaction is a good thing, to not be content with societal inequities and always strive to foster hope for those who live on the margins.

So far, this year of service has led me to appreciate the human condition much more. In this year of transition and discernment, I feel as though I am standing at a vantage point. I see similarities between my new environment and my place of origin and cannot help to quench the urge to find my niche in our complex society. Simplicity has taught me to not worry, but to embrace discomfort and search for avenues to continuously learn and grow.

Over the course of my lifetime, I would like to bring people together to help build frameworks that enable communities to learn, grow, and hold leaders accountable. I want to go beyond helping our neighbors in need. I would like to search for alternatives to the current mechanisms that keep my neighbors in need.

 

To learn more about VVC, visit http://bit.ly/learnVVC

Hailing from Lagos Nigeria, Fare is a contemplative and curious individual, especially in subjects of Economics, Politics, Science, Arts, and Poverty. Aside from his questions and books, Fare is also sustained by chicken, music, bagels, and a profound sense of chill.

The Freedom in Vulnerability

By Mary Ellen Ostrowski 

“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable/ It means to show up and be seen/ to ask for what you need/to talk about how you’re feeling/to have hard conversations.”- Brene Brown

Lately, I have been thinking about the idea of vulnerability frequently. In the VVC program, it is something we talk about often, particularly in the context of the formation of community. This program calls us to give of ourselves in many ways, not only to our neighbors in need but to each other.

One of the best and most challenging parts of my role at St. Vincent de Paul as a Patient Advocate is hearing stories from the patients I have the privilege of serving. I am continually overwhelmed by the honesty of the clients. We live in a society where it is considered rude to ask someone how much money they make, and where talking about personal or financial hardships can be uncomfortable. However, in my work, neighbors are so forthcoming with their stories, even when they could feel embarrassed or humiliated that they are in a place where they need to ask for assistance. I don’t know if I would have the strength to be as vulnerable as they are to me, most of them with a kind word to say, a smile on their face, and a grateful heart.

Vulnerability also extends way past finances. Many neighbors share stories of their struggles with family, with stable employment, and with being stuck in a cycle of poverty. I am amazed at my clients’ willingness to share their struggle with me, someone they just met. I am a very private and guarded person, and many times I like to put a smile on my face and act as if everything is fine, even if it’s not the reality. My clients challenge me to be more vulnerable with my hopes and dreams, as well as struggles with my family, friends, and community members this year through VVC as well as with neighbors.

Even the task of coming to St. Vincent de Paul requires an attitude of vulnerability, especially in our culture which glorifies autonomy. We live in a world in which it reciprocation of good deeds is expected. If I buy dinner for a friend, they will pick up the tab the next time we go out. If a neighbor shovels snow in my driveway, I will make them hot cocoa.  For most of us, myself included, it is difficult to admit that we are unable to return a favor for someone and to just smile and accept charity with a simple thank you, knowing that is all we have to give. When I am talking to a neighbor who is upset or frustrated, I try to think to myself, how would I be acting if I were unable to provide for my family? Or if I was ill because I haven’t been able to afford prescription medications? Can I really say that I would be jumping at the opportunity to receive assistance from someone? I don’t think so. I really do not like asking for help from family and friends, and like most of us, I don’t like admitting my own weaknesses.

However, there is a certain freedom in admitting you don’t have everything together. We are able to serve our neighbors in a more complete way when we understand and embrace our own weakness when we can stand in solidarity with our neighbors in their time of vulnerability. As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “…we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves.  We draw from all our experiences.  Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve.” We serve with our whole selves.  I am excited to be challenged this year in vulnerability, in opening myself to my community so we can truly know and truly love each other.

To learn more about VVC, visit http://bit.ly/learnVVC

Grounded in her faith, Mary Ellen has an optimistic outlook on life. Through intentional decision making and dedication to personal prayer and reflection, Mary Ellen strives to grow as an individual on a daily basis.