By Noah Stansbury
It’s been nearly a year now since that first phone call brought me to Philadelphia and turned everything right side up. Not very long after my arrival, I found myself one Sunday afternoon on South 4th Street, having the ancient words of a girl who said yes inked into my arm: “Be it unto me according to your word.” Even then, I knew that my own inclination to say yes to everything would fade, that soon enough I would pass back into ordinary time, when this faltering heart would need a reminder.
A few weeks prior, I had gone to confession for the first time in several years. I had been in Servant Year for about a month at that point, and on our mid-year retreat some time had been set aside that our chaplain would be available, come if you wish. Everything was new again then, and I liked Mother Erika quite a lot for having met her only a few times, so I followed the quiet impulse to give another chance to this thing that had once been more harmful than helpful.
As she was offering counsel, she said that she heard in my words a desire to follow the will of God. This was an idea that was not altogether explicit to me up until that point, but it made a lot of sense; “the will of God” was rhetoric deployed often and to great (and at times dubious) effect in my upbringing. This idea came up again a few weeks later, when I broached the idea of vocational discernment for the first time with my priest. As he pressed me on my motives and thought processes, we got back around to this idea of aligning one’s self with the will of God. I don’t really remember where the conversation went from there, but that stands out to me.
Easter came and went, the summer came and went, the school year ended and started again, bringing with it new students, new co-workers and housemates, new Servant Year members. I was still experiencing new things, yes, but everything was comfortable. I was no longer the new kid on the block and things once unknown were now familiar. There is much good in that; I have found a deep sense of place and family and belonging that I have never known in my adult life, and it is an unspeakable, beautiful thing that I cherish because I know that it will someday end. My purpose in coming to Philadelphia has always been a transitory one. The constellations will shift even if they do contain some of the same stars.
So all things new are old and will be new again, and I am left with myself, wondering if this work of discerning the will of God, let alone following it, will ever come to pass. Saying yes to everything—perhaps more to the point, saying no to some things—doesn’t come as easily as it once did. The same things that always get in the way are still there, doing so precisely because they are good things that deserve, at their core, to be pursued, even if the way in which I go about it is (unavoidably, desperate-ly, humanly) flawed.
I am sure of few things when I think about my vocation, at least concretely. But one thing that has emerged is the yearning toward a vowed profession that has hounded me for years: marriage, ordination, religious life, any of the above, something else entirely. While it is easy for me to romanticize such things (dear reader, how I do!), I am left with a hollow feeling when I take in what it really means to covenant oneself and hold it up to the guarded, selfish creature that I am. You want me to do what? If I ever make it to the altar to give myself to anything, it will truly be through the work of God.
Perhaps this is the point. I vacillate wildly in my response to grace—“grace changes us and the change is painful”*—but the quiet, persistent call remains unchanged, faithful when I am not. So I return to the altar week after week, to hear the will of God shown forth in words and water and wheat and wine, strengthened for the time when I find myself at another crossroads so changed that the most natural thing in the world is to say yes.
*Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being
Noah Serves as Volunteer and Church Outreach Coordinator at St. James School.
By Lindsay Barrett-Adler
There are 9:24 p.m. text messages that no service corps program director ever wants to receive. The following was not one of them: “Father Stube and I are going on a ship to say Christmas mass and celebrate the Eucharist tomorrow at 6, and thought it would be cool if you wanted to come.”
The Servant Year member who sent the text to me, Trish, is spending her year volunteering at Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI). SCI provides services and support for 30,000 seafarers each year. Most of the crews are male and usually work 6-9 month contracts, away from their families and home countries for long stretches of time. Due to visa stipulations, many crew members are unable to disembark from the cargo ships while in port. Without SCI’s visits, these crew members would have no access to resources (like warm winter coats, phone cards to call their families back home) and company over a home cooked meal.
After a 5 second deliberation, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation to see SCI’s ministry firsthand. The next day I bundled up (tonight’s low will be 14 degrees), not sure what to expect beyond a chilly walk from SCI’s van to the ship.
As we walked toward our ship, the overwhelming smell of chocolate filled the air. Turns out some of the cargo they brought from Nigeria included cocoa beans that crunched underfoot as we made our way up wobbly metal stairs to the ship. Upon boarding, we were ushered to a small, plain room where a small group of Philippine seafarers waited to worship with us. One wall had a homemade banner proclaiming, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” next to a Christmas tree with some decorations.
Father Stube told the nativity story churches around the world proclaimed on Christmas, found in Luke’s Gospel. We sang Christmas carols and prayed together, especially for the sixteen Philippine sailors missing from a cargo ship that sank off the coast of Vietnam last week. We celebrated the Eucharist with one another and I was reminded, in this season of Epiphany, of God’s welcome to people from around the world who gather to encounter Christ. We ended with applause from the seafarers, thankful for SCI’s presence and work on their behalf.
Soon one of the cooks brought out trays of cookies, sandwiches, and soda for us to share. The seafarers silently waited for us to partake in their hospitality. We asked where they were ultimately headed and they said, ”Columbia. We’re picking up some cargo in Albany, then going to Columbia.” Then probably home for 3 months before heading out to sea again. We talked a little bit more about pirates in Nigeria, boxing, and how badly Brazil was blown away in the World Cup semi-finals. Everyone thanked us for coming and shook our hands, watching as we made our way back to dry land that some of them wouldn’t be able to touch for many, many months.
I walked back into the chocolate cocoon, surrounded by a distant smell from another land and thought again of this season. There are countless exotic gifts I take for granted every day, from coffee to chocolate, brought to me by seafarers on ships like the one I visited. I am thankful for the dangerous and difficult work these men undertake each day to bring us gifts from afar.
Lindsay Serves as Program Director and Associate for Young Adult Ministries.
By Michael Debaets
Since September, I have been volunteering at Covenant House PA, a crisis shelter for homeless youth from the ages of 18 to 21.
Covenant House provides Philadelphia's homeless youth with immediate needs like warm beds, hearty meals, donated clothes, toiletries, and a safe place to stay. Covenant House also keeps residents from breaking each other's sanctuary by fighting, cussing, insulting, frightening, or becoming romantically involved with others.
After we make sure that the residents have what they need, we teach them to job-search, and we provide a structure for their week so that they don't wander around the neighborhood aimlessly every day. Since each resident comes to this program of their own volition, we hope that the program will encourage them to make better and better choices throughout the rest of their lives.
Jesus Christ said that when he will come again to this earth to judge all men, he will tell his disciples, "Thank you for clothing me when I was naked, for feeding me when I was hungry, for visiting me when I was in prison, for giving me drink when I was thirsty, for welcoming me when I was a stranger." He then tells the disciples that they will reply, "Lord, when did we ever do these things for you?" and he will answer them, saying, "Whenever you did these things for the least of these, you did them for me."
Covenant House PA feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, clothes the naked, and welcomes those who cannot find welcome anywhere else.
The mission statement of Covenant House states that we will treat every resident with absolute respect and unconditional love. I have only been able to do this because I remember the words of Christ in the previous paragraph. By his words, I know that he is present in the needy people I serve, and it is insofar as he is in them that they deserve my absolute respect and my unconditional love. Padre Pio said, "Every person in need is Christ," and our mission statement says the same thing.
In my time so far as a Servant Year member, I have learned time and again that true joy comes from being in relationship with Jesus; even at those times when I needed to humble myself and act as no more than a servant, I was happy because I was with him. Before this year, I had not served much at all, but this Servant Year I am learning from Christ how to serve and not tire, as he said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
One of my mentors told me, "this year is for you to grow and learn." I have grown in several professional capacities: in managing my time, in communicating clearly, and in giving my organization a good face. I have learned about the problem of homelessness in Philadelphia, about the services that Covenant House provides, and I have learned most of all that service in the name of Christ brings joy.
I look forward to spending the remainder of my Servant Year volunteering at Covenant House PA.
Michael Serves as Youth Advisor at Covenant House.