By Ellen Doster
"I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing with my life next year," I told my Wednesday night small group two Novembers ago. Many of my friends were applying for internships, jobs, and grad school. I felt like I was behind, like I'd been lazy in not having life after college figured out.
I knew I wasn't ready for grad school. I had been mulling over the idea that I was maybe being called to pursue discernment for ordination, but despite four years in a college that was a stone's throw from an Episcopal seminary, I had no idea where to begin. I was scared I was going to get stuck.
"Have you heard of the Episcopal Service Corps?" one of the group, a seminarian, asked. "I have a friend who'll be here at the seminary next year, and she went through the ESC program in Chicago."
Again, despite four years at an Episcopal Church-owned university, I'd never heard of it.
After doing a little research, it felt right. The service, the intentional community, the discernment - here was an environment where I would have the resources I needed. I applied, and by February I found myself committed to the Servant Year program in Philadelphia. So many doors and opportunities had opened up, and I felt great affirmation in my decision to pursue this course and wherever it would lead. But as exciting and daunting as the prospect of moving to a completely new place where I knew absolutely no one was, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I'd gotten the next year planned out, so I could just relax and finish my senior year without too much worry.
And that was frustrating, because I didn't want to be worried about the future, uncertain as it was. I wanted to be able to tell people, "I'm not sure what's next, but I'm excited," without being overwhelmed by the fear of being left out and left behind. I balked at the thought of feeling like I was just doing what I needed to do to get through to the next stage of my life, whatever that's supposed to be. I wanted this to have purpose. It's not that I was doing anything for the wrong reasons, it was just that so many years in a system that makes no time or room for anyone who can't keep up the pace had conditioned me into that feeling of relief. It's a vicious cycle of anxiety, building tension, a decision, and then sweet relief.
Society rarely gives us the time we need. At the age of eighteen, we have to have a plan, a road map to the future. We have to get our degrees, our certifications, and just pray that we made the right choice before we've gotten any meaningful experience under our belts. We might take a little time off from "the plan" to do a bit of soul-searching, but the pressure to get back on track inevitably and all too soon falls back into place.
I've been in the Servant Year program for about six months now, and my time here in Philadelphia has so far been wonderful, rewarding, and at times frustrating. I've been given time and space to just be present in my service and not worry about where I'm going to be in two years. But it's that time of year again when we start to freak out.
Why haven't I heard back from those grad programs?
Will I get any job interviews?
I still have no idea what to do next. Will I be able to get by until I do?
It's a time of anxiety and pressure. I've made the decision to accept a second-year offer from Servant Year, and I'm really excited about the new opportunities next year will bring. But that hasn't fully assuaged my fears. Is my discernment on track as it should be? Am I rushing, or am I falling behind? The truth is, I can't skip the uncertain times of my life, the times when I'm "in transition." And if I want to be really honest, life is by nature transitory, and I shouldn't want certainty at the price of stagnation.
If this year has taught me anything, it's that if I treat this or any time in my life as just a transition, I won't learn anything. I won't grow. I won't reap any meaning from these experiences. I don't see my work or my community as just a stop on the road to my "real" life. I feel just as called to be here in this place at this time just as strongly as I feel any other call.
Last summer just a couple of weeks before I moved to Philadelphia, I met that friend of a friend who had worked in the ESC, just as she was moving to Sewanee to begin her time in seminary. I couldn't help but wonder if I would be in that same position in a few years. We were both at the threshold of a new journey.
"I hope this is okay, but I wrote this note for you," she said, giving me a hug and presenting me with a little envelope.
I keep this note with me, pulling it out and reading it from time to time when I feel myself growing anxious or fearful. I find this prayer especially timely during this season of Lent, and it reminds me be present in my work and my community as it is now.
A prayer for a major life transition:
Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity. Lord, teach me to listen to my heart; teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it. Lord, I give you the stirrings inside me. I give you my discontent. I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longings I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and to follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door. Amen.- Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, page 552
Ellen Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark's Church.
By Josh Davis
I started working for Servant Year in mid-January and was placed with Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project (CBAP), the country’s only pro bono non-profit bankruptcy law firm. CBAP provides a truly unique service, allowing people who are drowning in debt get a fresh start without paying the costs of a bankruptcy attorney. To better demonstrate how monumental this is, let me explain exactly what bankruptcy is. When I tell people where I work, few people seem to get what I do or with whom I work. Some people misunderstand bankruptcy, while others are hostile towards it, and most everyone else is somewhere in between – our clients included. There is an unfortunate stereotype surrounding bankruptcy that falsely claims that people filing for bankruptcy are simply exploiting the system and shirking responsibility.
CBAP only serves low-income individuals, so I cannot speak for middle-income or wealthy individuals who file bankruptcy, but no one comes to CBAP looking to exploit the system. Furthermore, people who come into CBAP to file for bankruptcy cannot actually pay off their debts. Our clients often feel shame for needing to file bankruptcy, but they should not. They are generally honest individuals who want to pay their debts, who abhor the possibility of bankruptcy, but who have had some dramatic change in their lives. Normally, these changes stress their already limited resources, pushing them into the red for months and years on end. Their medical bills soar through the roof as they are diagnosed with a lifelong illness; or they are stuck in the middle of an expensive divorce; or their parent dies leaving no one else to pay for the casket; or they face countless other hurdles that would financially burden any family. Some work but cannot find anything that pays better, some are looking for work constantly, some cannot work and only receive public benefits – which are not much at all – but they all do their best to stay on top of bills. They never imagined that they could fall behind on their bills, but they received some fundamental shock. As they fall further and further behind, they are constantly harassed and intimidated by collections agencies. The people who come to CBAP to file for bankruptcy are doing so out of need. Have they made mistakes? Of course they have, but what principally pushed them into debt is generally something over which they had no control.
So, let’s revisit what CBAP does. Three part-time law students and I interview the clients and work with them to prepare their files for bankruptcy court under the supervision of a full-time staff attorney, a full-time executive director, and a part-time supervising attorney. Once the file is prepared, the attorneys submit the petition and represent the client in bankruptcy court. This is all done for free. For our clients, having to pay for a bankruptcy lawyer could make filing literally impossible, so this service is indispensable. In 2005, Congress attempted to revise the bankruptcy code to make it harder for people to file, and unfortunately they went above and beyond the call of duty. The process for filing bankruptcy is long and stressful to put it mildly. The fact that CBAP guides people who desperately need to file through this system is incredible. Through CBAP clients can receive a fresh start, as bankruptcy can be used to restore utilities, relieve stress, and protect them from aggressive creditors.
Josh Serves as a Paralegal at Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project's Fresh Start Legal Clinic.
By Annie Salorio
If there’s one thing I can say about myself with confidence, it’s that I am, and always have been, a good student. And I don’t mean that I know how to cram just enough the night before an exam to earn exactly the number of points I need to maintain a certain average.
I actually took great joy in my assigned school readings. I even added excited, super-nerdy notes to my margins. When long-term projects were assigned, I set my own deadlines for smaller chunks of the larger goal, triumphantly checking them off as I went. In college, I went to professors’ office hours and had dinner at their houses (I love small liberal arts schools). In other words, school came easily to me. I knew what was expected. I enjoyed doing what was expected. Learning was a joy, and school was my home.
Servant Year is a different experience. Now, I certainly don’t mean to dissuade anyone from applying. The benefits of this program are numerous, and I could devote an entire post to them alone. In the past seven months, I’ve made new friends, explored a new city, and learned a lot about myself.
But something else has happened to me; something that I wasn’t well-prepared for in the warm embrace of academia.
I’ve been wrong. A lot.
I’ve inadvertently annoyed my housemates. I’ve neglected personal responsibilities (my body, my messy room, my pile of laundry, etc.). And God knows I’ve made more mistakes at work than I can keep track of.
If any other good students are reading this, I have something unsettling to tell you. You’re awesome, but you may be at a bit of a disadvantage in this department. School dominates the first eighteen years of your life. If school comes relatively easily to you, you don’t get a whole lot of practice being wrong. And in real life, you’re wrong a lot. Sometimes it feels like you’re wrong more often than you’re right.
But there’s good news. When I was a student, a single “C” on an assignment was enough to ruin my day, even if all my previous grades in the course had been “A”s. These days, if I make a mistake at work, I don’t have too much time to let it get me down, because I’m bound to make a different one the next day. I know this might sound like a nightmare, but there’s a great beauty to it. In a class, a certain number of mistakes leads to a failing grade. As I said above, I’ve made a lot of mistakes as I’ve navigated my Servant Year. But I haven’t “failed” yet. Because one of Servant Year's goals is for us to emerge as slightly better people than we were when we started. At the end of the day, as long as this is accomplished, the number of mistakes doesn’t matter (within reason, of course).
Before I go, I want to make one thing clear. I’m not trying to bash academia. I love it dearly. I miss it. I intend to go back to it in the next few years. But when I do, I will fear failure a little bit less than I did seven months ago. And if that’s not a blessing, I don’t know what is.
Annie Serves as Youth Ministry Assistant for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.