Part of our mission preparation program includes regular volunteering with impoverished or vulnerable populations in the area. Today missioner-in-training Valerie Ellis talks about the first few weeks of her volunteer experience.
My dream for going on mission is to work with children, and I was thrilled when I received the email from Franciscan Mission Service with an option to volunteer with children weekly while in Washington, D.C.
When I went with our program coordinator and a fellow missioner to the volunteer site for orientation, I was so excited to meet the children and pregnant women with whom we would be privileged to work alongside. Taking the tour of our site, I started to notice that there were no children on site, or pregnant women for that matter. I kept thinking, in the next room, around the next corner, we will see them.
When it came time to sit down with Sr. Clovis, mother superior at the convent, we filled out paperwork asking us why we wanted to serve there specifically and what our skills were to serve in this environment. Given that I had no noticeable skills to work alongside elderly men and women, especially those who may need assistance to the bathroom and much more serious healthcare help, I was stumped. I briefly jotted down a couple of answers that would allow me to complete the form, and waited patiently (at least on the outside) for the opening that I was waiting for: do you have any questions?
“We were also hoping to work with children and pregnant women,” I said in what I hoped was a measured way. “Oh, that is our other site,” Sr. Clovis calmly replied. My heart sunk as I realized that I did not know what I was getting into.
I proceeded to stay and volunteer with my fellow missioner, who jumped into volunteering with such zeal that her smile was soon lighting up the room, along with the faces of those in our presence. Since it was breakfast time, she immediately began feeding one of the women who would not be able to do so herself.
Although my exterior was calm and I may have even ‘eeked’ out a smile, I was thinking, “I don’t know if I could do that.” I was impressed with the ease in which she jumped into the situation, and how much joy she carried into the room.
That day, I managed to assist with breakfast, lunch, and some light yard work, and then had some time to actually speak with the women who lived at the convent. I met a very pleasant woman, whom we will call Vanessa. We sat outside and talked about her life growing up, and she held my arm while we walked inside.
My most touching moment was when she told me that she said the same prayer morning, afternoon, and night, and Vanessa asked if she could pray for me. We sat down inside, and the scripture passage she recited spoke to me about my experience thus far, traveling to a new place and being uncomfortable, but trusting in the Lord.
Even so, when I left I spoke with the FMS program coordinator about changing volunteer sites, and navigated somewhat of a labyrinth of procedures including multiple trips to the pharmacy to obtain proof that I did not have TB, a doctor’s note, etc. All the while, I had this nagging sense that God was telling me to stay put, and trust in His will.
Although I had an urge to skip the second week of volunteering at the convent, I knew it was not the right thing to do, so I went back. This time, I fed one of the women who also had trouble feeding herself, and my heart began to expand.
All the while, I was still taking steps to transfer sites, including taking a call while at the convent to help secure a new location. And all the while, God was patiently telling me that I was at the right place and to surrender my will. As the weeks went on, I was able to understand that God was reminding me that when I step outside of my comfort zone, I find out with His help that I can achieve things which I thought were impossible.
I can be extremely stubborn, but there is a lesson to be learned here. I had to first face the humbling fact that I was uncomfortable working alongside elderly patients with whom I didn’t know what was the appropriate thing to do, and then learn that with more than minimal effort, I could do it. I could figure out how to approach someone who I thought wasn’t able to talk, and end up having a half an hour conversation (and learn more about that person than others who have been in my life for years). I could assist someone in eating without taking away her dignity, or feeling so inept that I was frozen in my tracks. And last, and most probably least, I learned with help from a new friend how to work a ‘mean’ figure eight with a mop.
What had I placed on my required volunteer form as my rationale for wanting to be there? “I am a child of God.” And what had I written under skills? “I am a good listener.” It ‘only’ took me four weeks to realize that when God asks you to do something, He will provide.
As I continue to be molded for life on mission, I hope that this is not a lesson that I have to learn time and time again. However, it is nice to be dished up a little humility from time to time, and to be reminded that while I was feeding others, God was really feeding me.