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Beneath the Surface


Editor’s note: Weekly service is an important part of Formation for overseas mission. Missioner-in-training Allison Dethlefs shares an experience from her volunteer site.

“That one’s wrinkled. I want a new one,” the woman snapped as my supervisor, Brittany, offered her a coloring sheet.

“I’ll go get you a new one,” I offered.

“No. I don’t want you, Allison.” She stretched out my name like bubble gum about to pop. “I want Brittany to get it.” I tried to decide whether she was being serious, or just sarcastic.

“Just go away,” she said loudly. I tested the waters again.

“Okay, if I must.” I sighed with dramatic emphasis.

“Yes. You must,” she said matter-of-factly.

It was my first day at my Washington, DC, service site, Miriam’s Kitchen, which, besides providing meals and services for people experiencing homelessness, also offers art therapy through open studio time and group sessions.

I had barely been there for twenty minutes and already it seemed that not all were enthused by my presence.

“That’s Ms. Diane,” Brittany told me. “She’s like that sometimes, so don’t take it personally.”

So, I focused on memorizing names: Arnold, who offered to make me a nametag; Sam, exuberantly painting a large cardboard sign; Lynn, who apparently hoards yarn to make crocheted hats (she’ll ask for your favorite color, and your mom’s favorite color, and offer to make you both hats—“but don’t give her any more yarn!”); and Paul who paints exquisite landscapes.

The next week I learned more names, remembered where more supplies were, and wracked up the courage to sit with some of the artists as they created. Ms. Diane, however, remained a mystery. She was generally loud and abrasive, yes, but I still had a feeling that it was some sort of mask.

The third week was different. During studio time, she allowed me to give her wire and tools for jewelry making without so much as an insult.

But it was after my four hours were up, as I climbed the stairs, let myself out of the gate, and headed towards my bus stop, that things really changed. She was sitting alone on the curb as the mid-September heat beat down and caused beads of sweat to roll down her face. I decided to take a chance.

“Hi, Ms. Diane,” I said brightly, tentatively sitting down beside her. And to my great surprise, we talked. She asked me about what I was doing, and I told her about my Franciscan Mission Service formation process and upcoming mission. We laughed about the difficulties of living on a budget and the beauty of living in community.

She told me that she was trying to grow in meekness and humility and that she felt her own calling to bring God’s love to others. We agreed that God’s will is always possible and that God is present wherever love is given and received.

I sat for forty-five minutes on that curb with a woman who I had judged too quickly. I had forgotten that everyone has a story, and that what we see is merely a sliver of who they are. But as I bid Ms. Diane a good afternoon at last, that message rang out loud and clear:

We must never presume or judge, because each of us is as beautifully, richly human as the next, full of flaws and gifts, wisdom, and room to grow. There is always more beneath the surface, and it is our mission to be open to the stories, to look deeper—one Ms. Diane at a time.

*The featured image is an original piece of artwork that Allison drew after her experiences with Ms. Diane.

Allison has been serving in Cochabamba, Bolivia since January 2016.

Allison has a wide range of interests and loves including art, dance, long-distance running, baking, literature, and languages. She graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, NE, where she studied Spanish, studio art, and justice and peace studies. After serving and studying in Honduras, Peru, and the Dominican Republic during her university years, she chose to to dive into the new experience of long-term mission abroad.