Sunday, December 4, 2011

"I don't get high fives, I get hugs!"

Well, everyone, it's been three months here in Camden, and I can confidently say that if I have it my way, I would love to be here until July 2013, another year beyond my current commitment.  This isn't Burger King, though, as my friend Mike told me in the spring, and it remains to be seen if I will get it my way or not.  And if God has anything to say about it, who knows if, eight months from now, this will still be my way.  Curiouser and curiouser...

I have to say, my blogging has not been terribly faithful.  This is a good thing from my end, because it means I am busy and doing well keeping up with all of my commitments here, but it doesn't really help any of you to know what I am doing.  I even failed my own personal goal of a post a month.  Like I said, from my end, it's a good thing...

The third grade is putting on an Advent pageant this Friday.  The kids are so excited - it gives them a chance to shine and have fun, and here at St. Anthony's, I am all about letting the kids shine.  I hadn't had time to get involved with the pageant, though, with all of my other commitments, until this past Friday when I accidentally walked in on rehearsal.

There were about five narrators, and each had a few lines before the next would go.  Then it would be back to the beginning again.  Meilanie, one of the third graders, was a narrator.  She has a booming voice, compared to many of her classmates, and especially for a third grader.  Each time that it was her turn to speak, she would bound up to the podium and proclaim her lines with the gusto of a seasoned public speaker.  It was phenomenal.

Meilanie also happens to look distinctly like Rosalia, one of the children from the Working Boys Center in Ecuador to whom I became rather attached.  Every time that I see Meilanie, I am reminded of Rosalia.

When the kids were done with rehearsal, some of them came over to say hello to me, their audience.  I give high fives often, because I think it's a good way to connect with them.  After giving a few high fives, it was Meilanie's turn, upon which she proclaimed, "I don't get high fives, I get hugs!"  Arms around my neck (I had been sitting), she got her hug.  That gusto, too, is reminiscent of how I remember Rosalia, who declared that she would be first on the list of names that already had four girls on it.  "Estoy primero!"

I have the best job.

Peace and all good,

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I don't know how it happened...

Hello World!  Almost two months into my wonderful year as an FVM in Camden, I am really having a blast.  The title, "I don't know how it happened," was sort of my theme for the day, for two reasons:

Reason One: I had a two o'clock appointment in downtown Camden, ten minutes from my house at the diocese.  I knew exactly where I was going, and got there with a few minutes to spare.  However, I couldn't figure out how to get into the parking lot, which was gated.  This was especially frustrating, because I knew there was a way, since cars were in there, and I had parked there before.  I went around the block a couple of times, to no avail.  The last time, I made a wrong turn, and I ended up on the wrong side of Martin Luther King Boulevard.  I wasn't entirely sure where I was, but I knew I was close.  Two-thirty rolled around and I pulled out my cell (on speaker phone, of course) and called my housemate Alex.

"Hi Alex - I made it to the diocese okay."
"That's good."
"But then I got lost trying to park the van.  I don't know where I am."

Luckily, I eventually realized that I was on the wrong side of the boulevard and hopped on over.  I never made it into the parking lot, but I found a free spot on the road and made a botched, but sufficient, parallel park job.  Forty minutes late for my appointment, I finally showed up at the diocese.  Whew.  All I could say to Chris when he got back from Philly was: "I don't know how it happened..."

Later, cooking dinner, I decided to cook the rice in the big pot instead of the rice cooker, because the rice cooker never makes enough rice.  Well, I ended up pouring three and a half cups of dry rice into the measuring cup, when I only meant to pour two.  I couldn't pour the rice back into the bag because I had used the measuring cup for water before rice.  We had a lot of rice for dinner.  All I could say was: "I don't know how it happened."

Independent of my continued misadventures, and because of them, I am really enjoying my time here.  One of the highlights of my week is teaching Tae Kwon Do to the kids in the after school program, ranging from fifth to eighth grade.  They just started learning their first form this week, and they are still getting used to feeling weird when they yell and punch.  I remember that feeling, and it's exciting to see them getting over it bit by bit, being more comfortable in their own skin.  I love it.

This Sunday at mass, the psalm was a song that the kids sing every week at Friday mass for the psalm, "Because the Lord is my Shepherd."  When Isabella, a thrid grader, arrived at mass on Sunday, I asked her to sing it with me from the ambo.  To give you some context, the choir is barely seen and hardly heard, and this was part of my continued attempt to improve music at St. Anthony's by making it visible.  Isabella was completely competent, but the idea frightened her.  I knew she wanted to do it, but there was a lot of stage fright.  Fr. Jud, the pastor, gave her a blessing and told her that whatever she chose would be perfectly fine, but that he and God both knew she was certainly capable.  Isabella ended up going with me to the front of the  church to sing the psalm, and it was fantastic.

Being in Camden is frustrating for many reasons, but one that comes to mind is how much the music ministry lacks.  We don't have an accompanist of any sort, and we have a limited music selection, between what the hymnal has and what the parish is capable of singing.  I just feel like I am only learning how to minister to St. Anthony's, and not necessarily any sort of transferable music ministry knowledge.  Who knows?

In the meantime, I will continue on, loving the people.  I feel so much joy here, it's absurd.  I know I am right where I am supposed to be, right now.

Peace and all good,

Saturday, September 24, 2011

God made Miss Rachel :-)

If you have visited this blog before, you say to yourself that the format is different from last time, and you would be right.  I changed the background to make it a little easier to read, and I am hoping you, readers, will like it.

On Thursday, I spent the better part of my day in the first grade.  I am convinced that they are the loudest first grade ever.  My housemate, Chris, tells me that I am exaggerating a little, but I think I am correct.  Perhaps it is the size of the class (28), or the fact that they don't have an aide in the classroom and won't for another week, but this group knows how to be loud.

During their religion class, their teacher reminded them of a song they had learned last time, "God made birds and fishes" la la la la.  Something like that.  Then, she asked everyone to draw four things that God had made.  Ricardo finished first, and brought his picture to their teacher, Mrs. Derenzo.  I was on the other side of the room, and all of a sudden I heard her say, "God made Miss Rachel!"  Ricardo had drawn a stick figure version of me.  Later in the class, Leira brought me her drawing, and said that she had to give it to Mrs. Derenzo, who had left to teach another class.  It was a card that said, "I love you Mrs. Derenzo."  Leave it to the first grade to teach me about unconditional love.

Apart from that, what I continue to reflect on is the idea of "harm reduction," as proposed to me by my housemate, Chris.  I can't fix all of the problems in Camden; I might not be able to fix any of the problems in Camden.  What I can do, however, is what he calls "harm reduction."  Make life better for those whom I serve.  I might not be able to change a child's fluency in English, or their home life, or drum up a full choir for mass on Sunday, but I can smile at the first grade, and listen to what they tell me and sing as well as I am able.  Realizing that I cannot do everything frees me up to do something, and that is the point, after all.

Do something.

Peace and all good,

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Every day I'm shuffling...


The title of my blog is more than just a song I've been singing, although it has been a song that I am singing.  More importantly, it signifies two distinct things:

1. The Francis Shuffle:  Chris Posch, ofm, the site supervisor in Wilmington, gave a thrilling talk on opening retreat about "The Francis Shuffle."  Basically, what it means is that while it is good to get away from the hassles of everyday life, whether it be in prayer or in physically distancing onself, to truly follow Francis, one mys come back to those daily hassles.  Up the metaphorical mountain, and then back down.  This will be my task for the entire year.

2. Orientation:  My community has literally been shuffling around to the different potential ministries, and while it has been a bit overwhelming, it is also fantastic, in the truest sense of the word.  It's like I get to live a fantasy.  I'm living the dream, as one of my housemates would say.

For now, I have taken on work in Music Ministry, being present at Francis House (the HIV and AIDS ministry), helping the first grade, and teaching an after school martial arts club.  I'm starting to settle into a routine, but life is far from "routine" here in Camden.

The real joy of my entire year lies in all of the people I have been able to meet: my three housemates, the other Franciscan Volunteers in Philly and Wilmington, the Friars, the parishioners, the people who gather at Francis House, the Parish staff and the staff at the school, the first graders.  So many wonderful people.

For back to school night in the first grade, we were all coloring pictures of ourselves to put on our desks.  I was supervising a special set of skin color crayons with about five students at a time.  One of the students asked me what was wrong with my front teeth.  I explained to her that I had a stain. "Don't you brush your teeth?" "Yes, but the stain is underneath, so brushing doesn't make it go away."  That seemed to satisfy her until I told her that I was finished with my own picture, and she said, "Don't forget to color your dirty teeth!"

To those who have been waiting for something more substantial, I am sorry.  This post has been in draft form for a couple of weeks now, and I recently received a friendly reminder that I needed to put it up.  I do promise to write more, now that the intro is underway.  For now, happy adventures to everyone in cyberspace!

Peace and all good,

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My "inner Jersey"...

I know a lot of people are asking about my FVM placement.  On Friday July 1st, Katie Sullivan, Program Director Extraordinaire, and the friars, got together and placed the current group of us into our respective locations.  I've written a nice little ditty (parodied, really), to the tune of "Friday" by Rebecca Black:

It’s Friday, Friday,
gonna find out on Friday.
Everybody’s looking forward to their placement, placement.
Friday, Friday,
finding out on Friday.
Everybody’s looking forward to their placement.

Praying and praying for them!
Praying and praying for them!
Fun, fun, fun, fun,
looking forward to their placement.

It's the little things that bring a smile to my face.  ;-)

So, I still haven't answered the question...where have I been placed?

And the answer is:

Camden, NJ!

From the FVM website: The Camden Franciscan Volunteer Ministers (FVMs) live and serve in ministries fostered by St. Anthony of Padua, a Franciscan parish.  The ministries include:  St. Anthony of Padua Elementary School, youth ministry, religious education, Hispanic ministry, immigrant ministry, English as a Second Language, urban ministry, community outreach and organization, and Francis House — a ministry with people living with or affected by HIV.

That's the scoop.  I'm going to Camden.  My one friend said, "You can let your inner Jersey can come back orange and with an accent!"  Hearing this, my other friend remarked, "I think she means your inner Jersey shore."

While I am fairly certain I don't have an inner Jersey shore, I will hopefully be able to let out some sort of inner Jersey, or at the very least figure out what that means.  In any case, I am excited!  As Rebecca Black would say, "we we we so excited, we so excited!"

This is probably it for a while - I will be out and about for the rest of the summer, visiting friends and family, and relishing that last bit of free time.

Feel free to send any questions my way!  I love hearing from you.  :-)

Peace and all good,

Monday, June 13, 2011

If you're wondering how well the cleaning is going...

Hello friends!

I have been working on the downsizing, to some success.  I filled an entire roll-away recycling bin with old papers.  I am not done.  I will eventually make it through my clothes, but that is a faulty business because of all those seasons and weather and stuff.  So, I'm trying to make due with the paper, notebooks, and even some real books.

Those of you who knew me before Le Moyne know that I have an addiction to books, almost any book.  I read voraciously in high school - a new book every few days - and I was sad to find myself lacking for free time in my college years.  That is changing now, and I find that I have an astounding book collection.  More than I could ever hope to read.  And, while books are perhaps my most prized possession, it is also important to me that the things that I have serve me, and if they can't, they should serve someone else.

What does that mean as far as the fate of my books?  Well, I sold some of my textbooks back today!  My solutions manual to McMurry, 7e, will be well used by some other soul relegated to Organic Chemistry.  I promise that the bad rap that follows Organic is an overstatement, but by how much depends on a whole host of factors.  No matter, I am not about to relive my days of adding nucleophiles to carbons of carbonyls, even if they are polar, planar, and prone to attack.

I sold a few others as well, from some non-science classes.  I couldn't bring myself to part with the textbooks that had followed me through thick and thicker.  I want to go back to them one day, but I can't say for certain when that one day will be.  Science and I need a break, at least for now.  I am putting the books in a metaphorical "box" (they will in fact sit on my shelf to prevent me from accumulating even more things), and I will open that box only when I am ready.  Not before.

So, use it or lose it is not the easiest motto to put into practice, but it's a little cathartic.  I think the real catharsis will come when I have a finished product - my clean room - and I can take all of my extra things to the Salvation Army or some other place where I know someone will use them.

The other burning question that some people have is: have you found out where your volunteer placement is yet?

I am sorry, for everyone else's sake, that the answer is still "no", but I am not that concerned for myself.  Here's why:

The first reason is rather superficial - as soon as they tell me, it will be real, and I will have to internalize that I will not be headed back to 1419 Salt Springs Road again in the fall.  That is both a blessing and a curse, being done with college.  Right now, I am in this willing suspension of disbelief, to use an acting term.  I am in the mind of someone who will be returning to the place she has learned to call home.  I have faith that I will find a new home in this placement, wherever it is, but I also have strong ties to the home I leave behind.

The second reason is hard to explain when people talk to me, because when I say it I feel like an idiot.  I have been off before on service trips where I haven't had much information, and I always felt bad because I couldn't really tell people what I was doing.  I didn't know.  Now, on the other hand, I know what all three possibilities are, and more or less what each entail (again, at least superficially), but I hate going through the whole list because it's not like I am going to be at all three places.  I will be at one of them, and I don't know which one, and I am wholly content with any of the possibilities.  Do I have certain opinions?  Of course.  Do I know everything about all of the other FVMs and what they will contribute to each placement?  No way.  I hope to, eventually, but I haven't met most of them yet!  Do I trust that Katie and the friars will make a decision that is in everyone's best interest?  Absolutely.  I find joy in the path, knowing that wherever they send me is where I am meant to go.

For those of us who like a more definitive answer to the question of when: I was told that they would likely be doing the placement meeting at the end of June.  Which, while late compared to most of my friends who signed onto locations with their volunteer contracts, is relatively early for FVM.  I will find out where I am headed come August 21st both too soon, and not soon enough...

I am usually a plan plan plan person.  It is slightly unnerving that I am not more concerned about the lack of plan right now.  Maybe I am too informed, and therefore I have no need for concern?  Maybe I am in a veiled state of denial?  I don't think that's it, but I am not ruling it out.

To be continued...

Peace and all good,

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Spring Cleaning: A lesson in simple living

I am both amazed and distressed by how much stuff I have accumulated over the span of my life, and in particular, over these past four years.  As if my room at home was not full of stuff, I spent most of college filling extra space, and now, trying to fit it all into my bedroom at 6 Hall Street, I just can't do it.

What's more is that I don't use most of what I have.  I possess enough t-shirts from various events that I could go a month without having to wash them, if I wanted.  And that is just t-shirts.

I am sleeping in my bed for the first time this summer, because I have finally been able to clear it off to get to it, but there is just another pile of my displaced things somewhere else.  As I remade my bed, I pulled off the top blanket.  "I'm giving you away," I said to myself.  Thus began the bag of blankets and pillows and toys that I am doing away with.

Cleaning my room is necessarily a long and lonely process for me, because I hate having people going through my stuff.  It's easier to control if I do it myself, but it is also considerably slower.  I am forced to spend a great deal of time in my own mind, which, as Anne Lamott writes, "is a neighborhood I try not to go into alone."

I began to reflect on the idea of simple living, of only taking what you need or will use.  I have piles and piles of things that I have not touched in years; that is not simple.  I have three months of tops to wear; that is not simple. I have stacks of papers that I will never look at again; that is not simple.  

I get a lot of flack for being a pack rat, and though those tendencies do run very deep on my mother's side, I am working to adopt a new philosophy of stuff: use it or lose it.  I'm not buying books anymore, unless I have read them and am compelled to buy them (we'll see how long this lasts).  I am recycling as much of the backed up paperwork as I can.  I am getting rid of clothes and blankets and pillows, in the hope that someone, somewhere, will actually use them.  I don't want someone else to be cold because I had to have my fleece blanket sitting in my room.  

There's this concept of "detachment" that I am trying to have with all things: don't be so invested in things that you forget about what's really important.  What matters are the people around you, all those whom you love, even if you have not met them and will never meet them.  All we can do is make sure that we only take our fair share.  How would I define "fair share"?  Only what you can use.

I'm not an FVM quite yet.  I am priming myself by embracing as much of a simple lifestyle as I can right now, but simplicity is something I hope to continue cultivating long after I finish my term as a volunteer.  I wrote in my application that simple living was only a beginning, and I truly mean that.  Simple living allows one to live an uncluttered life, both literally and figuratively.  Without clutter, it's easier to recognize what things around you.  I live simply that I may more easily recognize God in all things.  And that, as I see it, is only the beginning.

Peace and all good,

Saturday, April 30, 2011


Hello everyone!

My name is Rachel, and on May 22 I will graduate from Le Moyne College.  As far as emotions go, they are a mixed bag, but I am very excited to take my next step as a volunteer with Franciscan Volunteer Ministry (FVM).  I don't yet know where they will put me, and that's both thrilling and terrifying.

I've started this blog to mark a new chapter in my life, one I have labeled "Searching for Starfish."  The phrase comes from two places.  The first is a Nooma film called "Shells" (the link will be at the end of this post).  The story, in brief, is that Rob Bell was at the beach with his wife and sons.  His sons were collecting shells that had washed ashore, and all of a sudden, they all caught sight of a starfish floating out in the water.  His younger son went to catch it, running out only part of the way.  He returned, and then repeated the process, getting closer each time.  The last time he returns, his father asks him why he won't go get the starfish and he says he can't.  His father asks him, "why?" and the reply is simple: "my hands are full of shells."

When I first saw this video, I was instantly struck by the relevance of that story to my own life, and how many shells I carry.  At this point in my life, I am now looking for my starfish, and trying to lose some of the shells that I carry in the process.  Shells, of themselves are not bad, but all of those little things are what keep you from getting that one big thing.  I'm looking for my one big thing.  That's part of what I hope from my FVM year, is that I will be closer to finding my starfish.

The second place is that story that everyone tells a slightly different version of, the story of starfish.  Here's my favorite version:

It Matters
by Anonymous

As I walked along the seashore,

this young boy greeted me.

He was tossing stranded starfish

back to the deep blue sea.

I said, "Tell me why you bother.

Why waste your time this way?

There's a million stranded starfish.

Does it matter, anyway?"

And he said, "It matters to this one.

It deserves a chance to grow.

It matters to this one.

I can't save them all, I know,

but it matters to this one.

I'll return it to the sea.

It matters to this one

and it matters to me."

As I move and grow in this world, it becomes more and more important to me to accompany the people that I can.  I can't be everything to everyone (something I continue to learn), but I can be some things to some people, and that is what counts.  Not how many people you love, not how many people love you.  Not the number of things you do for them, or the frequency with which you do them.  What matters is the depth of your love, which cannot be counted or measured, but can be felt and understood.  As long as you love your starfish, nothing else matters.

Along a related line, I'd like to share my motivation for doing what I do.  It stems from a short passage by Pedro Arrupe called "Falling in Love with God."

"Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.  What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.  It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.  Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything."

In this next chapter of my life, I hope to fall more in love than I ever have.  And when I do, I know I will have found my starfish. 

Peace and all good,