Former SCSJ Graduate Assistant, Kevin Kuehl, shared some wisdom for all those participating in Post-Graduate Volunteering or entering religious life upon graduation last spring. Here are the words he sent them off with during the Post-Graduate Volunteering and Religious Life Missioning Service:
Good morning! I’m so excited to share in this moment with you. I’m excited for you–for the journeys that you’re all about to begin. Overall, I am grateful to see so many of you saying “yes” to dedicating your lives to service for and with others.
I stand here today as someone who has survived post-graduate service (and look, Mom and Dad, I came back in one piece!). My hope is to share bit of my own wisdom that I gathered during my time serving in community at the Farm of the Child in Honduras. Knowing that each of your experiences will be unique, I have attempted to narrow my advice to six general points. I could say more, so if you’re looking for more advice, hit me up later.
So to begin:
1. Live by the unofficial pillar: Flexibility
Many programs have pillars–community, service, spirituality, etc., but whether there are 4 official pillars or 10, there is always one more: flexibility. The experiences you are about to enter into will be FULL of surprises. You will be pushed outside of your comfort zone, meet new people, and try new things. If your community is anything like mine was, you’ll learn to make do with what you’re given. So, when my community received 1500 pounds of sea snails, guess what? We learned to cook, eat, and endure sea snails at nearly every dinner for several weeks–I recommend lots of butter.
When you least expect it, the rivers may rise (maybe metaphorically) or, as in my case, quite literally. When the river rose and covered the bridge, my community suddenly became responsible for sheltering and feeding the students and teachers who were unable to cross the river to get home. We couldn’t hesitate even one second in adjusting our own plans to care for them.
You will be asked to do things that were never in your job description like fumigate for mosquitoes, become a Godfather, or even teach kindergarten. Embrace these new opportunities cheerfully. The point is YOU are not in control, so prepare to be stretched. Be flexible!
2. Fail boldly!
As the pillar of flexibility explains, there are very few certainties about life as a volunteer; however, there is one thing that I can promise you: you will fail! I’m not saying that your entire experience will be a failure, but I can guarantee, you will make mistakes. You will mess up. And, that’s OK! You. Are. Not. Perfect. So, fail boldly! I’ll admit it right now…(and you may find this hard to believe) but I made a few mistakes along the way: My Spanish wasn’t perfect. Sometimes I wasn’t the best teacher. I might have accidentally started a grease fire. But, if I had spent all my time worrying about being perfect, I would have been miserable. So instead, I took the advice of Pope Francis to go “make a mess.” (And, yes, the pope said that!…look it up.) So my advice to you: get out there and play soccer in the rain! Get muddy! Make a fool of yourself! Release your inhibitions! Feel the rain on your skin! (You know the rest).
3. Be gentle with yourself and others
When you do fail and make a mess of things, don’t beat yourself up! Instead, forgive yourself and learn humility. Getting accustomed to your new role and community will take time. You won’t know everything right away. In fact, sometimes you’ll feel totally useless. It’s OK to be overwhelmed.
Others around you will fail too; forgive them and learn patience. If you happen to discover that someone in your community has been using the kitchen sponge to clean the toilet for the past few months, try to wipe the look of utter shock from your face, kindly explain how uncomfortable that makes you feel…and then never mention it again. No matter how many times Angel swears at you and tells you to go away, remember he’s just a kid who has been hurt and needs love. Be gentle with him! When Zulena skips school again, don’t yell or threaten to expel her, instead, go to her house, sit down with her, and tell her that you’ll see her tomorrow in class because you want her there. Be gentle with her!
4. Learn to receive
When you tell people that you’re going to volunteer, they may remind you about how much you’re giving of yourself–your time, money, stability, energy, proximity to friends and family. While these things are likely true, you should also learn the art of receiving. If you want to build authentic relationships of trust and solidarity, you will have to practice receiving gracefully because love that is given and not received seems somewhat incomplete.
I think of Duncan offering me his little green rain jacket, or Juan Carlos giving me a freshly-made tortilla with a too-cool-for-school teenager grunt, or the piles of handmade cards and flowers from little Kimberly or Seidy. I learned so much from these children, who would even offer me their most precious stuffed animals with the hope that they would keep me comforted as I slept far away from home. Receiving these gifts with humble gratitude was a pathway to more authentic relationships of trust. No matter where you are going, you will be part of a community; you cannot be a mutual sharer in this community without receiving. We cannot love on our own. We wash each other’s feet.
5. Let your heart be broken
When we truly learn to receive, it’s not just the joy, laughter, and generosity that we gather as our own. When you encounter human individuals in their fullness, you will witness their pain, suffering, sadness, and fear. Sit down with those who are hurting. Listen. Allow your heart to be broken open with love for the your sister or brother who suffers. The brokenness will allow a space to open up. The cracks will fill with love like cement, and your heart will be re-shaped and expanded to embrace others beyond what you ever thought possible.
And number six. Looking around at this group, I don’t think any of you will have trouble with this one:
6. Have fun!
I started out by telling you about the possibility of challenges and failures, but I hope that you will find successes too. When you do: Celebrate! And overall, don’t forget to have have fun! Play lots of soccer! Climb a mountain! Put a chicken in someone’s bedroom! Laugh until you cry! Skip around the room on your birthday! Dance with your community! Sing all the way home!
Let me conclude with an invitation from the Jesuit Dean Brackley that I know most of you have heard before, but it’s worth repeating. He says:
“I invite you to discover your vocation in downward mobility. It’s a scary request… The world is obsessed with wealth and security and upward mobility and prestige. But let us teach solidarity, walking with the victims, serving, and loving. I offer this for you to consider — downward mobility. And I would say in this enterprise there is a great deal of hope.
Have the courage to lose control.
Have the courage to feel useless.
Have the courage to listen.
Have the courage to receive.
Have the courage to let your heart be broken.
Have the courage to feel.
Have the courage to fall in love.
Have the courage to get ruined for life.
Have the courage to make a friend.”
And so, my friends:
For all that has been — thanks. For all that will be — yes.
The SCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice (SCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the SCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.