By: Haley Warren
I am one of two coordinators who leads the service site to the Siena/Francis house homeless shelter every week. My first experience with the Siena/Francis house was during one of the first weeks of my freshman year. The first day I went, I absolutely hated it. I felt uncomfortable, and was unable to find the value in the awkward silence at my table. I almost didn’t go back.
But something pulled me back there, and that same thing has been pulling me back ever since. I can’t quite put into words exactly what this thing was, but through reflection I have come to conclude that it had something to do with how uncomfortable the Siena/Francis House made me feel. When I first went to volunteer there, I was expecting the classic passing out food to homeless people type service. When I got there and the coordinators told me that I was going to be eating, and talking with homeless people, I was caught off guard. When I was reflecting with my roommate later that night, we said things such as I feel like we aren’t even doing anything. I thought we were actually going to be helping by serving food. At that time I hadn’t realized that building relationships is the most profound and important aspect of service to me. I can’t put into words how thankful I am that I went back that second week, because I honestly can’t imagine who I would be, or where I would be, had I not continued to attend this weekly service site.
Even though I knew in the past that I enjoyed going to the Siena/Francis House, I hadn’t really figured out exactly why I love it so much until these past two weeks. The first time I went back this semester, I found it easier to talk, to be present, and to be interested in the people I was sitting with. Unlike last year, I no longer had to force myself to be my usual, outgoing Haley-self. I felt comfortable around people who society tells us we should feel very uncomfortable around.
The second time we went this semester, I started leading reflection by sharing a short story written by Thich Nhat Hahn. In his writings, Hahn describes the method by which he ate cookies as a child. As a kid he took up to 45 minutes to eat one cookie. While he ate, he went outside and was present to everything around him: “the sky, the earth, the dog, the flowers.” He suggests that, “it is possible to eat our meals as slowly and joyfully as I [he] ate the cookie of my [his] childhood.” And he finishes saying, “the present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” After I shared this with the group, each of my peers contributed something about what presence means to them. My sharing was rooted in my experience studying abroad in Bolivia this past summer.
My freshman year of high school I did not get involved in extra-curricular activities. Therefore, when I came to college, I was committed to get as involved as possible. One of the things I decided to do last year was apply to study abroad in the summer. For some reason, applying for this program, even as a freshman, felt like the right thing to do. Once again, something was pulling me to push myself way outside of my comfort zone.
While I was in South America, there were many times I was very bored. As many people know, I tend to book myself to the brink. I often overcommit, and stretch myself thin because I am so passionate about so many different things. Therefore, the more laid-back lifestyle of Latin America was a big adjustment for me, that I am not sure I ever quite grasped while I was there. Bolivia was the first time in my life in which there were times that I had to be bored, and there was nothing I could do about it.
At the time, it annoyed me, but looking back on it, I know that being bored is just what I needed in order to realize how important relationships and presence are to me. When I came home from school at the end of the day and had no internet, no smartphone, no technology to distract me, I was pushed to interact and be fully present with my host family. The talks I had with them and the time we shared together was authentic and beautiful.
Coming back to the states, living the busy lifestyle that I once couldn’t live without has been really hard for me. Taking 19 credits and being as involved with work and other extra-curriculars as I am was something I thought I could handle. But that was before presence and relationships were something that I realized I really wanted to focus on as I transitioned back after being abroad. Also, it has been hard for me to text people, and even to talk to people on the phone, because these ways of communication seem so impersonal to me; and over the past couple months being home, I have really struggled with that. Our society is so technologically based, and being busy is seen as a good thing. In fact, when people aren’t busy, sometimes they are seen as lazy, or are seen as not living up to their full potential. Due to the nature of our society, there are so many ways to get distracted, and therefore it is much harder to push oneself to be present at every moment of every day.
During these busy, busy first few weeks back at school, the Siena/Francis house has kept me sane. When I go to this amazing place, I am able to break bread with beautiful people who I would never otherwise meet. I get the chance to hear someone’s story in the addiction recovery program. I get a chance to put aside all of my stress, all of my homework, all of the tasks I am expected to complete for an hour and a half, and just be with my brothers and sisters.
The Siena/Francis house is a place where people are present to me, and I am present to them. The gift of presence is one I receive every time I go there, and I am so thankful to be able to say that it is also a gift I am able to give.
“La cosa mas importante que yo lo aprendí durante las semanas ha ido la importancia de la presencia y de mis relaciones” –Excerpt from a song I wrote in Bolivia a few days before returning home.
The CCSJ 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 Creighton Center for Service and Justice (CCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the CCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.