Note: This blog was originally presented to Mercy Volunteers during their Transition Retreat in Pikesville, Maryland in June 2017.
I was nervous about speaking tonight because I did my service 22 years ago which is probably the time most of the volunteers in the room were born! Due to Jon Quigley’s persistence, he tracked me down and asked me to speak to you about how Mercy Volunteer Corps transformed my life and how after so many years it still impacts me.
Like all things today, I started with a Google search for inspiration. I started on the Mercy Volunteer Corps website and learned that there have been 1,000 volunteers serving 77,000 hours every year and over 2 million hours of service since its inception. I was also reminded of the core principles of Mercy Volunteer Corps of service to the poor while living simply and growing spiritually. So after a successful Google search, I went to the next reliable source of information… Facebook. I sent a message to the women that I served with and lived with in community and asked for advice and guidance about what to say tonight.
Of course, the first things we all remembered were the good time stories like the first volunteer Halloween Party that we hosted at the rectory in St. Peter’s Church in Southwest Baltimore. We dressed as the characters from the Wizard of Oz and other Mercy Volunteer Corps volunteers from Philadelphia and Savannah attended with other local volunteers from different organizations. Very late that evening, we climbed the bell tower… you heard all the bells chime throughout Southwest Baltimore. We also hosted a Thanksgiving Dinner organized by Sister Kitty, where we learned how to make a Baltimore favorite, mincemeat pie, that none of us ate. Our most trying experience was the lack of heat during the great blizzard of 1996 where 30 inches of snow stranded us and we slept huddled together in the sacristy of the church to stay warm. We learned to live without meat and grew to love rice and beans because beer was more important.
It is wonderful to reminisce, laugh, and smile at these experiences but it is the hardships that we experience that transform us and build our character. One of my fellow volunteers, Jeanette, stated it best, “You can talk about how daily challenges forced us to grow at a much faster rate than if we ‘played it safe’ by choosing a job after graduation instead of volunteering to make Baltimore a better place to live. Or learning that people will try to break into your car, or sell you drugs. So you have to protect yourself, but also believe that everyone can improve themselves and make changes.” Serving the people of Baltimore and seeing the pain on the faces of the people that we served was enlightening and humbling. Community life was also extremely challenging. We were different personalities with sometimes different priorities yet we were all struggling to figure out what were we doing here and what did this year of service really mean?
So, what’s next? Many of you may choose to go home, go to graduate school, do another year of service, or have yet to figure out the next step and that’s ok. After my year of service, I chose to attend graduate school in the field of social work. My experience working with children that had suffered loss was where I met and worked with amazing social workers and this inspired me. I remained involved with Mercy Volunteer Corps and became a support person, ran retreats and stayed directly involved for a number of years until I had my own children and my time became more limited. I tried to attend a few alumni reunions but as my kids got older and into more activities, I found myself facing more restrictions on my time and less direct involvement with Mercy Volunteer Corps but the spirit of Catherine McCauley never leaves us. The spirit of Mercy is likely the greatest gift that has been bestowed upon you this year and it is something that can never be taken away. Compassion for others has become a part of you. You may not see it now but it is something that you will come to understand and recognize in your work, your relationships, and in yourself. The spirit of Mercy flows through you and stays with you.
I was educated by the Jesuits where I learned about philosophy, theology, and the great works of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Service to the poor was taught and encouraged but it wasn’t until I met Sisters of Mercy Eileen, Karen, Louis Mary, Kitty, Kenneth, Judith, Monica, Margaret, Fran, and Kate that I truly saw it practiced. These amazing women not only talked about service, compassion, and Mercy but they performed it on a daily basis. They were enthusiastic and they displayed their dedication and commitment to the ideals of their foundress every day of their lives and not just one year of service. Their passion for their vocation is something that I have never forgotten and it continues to influence the way I try to lead my life every day.
In closing, I went to my old scrapbook from my year of service and found cute pictures of my community, funny notes, postcards from our mid and closing year retreats, and an Orioles ticket stub from Cal Ripken’s consecutive game streak. I also found a clipping from a newspaper from an unknown author that I think summarizes how we all should approach people that we encounter on a daily basis. It stated, “A smile costs nothing, but gives much. It enriches those who receive, without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever. None is so rich or mighty that he can get along without it, and none is so poor but that he can be made rich by it. A smile creates happiness in the home, fosters good will in business, and is the countersign of friendship. It brings rest to the weary, cheer to the discouraged, sunshine to the sad, and it is nature’s best antidote for trouble. Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is something that is of no value to anyone until it is given away. Some people are too tired to give you a smile. Give them one of yours, as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give.” What this insightful author asks us to do is difficult and few can do it consistently. But it is necessary. In an old movie called A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks said, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
Even though I may only know a few of you personally, I know that every single one of you shares the same spirit of Mercy and that this year of service with Mercy Volunteer Corps is an experience that will last a lifetime.
- Jennifer Stein Sibila, Mercy Volunteer, ’95-‘96