My name is Ryan Flinn and I am proud to be an alumnus of Mercy Volunteer Corps. I served at Francis House Center in Sacramento, California from 2012-2013. I am currently a doctoral student in counseling psychology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM, where I work as a mental health therapist, college and university instructor, researcher, and mentor.
Looking back on my journey to MVC, I cannot help but be amused by God’s sense of humor. I applied to MVC when I was in my junior year of college at Creighton University because I was interested in gaining practical experience in working with individuals with mental health concerns prior to applying for graduate study. I wanted to become a therapist, and I thought joining MVC would be a good way to gain this practical experience and to spend a year being other-centered after quite a few years of engaging in self-centered and self-destructive behavior. I remember being honestly amazed that I was admitted to MVC with no previous professional human service experience and doubted that I was a good fit for the organization when I met my volunteer cohort at the opening retreat. Everyone at the opening retreat seemed so spiritual, experienced, worldly, kind, and socially aware; I felt like an awkward imposter (who wasn’t, and still isn’t, even Catholic!). I tried to focus on learning from the experience, fulfilling my very genuine desire to be helpful to people experiencing marginalization, and smiling politely at the seemingly grandiose pronouncements by the trainers that MVC had the potential to transform my perspective of the world and of myself.
Despite my initial skepticism about all the “transformation” talk, my time in Sacramento truly transformed me. Living and working in community with my fellow volunteers as we served individuals and families experiencing homelessness fundamentally changed me in ways that I am still unpacking to this day.
When I was asked to contribute this reflection, my mind swam with memories of my service year. So many images were present in my mind — memories of laughing, crying, fighting with, and praying with my housemates; memories of serving my clients (sometimes getting it right but more often making lots of very embarrassing mistakes); remembering the sound of Taize prayer in the sanctuary of St. Francis of Assisi, and the smell of the roses blooming outside of the MVC House on L Street… How could I succinctly write about a year of service that even five years later I still continually reflect upon and reinterpret?
Succinctly, my year of service in MVC simultaneously exposed me to the best and the worst in people and the best and worst in myself. I learned what it meant to open my heart to the other and became repeatedly and intimately familiar with people and situations which led me to close my heart away. I was surrounded by colleagues, fellow volunteers, and mentors who had also chosen to devote their (life)time to service, who inspired me to be my best self, and who supported me when I repeatedly failed. But most of all, I was indelibly changed by my clients: individuals experiencing homelessness, mental illness, addiction, victimization, marginalization, racism, classism, heterosexism, cissexism, and so many other manifestations of interpersonal and institutionalized violence.
Completing a year of service is hard. There were many times in which I questioned my choice, my commitment, and my strength. There were many hard days at work, and I made many mistakes. There were even times when I wanted to quit because it was too hard: too emotional, too heartbreaking, too frustrating, too lonely, and too far from home. Choosing to complete my year of service pushed me closer to that source of courage and compassion within myself, and within each of us, that I call God, and taught me that every situation is fundamental workable. MVC taught me to open my heart to the other, and in the process I learned to tentatively open my heart to myself.
MVC taught me that we all have the ability to open our hearts to each other, to work directly with each other to help alleviate suffering and to advocate for dismantling and transforming the systems and structures which perpetuate disparity. Yet the need for committed action continues: I visited Sacramento two years ago, and saw the same problems — violence, addiction, homelessness, and poverty. Sacramento has once again been highlighted on the national news in the aftermath of the killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African-American man, by police officers. I pray for Sacramento — and remember a dear friend who always told me, “When you pray, move your feet.” We all have the ability to pray with, work with, and improve each other’s lives. It is needed now more than ever.
In the words of Venerable Catherine McAuley: “God asks for our heart . . . Do we offer it generously to God, or do we rather seek to shelter it from whatever might afflict it?” For all those who offer their hearts in Mercy, especially current and future Mercy Volunteers:
May you be safe;
May you be happy;
May you be healthy;
May you live with ease.
Ryan Flinn: Sacramento MVC Alumnus