What Shapes You?

I just filled out an alumni survey for Sojourners community which I was a part of many moons ago. Remembering in order to answer their questions made me grateful again for a part of my life that helped shape me. I have had significant life experiences that remain a blessing, but that one year spent in Washington, DC opened my mind, heart and soul to amazing revelations. I lived in a household of wonderfully committed people. My work was life-giving. The opportunities that arose for travel and learning were beyond what I could have imagined. The people I met were phenomenal.

In those 12 months, I wrestled with all kinds of questions regarding social justice. I contemplated being arrested and potentially deported for civil disobedience for an anti-apartheid demonstration. I met some of the most engaged people I ever have. I grew in ways that were painful and glorious. I witnessed poverty, freedom, oppression, faith-in-action, and community life at its best and worst. I developed relationships that remain to this day, dear to me.

I cannot explain with words the feelings that are evoked with these memories. They are as intense as if they happened recently instead of decades ago. I can see the neighbourhood crack man being led away in handcuffs. I can feel the laughter from one of the internship coordinators in my bones to this day. I can see the tears of a colleague when we discussed sexual harassment. I can smell the ocean as a housemate and I walk along it and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. I see the flickering light of a candle at a vigil. I sense the tension dissipate in a crowded room when a housing advocate suddenly appears at a meeting. I feel my awe listening to a man who would go on to do superb work with George Clooney in Darfur and other global hot spots. The unmarked graves at the plantation still haunt me. I hear the women praying before we opened the doors of the food line that we might recognize Jesus today. The kindnesses towards this Prairie Girl from Canada are etched upon my heart.

There was never a dull moment and lots of newness. Washington was the perfect backdrop for this experience. It provided a number of opportunities that another setting could not have. It was my first Christmas away from home. The first time in a long time that I had played volleyball in a league. I learned to drive a standard. I grew confident to walk the streets without fear. I never stopped praying that the kids at the top of my street would not be shot dead. I loved jumping in the shared car and heading off for a weekend adventure to New York City, Boston, Richmond…wherever the wind would blow us. I transcribed hours of tapes of fascinating interviews with women in South Africa and survivors of the Three Mile Island explosion. I spent three hours every Sunday at mass after attending worship with the community.

I found within a courage and a compassion that I did not know I had. I was hungry for any new experience–art, food, travel, faith experiences, service, and so much more. I was more alive than I had been in a very long while. What I do now is shaped by what I learned there. I served on a refugee committee for years. I coordinate a prison ministry. I traveled to Guatemala to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. I read books by people who are keen to serve God with all their hearts, minds and spirits. Even my studies in conflict resolution came out of my yearning to learn more about social justice.

My time with Sojourners was not perfect. I struggled with living in community. I felt inadequate as I typed those interviews at a snail’s pace on my first experience with a computer. I missed the Canadian perspective and manner often. I smacked up against the wall of oppression because I was a woman. I understood the irony of being told I was the least racist person who worked at the magazine. I struggled with my own judgments regarding relationships within the Catholic Church. I wept hours as I learned things about humanity that I did not think were possible.

For all of it though, I am grateful because it has helped to create the me of today. I see God in all things and I did back then. I cannot listen to the news without praying. I will not accept mainstream media as the final word. I will always seek alternative voices and the true voice of the Creator. I will be kind to people because I will not know their story in its entirety. I listen to the men at the federal prison with compassion because I read many letters of inmates looking for someone to hear their situation without judgment. I will be open to wonder and grace because God is at work, here and now, no matter how hard the journey appears.

All the experiences of that year remain with me and continue to transform me. We all have experiences that shape us. What might that be in your life?



About sstyves

A Canadian prairie girl rooted in Ignatian spirituality, I seek God in all things. Whether I catch a glimpse of the Divine and delight in its presence in nature or in the beauty of an encounter with someone, I am ever so grateful that I can recognize the Creator. I greet each new day with hope and happiness, expecting blessings and miracles because I am created to praise, love and serve God. This blog is one way of realizing that through my writings, prayers, and photography. To God be the Glory!
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