It is easy to isolate ourselves or to feel lonely in the 21st C. A topic that famous researcher, Brené Brown, dissects in her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging. Brown threads a Maya Angelou quote throughout her book as she wrestles to understand them herself, Angelou said, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.” For JVC, there is no better way to understand this definition of belonging, then through the lens of current volunteer, Christina Rommelfanger (Atlanta, 2017-18).
Christina can now find belonging in unexpected places, “I walk about a mile from the train station to my office every morning. It’s not a particularly beautiful walk, but I really value this time because, with a house full of roommates and office full of students and coworkers, it’s really the only consistent time during the day I’m alone to sort out my thoughts.”
Jesuit Volunteers often strive to counter the culturally imposed feeling of loneliness by joining the corps, which is what makes JVC so counter-cultural. Volunteers actively decide to become a part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a beloved community. Although contemporary researchers like Brown, whom most folks know because of her TED Talk on vulnerability, can masterfully turn belonging into a research topic, JVs like Christina are a lived example of research like hers. Volunteers walk away from their intense and challenging time as JVs with a keen understanding of their purpose in the world in times spent alone just as comfortably as when they are with others.
At first, Christina decided on JVC because she was looking for a space to build relationships and reflect. After transferring schools in college, she was feeling “directionless” while trying to figure out what to do after graduation. JVC is both a pathway and an opportunity to build relationships and to reflect within several different communities in order to pin point Christina’s spot on the map. As her JV community, the larger Atlanta community, her work community, and the JVC retreat community become a part of her place in the world.
“Within my first month of living in Atlanta, the outer edge of Hurricane Irma visited Atlanta. It was a Wednesday, and the city had shut down in preparation. With the wind picking up and the rain coming down, we played sand volleyball in the empty park—before racing home when the storm really began. We easily could have spent the day inside reading or watching Netflix on our respective computers, but what made this day so memorable (other than the hurricane), was that we chose to spend intentional time with each other, living in the moment, and using what we had to make the most of it.”
Christina models the support she feels in her many communities to create space for those she serves at her placement site. At Catholic Charities of Atlanta, she teaches English as a second language and does her due diligence to welcome her students so that they too might feel a sense of belonging. She sees a central part of her role being a person who holds space for folks as they construct their voice in English. A language with sounds and structures that are new to them. As Catholic Social Teaching dictates, solidarity and its use of empowerment is key to how Christina approaches the classroom.
“Our program has some requirements for what material we cover, but I think it’s very important to let them decide (at least to an extent) what I teach them.”
The process of developing teaching skills has been an inspiration. Ultimately, it has assisted Christina with figuring out her next steps. She is thinking about going back to school and turning the interest into education into a career.
“I usually teach classes in the morning with a class of about 15-20. Classes are twice a week, 3 hours total (although I only teach 2 of the hours). I try to make the students feel welcome by using their names (and pronouncing them correctly) when I speak to them.”
During a year of service, volunteers become part of several different communities. This increased growth for Christina has meant not only a deeper understanding of herself, but also an increased sense of vocation.
Volunteers like Christina find belonging in expected (their worksite) and unexpected (their commute) places throughout the year—an ongoing blessing and challenge. During this time of growth there can be some natural joy and pain, while learning and unlearning what has been comfortable. Luckily, during this search, volunteers are able to grow and grow together.