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An Evolution of Service: From Catholic U to first grade theology

Over the past couple years, social media, TV and live video has led to the evolution of public conversation around justice issues in our country. Many systematically marginalized groups have used social to build community around hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #NoDAPL to tell their stories. Claire Denny, a current JV in South Dakota has also evolved these past couple of years. Her evolution is still in progress (as is our civic dialogue). Claire’s experiences at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and as a Jesuit Volunteer are allowing her to become part of this evolving public conversation. Her service at her placement site, a reservation in South Dakota, is an inspiration for others to serve in a courageous and bold way.

Jesuit Volunteer

Mike O’Sullivan, aka DJ Sully, at St. Francis Mission in South Dakota.

Claire first found out about JVC through her parents who are both former volunteers of our program. She says their volunteer experience influence the way they raised her and her brother.

“I grew up watching my parents put their faith in action. JVC impacted their career choices and how they interacted with my community and parish. My parents instilled the idea that we have a responsibility as God’s children to care for all those we interact with.”

Claire and her students stop to take a selfie!

When it came time to plan for life after college, Claire naturally gravitated toward unique opportunities to serve those on the margins. The anthropology degree she earned included coursework centered on Native American history, and policies that impact those communities today. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense why Claire chose to serve JVC for 2-years at St. Francis Mission, a ministry that serves 20,000 Lakota (Sioux) people on the Rosebud Indian American reservation founded in 1886. In fact, she was “completely drawn to it.”

Claire wants to channel her lived experience into advocacy after her time as a JV is up. She said, “I enjoy having conversations with people here, and learning something new from each person, but I now have a responsibility to take my knowledge and bring it into a larger public discussion about how we can help the vulnerable in society, as well as learn about their unique culture and practices.”

 

At St. Francis Mission, Claire teaches 230 students a week and 1/3 do not have coats. This has brought new meaning to simple living for both her and her JV community. Claire said that as a group they have really grown to appreciate abundance with a new consciousness. “My parents think it’s funny how thrilling it is for us to go to Rapid City. I’ve really grown to notice and enjoy the small, special things that were just part of my everyday life before.”

To serve in this radical way near no major cities means that there are no fancy coffee shops, malls or material abundance often found in more urban or metropolitan areas.

“The sunsets in SD are like none I have ever seen. I recently went to a work retreat and was reminded that when we experience joy through beauty we are having an interaction with God; as such I have come to see God in the sunsets here. It is a spiritual component of my faith that I have come to appreciate.”

Neil Conlisk teaches “I’ve got the joy” to children in St. Francis during their religious education class.

When Claire first arrived she says the learning curve was steep, but she’s been able to find many pockets of support built into the service she does there. With an enclave of support in the form of three different support families made up of Former Jesuit Volunteers, the families challenge her in both her faith and in her JV role.

“My students have been the main driving force in my contemplation of what is next for me professionally. Children truly are the future.” A position where Claire can make an impact in that next generations education around cultural practices and traditions is one that speaks to where she’s at in her vocational discernment as of now. After all, she shared, “It is only through understanding and respecting our differences and recognizing our similarities with others that peace can be achieved.”

 

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Deborah Adewale setting up classes at Spring Creek for Religious Ed

What an opportunity for grace–as Claire, one of over 200 volunteers find their voice and make plans to use them in bold ways. As Claire’s personal and professional evolution happens while serving on the Native American reservation, she will be able to bring that growth into a larger civic dialogue in a space that welcomes conversation. And as her parents worked to educate and empower her after their JVC experience, may she help educate future generations. What we know for sure is that the evolution of Claire’s journey has just begun.