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Just Skip the First Two Steps

By Erin Canning, Casa Ita Ford, Los Angeles 16, St. Louis University. Originally posted on the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s #JVReflects blog.

Mi casa es su casa.” We’ve all heard this saying, and maybe even tossed it around ourselves. But how many of us have experienced the deep sense of belonging that this simple phrase describes? How many have encountered that sense of true community for which all humans yearn? A warm, comfortable sense of being content with who you are, where you are, even if you’re in an unfamiliar place.

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Casa Ita Ford community, with JVC board member Marcos Gonzales, SJ

I struggle with abstract definitions of community; I need to see something in action to know what it’s really about. So as Providence would have it, through JVC I was placed in the very epitome of community.

I have served as the Youth Minister and Immersion Coordinator at Dolores Mission Church and School for almost three months now. But it took all of ten minutes after arriving in L.A. to feel absolutely welcomed and embraced by the Dolores Mission (DM) community. We rolled in around 10 p.m. to find a meal and some men from the neighborhood still hard at work, renovating our JVC home. They re-painted, re-floored, and rebuilt with utmost care and skill, as if working for long-lost family.

Although I have lived my entire life in the Midwest and currently reside 2,000 miles away from “home”, I can’t help but feel a sense of belonging at DM, both within and outside of the work week. Everyone I pass on my way to or from Sunday mass offers a smile and a simple “Buenos días!” Despite the fact that Dolores Mission is small in size or that the majority of the congregation is economically disadvantaged, there is no such thing as “it can’t be done” or “not enough food” – these phrases simply don’t exist in DM’s vocabulary.

The people of the community started feeding and providing shelter to poor immigrants from south of the border over 30 years ago, and the people have continued to do so without fail. The church still houses about 70 homeless men every night and feeds even more twice a day, every day, through the Guadalupe Homeless Project (GHP). During DM’s major Feast Days, such as Nuestra Señora de Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows – our patroness), the guadalupanos (men who are housed in Dolores Mission through GHP) are the first to be served. “They are our guests,” Fr. Ted always says. “They get to eat first.”

The wonderful humans of DM really care for each other, even those who commit acts of violence in the neighborhood. The DM community is fiercely yet peacefully anti-violence, and they show it through various restorative justice ministries and Misas en el Barrio – outdoor neighborhood masses that reclaim violent ground as holy ground, as a place for peace, light, and God.

Part of my work here includes meeting with the Confirmation catechists every other week. One of the catechists described DM’s affinity for community best when he said:

“You know how when you join a new group or community, there are usually 3 steps? The first step is ‘joining’ (everyone knows you’re new but kind of ignores you – it’s a little awkward); the next step is ‘getting to know you’ (people start to remember your name and say ‘hello’); and the last step is ‘being embraced’ (people are excited to see you; they invite you to events; you’re involved in each other’s’ lives). Well Dolores Mission skips the first two steps and jumps right into embracing you.”

In JVC, it’s a blessing enough to have an awesome JV community, one that you look forward to seeing each day after work, one that simultaneously helps you grow in joy and challenges you to become the best version of yourself.

And it’s another privilege to serve in a community that is welcoming, one that gives you a sense of purpose, one which works for peace and justice.

So to have both a JV community like Casa Ita Ford and a work community like Dolores Mission that are supportive and challenging, life-giving and joy-filled – well, that’s just a straight-up miracle. A full-bodied miracle of embracing love, where you can’t help but know that you belong.