FJVs Sonny Marks (Sacramento, CA 1990-91) and Nicole Miller (Atlanta, GA 1992-93 | Tanzania 1996-98)
My city in Louisiana made news in 2020 with the Category 4 hurricanes that hit us. My wife, her mother and I drove from our homes in Lake Charles before Hurricane Laura hit. Our roof got damaged during our evacuation, causing a drip into the main bedroom. Six weeks after Laura, Hurricane Delta hit, and that drip became a ruptured ceiling.
We fared better than a neighbor across the street. His entire house was blown down.
Fellow FJV Nicole Miller (Atlanta, GA 1992-93 | Tanzania 1996-98) lives five blocks from me. A tree landed on her house, “but it didn’t cause major damage,” she said. “We had lots of leaks and lots of Sheetrock to rip out.”
Hurricane Laura hit in August, when it was more than 90 degrees in humid south Louisiana. Electricity was knocked out. When Nicole got ice, she cried with relief and in gratitude.
As she dealt with her family’s recovery, she accepted a job managing disaster housing recovery for our parish (what the rest of the U.S. calls a county). She waited for federal funding to come through; when it finally did, many houses in our area were too deteriorated to rehab. Nicole is doing what she can with what she has.
In this politically divided era, she has seen the hurricanes pull our community together.
“I’ve never been a very popular person in political circles because I talk about affordable housing,” she said. “I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and people have hated me for all of them except for the last year. I stood in front of a planning commission meeting to talk about an affordable housing development, and the room was filled with supporters. It’s the first time it’s ever happened in my career. And it’s because people relate to each other now and they can empathize. It’s a little closer to them.
“I think God every once in a while just wreaks havoc so people can be a little bit shaken up and maybe see through a different lens.”
I met Nicole in 1998, seven years after my JVC year in Sacramento ended. I wrote for the daily newspaper in Lake Charles, and reported one day on a local angle on the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Nicole, a Lake Charles native, flew home from that country at the conclusion of her two years of service there with Jesuit International Volunteers.
Our paths crossed a few years later, when she was working in housing for Volunteers of America. I wrote a series of stories on local homelessness, believing at first that the problem was limited to those who slept outside. Nicole broadened my view, educating me about those who struggled to find and maintain affordable housing.
I grew up a couple hours east of Lake Charles, in Baton Rouge. I went to Catholic schools but not a Jesuit one. In my senior year of college, I saw an article in my church newsletter about a family friend who did JVC in Alaska. I saw adventure, so I applied.
What I didn’t see was the daily routine of maintaining a household. I didn’t cook; never learned. God bless my housemates in California who prepared our meals and allowed me to wash dishes.
I saw JVC as a year off after college, before the real world of work. Among the things I didn’t see coming was the work it took to build a community and to be part of one. My housemates and I went camping in a national park one weekend with another community. On the last day, my tension with a housemate culminated in my giving him a middle finger. The five of us drove home in relative silence, then met in our living room to discuss what happened and where we went from there.
I worked for a network of group homes for adolescents as an assistant activities coordinator. The boys and girls took meds and therapy. I spent afternoons playing basketball with them, playing music, and going to museums and the library. There were long stretches of boredom and aimlessness in the mornings when the children were in school.
I experienced creative liturgies for the first time in JVC, sitting on the ground with the priest as we passed the bread among us volunteers and broke it for each other.
Our orientation retreat was on Monterey Bay, California. The region spent an afternoon watching a movie about the life and assassination of Archbishop Romero. I got bored with that after a few minutes, and spent the rest of the film walking the beach. In spite of that, seeds of social justice were planted in me that year such that when I met Nicole Miller across the country toward the end of that decade, I could hear what she was telling me about those in our community who could not afford a place to live.
After undergrad at Loyola University New Orleans, she didn’t get the job she wanted so her uncle, a Jesuit priest, suggested JVC. Nicole landed in Georgia, as volunteer coordinator for the Metro Atlanta Furniture Bank. She lived in a community of eight.
“I was surrounded by all these people who were experiencing the same thing in very different ways,” she said. “And we really committed to praying together regularly. Praying sometimes was yoga, or it was listening to a song or it was doing meditation, but it was intentional.”
Nicole was a vegetarian, and would discuss whether to spend community money on meat. One member got money from family, and the community discussed the impact of that on the rest of them. One day when Nicole was washing dishes, she learned what impact her sarcasm had on a fellow community member, when that person exploded on her.
Their JVC year ended, Nicole stayed in Atlanta and continued to live with two of her community mates. The three stayed at their agencies. Their non-profit work required them to continue to live simply and reflect on social justice.
Nicole moved from the Furniture Bank to Atlanta’s Task Force for the Homeless. It was the mid 1990s, and the city was preparing to host the Olympics. Nicole worked in media relations for the Task Force, and got frustrated by the dehumanization of people getting displaced.
I don’t understand how you can tell Joe he can’t stay on that park bench anymore, she recalls thinking. He’s not other. He’s Joe. What the hell are you doing?
It became difficult to do her job, and she applied for Jesuit International Volunteers. She got turned down, so she stayed another year at the Task Force. She applied again for JIV, and got in this time.
Nicole lived in the Tanzania city of Mwanza. She entered in a community of five, and it grew to more people in her second year. They lived among dirt roads, with occasional electricity and occasional running water.
“There was definitely no debate or discussion about simple living,” Nicole said.
The volunteers got stipends of $25 per month, which made them rich by Tanzanian standards. The JVs saved their money to travel.
Nicole taught journalism at a post-secondary English-speaking school. She and her community mates learned Swahili. “We were white in an African community,” she said. “Everyone was constantly watching us.”
The JVs took malaria medication for a few months, which didn’t keep them from getting malaria. One of the community members got it particularly bad, running fever, vomiting and also catching dysentery. When Nicole recalls it decades later, it brings her to tears.
The community took care of her at home for a while, then finally went to a Western-educated doctor in town. He was incredulous that they hadn’t brought her to the hospital.
“So we took her to the hospital in town. We took turns staying with her night and day,” Nicole said. They were in a cinderblock room with a concrete floor. Her housemate lay on a thin feather mattress on a wooden pallet. The housemate threw up and had diarrhea constantly. Dark circles grew under her eyes.
“We’re in our 20s, we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re in a foreign country,” Nicole said. “What are our options?”
While her housemate was withering away, one of Nicole’s students was in a hospital room nearby, also suffering with malaria and dysentery.
Phone service was sporadic. Someone finally got through to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps office in the U.S. The housemate’s condition got to the point that she might die, so JVC got her airlifted to Great Britain. She stayed in a hospital there for a month and recovered.
As grateful as Nicole was for the care that her housemate eventually got, she kept an eye on her African student suffering in the same hospital.
“Someone finally comes in and takes him to Nairobi for better care. We had this great JVC insurance that airlifted my housemate up and away, but it was completely normalized for my student to be sitting there dying. They call this the burden of the African world. That crystallized social justice for me.”
In the midst of Nicole’s service there, the head of JVC visited them in Tanzania. Nicole told him she was glad she persisted after not getting selected the first time she applied.
“And he’s like, ‘Can I tell you a story and you won't be real mad at me? Your card fell off the table.’”
Nicole didn’t understand. The priest continued.
“When we do placements, we put everybody’s name on a card, and we put them all out on a table,” he told her. “Then we put out all the agencies and we start shifting around. And your card fell off the table.
“He said, ‘Nicole, it was God. You’re here where you need to be now.’ I was like, ‘I know that, but I’m still mad at you.’”
Nicole and I agree that, as we each look back on the different things we’ve been part of in our 50-plus years, Jesuit Volunteer Corps stands out. The fun part of JVC for me was traveling around the West for parties with other communities. It was my own community, though, that prompted me to grow more in that one year than in any other single year in my life.
Sonny Marks served with JVC in Sacramento, CA from 1990-91. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. When he’s not practicing law, he enjoys playing tennis and also reading with his grandsons.