There is the family you’re born into and the family you marry into, but there’s one other type of family that you don’t always come across: the family you choose. Well, in JVC’s case, it is more like the family they choose for you. I’m talking about my Jesuit Volunteer community-mates.
When you commit to the international program, you are not simply committing to two years of service in a foreign country; you also commit your life to at least three other strangers who will spend the next year or two years together with you. In a foreign setting, especially in Tacna this means they are about the only three other Americans you’ll see in town.
Family: you love them, you fight with them, you can’t really “get rid of” them. The same can be said for a JVC community. There is no moving out if things get rough and with few other outlets, your living experience could easily transform itself into one of tension and stone-silent dinners. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with community-mates who have brought an essential component to any healthy living situation: commitment.
This commitment isn’t a “grin-and-bare-it,” “let’s just get through this” kind of mentality. It’s the act of choosing to commit to loving one another every single day in our moments of grace as well in our moments of doubt.
Each week, my community members make the choice to show up to dinner at 7pm sharp for a shared meal. They commit to spirituality nights and even drag themselves out of bed at 6:50am for 7 o’clock mass on Sunday mornings. During community nights, each of us makes the choice not only to share but to listen wholeheartedly, hearing the reflections and experiences throughout the week of others with an open mind and a heart without judgment.
It’s not about showing up and checking the attendance box, it’s about being present to each other. When you’re living in a foreign country or new city, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your head. The first six months can seem like a humiliating torture as your tongue fails you, you miss cultural clues, and even find yourself falling over on the bus a rather astonishing number of times. When the days are tough, it may seem hard to ask yourself to sit down at 7pm, take a deep breath, and listen to the experience of someone else’s day. But that’s exactly what our community does. Day after day we return to the same common space and choose to love the faces seated before us, for better or worse.
It’s not just about being present and listening, it’s about vulnerability too. You can’t be a good community member without opening that little box of fears and faults and saying, “hey, I’m struggling with this” or “you know, I need help with that.” Speaking from personal experience, this aspect of community has challenged me on multiple occasions. It’s taken more than one community member sharing that I needed to rely on others more for the lesson to finally sink in for me. And once I opened up that little box of vulnerability, I realized how much closer my relationships became.
So it takes commitment, vulnerability, and love to build a healthy community. Seems simple. The actual execution of it is a little harder. What has helped our community of four is a binding document, a mission statement that we hope to live out in the next year, and a willingness to adapt. We’ve lucked out on this because most relationships and friendships aren’t always built on such a strong foundation. But this does not negate the importance of hard work and honest conversations throughout the year.
Someone recently sent me an article about love and relationships. The article claimed that love isn’t something that stays the same within us for the rest of our lives. Sure, you can “fall” in love, but staying in love? That’s a choice. A choice you’ll have to make today and every day for the rest of your life. This same choice is applied in our intentional JVC community day after day. I can only hope that once my time with JVC ends, I carry with me the power of love and commitment that I have discovered and strengthened within me day by day here in Tacna, Peru.