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How a Year of Service Broke Me Open

Read this reflective narrative about how my service year broke me open.
(Photo credit: Nia Bailey [@niabydesign])

As a college senior, Janelle had acceptance letters to several law schools, but chose to spend a year in volunteer service teaching in a low-income community in Los Angeles. She quickly realized she was spiritually, emotionally, and professionally unprepared for the year ahead — but that God was walking with her in surprising ways.

When a gruff nun called from Los Angeles to offer me a position teaching at a low-income high school for the year after I graduated college, I said yes. While I was raised in Silicon Valley and the Catholic and public schools I attended were all fairly affluent, how different could it be to teach after having been in school forever?

My naiveté caught up to me real fast.

The first day of class one of my students sneered, “Do you think we’ll respect you because you’re white and college-educated?” After that first day, heavy waves of nausea would roll over my body as we approached campus each morning.

I had internalized a meritocratic script — hard work = success — and rolled up my sleeves. Often lesson-planning until well past midnight, I would wake up only to return to school a few hours later. My exhaustion began to isolate me from the community I was living with. Everything felt unsustainable; I knew that something would have to give.

I began praying the Ignatian Examen and realized that a single thread of consolation seemed consistent throughout those days and weeks: Praying with my students.

***

At the back of my classroom, I had created a prayer altar with a candle and encouraged students to bring in pictures of loved ones or religious mementos. A different student was scheduled to lead our prayer every day. For the first time, I was exposed to non-European spirituality — class prayers often took on the call-and-response style common to the Black community.

Our prayer taught me so much about the lives of my students — everything from upcoming soccer matches, to hopes for unemployed parents or struggling family businesses, to college and career aspirations, to interpersonal and dating dramas. Really, everything was on the table.

In one such a moment during prayer, a student fell apart, gasping through huge, gulping, uncontrolled sobs. Her college-bound brother had been killed in a drive-by shooting the day before. He simply had been wearing the wrong colors at the wrong place and time. We held her and prayed throughout the days and the weeks that followed. Months later, an uncle of another student was released from incarceration. I had never before experienced the raw and unbridled joy that flooded the classroom that morning.

If prayer could open up these meaningful moments of connection and relationship, I wondered what other channels I could use to connect with students outside the classroom. I began moderating various student clubs and volunteering to chaperone school events and field trips. Slowly, I felt a softening — I spent increasing time with my students, as opposed to serving them. 

That softening became apparent in my community as I began to relax. One weekend before Christmas, while driving home from the beach, someone told a good joke. I started laughing uncontrollably for several minutes, tears streaming down my face. A community member wryly smiled at me: “Nice to meet you,” he said. “We’ve been funny all along. You just haven’t noticed.”

Bonds of mutual respect began to grow with my students as I became more present with them. I was awakening to the reality that solidarity can only grow from the fertile soil of encounter. Reading Thomas Merton’s A Letter to a Young Activist helped to articulate so many of the emotions and experiences churning inside me. He wrote, “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

***

One day, I discovered I was running out of matches. I scrambled around the school to ask if any of my colleagues had spare matches. In my heightened anxiety, I made exaggerated associations: no matches meant no prayer candles; no prayer candles meant no prayer; no prayer meant no relationships.  As I walked out of my classroom, I remember asking God to send me some matches before the end of the week.

That very afternoon, as I turned a corner off of Ventura Boulevard, I nearly stepped on a Costco-sized box of matches laying conspicuously in the middle of the sidewalk. Incredulously, I circled it a few times. I looked around, convinced someone would double back out of nowhere and claim it. Tenuously, I bent down and confirmed that it was nearly full.

My legs began to shake and I sat down in the middle of the sidewalk. With one hand clutching the matches to my chest, the other was free to wipe away the sudden tears. I was overcome with the sense that God was walking with me.

But then that gratitude gave way to anxiety and anger: Really God?! Out of all that I have prayed for this year, you send me matches?

Then I thought about my student who had lost her brother. I thought about my community-mate telling me about a homeless client who had been denied social security benefits. I thought about another student at our school — we had to call Child Protective Services when bruises were discovered on her face. I thought about all the pain, injustice, and suffering I had encountered throughout the year. 

Why God? Out of all the prayers we’ve raised to you, why did you pick the most seemingly trivial to answer?

Once again, I found myself drawn to A Letter to a Young Activist: “All the good that you will do will come not from you, but from the fact that you have allowed yourself … to be used by God’s love,” Merton wrote.

I chose to join this volunteer program after a persistent “God voice” kept whispering that there was so much about the world that I didn’t know. I was learning to trust that voice — it was leading me to live more deeply, somehow.  

I hear a lot of criticisms of programs like the one I did — that it is little more than a gap year for the privileged. It is certainly valid to ask why individuals like me can have lived so far removed from the oppressions and challenges that my students faced. And yet, being in solidarity requires confronting obstacles and problems I couldn’t hope to solve. It requires listening. It requires rapport. It requires trust. That’s what I had the chance to practice during that year.

I can’t explain suffering. I don’t know why God sent me matches but didn’t send a homeless guy benefits. But I do know this: I learned to trust God that year in a way that I never knew before. I felt God’s presence nudging me and coaxing me along. And when those subtle nudges failed to reach me, God sent me those matches — a confirmation of His unwavering presence.

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