During December, the COMPASS blog is sharing reflections related to giving, since this is an especially gift giving time of year. Today, regular contributor Nicole Brennan shares her story about a year of service in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and lessons she has learned from that experience about giving, in writing “Giving: A Practice in Joyfulness.”
A trend that is gaining steam in America is the practice of a “gap year.” A “gap year” is some length of time (usually a year) during which students take a break from their studies to live in the real world and do something fruitful. Many students do this after high school in between college, or like me, some do it following college.
Here I am in the homeless day shelter with one of the most memorable guests, John. I had the pleasure of witnessing his transformation throughout my year.
To some, it isn’t a new concept. The Peace Corps was established in the United States in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy; AmeriCorps (the domestic counterpart) was established in 1993 by President Bill Clinton; and the volunteer program I entered, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, started informally in 1956. However, to me, it was a radical notion. I moved across the country without knowing a soul, promised a year of service, and was going to work with 700+ homeless people, mostly men, every day at a complex called Loaves & Fishes. I couldn’t have been more scared and excited!
My service year forever molded my life. I had many great experiences, including learning how to drive, living off $100 a month, and discovering the values of simplicity, community, and intentionality. I gave the gift of my time to the people who needed it. And believe me, I received far more benefits than anyone I helped.
A distinct lesson I learned during my service year was about giving and the true essence of a gift. Winter time in California is not as bitterly cold as it is in Chicago where I live now, but it is still cold when you are living on the streets. It seemed on every blustery day we were passing out gloves, hats, scarves, blankets, and if we were really lucky, hand warmers. But when you don’t have a permanent place to keep your stuff, you only carry what you can and it is easy to lose a glove.
We began passing out cold weather gear as late in the season as we could – only when the thermometer dipped below 40°F/4.44°C. Though people are very generous, the need is too great. We would run out of items very quickly, even though we had a strict policy of how many items people could have. It is heartbreaking to turn away a guy who just needs a pair of gloves. “I’m sorry Jason, but there just isn’t enough.” And it is even more heartbreaking to repeat that phrase to the twenty guys in line behind him. And more heartbreaking still, to repeat that phrase several times a day for weeks on end. (My heart hurt a lot that year, but it was also the most wonderful year of my life. I kept a blog of my experiences if you want to read more.)
Sometimes “you gotta do, what you gotta do.” Dirty dishes for 700+ was a one of those things.
I was lamenting about this heartbreak to my spiritual director, Sr. Claire. She wisely told me a story about Andora. Sr. Claire would run into this homeless woman often at the clinic she ran, and after a few years, an almost-friendship grew between them. Sr. Claire would always bring her hot meals, practical items, and a few dollars when she could. One day, Andora remarked about these gifts. She needed them, but moreover, Sr. Claire needed to give them. “Gifts are not so much about the person receiving them, but about the person who gives them.” Even though Andora needed these items, and the homeless gentlemen needed gloves, the true gift was the increased generosity in our own hearts.
I have to believe in the best in people – they gave what they could. And even though it was heartbreaking to not give out more, it was a joyful moment when the shelter had items to give away. Giving is a joyful event, and when you give, joyfulness and generosity pervade your life. Giving begets giving. When you know the joy that comes from giving, you want to duplicate that as much as possible!
About the Author, Nicole Brennan: Hello there! I’m passionate about living a stewardly lifestyle, while being adventurous and frugal. I currently live in community with six other 20-somethings in downtown Chicago and work as a Marketing Assistant at Barnabas Foundation, a partner of ESC and COMPASS. In my off hours, you can find me volunteering at a nearby homeless shelter, enjoying live music with friends, or watching reruns of Parks and Rec. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me at @BarnabasFdn.
This blog is a component of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center’s COMPASS initiative to engage young adults in conversations about faith and finances. Like what you see and want to know/do more? Visit the COMPASS web page and join the COMPASS community on Facebook.