Like many people on the verge of retirement, I wondered what I would do with my time once I stopped working. I considered helping out at an organization whose values I considered important – perhaps a library, museum or school. In the end, I chose to join the Ignatian Volunteer Corps because it offered some space to investigate what God might have in store for me at this new stage of life. I have found it to be a grace-filled integration of spirituality and service.
The Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC) is designed for older adults who can make a 10-month volunteer commitment of about two days a week to one of a wide variety of local organizations serving low-income people. To reflect on that service in the light of the gospel, IVC-ers gather once a month for prayer and discussion. They also meet monthly with a spiritual reflector and end the year with a three-day retreat.
Most of us come to IVC with a wealth of experience as lawyers, doctors, teachers or business professionals. Sometimes that experience is actually used in our volunteering, for example a retired lawyer providing valuable legal counsel to a poor person. More often, past careers have little to do with our service projects, so it is not unusual to have a medical doctor or entrepreneur helping second-graders learn to read.
Like many new volunteers, I suspect, I began my service hoping to see some positive results of my efforts, but one soon learns how complicated are the problems of poverty. In the face of challenges such as illegal status, addiction, criminal backgrounds, family dysfunction, often in combination, there are no easy fixes.
Similarly, we come to volunteering imagining that we will be appreciated for our work, and while we often are, it is not unusual for poor clients to resent the fact that they must depend on us to get what they need. We serve a varied clientele, ranging from the gracious and charming to the stubborn and frankly repellent, the appreciative to the sullen, and everything in between. St. Ignatius imagined that the Trinity saw humanity in such variety at the moment of the Incarnation.
When I am tempted to lose patience with a difficult client, I try to remember that I have options that she never will. For example, I work in a food pantry with fixed and somewhat arbitrary limits on what is avail- able and how much each client can choose. But when I go to the grocery store, I can choose from a vast array of products and get as much as I want whenever I want it.
Recognizing my own privilege keeps me from judging too quickly and, I hope, fosters a desire to be more generous.
As we encounter “the poor” in all their variety and diversity, we can, even fleetingly, glimpse one another as persons rather than socio-economic categories, finding relationships across lines of race, gender and culture.
Volunteers also provide needed support to the staff of the agencies where they serve. Not-for-profit programs typically are under constant stress searching for funding and trying to retain the frequently underpaid staff.
Dedicated to serving the human fallout of social dysfunction, agency staff are usually gracious and grateful for any help they can get.
The agencies themselves may be relatively inefficient by the standards of the for-profit world, and that can be frustrating. Productivity, efficiency and the bottom line – as important as they are – do not form the bedrock of volunteer service. But in the place of quick results and smooth accomplishments, the personal relationships I have been able to form with clients as well as staff are for me at the core of IVC service.
In the end, we work as part of God’s project, not our own. By grace, we discover the limits of not only our personal power, but also our charitable impulses. We learn that God accepts our efforts and intentions and then works to transform us in the process.
IVC is a collaborative effort not only with the agencies where we are placed, but among the IVC volunteers themselves. Praying as a community and sharing our experiences and insights, we support and strengthen one another in our common work. None of us is alone in serving God in others.
Sometimes all you can do is be with people in their difficulties without solving or removing them. But being there allows one to share their joy as well. Recently, the daughter of one of our Somali immigrant families excitedly told me of being interviewed by a TV news station about a charitable project she was involved in at her high school. She concluded by saying, “I’m so happy.” In that moment, I was happy too.