by Kara McNamara, Precious Blood Volunteer
When I left the orientation for the Precious Blood Volunteer program with my fellow volunteer, the wonderful Leah Yeo, I never could have imagined what would come next for me. Since that day in June, I can say that I’ve done some things that I never had done before and never expected that I would. I painted a good portion of the interior of a house, learned a smattering of Navajo, have gone off-roading, lived with nuns, cooked a cake in a pit in the ground, watched 500 hot air balloons take off, seen centuries-old Anasazi ruins, eaten homemade tortillas fresh off the fire, battled the altitude, and have begun to believe that the hour-long drive to Gallup isn’t so long after all.
I live in Crownpoint, New Mexico, in the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation. I am a Precious Blood Volunteer here, which can mean something different every day, depending on the needs of the community. Most days, I’m helping out as a teacher’s aide in the second and third grades at St. Bonaventure Mission School, which serves to provide a Catholic education to Navajo families. Other times, being a volunteer here means helping out around the parish: co-leading the high school religious education class, helping to run the clothes shop the church holds twice a month, doing maintenance for the parish hall, putting together the Sunday bulletin for Mass, and for a while, playing with and feeding the ten adorable puppies that were born on our property. In very rare instances, being a volunteer here has meant that you might find me delivering dinner to firefighters with Father Al Ebach during the “storm of the century,” moving a very heavy piano into the church with several burly men, or even pulling weeds (some things do grow in the desert).
Since Father Al exploded onto the scene last month, he’s had some great ideas that I’ve gotten to be a part of. The one that is closest to my heart is the “Backpack” program, which will distribute food to students in need at St. Bonaventure that will carry them through the weekend. In my role as a teacher’s aide with the little ones, I have witnessed too many signs that kids are doing without on the weekends. This program will discreetly send home a bag of food each Friday, enough to get the kids through until Monday. The food will all be things that a child would be able to prepare on his or her own, as some of these kids may not have a parent to depend on to make a meal. St. Bonaventure, affectionately called “St. Bon’s” in the community, is a really special place, a haven of sorts. The staff is incredible and the children are little miracles, each and every one (even the kids who won’t stay quiet in line when I tell them to). This program is an opportunity for me and the other community volunteers who will be involved to show our love and care for the children of this community. This project epitomizes the kind of work that I’d hoped I’d be doing out here—building relationships and meeting a practical need in the community with great love.
It can be hard to be here; it can be hard to be so isolated, to see such poverty, to witness so many broken dreams. It can be difficult to know how to comfort someone who’s experiencing something that I never have, to not be able to answer the tough questions. I have more questions than answers.
And yet I see God’s promise here too. The beauty of the land, the generous hearts of the people here, and the incredible quiet that it offers is really something. I wish everyone had the opportunity to see this place, because we all can learn something from the experience. Sister Maureen and Sister Michelle can teach us all to be flexible and to greet with open arms whatever life throws at us. Deacon Sherman and his wife Alice can teach us all how to be welcoming and generous with our hearts. Ella, who is the boss lady at our clothes shop, can teach us how to laugh at the little things. Rodel and Romina, a husband and wife duo that teaches religious education, can teach us about being humble and friendly. Some of the kids at St. Bonaventure could teach angels to be kind (other kids…could not). I have gotten to learn a little bit from everyone who has crossed my path here. Every person who comes to this community has gifts to share and lessons both to teach and learn. It’s a beautiful example of community in practice; for all that Crownpoint has some incredible challenges as well.
There is a quote that I’ve long kept in my heart because it applies to every place I’ve ever walked: “The first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on people’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival” (Kenneth Cragg). This idea of going about my placement here on the reservation with the dignity and sacredness of the Crownpoint community in mind is central to my sense of mission in this volunteer experience. This is surely a holy place.
Figuratively, I do my best every day to take off my shoes. From there, I let God take me on the adventure.
Precious Blood Volunteer Kara McNamara is a graduate of the University of Dayton.