By Hector Avitia, Precious Blood Volunteer
“Oh man, I can’t wait to see their bubbles burst,” I said with a chuckle as I sipped my chicory coffee. It was a nice April afternoon in the Back of Yards Mexican restaurant La Cecina. Tim Deveney and I were discussing how the culture shock of working with marginalized populations was a “bubble” buster for many volunteers who just graduated college. The bubble symbolizes our world view based on our experiences. A lot of folks who have been fortunate enough to have had most of their needs met and only known about suffering through books and film, have their world view, or bubble, broken open when they meet suffering head on. As someone who had already been in the workforce for seven years and personally experienced poverty, discrimination, and fear of authorities as a child, I believed I was better equipped to handle the problems that the families of south side Chicago were going through. I was going to be the wise old man that guided the other volunteers through the landscape of suffering and sit back with a bag of popcorn as their bubbles burst into a million pieces.
Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation (PBMR) is a place of hope, healing, and radical hospitality. In order to achieve these goals, we must establish strong, meaningful relationships with those we serve. It is a long road filled with tons of bumps and detours because the folks of these communities have been living through ongoing trauma almost all of their lives. Trust is a commodity in this place where even friends and family have turned on each other, sometimes culminating into gun violence. The natural response from the human mind when these things happen is to be cautious of whom to trust. When anyone new comes into their lives, even when their intent is to help, their automatic response is to be careful and put up walls to protect themselves. Because of my background, I believed I had a shortcut to this process of fostering relationships with the young men that I was to be case managing. I think PBMR should have a warning sign outside of the door that reads “This is a place of hope, healing, and radical hospitality… Please leave your ego at the door.”
After only a few weeks into the volunteer experience, I had to come to the harsh reality that my own “tough” upbringing is nothing compared to the struggles of the people to whom we are ministering. One of my firsts tasks at PBMR involved helping a young family get on the road to stability. In order to protect their privacy, I cannot say much more, but I can say that I was completely overwhelmed by the obstacles they were facing. I imagined myself in their situation and what I would do to get ahead. Surely, I could give them great advice by putting myself in their shoes-but immediately I realized how their and my own scenarios were so very different. Even though financial resources were not always there, I always had around me a consistent group of people that loved me and who would do anything for me if I was in trouble. I never had to use their help because I didn’t have an emergency, and I became blind to the treasure that was my network of family and friends.
So, there I am, sitting in a room with a young family that was relying on my help and guidance to avoid homelessness with their young daughter. I was like a deer caught in headlights, stunned and unable to act. And this was supposed to be the “easy” case, something simple that would help ease me into dealing with tougher cases. If I was no good for them now, how was I supposed to be helpful to the rest of the guys I was case managing? How was I going to develop relationships with these young men if my only “Ace up my sleeve” was my not-so-harsh upbringing? I was too concerned with other people’s bubbles to see that my own bubble didn’t stand a chance.
While things seemed dark in this extremely young journey of service, God’s grace found a way to shine through. Fr. David Kelly gave a lecture to a group of students and faculty at the University of Notre Dame. In his talk he mentioned how, despite his many years of leading PBMR and being involved in the lives of those he serves, he has only stories to share. They are stories, because he was not the one going through the suffering. He recognizes that he can be empathetic, but there is no real way to completely suffer the same pain as those he serves. It became clear that having a similar past to those we help is not a qualification to build a positive and long-lasting relationship with them. What matters is to recognize this limitation and to still be willing to give your time and effort to help those in need. I like to think that when we encounter new people with different perspectives, then it is up to us to decide if these experiences burst our bubble, or if they help us grow that world view to encompass more people.
Hector is a current Precious Blood Volunteer serving at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago.
To learn more about becoming a Precious Blood Volunteer go to www.preciousbloodvolunteers.org.