by Vincent Tedford, Precious Blood Volunteer
Last year, I was meditating on Christ’s Passion. Christ’s sacrifice and suffering were a focal point for all my emotions surrounding the injustices I witnessed in the world around me. Nothing else evoked the same emotion for me. However, when I became a Precious Blood Volunteer, I witnessed human suffering on a scale like never before.
In August of last year, I moved to Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood to begin volunteering at the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation (PBMR). Within a few hours of landing, I met and heard the stories of those wrongfully convicted and/or formerly incarcerated, the victims of gun violence, the medically underserved, and generally marginalized people with whom I would be spending my year as a Precious Blood Volunteer. I thought I knew what I was getting into, but even on day one I was surprised at the reality our PBMR community was facing.
Death and loss are in constant competition against the backdrop of hope we try to maintain at PBMR. In the forefront were the daily struggles. I went to the woodshop and worked with guys trying to make enough to get by while learning what it takes to maintain a job; showing up and staying on task often prove to be a struggle for our participants. Early on I was enlightened by the question, “How can you meet basic expectations when your basic needs are lacking?”
“I don’t have a bed. My family is taking in people all the time and I gave mine up for my brother. He’s in high school, playing sports, so I want him to have the best shot at success.” One of our participants shared this with me while talking about his own journey to a career as an athlete. This young man is willing to make sacrifices, despite the drain on his own potential, for someone else to get a leg up he never had. Something as simple as a good night’s sleep should never be taken for granted.
For some, the threat of violence keeps them up at night; most are experiencing perpetual trauma which would make anyone restless. Just trying to get by, living each day on high alert, and/or self-medicating are enough cause for them to fall behind. Every day at PBMR I have seen elements of this cycle in people’s lives.
I am reflecting on my life before August and how the time since then has impacted and will continue to impact me going forward. Before graduating last May, I had no image more viscerally compelling to meditate on than the Passion. Now, while I walk the streets of Back of the Yards on my way to PBMR, I feel an intense emotion being evoked.
As I take the bus to my meetings and appointments, or towards my leisure activities and outings, the reality of human suffering is present and inescapable. I realize now my life was sheltered from this pain; my vision—even though imagining the Passion was important—was limited to this far-off concept of despair. Having been drawn near to my heart through my experience, the people of the PBMR community have shown me how I must go forth in spirit to my future.
When I go to the EdLab, our room for tutoring those trying to go back and get their high school diploma, I prepare myself to encounter the students wherever their minds are. Some days I know there is nothing I can do to help someone in or out of the classroom. On others, I feel the slightest gift makes a big difference. The common factor, though, is showing up and accompanying.
When I was told that the core of this program was to walk with those who suffer, I merely drew upon my experience sitting with people in pain. Now, even though I do often sit next to students to tutor, being seated speaks nothing to the difficulty of the walk we take. The walk they must take every day and to which I merely opt-in.
One student tested my proverbial ability to walk. I often hear incoherent stories of their life and I witness their unstable condition, both physically and mentally. They often challenge my ability to respond with compassion. Accompaniment, I learned, can mean frequent stopping for breaks and reminding someone to take a breather while you keep watch for them.
One day in the EdLab, I was grading papers and supervising students while they studied. A student was talking to themselves and getting louder. I asked if they were okay which they promptly brushed off. Thankfully, one of the religious sisters had reflected on these situations for years and helped me respond. “Hey, you’re doing some great work today. I can tell you have a lot on your mind, so how about we take a break and get some water? Let me know if you want to talk, okay?”
I learned through moments like this: the little bit of discomfort I would have during an interaction with someone during bouts of schizophrenia could be pivotal to their educational progress and more importantly, demonstrate compassionately how they are a part of our community not to be neglected.
I want to keep sharing my skills with my community. Someone once said, if you want to change the world, go home and love your family. From there, serve your community, and keep carrying that out across the global community we all share. For now, my roommates and I take care of our home together and share our experiences at PBMR while supporting, reaffirming, and imparting wisdom to each other. I’m grateful to Missionaries of the Precious Blood, who support me during this year of service, the people looking out for me and my fellow volunteers, and the PBMR community, who appreciate the gifts and talents I bring.
The liberty of our communities at large is bound to the liberty of each community. Wherever I go, no matter what I do, I now know my liberty is bound to my neighbors and we can work together. Marginalized, far-off, and/or rejected, you carry within you the same Precious Blood we all share.