Geneva, Switzerland — Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our eighth round of bloggers: Sarabella Muise is a Good Shepherd Volunteer in New York City, and Julianna Lewis is a VIDES+USA volunteer who recently completed her first assignment in Bogotá, Colombia. She is now in Geneva, Switzerland, at her second placement site with VIDES+USA at the Istituto Internazionale Maria Ausiliatrice Human Rights Office which has special consultative status with the United Nations. This is Julianna's eighth and final blog post.
It seems like just yesterday that I was beginning my formation in San Antonio, Texas, with the Salesian sisters to be a VIDES+USA volunteer. Nine months have passed since this training last June, and my year of service with VIDES has included work on three separate continents and in three different countries: the United States, Colombia and Switzerland.
Although I still have a couple of months left with VIDES, I've had some major takeaways from this experience so far.
One of the things that I have constantly struggled with during past few months has been learning how to make my faith much more "independent" than it was while in college. There, I had a large support network from my campus Catholic center. I always had a plethora of spiritually enriching opportunities, such as weekly Bible study, retreats, daily adoration and Mass, intentional weekly meetings and talks on religious faith.
Not having these resources at my disposal as often or as easily accessed or experienced with a tight-knit support group has been difficult — a huge growing pain, in fact. I have learned that the life of faith is not all about the feelings that come with many of the exciting and enriching spiritual experiences that I had in college. It's in the day-to-day mundane work and life that I must continue to make time for prayer and spiritual reflection even when it is difficult to see their fruits.
What I'm getting at is that I learned that faith shouldn't rely on warm, fuzzy feelings you get from retreats and other powerful spiritual experiences. It has to be something that you are committed to daily whether or not you feel or see the fruits. An extreme parallel to draw would be to Mother Teresa's experience. She was completely committed to her faith and to service even though for years she did not have any sort of perceivable spiritual "reward." (She was experiencing a spiritual desert, but I think this may help explain what I am trying to get at.) It is like love — it is a choice, actually. There may be ups, there may be downs, but in the end you have to make that choice when you wake up every day to love that person even when the "feelings" of love aren't experienced or evident in every moment.
That's one point. Another is that working with so many different people in three different countries has also taught me the incredible importance of communication and dialogue. Learning that clarification is distinct from confrontation and that often disagreements stem from misunderstandings on either side has been a particularly tough lesson for me to digest.
I am a very non-confrontational person by nature, committed to neutrality, and often find it difficult to express my views. In becoming even more aware of this, I have learned the importance and necessity of voicing my opinions while at the same time listening intentionally to those of others and being conscious and respectful of potential cultural differences.
I have also come to discover that first opinions are actually not everything. I had many expectations and visions of how this year of service would turn out. Not only were many of my first assumptions wrong, but upon arriving at each new mission site, I realized that I had to be careful not to jump to conclusions based on my first impressions.
Simply living in the moment or journaling about the realities of the experience first before immediately judging a situation or place was initially challenging. I think that this sort of temptation to immediately classify a circumstance, person or experience without living it out fully or coming to better know it is difficult to resist but will certainly be useful in any new situation. That includes moving to a new city, enrolling in a new school, starting a new job or wherever life will take me in the future.
The last and perhaps most important lesson that I have learned is that of trust. Re-reading my journal from my first day at formation camp last June, I see that I certainly had my doubts about what I was getting into. Although I had specifically chosen this program for myself and even the time length of my commitment, the uncertainty of what would lay ahead in Colombia and Switzerland scared me.
What would I specifically be doing? Would I make any friends along the way? Would I be happy in my work? Would it be just as I had pictured? I have always been a planner — wanting to know and elaborate each detail before embarking upon anything. Although this is a good characteristic in some ways, this perfectionism also has led me to place much of my trust on my plans and my preparations.
What I have learned throughout this service is that God is a much more reliable source of trust. I can do so much work preparing and planning for the future to the last detail. But when things don't turn out the way I had expected or my plans come crashing down, I realize that I cannot act alone.
I am more conscious than ever that there is no need to worry as much as I do. God has a plan for me, and he will see to it that that plan is realized with my cooperation. This is something that I have always known but am only now coming to actually believe.
As I look toward my uncertain future, I will always remember the life lessons and skills that I have gained through being an international volunteer. Knowing now the challenges that I have faced and what I have learned from these trials, I have even more faith in trusting in God: relying on him through daily prayer and learning to recognize Him in others, as well as in the most mundane moments of life.
That insight is a gift and should help me through whatever life may throw at me. I am so incredibly grateful for the adventure so far and look forward to the remaining months of service with VIDES+USA.
[Julianna Lewis is a VIDES+USA volunteer working at the Istituto Internazionale Maria Ausiliatrice Human Rights Office.]