We each have a purpose, but we can't get there on our own

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
A newly blossoming spring tree in East New York. (Brenna Neimanis)

New York, N.Y. — Notes from the Field includes reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015 This is our third round of bloggers: Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility serving adolescent girls in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kerry DiNardo is a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps member serving at a Cristo Rey school in Boston.


Commuting in New York City is often one of my least favorite parts of living here. Apparently, it does not matter that I live and work in the same borough (Brooklyn); it still takes me around an hour and 20 minutes just to get to work each morning.

But as I endure that daily commute to the juvenile justice facility, I have a lot of time to think. I have time to really ponder and digest the things going on in my life and in my mind thanks to those three hours or so of no cellphone signal and no friends to keep my mind preoccupied. I discover and observe new things every day, and I have become more mindful about my being and my surroundings.

Earlier this week, as I passed a row of flowering trees on the last leg of my walk to work, I thought how different they had looked just a couple weeks ago, leafless and covered with frost. They have already grown so much and come so far from the cold, barren branches of last season. They are now colorful, budding and blooming trees, full of the promise of further growth and warmth in the days to come. Though they have changed so much already, they are still continuing on in their journey and are not yet where they ultimately will be in the warmth of the summer season. They are no longer what they once were, but they are not all that they will yet be.

With this thought in the back of my mind, I walked through the doors of the facility to find the residents preparing to spend a portion of the day painting the mural that they have been working on since the facility opened over a year ago. The mural just happens to be a large tree blooming with colorful butterflies, representative of the growth and change we encourage in every resident who walks through our doors. Each girl will sign her name next to a butterfly before she is discharged from our program, again representing how far she has come.

After I was faced with the notion of our ever-changing journeys of growth twice in such a short amount of time, I could not stop thinking about how relevant it is. I think of my own life through that lens, but my mind really focused on the young women I work with. It's easier for me to see change in them than in myself, considering I track their progress on a daily basis.

As for the trees outside, the past season of these youths' lives have been tough and full of struggle. They have had some pretty serious problems that ultimately landed them in this facility. And despite their situations, they have already made so much progress.

The art therapy mural in progress. (Brenna Neimanis)

Their growth is not always on the forefront of my thinking when items are being hurled across the room or when curse words are aggressively thrown about. But growth takes time and it takes patience, and we all need people to have grace with us in our challenging seasons. We need people to notice the positives in us and the ever-so-subtle changes being made for the better, each tiny blossom beginning to bud from our winter season. That, I can absolutely relate to.

Considering that my passion for social justice and service comes from my understanding of the Bible and my relationship with God, I wish I wouldn't still have to be so intentional about reminding myself of the important and deliberate journeys we are all on. It's easy to get caught up in the little things and pick out each curse word or response that oozes with attitude instead of looking at the bigger picture and remembering where each person is coming from and all that lies ahead of them, the possibilities and potential of greatness for these unique and beautifully made individuals. Each one is made intentionally and in the image of God: radiant, worthy and loved so dearly.

We all have a calling and purpose, but it is nearly impossible to get there on our own. I can be on the right track, feeling God guiding me and allowing others to walk alongside me, but I can also easily get distracted.

As I write this, I am reminded of a song called "Undress" by one of my favorite artists, Penny & Sparrow. They sing of knowing the existence of an unconditional and guiding love but of subduing that love in the corner, trying to make changes and doing it all on their own. Through this, they continue to struggle through and prolong becoming who they know they are meant to be.

My faith is the reason I am passionate about my work and why I serve others. My understanding of Jesus and justice is that of radical love, solidarity, community and sacrifice, which is what I am called to and what I know my life should reflect.

Jesus is the picture of justice. He lived life in a way that promoted genuine love, truth, mercy and grace to every person he encountered, regardless of how the rest of society viewed him or her. Every interaction is pure and humble. He walked beside others, guiding them with love to their growth and potential. There is such an emphasis on community, meeting people where they are and walking alongside them, not leaving them to fend for themselves.

This is necessary for everybody, and this is what motivates me. It is why I choose to serve as a social worker, and this is what I strive for, and often fail at, every day.

We are all just working through life the best we know how, and it is important to recognize how far we have all come from where we once were, but to be very aware that we still have a distance to go. Asking for help or opening yourself up to work alongside another person can make you feel vulnerable, but it is imperative to know that we do not have to be alone through our journeys and that growth thrives in love.

I can do nothing outside of the strength and guidance of the Lord and the support of others in my life. This is something I have come to understand more and more through my spiritual journey, and it continues to encourage and motivate me to serve and seek justice.

Our art supplies. (Brenna Neimanis)

[Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility that serves adolescent girls in New York City.]