I went to college at a Jesuit university. Jesuits are male priests, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. Having studied 8 years in a Catholic school and 8 years in a Jesuit Catholic school we always participated in community service. In high school I volunteered at the Indiana School for the Blind. It was one of the first times I realized how blessed my life has been. Upon finishing college I signed up to spend a year doing volunteer work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, JVC. It is similar to the Peace Corps, but ran by the Jesuits.
At the time there were 7 regions in the JVC: West, Northwest, Midwest, South, East, Canada, and International. I opted to apply to the Eastern Region as I had not extensively travelled the East coast. I was not planning on being assigned to Buffalo, New York which is more of the Midwest or Canada, but that was the path I was lead on.
I started with a retreat (defined as a “a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, or study”) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsylvania. I still remember flying into Washington D.C. then taking a Greyhound Bus to the retreat house. I was introduced to 5 new housemates and spent a week in reflection, prayer and building a community. The picture above is of my community posing for our Christmas photo.
We then took the drive to Buffalo crammed into one small car. Being a Jesuit Volunteer was a great experience. I am so glad that I was in a place in my life that I could take a year to serve the poor of the communities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Being Catholic but not highly religious I also explored my spirituality and then some. The JVCs main focuses include: spiritual growth, social justice, community, simple living, and peace. We would go to church weekly as a community and held vespers night (defined as a “an evening of worship”) every other week.
Wow, what a challenge and rewarding experience the journey was. We lived in this big Victorian house with 6 rooms and 1.5 bathrooms. Please recall there were 6 of us- we had a definite shower schedule! We took turns cooking family style dinners, and a number of my roommates were vegetarians. We had all of our basic expenses covered and were given a stipend of $85/month for extras.
I held two jobs during my year in Buffalo. The first was at a Catholic community outreach center in Niagara Falls, New York. I would drive a van 30 minutes up the New York State Thruway each day to work in the outreach center. Luckily it was a ‘mild’ Buffalo winter, but I did have the experience of wrecking my van on black ice. At the center we fed the poor in a soup kitchen, gave out baked goods, and helped the homeless find shelter for the night. After spending six months here I continued to work towards social justice in Buffalo with one of my roommates at a housing agency that helped the poor find affordable living. What a humbling experience it was to help the community of Buffalo. I never realized how fortunate I was until this year of service.
I had a good amount of fun as well during my year with the JVC. We would often travel to the other houses in the JVC East community for the monthly parties. I saw areas of the East coast that I haven’t been to since. When it came time to have our party the Canadian and Midwest communities joined us instead of our own JVC East community because we were so far out there.
On weekends we’d visit an artsy area in walking distance from us on Elmwood Avenue; there we would explore the shops and drink at the bars. I did quite a bit of biking too since I did not have a car. During this period I remember often biking across the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada since it was just 20 minutes away. I also first heard one of my favorite bands, The Barenaked Ladies (a Canadian band) while living in Buffalo. Weekly I swam at the local pool thinking constantly about life and my purpose here. Also I volunteered at the children’s hospital in the child life wing. With my ‘free time’ I took classes at the local college which was named Canisius.
I have kept in limited touch with the Former Jesuit Volunteer, FJV, community since completing my service year. I did reach out to one of the many JVC communities here in Los Angeles many years ago bringing them cookies and welcoming them to the neighborhood. I also attended a big rally once held by the director of the JVC East community with another FJV who lived in Los Angeles at the time.
Currently I keep in touch with two of my former housemates. Unfortunately I did lose touch with my housemate whom I related to the most while being a volunteer. Thinking back as I write now I am so glad that I was able to spend that time living life simply focusing on social justice, even if it was just for a year.