Experience Making a Difference

Experience Making a Difference

Companions on the Journey

by | Mar 3, 2015

This post from Ignatian Volunteer Don Gibel first appeared on IVC Chicago’s Footprints Blog

I am going on my 12th year with IVC, which has been very important in my life, and my 10th year at my current placement, Faith and Fellowship. Faith and Fellowship is a one woman “agency”, led by founder and director Connie Rakitan, and operates out of St. Catherine-St. Lucy Church in Oak Park. Faith and Fellowship is a religious outreach to people with mental illness, primarily adults living in two residences on the west side of Chicago: Central Plaza and Columbus Manor. These two facilities are two of a number of residences in Chicago for people diagnosed with a mental illness, with almost all on Medicaid. A key component of Faith and Fellowship is to be companions with the residents, to provide a safe atmosphere to share their personal experiences and their faith.

Is it hard to work with, and be, with people with mental illness? Some people, perhaps because of the stigma associated with mental illness, have told me that they could never do it. For me, when I first interviewed for Faith and Fellowship back in September 2005, I had had a little experience with people with disabilities, but none with people with mental illnesses.   I thought, though, that it might not be that different from what I had experienced, and decided to give it a try. It turned out that I was easily able to harmonize with the residents. One reason for this was that they were on their medications with few major behavior problems. Best of all, they were with me because they wanted to be.

Ours is a very satisfying effort. For me, on one day of the week I visit Central Plaza, Columbus Manor and another other residence, Sacred Heart, where I lead a 30 minute or so prayer service. We sing hymns, read a scriptural passage (each person reads a paragraph) and talk about the passage. We ask: “For whom shall we pray and for what are we thankful.” We can have 3 people or 12 people, depending on the day. Some participants are quite articulate and know their Bible well, some, very little. Sometimes it’s quiet where we meet. Other times it’s noisy and slightly chaotic.

My other day of the week is involved with a two hour structured time of companionship and prayer at the former convent at St. Catherine-St. Lucy, one in the afternoon with residents from Central Plaza and one in the evening with residents from Columbus Manor. Connie adapted the format from SPRED for people with mental illness. A small group of residents, “Partners,” meet with about five volunteers, called “Catechists.” We start with quiet time in what was the convent library, drawing or puzzles or just sitting, followed by a structured prayer service in the chapel, and then back to light refreshments.

The structured prayer time in the chapel focuses on a theme and symbol. For example, the symbol may be an egg – with the thought that a chick must struggle to peck its way out of its egg. Each person in the group, catechist and partner, is invited by the leader to share a struggle in his or her life. The leader then puts the responses into a faith context. The sharing is often quite personal and meaningful.

I find it hard to imagine the life of our partners and residents that led them to their facility and how their life is now in their residence. Yet, some persevere and live positively – with a living faith. How they do this is a question I ask and have not yet answered.

One of my goals for the past several years has been to be “one” with each person and our groups, which is not at all different from what we want to be with everyone. However, this year I have another goal, and prayer: to be amazed at the faith that some have, a faith that I think is much greater than mine.

God seems to answer our prayers and for the past few weeks I have gained in appreciation of the faith of some residents. Just recently we were talking about the passage in John’s gospel of the man who had been ill for 38 years at the pool called Bethesda but was never able to get in soon enough to be cured until Jesus cured him. One resident gave a beautiful little homily on God’s love, weaving other passages in the Gospel to help his point. It struck me how well he knew his Bible and applied it to his life. I told him what was true, that he had said it better than I could ever have.

All in all, my hope and prayer is that the residents I meet gain something from my presence, but as, and perhaps more, importantly, I hope to be more and more open to learn more from them.

Don Gimbel has been an Ignatian Volunteer in Chicago for eleven, going on twelve years.  He is married to his beautiful wife Terry and has three grown daughters. In his “prior” life he was a lawyer for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. He is involved in several activities at his home parish of Immaculate Conception Church in Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb. He just “retired” from being a mentor for Transitional Housing families in the parish and looks forward to being active with the Ignatian Spirituality Project in Chicago.