by Teddy Michel
I was a typical teenager and young adult, dismissive of any wisdom or values my family had to offer.
Despite this — or perhaps because of it — I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps fresh out of college.
That year of living the four core values of JVC — community, simple living, spirituality and social justice — not only enfolded me into a new family, but led to a rediscovery of my own family and the foundation they built for me. Today, both families continue to guide me, especially as I take up my call to serve as the first regional director of the newly established Northeastern Pennsylvania office of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps.
But in 1999, it took moving 2,512 miles from my family in St. Paul, Minn., to the JVC house in Anchorage, AK, for me to begin embracing my own family’s truths.
Early in my JV year, I became fast friends with a client living with HIV. We laughed together at our office’s weekly client lunch, and I enjoyed entertaining his 2-year-old son with magic tricks. Eight months into our friendship, however, he contracted an infection that had insinuated itself through his weakened immune system. He was hospitalized and could no longer take care of his apartment. So I and the lead case manager packed up a car with cleaning supplies and drove to the client’s apartment.
As we entered his apartment, I knew immediately the hundreds of hours of cleaning experience my siblings and I had garnered every Saturday morning growing up in Minnesota would be put to the test. I also remembered my dad’s admonishment whenever he saw me haphazardly cleaning on those Saturdays: “If you’re not going to do it right, then don’t do it at all.”
So I rolled up my sleeves, rediscovered my Saturday morning elbow grease, and cleaned just as hard as if my dad were standing over me, grading my level of effort.
Recalling my dad’s words and the Saturday mornings with my siblings lightened my spirit. I didn’t feel frustrated, tired or discouraged as I moved from one cleaning task to the next.
More important, that simple value Dad passed on to me — to do one’s best regardless of the task — allowed me to love a friend dying in the hospital. It was a love he reciprocated when I visited him the next day.
“God Bless you, Teddy,” he said, grabbing my hand. “Thank you. God Bless you.”
I experienced another revelation of my family’s wisdom and values a few weeks later. During my first few months in Anchorage, I attended a nondenominational church. In my late teens, I had grown weary of the Catholic Church and frankly was sick and tired of people telling me what to do, when to do it, and how I should feel. So I attended the congregation in Anchorage. Once a month, a member of the church shared a testimonial. One Sunday, the pastor asked if I’d like to do it. I agreed.
The following weekend, I walked to the front of the congregation, stood in silence for a few seconds, and began to share my faith journey. It culminated in a five-minute, self-righteous barrage against the Catholic Church.
But as I walked off the stage, I heard a quiet, gentle voice in my head: “How did it come to this? How did you forget to be grateful and thankful?”
Immediately, images of my parents and grandparents flashed in my mind. And I started to remember.
I remembered my mom, who in the midst of caring for my five siblings and me, would prepare and bring meals to neighbors who were mourning a loss. I remembered the encouraging notes she left in my desk the day after parent-teacher conferences. I remembered her working the school lunch line, with one or two of my younger siblings in tow, to say hello and give me an extra dollar to buy a treat.
I remembered wanting to be just like my dad and wanting to make him happy and proud. I remembered him driving me to Saturday morning hockey practice at 6:30 a.m. and the cup of hot chocolate always waiting for me after practice. I remembered the notes he left on the driver’s seat of the car on mornings before a big high school football game.
Finally, I remembered sitting in church with my grandparents. I remembered my grandmother patting my hand and smiling as my siblings and I jockeyed for a seat closest to her. I remembered feeling a little more peaceful and a little happier leaving church after Mass.
This experience of deep remembering and the experience with my dying friend, steeped in the slow convergence of JVC’s four core values over eight months, helped me see others — especially my family — in a different light.
I rediscovered my family’s values and found they did indeed — and still do — line up with my worldview.
Teddy Michel joined the Ignatian Volunteer Corps in the spring of 2017 as the regional director of the newly established Northeastern Pennsylvania office. He served two tours with JVC and practiced law for 10 years before joining IVC.