You have been part of IVC since its founding. What can you share of this vision for IVC?
The genius of its founders, Fr. Jim Conroy, SJ and Fr. Charlie Costello, SJ was to establish service and praying and reflecting in the Ignatian tradition as the two pillars of IVC. The absolute gift of the reflection component is that it deepens the meaning of the service for the volunteers. This process takes what they do from volunteerism to actually living out the Jesuit ideal of being contemplatives in action. The original concept of IVC was always about service to the materially poor as the volunteers’ gift to the poor. Prayerful reflection is the gift to the volunteers that inspires, supports and illuminates the service.
How has this vision played out? Do you see this in your conversations with volunteers?
As the years have passed, it is quite clear that reflection, whether one-on-one, within the city group or at the retreats, is the reason people do not burn out. Prayerful reflection takes people out of themselves, and can even bring them to see themselves as Christ in the world. The frustrations and difficulties they face don’t impede their service when they see that they are part of Christ’s mission to make the kingdom come on earth.
One of the privileged roles I have had is helping the Regional Directors with the volunteer pre-entry interviews. Almost every person speaks of their desire for spiritual growth. That is why they are choosing IVC even though they are not sure what the combination of service and Ignatian spirituality will actually prove to be. When they have the full IVC experience and see what being a contemplative in action feels like, they are filled with gratitude.
Personal stories to illustrate this are many. For example, a person who had been in prison is preparing to be released and looking for employment. The volunteer was helping create a resume. When the volunteer identified some of the client’s skills and wrote them in a positive way, the reaction was touching. With tears in his eyes, the man said, “No one’s ever seen that in me. No one’s ever said anything positive about me.”
In spiritual reflection, we can take that story deeper by asking the volunteer, “Who were you for that person?” In true humility, the volunteer can come to see that they were Christ in that moment. They don’t want to believe they are that important. They sometimes even feel guilty that they are getting so much out of the IVC experience. By going deeper into the service in a prayerful way, they discover that they are helping those they serve see themselves the way God sees them, and at the same time are getting back the hundred-fold.
The Jesuit founders of IVC thought volunteers would stay one year, maybe two. In the VA, DC/Metro region, the average service is 7.5 years. There is no burn out because the service isn’t about the volunteers. It’s not their work, it is God’s. People realize what they do is not about their accomplishments. It is about building relationships.
How many volunteers have you worked with in these years?
I have completed twelve years as a spiritual reflector. I have had at least five volunteers each year. Some have been with me almost the whole time.
It has also been my joy to lead retreats for IVC inChicago,Philadelphia,New Jersey, and DC/Metro MD and VA regions and facilitate city group meetings in DC/Metro MD. These opportunities have given me constant interaction with IVC volunteers.
Is there a certain story, conversation or volunteer that sticks with you?
There are so many; all beautiful in their own way. One that often comes to mind was told by a very cheerful woman who volunteered in a drop-in center for homeless men. It was a tough place. She was there for quite a long time. People knew her; called her by name and she did the same. She was away for some time. When she came back, one of the men who was usually very quiet, said to her, “I’m glad you’re back. It’s softer when you’re here.”
She shared this story with me and was ready to go right past it. I had her stop and reflect on what had happened. I asked her what she thought he meant. The shelter is still crowded, chaotic, and everyone there is still homeless. What do you do to make it softer? After reflecting on this, she came to believe that her showing up consistently, her cheerfulness and obvious caring—her relationship with the men—made it better, softer, for them. In some small way she knew that she was a sign of God’s love for them.
That same woman was always quick with a smile. For some reason she wasn’t her cheerful self at the center one day and she knew it, but certainly didn’t think anyone would notice. A man who never smiled in all the days she had volunteered there, came over and tapped her on the shoulder. “You don’t seem the same today,” he said, and gave her a big-toothless smile. Upon reflection, she saw that he had tried to give her what he felt she was missing, a smile. The relationship was two-way. She had been present to that man and now he was returning the gift. He was Christ for her
What other insights have you gained through your conversations with Ignatian volunteers?
A question I often ask is, “What influences does your IVC experience have on the rest of your life?” Do you feel that praying and reflecting in the Ignatian tradition make a difference in areas of your life other than the IVC service? Do the patience, understanding and compassion you feel at your volunteer site carry over into the other parts of your life?
Sometimes people are surprised by these questions. As we begin reflecting with volunteers, the conversations are always focused on their service. Depending on the willingness and desire of the volunteer, the reflection can broaden to encompass other aspects of their life. That is when they begin to see that the complete IVC experience is a gift that deepens, supports and illuminates even more than their generous service.
How do you see IVC poised for growth?
IVC is definitely ready, and what it has to give is pure gift waiting to be shared by many.
The challenge will be to help people in the next generation recognize their unnamed desire for spiritual growth to accompany their generous service to the world. I believe this desire lives in each heart, but is often unknown. IVC has the answer. The challenge is getting people to ask the right question.
Kathleen Curtin, a 12-year IVC Spiritual Reflector and more, is a graduate of Le Moyne college. She is a Director of the Spiritual Exercises, trained in the Ignatian method.
Kathleen and her husband Mike (past IVC Board Chair) have been married for 49 years. She is the Mother of five, Mother-in-law of five, and Grandmother of 12.
Formerly, she served as Director of Religious Education at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington DC and was also on the Board at Loyola retreat house in Faulkner. She is a current Board Member of the Washington Theological Union and part of IVC’s Magnify! Campaign Steering Committee.