A Returning Volunteer: I will go forth

BY GUEST BLOGGERSeptember 24, 2014

written by: Katie Warner | John Carroll University ’13 

Editor’s Note: Katie is recently returned from a year of service with the Passionist Volunteers International in Mandeville, Jamaica.  

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 7.50.16 AMTwo months ago my alarm rang at 7:00 am, but I can tell you now that I was probably already awake. Sleeping in didn’t used to be much of an option with the hot sun streaming in, the resounding echo of taxi horns, barking dogs, and the never-ending sound of reggae rhythms floating in through my open windows. As I would wrestle to open my mosquito net, which was inevitably tangled in the course of my deep slumber, I would begin to mentally plan my day, mildly panicking at how I would fit everything in. Where was I taking taxi? Who was I visiting? What should I pack in my backpack for the day; coloring books, sidewalk chalk and crayons for a fun day with the kiddos in the impoverished bush community that I served in, Albion Gully? Or would it be soap, combs and rubbing alcohol for some of my friends at the Infirmary, home to over 90 residents who are severely mentally and physically disabled? After my morning coffee and a quick breakfast I was out the door eager for what the day held, planned or otherwise.

Today I woke up at 11:00 am, in a queen sized bed in my childhood room, tangled not in my mosquito net but in a heavy quilt and numerous pillows. I had an alarm set for 8:00 am but as it rang it’s chorus I promptly shut it off, rolling over with a groan and mentally trying to find a reason to get out of bed. Thinking of none, I slept for three more hours, because? Because why not….
I literally couldn’t find a reason to get out of bed.

This thought depresses me. Then again a lot depresses me these days. When I awoke two months ago my friends lived in board houses with zinc roofs or one-room cement houses with outdoor latrines, we cooked together outside over an open fire, we played football with tinfoil balls and made toys out of empty bottles.

Now, driving (on the right side of the road) I visit my friends and travel through a neighborhood of paved roads, trimmed and irrigated lawns and arrive at four-bedroom, two-bath houses. So begins the “return to normal.” Is this normal? Am I okay with this new normal?

These questions and many more are what entertain my thoughts these past few weeks as I sit in this hiatus of life. August 4th, when I arrived on U.S. soil once more after a year of service in a rural and impoverished area of Jamaica, my life came to a full stop.

Amidst bereaving the absence of my six day work-week filled with passion and purpose, my Jamaican friends and community members that I spent 12 months laughing, crying and growing together in mutual love, and the absence of a way of life that felt so strange, foreign and filled with challenges and yet that utterly filled me with life; I now stop. I sleep, I read, I pray and I ponder these questions that flit in and out of my conscious.

I am forced to wrestle with how I’ve changed, how the experiences of the last 12 months have left their indelible print on my heart and on the core of who I am, how I will harness them to fuel change in my future, how I desperately cling to memories, faces and experiences that I am for some reason terrified that I will forget.

I wrestle with thoughts of white privilege, disparity of resources, materialism, consumerism and the economic, social and political injustices that I once witnessed firsthand but that now bombard my life from media outlets that are simply pervasive and inescapable.

I spent a year in a service of accompaniment, “walking with the crucified of today,” as the Passionist Volunteers mission statement says. In July of 2013, I stepped off the plane in Jamaica believing that I was charged to “go forth and set the world on fire” (thanks to my Ignatian education), what I couldn’t even fathom at that time was how my world, my life and my heart would be set on fire.

I was immersed in experiences of culture, poverty and inequality, but also love and relationship, and what it truly means to participate in a mutual exchange. One of the most gratifying parts of my year was recognizing that I was serving as God’s instrument each and every day, whether it was through tangibly utilizing my gifts and talents to somehow ease another’s burden, or through harnessing the spirit of accompaniment and simply offering a presence to the people whom I served. What more could you ask for right?

Wrong. Far outweighing this enormous sense of gratification was the fulfillment that I felt each and every day as I progressively witnessed how God was ministering to me through the Jamaican people and my everyday experiences. Each soul I encountered offered me encouragement, a lesson, a hug on a hard day, a challenge to overcome or simply an opportunity for God’s grace to be present to me.

Through my ministries in Jamaica I was able to look into the windows of the human heart and soul and understand the depths of what it means to be alive and to live in this beautiful world; in a capacity I had never previously comprehended.

A friend of mine at the Infirmary, Rasta Brooks, suffers from diabetes that without medication leaves him crippled and on some days incapacitated. However, no matter his condition, he was nearly always in a good mood and eager to converse and “reason” with me. True to his Rastafarian beliefs, he is constantly seeking to further his knowledge and wisdom and believes this is best achieved in conversation with others. “Each one, teach one, sister Katie!” he told me every time I would visit.

Each one, teach one indeed. We are all called to minister to each other every day of our lives no matter where we are. Whether it’s traipsing through the bush with a bunch of Jamaican children in tow singing devotion songs, or in a corporate office eating lunch with your co-workers. It’s simply about letting go, relinquishing control and allowing others to influence, shape us and show us God’s love in ways we would not otherwise see. It’s about living everyday with a purpose in your heart to ease another’s burden and lighten the weight of this world.

The problem for me right now is that these ideals were much clearer to me in Jamaica. I lived a life of simplicity with no purpose but to follow God’s calling and see what adventures it called me to each day. Now I’ve been abruptly called back to the “real world.” What is the “real world” anyway? I find it to be an arbitrary phrase that people should probably stop using in the context of “welcome back to the real world Katie,” because it doesn’t feel like I’m living in it right now.

As I attempt to sit comfortably in my unemployment, typing this from the kitchen table in my suburban home, I am attempting to open my eyes to where I just may be called next. I have been filled with experiences, relationships, knowledge, love and expanded horizons that seem to still overwhelm me each day. Yet I must remember to take my own medicine, it’s about relinquishing control and being open to utilizing these experiences to walk forward in my next steps in life. So I will go forth, maybe not necessarily to set the world on fire, but with hopes of setting hearts on fire and to continue to add fuel to the blaze that was started in my own. I will not simply mourn the absence of Jamaica in my life but will take Jamaica with me, with clear eyes and an open heart, I will go forth.

2 replies
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    After returning from two years in Honduras, I definitely identify with your experience. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone…and you’re not either! Together let’s set hearts on fire!


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