BY RACHEL SWENARTON | January 23, 2018

I’ve been really into making fresh bread since becoming a Jesuit Volunteer. I found a book tucked away in our JV house, Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor by Peter Reinhart, to hold me in holy company through this process.

Knead your dough and let it rest. Repeat this process, Peter tells me, and my dough will have character.

If the creation of fresh bread is indeed a metaphor, then I can’t help but think about the ways in which I have been kneaded since my arrival in Anchorage, Alaska. No experience of service has left my stomach in knots as much as operating a needle exchange program. Folks, mainly injection drug users or family members of injection drug users, come to us with used syringes and leave with clean syringes and information on safer practices.

When I began working on this disease prevention project, I felt that supplying a person with syringes to fill with hard drugs and tourniquets to make their veins pop was an enabling act. It didn’t help that I was oftentimes meeting folks whose situations and addictions prevented them from being their kindest selves. With every person I met, the opioid epidemic seemed more complicated and less likely to end. Handing out needles felt like the least productive, and possibly even the most harmful, thing to do. I spent forty hours a week conflicted and confused.

The Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association celebrates World AIDS Day 2017 by remembering those who lost their lives to AIDS and encouraging HIV prevention efforts.

The literature told me that the harm reduction model for public health epidemics worked. It was cost efficient and communities with syringe access programs were correlated to fewer infectious diseases and drug overdoses. Despite this, my day-to-day personal experience of having challenging conversations with struggling people left me feeling hopeless. I was finally living as the “contemplative in action” I had heard about for so long.

Choosing to follow my bread bible, the next step after feeling kneaded and pushed is to enforce a period of rest. In a moment of this stillness I was able to have a conversation with a co-worker. He casually mentioned the phrase, “meeting people where they are at.” In that moment it felt like God was speaking through my coworker’s mouth.

This moment happened in the period of rest, although I suppose it is much more accurate to say a period of rise. Any baker will tell you that by leaving the dough to itself, one is leaving the bread to a period of internal transformation. After all the handling and molding, the life inside the dough is motivated to grow, feed, and release. On a slow morning, standing in my coworker’s doorway, I began my rise.

The times in my life when I most felt God’s presence, I wasn’t looking for Him. I certainly wasn’t expecting to feel God while being yelled at by drug users or while telling someone they have hepatitis C. Yet God continues to meet me where I sit. If I genuinely am so appreciative of this, my only option is to meet people where they sit.

The Anchorage JVs spend a quiet morning reflecting and relaxing in Big Lake, Alaska.

The knead isn’t the hard part of bread baking. The hard part is in the patience of the rise. When you’re in a moment of chaos, the least intuitive thing do is rest. Yet sometimes after we feel conflicted and we contemplate in action, the most productive thing to do is silence our own thoughts for a while. There is a patience, quietness, and restfulness required to hear God speaking through other people. By paying careful attention to the situations and the people that make us uneasy, the life inside of us can become motivated to start growing.

My period of rest motivated me to keep working even if the answers aren’t clear. I now trust the idea that if there is an obvious answer, you might not be looking at the situation deeply enough. Meeting people where they’re at creates and extends a table. It preserves dignity while pluralistic stories of pain and solutions are placed on the table. This idea has meant supplying one hundred different folks per day with injection equipment. It has meant giving out overdose response kits in the same bag that I put needles in. It has meant finding peace in the trust that we are all serving one another, and if my actions feel incomplete or inadequate, then someone else’s work is filling in the gaps.

The Fall of Man in the Old Testament warns us that “by the sweat of your face you will eat bread.” (Genesis 19) Treating our lives like bread is an act of humility. This is the way God feeds us, and the simplest way for us to feed ourselves and one another. Making bread requires sweat, both in method and metaphor. It’s a cyclical process that requires knowing when to make yourself uncomfortable, and when to stop and listen. It’s the link between our life with God and our life on the ground. This is not the fall of man, it’s the rise.

#JVReflects explores the intersection of faith and justice from the perspective of JESUIT VOLUNTEERS serving as long-term volunteers both domestically and internationally with Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest.  Reflections specifically focus on the cornerstone values of the Jesuit volunteer experience: spirituality, simple living, community, and social justice.

6 replies
  1. David Van Buskirk
    David Van Buskirk says:

    Hi Rachel, you are doing amazing work and I am sure everyone who has gotten to know you in Alaska realizes what a blessing you are to their life. Your essay was wonderful, very touching; This is quite a life experience, one I’m sure you will always cherish. How appropriate that you are enjoying this in what I have felt for many years is truly God’s country, still relatively unspoiled. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and continue to savor this special time in Denali’s shadow. Love – Jo & Dave

  2. Amy c
    Amy c says:

    Dear Rachel how beautifully put. The confusing work you do every day But just know u r not alone this is a difficult journey for many and these r the times we live in. We pray for help with this horrific epidemic at every turning point. Maybe someday there will be some light at the end of the tunnel. Keep up the good work and God bless u and ur coworkers


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