Living & Serving in the Way of St. Francis
A conversation with Julie McElmurry
Living & Serving in the Way of St. Francis, is a new collection of stories and reflections from volunteers who have served with Franciscan Volunteer Network programs. Julie McElmurry, Director of Franciscan Passages (and former volunteer) served as the editor for this book. We had a conversation with her about the project.
CVN: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Julie: The Franciscan Service Network came up with the idea to collect reflections from volunteers of their member programs.
CVN: What is the format for the book?
Julie: The "outline" for the book is the writing of St. Francis called his Testament. Franciscan scholar Jean-Francois Godet-Calogeras, PhD generously lent his support to the book by allowing use of his never before published translation of the Testament. Forty themes were found in the Testament (by me, for this project) and assigned to forty volunteers and alumni of FSN programs, selected by FSN Directors.
CVN: The forty stories come from volunteers serving with different programs, involved in different ministries, living in different locations – despite that diversity, did you notice any common themes in the reflections?
Julie: The common thread I see in these stories is the respect and affection for the men and women they write about. I never tire of these stories. The writers clearly know the people they are describing and with great humility (a Franciscan value), describe themselves as they have an encounter with them. Sometimes these encounters are sad, frustrating or scary at first but they become joy filled, fulfilling and sweet. Readers will enjoy this and will be moved to seek out their own encounters with the poor.
CVN: How do you recommend using this book?
Julie: I recommend setting aside a few minutes every day for a period of forty days, maybe Mondays-Fridays for eight weeks. Read over the reflection questions first, then read through the reflection twice. Next, answer the reflection questions, journaling, blogging or just pondering your own answers to them. Later in the day, make it a point to share something that came up for you with a colleague, client or community member.
CVN: Great – thanks Julie! Now, let’s hear a little about your own background. What volunteer program did you serve with? What was your ministry placement?
Julie: I volunteered through what was then called Jesuit Volunteer Corps - East (now, Jesuit Volunteer Corps.) I lived in Hartford, Connecticut with two other volunteers.
CVN: What was your service placement?
Julie: I served as a youth counselor at an emergency shelter for teen girls who were all wards of the state. There were about twelve girls at a time who came to us from foster homes or group homes or in some cases had just that day been removed from their abusive families. It was a temporary shelter and the youth counselors job were to help create a safe, positive and enjoyable space for them to live while they were in the midst of so much uncertainty.
CVN: How did your experience as a JV influence your career path?
Julie: At the spring retreat, my two community members confronted me and told me that I was too distracted with worry about what was coming next after the JVC year and that it was pulling me away from our community life together. At that point, I had explored everything from moving to my friend's village in Zambia where she was in the Peace Corps to pursuing a career with the YMCA, which sponsored the youth shelter where I worked. Slowly, the idea of campus ministry came into focus thanks to some pivotal conversations with mentors. My work at the shelter taught me that I loved hospitality and young people. I learned about a three-year campus ministry internship in my home diocese (Charlotte, N.C.), applied for it and began it a week after JVC ended. Those three years became a total of eleven years as a campus minister. Over those years, serving alongside Conventual Franciscan friars at Wake Forest University and Salem College, I was able to integrate my year of service by talking to students about it, handing out thousands of copies of the RESPONSE book, setting up booths at job fairs on two campuses, planning over twenty service trips, speaking to classes, serving on panel discussions, starting our university's first Post-Grad Volunteer Fair, and helping over thirty-five students discern their path into various Catholic Volunteer Network programs over the years. I pursued my own graduate studies over nine summers within that time and when I left campus ministry, was prepared for my current retreat and teaching ministry.
CVN: And how has your service experience influenced your spiritual life?
Julie: Prayer. I often give Mission Appeals on behalf of Catholic Volunteer Network. I tell people about my phone interview with my boss before I even accepted the position with JVC-East. She told me that there will be times when the kids are freaking out, shouting, crying, upset, angry, scared and mad all at once. She told me the technique is to stand there, as a solid, unwavering presence and just pray for them. Be there with them through that and it will be over soon. I used that a lot during that year and ever since then. I've prayed for people I've met on the street, for annoying people and troubled people, for the people I don't like or who don't like me but we have to deal with each other anyhow, I've prayed when I didn't know what to say and eventually, I knew what to say.
The poor. Pope Francis speaks of having an encounter with the poor. JVC-East gave me this and it’s something I've sought out ever since then. I've spent dozens of nights as an overnight volunteer at homeless shelters, years as an informal volunteer at a Christian drug rehab community, a year slinging vegetables at a food pantry, and more. I'm not afraid when I find myself in the poor part of towns since living in the ghetto of Hartford taught me that people hanging out on the street are doing their own thing, not waiting for me to walk by so they could mug me. My time living among, working with and serving the poor that year let me overcome my fears of the stranger and actually made me the stranger, a role I have taken on again and again as my family has moved and begun again in new places. I was very afraid of our neighborhood for those first few weeks and found comfort in the Psalms which assure us of God's love and protection. I needed Him big time during that year and indeed, as Paul promised, when I decreased, He increased.
Retreats. I gained a real appreciation for retreats through my JVC-East experience. They helped us make sense of the craziness around us and gave me tools to make it for another few months before the next one. They were a time of respite and bonding with fellow volunteers. I loved hearing their stories and we supported one another. I enjoyed the silent retreat and have sought out silent retreats a few times since then.
CVN: And how about simple living? That’s always a hard one to maintain after the volunteer experience.
Julie: We made it a practice not to waste food, electricity or stuff. I had a cardboard box for a nightstand (with a nice cloth over it) and a mattress on the floor (with a nice blanket over it) and was satisfied with our simple lifestyle. It’s been many years now but I still have the "need vs. want" discussion in my own head and my family and I intentionally live simpler than we're tempted to live.
CVN: Tell me about Franciscan Passages – how can folks utilize your services and resources?
Julie: I go anywhere I'm invited to facilitate a retreat. References are available from these Catholic Volunteer Network programs for whom I have created and led retreats: Farm of the Child, Nazareth Farm, Bethlehem Farm, Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati, Catholic Volunteers in Florida and St. Francis School. In addition, Franciscan Passages has been a sponsor of the Catholic Volunteer Network's national meeting for three years as an expression of our commitment to supporting the work of fine programs such as these. I've been thinking about Catholic Volunteer Network programs a lot since 1998 and I want to help volunteers make the most of their relatively short but powerful experience. My retreats and presentations have their foundations in St. Francis' writings but have a universal appeal and relevancy. All my services have flexible pricing. Money is never an obstacle to working with Franciscan Passages.
CVN: Any events or new resources coming up?
Julie: I am developing material for a series of webinars which take a look at some things said by St. Francis and St. Clare. We'll learn about their context and ask each other what they have to say to us in our lives, today. Stay up to date on these offerings by liking the Franciscan Passages Facebook page. Also, I will be putting together a book this year. I will be looking to work with hassle-free people to create something beautiful. If you have had an encounter with the poor and you'd like to write about it, find me and let's talk.
CVN: Last question – how can we get our hands on this new book?
Julie: You can order this book through Amazon or through Franciscan Passages' website. Pass it along, share it, dive into it and see where it takes your thoughts, prayers and decisions about what you should do next.
Want to win your own copy of Living & Serving in the Way of St. Francis? Visit our Facebook page and comment on our giveaway post for your opportunity to win.