By Monica Thom Konschnik, Jesuit Volunteer Corps; Assistant Director of Administration, Catholic Apostolate Center; Board Chair, Catholic Volunteer Network
“Remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” – Pope Francis, EG 169.
When I stood in the Detroit airport in August of 2006, heading off into the unknown for my year of service in New Orleans with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I did not fully understand the meaning of these words. Granted, in 2006, Pope Francis was still Jorge Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and had yet to write his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). But we find these words in Exodus, when God calls out to Moses through the burning bush. Throughout life, we are called to humble ourselves, remove our sandals, and be present to those around us, particularly during a year or more of faith-based service. This time is sacred; we walk on sacred ground.
As I stood in that airport, waiting to board my flight, I knew I was going to make a difference in the lives of my students and the city itself that was rebuilding after one of the worst natural and man-made disasters in the history of the United States, Hurricane Katrina. My intentions were pure; they were good. But they were wrong. At our orientation, my view of this year of service was turned on its head. This had nothing to do with me – about how I would feel, about what “good” I could do, or about my ability to make a difference. At orientation, we were prepared to view every aspect of our year as sacred.
I tried earnestly to treat my experience as sacred ground. I attempted to be present to my students, my colleagues, and my neighbors by just listening. I was not always successful and, at times, allowed my ego or venial distractions to get in the way. It was my time in personal prayer that I developed with my spiritual director that helped to ground me, bring me back to the sacred. That time in prayer also gave me opportunities to pray with the saints and the almost saints; those from my growing up – St. Monica, St. Thérèse of Lisiuex, Venerable Catherine McAuley, and St. Ignatius of Loyola – and those who inspired me during my time in New Orleans – Venerable Henriette Delille, St. Peter Claver, St. Francis Xavier, Dorothy Day, Fr. Rutilio Grande, and Fr. Harry Tompson. My conversations in prayer with those holy men and women, and learning about their experiences when they are alive, helped me to view every aspect of my experience as sacred.
It was also in time spent with my community members – our ragtag bunch from all over the country – who, like me, were trying to figure out their ways through this time. The City of New Orleans welcomed us with open arms, pots of gumbo, and trays of bread pudding. When people ask about my experience living in post-Katrina New Orleans, I say how grateful I felt and still feel to have been living there in such a unique time in the city’s history. It was a sacred time and I walked quite literally on sacred ground. Ground that had the flood waters rise and then fall, and with that fall, the washing away of human life, a sense of normalcy, and security.
This experience as a JV remains with me in how I view the world and how my husband and I are raising our daughters. Each of our lives are sacred; we need remember that, especially in these troubling and uncertain times. We need to reach out to those who are lonely, stay home to protect those who cannot, and support those around us as we are able. As you continue your year or more of service, in a time when our whole world has been turned upside down, I invite all of us to find those moments where we can take a step back, listen, and acknowledge the beauty of the sacred ground of the other.