Jesuit Service Movement Marks 60 Years of Helping Young People Become “Ruined for Life”

By William Bole

December 14, 2016 — In its iconic slogan, the U.S. Army calls on its recruits to “be all you can be.” The Peace Corps promises that one of its assignments abroad will be “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” You’d think it would be going a little too far to tell young men and women that they’ll be “ruined for life” if they sign up and serve.

The 2016-2017 JVC Northwest volunteers.

But each year, recent college graduates from around the United States respond enthusiastically to such a call issued by the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or JVC, which is marking its 60th anniversary.

“Ruined for life” is one of the slogans recruits hear, usually from former volunteers. Another, more official slogan is just a little less provocative: “Dare to change.” Jeanne Haster, who spent a year as a Jesuit Volunteer during the 1980s, says both messages apply to her.

“It turned my world on its head,” says Haster, referring to her Jesuit volunteer work with undocumented immigrants in Texas as well as her service a year earlier as a lay Catholic missionary in Guatemala. “It directed my life meaning and mission toward being with those on the margins. My life was changed radically.”

Today, Haster is executive director of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest. The organization traces its roots to a group of volunteers who fanned out to Alaska to teach at a Jesuit-founded school for native Alaskan children in 1956. Since then, 7,000 young people have served with JVC Northwest, which covers Washington state, Oregon, Montana and Idaho as well as Alaska.

Jeanne Haster, executive director of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, served as a Jesuit Volunteer from 1981-82 (far right in photo on right). 

Another 11,000 young people have answered the call through a separately incorporated national organization, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, headquartered in Baltimore. That organization is headed by Timothy Shriver, grandson of Sargent Shriver, the driving force behind the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961. Regardless of where they serve and what they do, Jesuit Volunteers embrace four core values: spirituality, simple living, community and social justice. (Ecological justice is increasingly becoming a concern as well.)

Timothy Shriver (left), president of Jesuit Volunteer Corps, with Fr. Stephen Planning, SJ, president of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.

In all, about 450 Jesuit Volunteers are currently serving, most in the United States, some abroad (in Micronesia, Tanzania, Chile, Peru, Nicaragua and Belize). A formative part of the one-or-two-year experience is a series of at least four retreats grounded in Jesuit spirituality, which characteristically seeks to “find God in all things.” Those gatherings begin with an orientation at the start of service and (in the case of the Baltimore-based JVC) include at the end a fifth “disorientation retreat.” The name goes to the point of being “ruined,” seeing life through a new lens.

Jesuit Volunteer Benjamin Moses Hill teaches in Peru.

“They go back to the world they knew before, but with different eyes,” says Shriver, pointing to the impact of not only their service among the poor but also living in small communities of a few or several volunteers. “You’ve lived on a hundred dollars a month, so you question what you need and don’t need. You question what you buy, where you live, what jobs you take. It could be really jarring. How do you move in this world that you once knew so well?”

Jesuit Volunteers on a “disorientation retreat" at the end of their service.

Different Paths, One Inspiration

Susan Collins and Ronald Willy would seem to have taken notably different paths. Collins is chief of staff for Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a liberal Democrat from Illinois, and she has focused especially on legislation to ease the burdens of undocumented immigrants. Willy is a radiologist with the U.S. Navy stationed in Okinawa, Japan. But the military man and the Congressional aide share a common inspiration: the values they embraced as Jesuit volunteers.

“There is no other thing in my life that set me on this course than my two years of volunteer work” in the early 1990s with the JVC, Collins testifies. After a stint in Nicaragua through a Georgetown University program, she spent those years in Brownsville, Texas. There, she reached out to families held at a detention center for undocumented immigrants who had tried to enter the country with children.

During those same years with the JVC, Willy worked as a community organizer in Hartford, Connecticut, after graduating from Marquette University and before starting his medical training in the Navy. Now serving at a military hospital for active-duty military and their families, he draws links between JVC-style activism and his military vocation.

Ronald Willy, a radiologist in the Navy, worked as a community organizer in Hartford, Connecticut, as a Jesuit Volunteer.

“I think the most important component of JVC that I take with me into the hospital every day is the priority of individual dignity and worth,” Willy recently said in a profile distributed by the organization. “The work of JVC volunteers forces them to encounter, interact with, and ultimately (hopefully) truly know individual people who have been disregarded or disenfranchised.” He now applies the lessons to his encounters with those made vulnerable by illness.

A Visit by Hurricane Earl

Living on the periphery is no easy assignment.

This past August, Hurricane Earl made landfall in Belize. Jesuit Volunteers there turned their two-story cement house into a shelter for themselves and children who attend the parish school where they teach. Alyssa Perez, a 2015 graduate of Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, recalls hearing the winds howling, trees breaking and roofs collapsing all around them, in the middle of the night. She kept duct-taping bags around windows to keep out the water as the children slept. No one was hurt.

Jesuit Volunteer Alyssa Perez with children in Belize during Hurricane Earl in August 2016.

“I have had some of my lowest lows this past year,” she says — which include burying two students, catching dengue (a mosquito-borne tropical disease) and witnessing violence and poverty. “But I have also had some of the happiest moments of life here,” like coaching basketball, celebrating Carnival, and jumping off waterfalls, she says. Perez stresses that all of the moments have taught her what it means to “find hope in the suffering and how to let my heart be broken, then let love come in to fill the cracks.”

A day of reflection activity at the JVC community in Cleveland.

The JVs, as they are known, begin their service in August. Father Fred Kammer, SJ, of Loyola University New Orleans, who has been involved with the JVC since the late 1970s and is now a board member with the national organization, says volunteers immerse themselves in the lives of the poor. And then they might go back home for a visit during the holidays.

Fr. Fred Kammer, SJ, has been involved with JVC since the late 1970s.

“An aunt or uncle might say, ‘Why are you wasting your time with all that’?” says Fr. Kammer, who leads retreats for the young men and women and directs Loyola’s Jesuit Social Research Center. “Most people are oblivious to the poverty around us, but the JVs get to know the people who are cleaning the yards and living on the margins. They get to know Christ among the poor, with a name and a face. And that changes them. They see the world from the bottom up.”

A JVC Northwest retreat in Idaho.

The Road Ahead

The Jesuit Volunteer movement has its challenges. For one, student loan burdens can make it hard for recent graduates to seek out unsalaried service rather than traditional careers. Those who enlist with the Portland-based JVC Northwest might get a break because most are placed with AmeriCorps, which provides what it terms “Education Awards” earmarked specifically for either loan repayment or tuition for graduate education.

Jesuit Volunteers often serve as teachers, both in the U.S. and abroad.

In the search for recruits, these days the JVC has some friendly competition. Inspired by the JV movement, many religious orders and denominations have run with the same model of long-term service and communal living. They’ve launched organizations with names such as the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, Lutheran Volunteer Corps and Episcopal Service Corps.

Jesuit Volunteer Therese Dallegro served at a free health clinic.

What will remain distinctive about JVC programs is the spirituality that centers on “finding God in all things,” and especially on the peripheries of society.

Father George Williams, SJ, a JVC alum, has found God not only in his religious vocation but also his ministry in one of the darker and more troubling peripheries — the U.S. prison system. Fr. Williams is the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison in California, where he gives voice to the spirituality that the JVC promotes.

Fr. George Williams, SJ, a former JV, currently ministers at San Quentin State Prison. (Lt. Sam Robinson)

“When I raise the host I don’t see heinous murderers standing in front of me, I see human beings,” the Jesuit has pointed out. “If his body was not given up for them too, then what difference would our faith make?”

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