Volunteering that led to vows
Just two weekends ago, I professed first vows with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, along with my dear Sr. Andrea Koverman. It was a day of indescribable joy! I was humbled by the presence of the hundreds of people - family, friends, sisters, and associates – who gathered to celebrate with us from near and far. I was moved by the beauty and energy of the Liturgy, brought to life by the gifts of so many. I was overcome with a deep sense of God’s grace filling the chapel and pulsing in my heart. The kind of Love that wrapped us up is empowering! It feels so good and so right to be a vowed sister.
And now, this week, I am traveling back to the place where it all started. The first inklings of a call to religious life emerged in the fall of 2008 when I was a long-term international volunteer.
I had several brief but powerful encounters with the pain and injustice of our world while in college, and I knew I had much more to learn. That led me to apply to post-graduate volunteer opportunities. While saddened by the thought of being so far from loved ones, I couldn’t resist the tug at my heart. After graduating from the University of Dayton with degrees in psychology and Spanish, I spent two years in Ecuador, South America, with a program called Rostro de Cristo.
Seven years ago this July, I boarded a south-bound plane in Miami with eleven other recent college graduates. We were strangers then, but we would soon be drawn together indelibly by the experience that awaited us.
Rostro de Cristo is similar to other post-graduate programs you may have heard of. We young adults lived together in an economically impoverished neighborhood called Durán, just outside of Guayaquil. We lived simply by U.S. standards, with no hot water or Internet, but our house was still by far the largest and most comfortable on the street. Most of our neighbors live in houses made of bamboo cane or cement blocks. The roads are dirt, or mud during the rainy season. Water comes, sporadically, in a honking truck and is pumped into barrels along the curb.
Inside our house, we created intentional community through sharing prayer, cooking, cleaning, meals and weekly spirituality and community nights. Outside the house, we ministered in various volunteer placements, often with Ecuadorian foundations. In our free time, we learned simply “to be” with our neighbors. Through talking, playing, eating and praying with them, we began to understand their culture and see the world anew through their eyes. And we grew to love them.
My morning ministry placement happened to be at a little clinic in downtown Durán called Dispensario Elizabeth Setón, where I worked as a health promoter and a companion for people living with HIV and AIDS. I walked by a statue of Elizabeth Seton everyday at the clinic, but at the time I knew nothing more about her than that she was, indeed, a saint. Imagine my surprise a few years later, in discernment with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, when I found out that Elizabeth Seton is their (our) foundress, and that Dispensario Elizabeth Setón in Durán, Ecuador, was started and had been run for many years by their (our) Sisters! God was indeed at work.
The experience of volunteering was radically transformative. Community living in itself was intense. We came face to face with ourselves, in the absence of the usual distractions of the Internet and phones, and far from all that was comfortable to us. And then, of course, all of it took place in the midst of dire poverty. We struggled together in our faith, trying to make sense of the suffering we saw daily. We watched, often impotently, as injustice and inequality caused our neighbors and friends to live really hard lives. What were we called to do in response?
It was here that I first entertained thoughts of becoming a sister. It was unexpected and alarming at first, but now I know that God’s Providence surfaced the call during my time as a volunteer. All of the struggles caused me to seek God more passionately than ever before. My heart was broken wide open through touching the pain of the world. I sunk the roots of my heart deep into prayer, and I fell in love with Jesus, whom I encountered so profoundly in my Ecuadorian loved ones and in my community mates. Their faith increased my own. All of it made me more vulnerable and also more sensitive to God’s movement in my life. I was listening deeply and whole-heartedly.
During my second year in Ecuador, I met with a spiritual director, Hermana Maca, a Sister on mission from Spain. I treasured our conversations in the little chapel in her home. I asked questions about religious life and shared freely my fears and resistances. To my initial reluctance, I also found myself sharing about joy – a deep, lasting joy unlike anything I’d felt before. I began to see that the life I was living as a volunteer was actually similar to religious life. And I loved it. How fulfilling it was to share a mission-driven, God-centered life with my intentional community! How beautiful it was to live and minister on the “margins” of society. It was challenging, to be sure, but somehow, my gifts flourished, I drew closer to God, and I felt truly alive.
I’ll never forget the day that Hermana Maca told me gently but firmly, “Tracy, only you can know what God is speaking to your heart. But based on all you’ve shared with me, it is very possible that that you are being called to religious life.”
I lay awake in bed that night, fighting the Ecuadorian heat and wrestling with Maca’s words. Could I really do this for my whole life? Could I forgo my dream of a husband and children for this uncommon but wonderful path? It scared me, but a still, small voice inside told me that I could do it.
Upon returning from Ecuador, I moved in with a community of Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, just outside of El Paso, Texas, as an Associate in Volunteer Ministry. I was much more open to religious life at this point, but beyond Maca, I had minimal experience with real-life Sisters. Here in El Paso, I shared community and ministry with the Sisters, getting an up-close-and-personal vantage point into religious life. I volunteered at their community center for children with special needs in Mexico as well as at a shelter for migrants and, later, at a Spanish-speaking Jesuit parish blocks from the Mexican border. This time as a volunteer afforded me the information I needed to add missing pieces to my discernment puzzle, and it gave me the time, space and environment to discern well.
Obviously, I chose to enter religious life. And as I professed my vows last week, my community mates from both of my volunteer experiences looked on, some in person and some watching the live-stream from various places all over the country. What a gift they continue to be in my life.
My story is not unique! The Catholic Volunteer Network is exploring this link between post-graduate volunteering and religious life through a grant for a program called “From Service to Sisterhood.” Read more about it and watch a video of other women like me who found their call, in part, because of their volunteer experience.
I treasure the opportunity to return, in just a few days, to Ecuador, the country of my transformative volunteer experience. I’ll spend a week doing some visiting and some short-term ministry with the Sisters of Charity of Greensburg, who have a mission in Ecuador.
In August 2008, I first landed in Guayaquil as a new volunteer. In July 2015, I will land in Guayaquil as a vowed Sister. On my journey, I’ll reverence the people and places that nurtured my seedling call, now blossomed into a life commitment. I am so grateful.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]