How on earth did I get here?
I am a seemingly normal 55-year-old white woman living in a house in Portland with five other members of the new Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest's Elder Corps program.
How did I ever even agree to be part of something with a name like that?
It all made sense when I thought about it on a Cancun beach in January 1998. I looked toward January 1999 in a new city, Portland, Oregon, where sun would be in short supply, solitude would be a thing of the past, and so would loneliness.
I have a lifetime of exposure to Jesuits -- Jesuit friends, a Jesuit uncle, a family full of alumni of Jesuit universities -- but I had never heard of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) until my oldest son joined it after graduating from Boston College, surprising many who knew him, including his mom.
JVC recruits recent college graduates, mostly from Jesuit colleges, who cheerfully come forward to be 'ruined for life' (the unofficial motto of JVC, which plays out in the decision of many former volunteers to choose simple living and social justice work beyond their JVC year). They agree to live in community, live simply, work for social justice, and develop their spirituality over the year. Each works full time at a nonprofit agency and receives a food stipend and a house or apartment to share with other volunteers.
My son spent one JVC year in Alaska in 1991 and a second in Portland, where he met his fabulous wife the day she, a new Jesuit Volunteer, was moving into the house his community was vacating.
Author Sarah Patterson and John Kaddlec are among the first to participate in a new Jesuit volunteer program for those over 50. They and others sold homes, stored furniture, and transplanted themselves to Portland, Oregon, to live in community and work in social-service positions. Just imagine a Jesuit Volunteer Corps for 'Elders.'
I was impressed by the changes JVC had wrought in my son. He had developed a spirituality that matched his personal values of social justice and simple living, and he had learned more about communicating with other people than many learn in a lifetime. He had sorted through things most people in their twenties have not begun to consider.
Of course, by then I had a permanent place on JVC's mailing list; I read each newsletter and was always moved to tears with some story in it. My interest led me to be a board member and development chair for JVC Southwest when I lived in San Francisco.
For five years I welcomed new volunteers at JVC orientations at an oceanside camp. They stumbled out of cars, looked around with stunned faces, that look, wondering how on earth they had landed on a beach on the Pacific and not knowing where to begin. By the end of the day they were stripped of their former identities (Holy Cross, Boston College . . . ) and given new ones: Casa Dorothy Day, Casa Santa Clara, Casa San Francisco. They were introduced to those God had picked to be their community for the next year.
Watching them, I felt that I was on the wrong side of the script. I wanted to be a part of the volunteer experience, not a visiting board member. But I had done hard time living with my own twenty-year-olds and could not fathom doing that again, even for the JVC experience.
Then, one lazy Saturday afternoon in 1997, as autumn leaves blew through the air, I picked up a JVC newsletter that had been sitting on my coffee table for several months. It mentioned a new volunteer program, the Elder Corps -- 'elder' in the proud Native American tradition of the Northwest, the article hastened to add; no one had come up with a better name.
Martin Winch, then JVC Northwest's director, had a vision for this new program. With the collaboration of Fr. Jack Morris, SJ, (JVC's founder, now in Uganda but still producing voluminous guidance by e-mail) the idea took shape in the fertile mind of Margaret Fissinger, a 72-year-old New Hampshire woman and old friend of Fr. Morris's.
As she describes it, she nagged Winch into starting the program while she was still young enough to participate. The program was for people over 50 who would live in community, work in social justice jobs, live simply, develop their spiritual sides more fully, and learn to value and pass on to others the wisdom they had accumulated in their lives. I often found myself in short supply of people who wanted to listen to my wisdom. I wanted in!
At that time I had a thriving law practice in San Francisco, helping people qualify for disability benefits and working with mentally ill and addicted street people. Ironically, success had taken me away from the work that I loved-- dealing directly with clients-- and into a management role; my hands were off the part of the work that fed my soul.
Margaret and Bill Fissinger left their native New Hampshire to live in the Portland, Oregon, Elder Corps community. Margaret, 72, had a lot to do with the development of the program, wanting to take part while she was 'still young enough to participate.'
I knew somehow I was going to join the first group, before they made too many rules I would not want to follow. I sent away for an application.
In a telephone interview with Winch, we talked about the 'entrepreneurial' energy of shooting an arrow at a target and knowing somehow that the arrow would hit, that everything between you and the arrow would fall into place. That is how the decision to join Elder Corps felt. Piece by piece, things indeed fell into place. By the end of the summer it was clear that the things that had not worked yet, would. In August I had this vision of all of us in the future Elder Corps, at that point unknown to each other, living in different parts of the country, all taking the next step on the path to Portland.
It is one thing to leave a college dorm after graduation, throw things in the car, and move somewhere, as young JVs generally do. It is quite another for people over 50 to close down the complexities of life, business, and families to do the same.
But each of us future Elder Corps members spent the summer throwing out, giving away, moving and shipping, closing down lives for a year the way you button up a cabin for the winter. Homes rented out or sold, parents and children kissed goodbye, lives as we knew them put on hold, we stepped out. We had no idea what would come next but felt ourselves called by God to be in this group, to live in this community, and to do the work we were being given.
The day after Labor Day, I stumbled out of a car at Nestucca, the Jesuit nature sanctuary on the Oregon Pacific coast, for our orientation. Looking around at others, I saw that look again. I realized that I must have had it on my face, too, wondering how on earth I had gotten here and not knowing where to begin.
After six days of retreat, meditation, and recreation, the eighteen of us in the new Elder Corps were as ready as we were going to be. In a candlelit ceremony we anointed each other with holy oil and laid our written commitments on the chapel altar strewn with wildflowers and vigil lights and our year's motto: 'Let Your Light Shine Forth Like the Dawn.' And we dispersed the next morning for new homes in Anchorage, Seattle, and Portland.
At Mac House, as our community in Portland is called, live Margaret Fissinger and her husband, Bill, a retired development director who worked at several Jesuit universities. They have raised six children and have thirteen grandchildren. Among her many assets, Margaret has never made a bad meal in her life. Bill has never seen a conflict he couldn't deflect with a quick joke.
We also have John Kaddlec, 54, our baby, a dyed-in-the-wool Minnesotan, widowed last year. Somehow he decided to leave his lifetime home, kids who had just left the nest, and a supportive network of friends in his wonderful parish, Pax Christi in Minneapolis. He arrived with a bread-making machine, a crockpot, and a tool kit.
Jerral Siddes, 60, former Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras and teacher of English as a second language, came up the road from Salem, Oregon, with a car full of plants and her rollerblades.
Bernice Pirkl-Thompson is a 74-year-old therapist, mother of eight, grandmother of 25, also widowed recently. Her quiet and reflective spirituality is a guiding light to our house.
Portland Elder Corps community member Jerral Siddes leads a blindfolded Jack McCullough, from the Seattle Elder Corps community, through a game at one of the four retreats Elder Corps members participate in during the year.
We all have entry level jobs with direct client contact. Margaret is now having what she describes as her 'one and only career' at the Native American Program of Oregon Legal Services of Portland, working on juvenile court dependency and abuse cases. Bill is a tenant advocate at Central City Concern, an institution that in its 25 years has turned crumbling buildings into an 1,100-bed housing resource for people recovering from addictions.
Jerral applies her exuberant energy and growing knowledge of Spanish to her position at Catholic Charities' El Programa Hispano, which deals with immigration problems, gang education outreach, social services, and education.
Bernice works at Behavioral Health Network, running a drop-in center for mentally ill clients and making lunch for 25 of them daily. Her joy is the writing class she runs, pulling thoughts and feelings out of people who sometimes cannot express them out loud.
John, aside from supplying us with fresh bread weekly, works at St. Andrew's, an inner-city parish with a strong social justice ministry and a congregation that includes about 150 former Jesuit Volunteers.
I work at the Cascade AIDS Project as a transportation aide, handing out bus passes, telephone cards, and other forms of financial help to people living with AIDS and HIV. I also coordinate the agency's legal clinic, recruiting pro bono attorneys to do clinics for our clients, many of whom are able to work but have barriers such as insurmountable debt or the threat of being without insurance if they are taken off benefit programs.
I thought I knew a lot about AIDS from my background as a lawyer helping people with disability cases. Nothing could have prepared me for the heart-opening experience of working side by side with so many HIV-positive people and seeing the face of what it means to live daily with this disease -- the medications, the side effects, the compromised immune system.
We see more and more women and children with HIV; they make up 15 percent of the newly infected. The epidemic is changing and is far from over. The face of God is in all these people, giving and creating compassion.
After our day's work we all come back to our community. All of us have been or are married, several widowed or divorced. We have the experience of religion and spirituality that matches each of our ages. I often think that people in their 70s might think the same thing about living with me that I would think about living with people in their 20s.
My own spiritual path has been a convoluted one. I was raised and educated in Catholic schools, graduating from Marquette's journalism college in 1966. I am of the age cohort that can tell you where she was when Kennedy was shot and where she went to demonstrate against Vietnam.
After graduating from law school at the University of Louisville in 1976, I worked in a legal aid office for five years. I found churches wherever I lived that matched my social justice vision. Often it would be Newman Centers on university campuses; for many years it was the incomparable St. William Church in Louisville, a community of people focused on social justice.
During some of my years in San Francisco it was Glide Methodist, which feeds hundreds of homeless people daily.Another year it was a small Christian church in the Mission district of San Francisco. For about two years I was in a meditation group led by a wonderful Buddhist teacher. And some years it was no church, especially the few years after I was divorced.
But always, after time away from the Catholic Church, I would miss the liturgical calendar, the sense of time passing in that way, and the music. I figured I was too old to learn all new music. So I would come home to the Catholic Church to find a place where I could fit.
I have done this in Portland. Our community has fallen in love with nearby St. Andrew's -- I felt completely at home the moment I walked in. The congregation went wild after we introduced ourselves one Sunday as 'the JVC Elder Corps, the hottest new volunteer group on the planet,' and performed a carefully rehearsed 'wave.' We have our own pew at the church on Sunday, like the family we are.
I remember Thanksgiving eve at Mac House. It had been the busiest day ever at Cascade AIDS. We gave away food vouchers, bus passes -- there must have been 300 people through our agency that day. I came home exhausted, but it was a different kind of exhausted than I had ever experienced. It was a peaceful kind of tired, knowing that I gave what I was able to people who needed much more.
Bernice Pirkl-Thompson, the sixth member of the Portland JVC Elders community, is a 74-year-old therapist, mother of eight, and grandmother of 25, who works at a drop-in center for mentally ill clients.
What a joy it was to find three of my housemates similarly exhausted. We all shared that experience in our jobs that day. I could not imagine going home to an empty apartment after a day like that. I knew community would be the best and the hardest of the experience this year -- the part I wanted the most and the part that scared me the most after living alone for more than five years. It is what we all crave, connection with others: knowing and being known by people who accept you no matter what.
We are young in this process. We have (or, rather, aim for) weekly spirituality discussions. We eat together every night, sharing cooking, cleaning, menu planning, and shopping. We make important decisions as a group, a very time-consuming process for those of us used to deciding everything on our own.
We each live on $80 a month (food and lodging supplied), so simplicity in lifestyle comes with the territory. Things previously taken for granted -- a cafe latte at a coffee shop -- become luxuries when experienced only once in three months, purchased after careful consideration of other options for these limited funds.
The second of four retreats we will have this year was conducted by Joe Conyard, SJ, and Jane Comeford, CSJ, who were at our orientation. They are skilled workshop presenters on 'eldering,' the process of becoming proud of the wisdom accumulated over many years, embracing the autumn and winter phases of life rather than attempting to live in another season, and passing those gifts on to younger people. The retreat, spent with our counterparts from the Seattle house, gave us a renewed sense of what we were about.
So we stumble along, figuring things out as we go. But, like JV houses everywhere, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. All of us watched a woman we had grown to love during our orientation go through an extremely difficult month this fall with grace and integrity. In her thank you note to people who had supported her, she summed up some of what our experience has been so far:
I wondered sometimes where God was in all of this chaos. Each time I thought about it, the answer was always immediate and always the same. God was in community. God was in the sitting with, the crying with . . . God was in the hand-delivered sunflowers and cheesecakes, letters, prayers, visits, the messages.
God has only the instrument of other people to send messages to us. His voice is turned way up this year at Mac House in Portland.