Ellen Jewett serves as a Dominican Volunteer at Immaculate Conception Academy Cristo Rey High School in San Francisco California.In this letter to herself that she wrote Dominican Volunteers USA’s Midyear retreat, Ellen reflects on her Dominican Volunteer year thus far. Thank you for your service, Ellen!
You’ll fall in love. And no, I’m not talking about that cute boy in choir, though the four months you’ve spent with him so far haven’t been half bad. You’ll fall in love with life, with your community, with your ministry, and with yourself.
One day not too far into your year of service, you’ll realize you aren’t taking about the kids but your kids, much to your boyfriend’s amusement. You’ll laugh that your conversations must sound absurd to outsiders, jumping around between kids but always using the possessive.
When there’s an issue with BART, your first concern will be if all your kids made it home, saying a prayer that none are stranded.
You’ll nearly cry in the back of the auditorium as one of your seniors gives a speech about how her mother died a few years ago and her dad is here illegally and might be deported under the new president, leaving her without parents. You’ll feel the water slosh around in your eyes, but you’ll pull yourself together so that you can be there for the freshmen you’re about to bring to work, freshmen who have their own struggles and really need you to be present to them.
You’ll find yourself having a hard conversation with one of your favorite campus ministers long after school ended because she’s concerned about her mom and brother’s relationship and what will happen when she leaves for college at the end of the year. You won’t have answers – you definitely won’t have answers – but all that matters to her is that you’re listening and you care.
When your kids find out your grandma passed away, they’ll give you hugs as they leave for the day. The next morning one of the same girls will wrap an arm around your shoulder as a way of greeting you, wise beyond her years, knowing that the pain and sadness wouldn’t have disappeared overnight.
With every single one of your students, you’ll see the strain that minimum wage jobs, long hours, and absurdly high rents put on a family. And it will hurt. A lot.
Your ministry will push you, sometimes it will push hard. You’ll be handed a retreat with 60 freshmen with just four days’ notice. You’ll help run a choir even though sometimes you barely feel qualified to be in a choir. You’ll play piano and flute in front of the whole school. You’ll somehow learn the entire rapid transit system in a month. But you’ll never feel overwhelmed. Even in the scariest of situations, you will feel a pervading sense of calm, as if this is what you are meant to do.
You’ll fall in love with your community, despite all their foibles. You’ll love their intentional and caring actions, like the prioress offering to tell all the Sisters that your grandmother just passed away so that you don’t have to go through the pain of saying it all over again or your prayer partner leaving a treat outside your door just to brighten your day. But you’ll also love their unintentional truths and little quirks. There’s one who, though she drives you insane most days, leaves a packet in your mail box called “Writing Tips for the Doctoral Student” the day after you get your first acceptance to a PhD program. You’ll realize that’s her own special way of showing love and it will mean the world to you. Another will try to convince to you stop being vegetarian because she thinks that is why you’ve been tired for the last few weeks. It will drive you mad, you’ll want to scream, but you’ll understand that it’s because she cares about you, despite how misguided her suggestions may be.
When you’re with your family at Christmas, you’ll refer to the convent as “home” without thinking twice about it. And you’ll mean it.
You won’t exactly fall in love with your study, either academic or spiritual. But that’s where you’ll start to grow. Though graduate school applications aren’t fun, they will force to you think about what exactly you like in the different fields you study. They will help you find that passion once again, passion that slowly drifted away over the hustle and bustle of senior spring. You won’t love Theological Reflection either, but you kind of knew that when you signed up for the program. But it will allow you to push yourself, to share in larger group settings. It will teach you about aspects of Dominican spirituality, but more importantly, it will teach you to be vulnerable.
Prayer will be different, but the presence of God will be the same. You’ll tell yourself that you’ll wake up for morning prayer at 6 am, but it won’t actually happen. You’ll look forward to evening prayer at the end of a long day, a way to unwind and recenter after nine hours of work. Personal prayer will be difficult at times, mostly because sitting still for so long will make you want to fall asleep, but even this perceived dryness will help you grow and mature. You’ll enjoy going to Mass again, brought to tears by incredible and thoughtful Jesuit preaching that somehow always manages to connect perfectly to your life and the struggles of any given week.
You won’t fall in love with the city, especially not its absurd issues with gentrification, unreasonable rents, and income disparities, but you’ll fall in love with certain parts of it. You’ll find a family in choir at St Agnes, looking forward to every single rehearsal as a chance to laugh and to be whole. Every Sunday, your breath will be taken away as the J train comes up over the hill to the edge of Dolores Park and you get a view of downtown. When you’re stressed or just need air, you’ll walk up 24th Street and find a little village of bookstores, restaurants, and coffee shops and you’ll finally be able to breathe again.
In these six months, you’ll grow.
You’ll be happy.
You’ll be whole.
With love and blessings,