A Shift in Focus by Mari Riffle

Posted on April 14, 2020

On March 13th at around 10:30 in the morning it was announced that from the end of the day forward, all of the Catholic schools in the Archdioceses of Chicago would be closed indefinitely. The staff of the Academy of St. Benedict the African (ASBA), where I work as a STEM educator, spent the rest of the day keeping the children’s daily routine as consistent as possible while we prepared for the shutdown.

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Fortunately for ASBA, we already had an e-learning platform in place. It had been implemented earlier this year in order to prevent us from having to make up days lost to severe winter weather. However, this platform is only for classroom teachers. I am not a classroom teacher. Therefore, I have not been able to see or talk to my students since March 13th. I miss them dearly and pray for them daily. I have some side projects like test driving the STEM room’s new technology and making plans for the room next year, but until schools reopen, my time of direct service is over.

In college, I decided to take part in a year of service because I felt that I needed to do better than simply learn about social justice, I needed to live it. I needed to directly serve others. In a lot of ways, I feel pulled back to that time, brimming with the desire to help and serve, but unable to do so. I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about what service looks like to me now.

My housemate, Rose, opened our most recent Spirituality Afternoon with a check-in question, “How are you treating the world and how is the world treating you?”

We all spoke of joy and stress, feelings of privilege and fear, but what stood out to me most was what Sara said, “In order to think about how I’m treating the world and how the world is treating me, I have to first think of what I consider to be the world, and right now, my world is all of you.”

Despite technology that keeps us deeply connected across distance, my world has effectively shrunk to the women I live with and therefore, my service has become about them.

In The Universal Christ by theologian, Richard Rohr, he asserts, “God is Relationship.” I’ve taken that to mean that God is in the connective tissue between us and the universe around us. The force that holds us to each other, that bonds us to nature, that unites us with ourselves, that is God. Therefore, tending to these bonds has become my holy work.

I have spent the past few weeks learning the minutiae of each of my housemates. I am seeing how each of them deals with stress and challenge and their little quirks that make up the way they move through the world. I’ve learned how we all love. The small words of kindness, the little actions that knit us together (like doing someone else’s dishes, the chore we all hate).

For me, food, especially baking, has always been about love and family. So when Corinne asked, I was eager to make a sourdough starter and embark on a bread journey with her. Creating a starter is simple. We mixed one cup of whole wheat flour with a half cup of water once every 12 hours for three days, removing part of the starter each time. This process allowed yeast to naturally begin to ferment in our jar of flour and water. We named our starter Baccy (after lactobacillus, the most common type of bacteria found in sourdough starters). Sourdough is a notoriously tricky kind of bread. Starters, while hard to kill, can be fussy and the dough is always slow to rise, the balance of water and flour can make or break a loaf. So baking together has become a practice in relationship building for Corinne and I as we take turns reassuring each other that yes, Baccy looks active and no, I don’t think that’s too much flour and yes, I think the dough will rise, just as it has time and time before.

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Beyond baking, part of my new routines of service revolve around celebration of the small. Events of quiet joy have now become full on occasions. Our time spent watching shows as a house have become rituals of closeness. Everyone gathers, bringing their favorite blankets, hoping to arrive early enough to grab the coveted corner seat on the couch. We laugh at nonsense on the screen and it feels good to laugh during this time of uncertainty. Our days are not perfect, but turning my focus to loving and caring for my housemates has helped me to feel less lost while we shelter-in-place far from family and the people we are meant to serve. I can no longer see my students, but I am not done serving. The wonderful women I live with pull me out of myself to care for someone beyond myself and that is exactly what service means.