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The following is reflection prepared by Davis Brown, a Volunteer in the McKinley Park community. He shares his experience arriving to Amate House and Chicago, diving into orientation and realizing the heartbreak and hope that will come with the experience of a volunteer year. Davis is serving at the Academy of St. Benedict the African this year.  

  • I am no stranger to community living. 
  • I have had roommates before, and I have also lived intentionally before.  
  • I am also no stranger to the non-profit sphere or working with marginalized communities.
  • My father works in non-profit, and I have been surrounded by these experiences since childhood. 

These were the thoughts that ran through my head as I was on the train to Chicago to start my year of service. Amate House seemed like the glove my hand was made for. I felt sure that I knew what I was getting myself into and that my past experiences would make me a valuable, competent member of this community from day one. As I neared the city, I remember wondering if parts of the up-coming two-week orientation would be old hat, and if it would be two weeks of quietly listening to information that I already possessed. That train ride seems like a lifetime ago. A chapter of my life that knew not the sharp turn its path had before. Getting off that train would mark the beginning of my encounter with the wonderful, humbling, sometimes frustrating and always rewarding journey that was orientation.

As my first day of orientation arrived, I wondered what it would be like. Would it be intense? Would it be tiring? Would it feel informative? Or proselytizing? I remember being impressed with the level of organization that seemed to be a natural part of the fabric of Amate House. I know that no program is perfect, and Amate House is by no means perfect. However, it did appear that the majority of kinks had been thoroughly worked out and that any unforeseen problems had a ready-made solution ready to go.

The first few days were very long. There was a lot of information to digest and a lot of challenges to my pre-conceived notions. This is where the humility started to kick in. Although I am one of the oldest people living in my house, I recognized that I was greatly lacking in the areas we were developing. As the days progressed, I remember the frustration beginning to rise. I now believe those pangs of frustration were the signs of growing pains, but in the moment I viewed them as discouraging. I was (and am) living with five strangers who I was revealing my most vulnerable parts to. Parts of myself that my own family rarely sees. It was uncomfortable. It was trying. I was beginning to not enjoy orientation.

Davis poses with his housemates during Amate House orientation.

Then came an element I didn’t expect at all: heartbreak. Heartbreak occurred when our community visited Precious Blood Ministries in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago. The day began with a greeting from a pleasant woman named Sister Donna, who quickly introduced us to restorative justice and the use of peace circles as a form of conflict resolution. I began this day feeling distant. Sister Donna’s peace circles seemed corny and weird. I slowly began to grow into her stories about the violence in her neighborhood and in the city. I became enraptured and outraged by the justice system that was destroying so many lives. I became tearful when hearing about miracles of forgiveness and love that had occurred in that very room. In that moment I understood why I was here. I understood the beauty that was happening in this room, and felt ashamed that I had considered myself knowledgeable in social justice. I understood how precious the lives of the marginalized are and how strong this city was. I recognized the privilege that I had based on my skin color, gender, citizenship and socioeconomic status. I understood this great dance I had chosen to partake in and how small and unprepared I felt.

I went home and cried.

The heartbreak, however, was not the end for me. In the dark chaos that filled my heart came a light that change could be attained. My community had become a vital part of my life. These strangers I lived with supported me and knew me in ways my closest friends do not. Every person I met in those two weeks of orientation was another wonderful piece in the puzzle who was slowly making a change in his or her own way. I found that the horrors and injustice that plague this world could be met with action. I found that broken systems can be fixed. I found that hurts could be healed and communities could be mended. As orientation came to an end, I found something new. I found hope.

Amate House Volunteers pose with Sister Donna at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.