“Lord, break my heart, so the whole world can fall in.”
These were the words the priest said during the opening mass at the initial orientation for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). I had graduated from Santa Clara University a month before, and I had just flown away from California that morning to embark on this new journey.
As I sat in that chapel with several dozen other wide-eyed incoming recent college grads, the only thing I knew was that I would soon be arriving in Bolivia to begin my two-year experience as a volunteer.
I lived for a year in Bolivia in Tiraque, a small village 10,000 feet high in the Andes. In my second year moved to Tacna, Peru, a city on the southern coast in the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth. In both places, I worked as a teacher, counselor and youth minister. I went on countless hikes, learned traditional dances, tried some incredible foods, all the while sticking out like a sore thumb for being so tall.
Long-term volunteer work brings the opportunity to form community in unexpected places and with unexpected people. I remember a neighbor in Peru, Martin, who would drop by our house regularly and spend at least an hour just chatting and catching up. No need to cook a meal, or do anything special. Just listening to each other, being a consistent friend. Then there was Margarita, a neighbor who showered us with love in the form of various delicious foods she would occasionally bring over to our house. These friends, and countless others, taught me that simplicity and humility is the key to true friendship.
I had the opportunity to be a padrino de graduacion, or graduation sponsor, for a young man named Ronald about my age. I went to visit him and his family in a small jungle town down the mountainside from Tiraque. I recall him explaining to me the various risks in the area from drug traffickers, some of whom were hostile to people from the U.S. He told me, with utter sincerity, “But I’ll protect you. I’ll give my life for you if need be.” Ronald and others embodied a generous open-heartedness what was a special example to me of what it means to be human.
My years as a volunteer were a time of tremendous joy, deeply meaningful friendships, and experiences that I couldn’t have dreamt up if I tried. All the while, I was challenged to come to terms with my own ego, expectations, and shortcomings as I confronted challenges in work and community life. It was sometimes painful to realize this, but my JVC community and the locals reminded me, as God does so often in a myriad of ways, that we don’t have to be perfect to be lovable, we just have to be willing to have our hearts open and be who we are.
The willingness to forgive, patience, and openness to friendship I witnessed in so many people challenged so much of what I had learned previously. I had learned that to be “successful” I had to have an advanced degree, possess a unique set of knowledge, and gain the attention of others through my accomplishments. I had learned that this is where greatness would be found.
The greatness I witnessed from the people I met challenged me to unlearn so much of this way of seeing the world. I read a lot from the late Jesuit Anthony De Mello during my time there, who wrote, “That’s what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned: unlearning, unlearning almost everything you’ve been taught. A willingness to unlearn, to listen.”
Human greatness. Nothing that would be able to be written on a resume, and nothing that would get one hired at a top company. But simple, genuine human greatness.
My hope for all people who may be considering long-term volunteer work after college is that you not be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, and to go where you risk failure and being a foreigner, where you may witness incredible poverty, and where so much of what you have learned previously is challenged. To echo the words of the opening prayer at my orientation, I hope that you do not hesitate to have your heart broken. If your experience is anything like mine, you may come to know, through God’s guidance, a deeper sense of what it means to be human.
Through my years of JVC, and the process of having my heart broken, listening to the world around me, and forming genuine relationships, I experienced a personal encounter with the God who out of love gave His life for humanity. And I feel that my entire life since then has been an attempt to respond to that encounter. Maybe that’s what is meant by the JVC slogan, “ruined for life.”