Street Roots surely had been an unexpected place for me to find spiritual teachers, and even become a spiritual home of sorts. It is not a religious affiliated organization outside of having a JV there. I would even go so far as to say it is an irreligious place. It’s scrappy and politically incorrect. We work with people experiencing homelessness and poverty and all the emotional, physical and mental issues that accompany them.
The office itself is easy enough to walk right on by; and people often walk by the door rather quickly. A ragtag of folks often hang outside of the office having a smoke. You might pass by a man with a graying beard singing Wagon Wheel at the top of his lungs. Or a pile of dirty blankets might catch your eye. For awhile, the S in Street Roots on the door was torn in half and the papers in the windows look as if they’d seen paper days…worn, wrinkled, faded.
Inside, the phone rings constantly and people hang about the office drinking coffee, muttering to themselves, or sitting, staring into space. It may smell either extra clean with fumes of Pinesol causing you to catch your breath or absolutely terrible of unwashed bodies, stale alcohol and lingering tobacco smoke. There is a certain griminess that hangs about the office. No matter how often the surfaces are wiped down, a layer of news ink and dirt persists.
But you should never let appearances fool you. For behind the grime, wornness and political incorrectness, are people with huge hearts…vendors, staff, and volunteers alike.
It is in this place that I have witnessed acts of generosity and love, have heard stories of struggle and perseverance and have come to understand the many faces of God. It is in this place my heart was broken wide open and love poured in.
I had no idea what awaited me as I walked through its doors one mid-August morning. After sitting down with Israel, my site supervisor, I was even more confused and skeptical of what the year would hold. With a St. Louis baseball cap, basketball shorts and a scraggly beard, Israel didn’t look to me like an executive director, let alone someone who I would later describe as one of my greatest spiritual teachers.
As the weeks went on, Israel’s and mine’s conversations would cover everything. I came to see him as not just a supervisor but a mentor. During lunches, we would sit across from one another talking about the tough nature of social justice work. After some particular tough days, Israel would send me a text that read something like this: the light is strong. Look for the light; it is right in front of you. Or he’d talk to me the next day about spreading love in the world, planting it like seeds and ask how I had taken care of my soul. Love and light. Taking care of one’s soul. Or he’d send me a silly text or make a joke to make me smile, reminding me there has to be humor in this intense work.
But it isn’t just the words he used; it is how he operates in the world—authentically himself, doing what he can for those he sees as his brothers and sisters, even if they live on the streets. He listens attentively, offers words of comfort and encouragement, and gives small comforts of cigarettes when he can. He meets people where they are at with love and without judgment. He models for me what it means to live the Gospel, even though he doesn’t ascribe to it.
During my undergrad years at Xavier University, I worked at the Center for Faith and Justice, the hub of all things spiritual and service and justice related. My friends would probably tell you I lived there for 3 years, not only working in the office as a student work but also serving as a student leader and participant in many of its programs. I was a self-proclaimed retreat junkie, supplementing my time in between retreats with spiritual direction and Masses and small faith sharing groups. God, faith, and spirituality were daily parts of my conversation. And when it came time to decide about doing a year of service program, community and spirituality were at the heart of my decision. I should also mention that I attended a Jesuit university and that finding a program with similar values and philosophy was also a major deciding factor. So, naturally I came to be a JV with JVC Northwest.
The other values intrigued me and I had some grasp of each of them, but felt that I had a good understanding of spirituality, which when so much change is happening, I need something to ground me. And, spirituality has been the value that has kept me grounded during my two years as a JV. But, it is also the value that I would say I’ve had the most growth in. As I grew in understanding and deepening practice of community, simple living and social/ecological justice, my spirituality also grew and deepened but almost imperceptibly. What I have come to understand now is that I started the process of integration, my spirituality becoming integrated not only with the other values, but in my life.
Like all of the values, spirituality is not something I do for an hour a few times a week either by myself or in community. Rather it is both a practice and experience, integrated into my every day. My spiritual practices are disciplines that I may do alone or communally a few times during the week, but the idea of spirituality as it is, with all the values, is that they are not separate from who I am.
In college, my days were filled with conversations about God. At Street Roots my days were filled with acts of love, and from that, expressions of God. Therefore, my language and even understanding of God expanded. I found more names and faces of God; I came to see communion, not just as a sacrament on Sundays, but something that could be a daily reality. One moment I would be having a conversation with a vendor about prayer, another a different vendor would share with me candles to light for Shabbat. When my grandpa died and I missed the vendor meeting and new paper day that week to go home for the funeral, one vendor asked for a moment of silence to hold my family and another offered a Jewish blessing. Breaking of hearts and outpouring of spirit became as nourishing to my soul as the sacrament of communion with the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine.
It wasn’t only Street Roots where I experienced that, but also in community living, especially as we gathered around the table for community dinners. And spirituality nights gave space for different people to share a bit of their spirituality and spiritual practices with the rest of us. Spirituality nights were ways for us to share something of ourselves we didn’t share during the rest of the week. Gathered in prayer, reflection, in quiet time or around the dinner table filled with conversation, laughter and song, community taught me about love and joy and the importance of humor, especially after long, tough days at service.
Community living and my service placement, Street Roots, have had the biggest impacts on my spirituality. I learned many different aspects of what I call God and encountered the Sacred in people who are broken, bruised and tossed aside in our society. At times, I didn’t know how to be with, be present with all the suffering and all the people in my life. I struggled with being a good community mate while giving space for my own self and trying to hold the suffering I witnessed daily. Too often, I closed my heart to community and even to my spiritual life, as a measure of self-protection I thought. However, the gift of that has an understanding that whoever I am in this moment is enough. I can only offer and be who I am, nothing more, nothing less. Enoughness has been a really big thing that I’ve struggled with especially in my spiritual life for years. I found that as others made room for me in their hearts, I could make room in my own. My heart stretched to hold others and even more of myself, parts of me that I felt ashamed of.
Being surrounded by people in community, or at my placement, whose life experiences were different than mine also impacted my spirituality. In community, living with a Buddhist, meditation became an important practice during spirituality nights. At Street Roots, working alongside atheists and agnostics, I learned about their worldviews and how they feed their souls. People who would never describe themselves as spiritual directors or teachers became mine.
That’s what I love about spirituality! It can be anything and is not necessarily connected to a particular faith tradition. Spirituality is about paying attention to one’s spirit—where you feel yourself being called, where you don’t feel filled up enough. Therefore, daily actions have become sacred rituals for me. I try to find small ways each day to renew my soul. This is not only important to being a centered and pleasant person to live with, but important when doing justice work. Hiking, writing, listening to music, reading poetry, playing basketball, and washing dishes are just some of my spiritual practices alongside communal prayer and even doing service and justice work.
Let me end by saying, I had a hard time writing this talk. For one, a mentor of mine during undergrad told me that it’s best not to write on something you’re still going through, something you don’t have distance from. Well, I’m attempting to do just that—to somehow express how my spirituality has been impacted by my two years as a JV. I just finished up my second year only two weeks ago. I’m still very much in transition out of that experience. Secondly, what can I really say about spirituality? It is so unique to each of us because it is about what moves your spirit, what nourishes your soul. I think that is what makes spirituality so beautiful; it is uniquely yours, yet the expressions of it are many.
There are endless lessons from doing a year of service. I’m only now beginning to scratch the surface of what those are for myself. And what I have shared this evening related to my spirituality and time as a JV will probably be nothing like what comes from your experience. Spirituality is at the heart of all the other values. You listened to your spirit, it brought you here to this organization and this place. Trust in it, experiment with what feeds your soul, look for unexpected spiritual mentors and teachers, and remember we are all doing the best we can with what we have in this moment.
Grace Badik graduated in 2013 after majoring in Philosophy, Politics and the Public and wrapped up two years as a Jesuit Volunteer through JVC Northwest at Street Roots of Portland, OR in July. She has begun her post-JV life in a new role with JVC Northwest as the Program Coordinator for Alaska. Grace is very excited to be continuing her time with JVC Northwest in this new position and diving deeper into social justice work and accompaniment in Portland and beyond.