by Matthew Guiffré
Matthew is serving as a Loretto Volunteer at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School, in East St. Louis.
It’s difficult to put into words how serving a year as a Loretto Volunteer can impact a person’s life. During the orientation at the start of the program back in August, I wisely wrote down these words in my journal: “prepare a road map, expect detours.” It turns out, these words could not have been more accurate. As the year has progressed, I’ve found myself in many situations where I never expected to be. I initially joined the Loretto Volunteer Program for a variety of reasons, one of which was the job I had been offered, which was in a field I was familiar with. That ended up being my first major detour during this experience. The job I was initially hired to do ended up not working out, and in a moments notice, I had to switch positions. The trick to the whole experience of switching jobs was keeping an open mind, which was almost identical to the note I had written for myself at orientation. Somehow, with the hard work of the program coordinators, and a series of open hearts, the new position I was assigned to work in just happened to be the greatest job in the world.
Being a Loretto Volunteer comes with a variety of opportunities to learn about social justice issues around the world. In late-November, four other current volunteers and I ventured down to Fort Benning in Georgia where we attended a weekend of events surrounding the School of the Americas – a heart breaking place that has existed in this world for far too long, a military school that teaching different techniques for torture. The weekend was filled with music, speeches, documentary presentations, and dialogues. It was a period of time where like-minded people could come together to share their stories – happy or sad, and united their voices against the SOA. In my time there, I attended talks about the horrors that the SOA has caused in the Americas; I listened to poetry and music from artists, trying to spread their messages; and I watched a documentary film about survivors of torture, and the impact that experience has had on their lives and the lives of people around them.
Even unofficial parts of the weekend ended up being moving. Just in an effort to recharge, I strolled along a river-walk pathway that runs along the Georgia-Alabama border. In the fading evening, I had the chance to process much of what I was learning. Everything I was learning about was just a piece of the puzzle, and I realized that the weekend wasn’t just simply about educating people about the horrors of torture, but the fact that appallingly bad things like this “school” exist in our country and in our world. Also, more importantly, I took away the beautiful message of hope that strangers will gather from around the country to share their stories and to unite their voices into a single message of hope.
During the final day of the weekend, when everyone gathered for the vigil, there were a variety of displays of art and emotion. People had painted their faces white with red tears and dressed entirely in black. They made their way down the road and then lay on the ground in front of the fort where other people sprinkled red paint over them. I thought the message was clear, and moving. Others, including us Loretto Volunteers, carried white crosses, which we placed on the fence surrounding the fort. Each cross was marked with the name of someone whose life had been taken at the hands of those trained at the SOA. And while there were endless displays of solitude and unity that final morning at the vigil, I couldn’t help but take note of the metaphors around me.
Loretto has often had a presence at SOA, and this year was no different. The 5 of us volunteers from DC and St. Louis met up with 6 co-members of the Loretto community who had come from all over the country. But there were other things happening around us, too. For instance, the temperature was colder than I had expected, right around thirty degrees, and we were all feeling it. There was a chill in the air that resembled the bitterness of the SOA. But we huddled together for warmth, and eventually, as it tends to do, the sun made its way through a break in the clouds and helped to take the chill out of the air. My favorite metaphor of all; however, was the bubbles that people were blowing. The crowd passed around little vials of bubbles and each person took turns blowing a few. The wind was just right and helped carry the bubbles over the fence onto the base. I watched carefully as the bubbles were not only able to make it over the fence, but also passed through small gaps in between the metal and barbed wire. There was a metaphor of hope in that moment.
Being able to fly to Georgia to experience the School of the Americas is but one example of how powerful and life changing a year with Loretto can be. I wake up everyday now (often before my alarm clock) with an openness of mind and heart that I have never experienced before. On weekdays, I look forward to the never ending adventures of working with inner-city youth at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East Saint Louis, and on weekends, I like to spend time with my community, both those my age and those 60 years older than I. Each person I come into contact with teaches me something new about life. There is always more to learn, more to experience. You just have to be ready to take a few detours…
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.