A Catholic Woman in Ministry

For many years, I have listened patiently, while others have stood in front of me with righteous indignation, stating that the Catholic church doesn’t allow women in ministry positions. Sometimes, they’d run out of breath (I’m a patient listener) and I’d get to walk away, to resume my work as a woman in ministry in the Catholic church.  The irony is that they’d stand there, red-faced & cussing about this all the while dissing me. This post is a reflection and a response to all those tiresome, one-sided conversations I’ve endured.

I graduated from NCSU in 1996. From there, I moved to Boston to coordinate volunteers and programs at the American Youth Hostel. I think it was kind of an extension of growing up on a campground. I loved hospitality and travelers. I saved lots of money during that year (I made about $7.50/hour and managed to save $5,000 that year). I left that job as soon as I could after spending 13 months at that job. It was  pretty dysfunctional work environment so I made myself stick it out so that my resume could indicate that I spent a year at my first job but I didn’t stay there a day longer than I had to.

trash 1I spent the next year traveling around the world. That’s how I sum it up, anyhow. I slept on a friend’s couch in Boston for 3 months, went to Europe for 3 months (I won plane tix from a radio station & earned the Eurail pass by passing out magazines for a travel company). From there, I returned to mom and dad’s house for 2 months. I got a job at brugger’s bagles. My little brother would come in to buy breakfast with his high school friends and there I was, a college gradate at 23 making their sandwiches! It was an interesting situation. I knew it was temporary, though. I managed to save some more money then took off for California. Another good friend let me sleep on her couch for 3 months. During that time, I visited Oregon, had east coast friends come out on vacation so I hung out with them in Las Vegas, the Bay Area etc. I also stayed with my older brother in Hawaii for a few days. He was the youngest captain of a coast guard ship at the time (at age 25). I spent the summer in Boston working at another bruggers and hanging out with friends before heading to Hartford for a year.

During that year of travel, I knew I wanted to have a year of giving back to the world. A solid year with a place to live, people to live with and something useful to do would give me a solid footing from which to decide what was next. I felt the world was my oyster, having traveled so much that year, I saw myriad possibilities of a life one can build for themselves and I wanted to make a good decision about what was next, with time to think about it.  I had spent hours pouring over “Response” the booklet published by Catholic Vol. Network every year. In fact, I’d had a copy of that each year since I was an undergrad, imagining living in all those different places doing all those different ministries. I chose one in particular because  I met a couple of older 20somethings in Boston who had volunteered with that reputable program and seemed to turn out okay. The program is JVC. Since that time, I’ve been very involved with year-of-service programs and I have gotten to know many wonderful ones which I would recommend before I recommend JVC. It is not the best program, but it is the biggest and the easiest one to find alumni who can vouch for it.

JVC placed me in Hartford, Connecticut where I was a youth counselor at an emergency homeless shelter for teen girls. I saw some tough stuff that year. I wasn’t a social worker, so I did not have to go too deep into their files. Mainly, my colleagues and I were there to help create a safe, fun environment for teen girls who’d been taken from their families by the state and had nowhere else to go. Some had been in foster care and could no longer live with families because they abused fellow foster kids. Some were let out of “juvie” and their own families were so messed up they didn’t want to take them in again.  There are terrible stories. All had been abused, mostly by their own family members. They were all ages 13-17. At 18, they aged out of the foster care system and were set up to live on their own. I lived with four other people that year who were also Jesuit Volunteers. Two of them left in the middle of the year. One of them was an alcoholic who returned to Hartford after visiting her boyfriend and often came back with black eyes. She said they were from falling down drunk. I have no idea. I was pretty clueless then so I didn’t even realize she was an alcoholic until we discovered dozens of bottles in her room after she left. Another volunteer who lived with us practically moved in with a bartender she’d met during our first week. She left mid-year as well, making her announcement while three of us were in the living room watching TV. “I’m leaving,” she stated. Oh, okay, where are you going, we asked. “I’m going back home. I’m quitting this program.” There was no conversation about it-she just left. Fortunately, I did not grow up in a dysfunctional family so these types of experiences were brand new to me as a 24 year old. That person also left us to pay her share of the phone bill which was a lot of money to us then since we were making $75/month for food and about $75/month for “other” expenses as full time volunteers.

During that year, I knew that whatever was next for me would have something to do with hospitality and young people. I liked the transient nature of our shelter, another reminder of our campground where I grew up and the hostel where I’d worked for a year, adapting to new people every few days. In the case of the shelter, it was getting to know new kids every few days, treating them without any baggage and just trying to make them feel safe and cared for in the short time they’d be with us at the shelter. My mom set up a phone call with a friend of hers who was a campus minister back home in the Diocese of Charlotte. I recalled attending Mass sometimes at the Western Carolina campus ministry center when I was a kid.  I liked the comfortable feel of that building and the easy going students we’d meet at pot lucks, etc. I learned that the diocese where I grew up, Charlotte, had an internship in campus ministry. At 23, I’d already been an apprentice (to a storyteller in Maine) and an intern (parks and recreation department)  but this program seemed to be a good  fit. Making $500/month seemed like a fortune compared to what I had been making as a Jesuit Volunteer. In addition,  I learned there were scholarships would allow me to study for a master’s degree in ministry. This is something I never would have dreamt possible. As I learned more about what studying ministry entailed, the more I realized that was something I wanted to do. Campus ministry  combined hospitality and young people and an ever-changing population of people (just like the campground and the hostel) since students were typically in college for 4 dynamic years, full of change and challenges and then they’d move on to the next step in their lives. I took the train from Hartford to NC for the campus ministry interview. My little brother, who was a freshman at a nearby college, was kind enough to drive me to my interview with the Diocesean head of campus ministry and the campus minister who was assigned to Wake Forest University. I had him hide out as I walked around campus with my interviewers because it seemed unprofessional to have had my kid brother drive me to an interview like that.  I had a hard time being on that campus since it was move-out week and I saw piles of furniture, electronics, clothing and food at the dumpsters. The overabundance of stuff I saw was contrasted with the ghetto where we lived and the homeless shelter where I worked. That contrast bothered me a lot and was the main obstacle to my envisioning spending the three year internship assigned there. However, a few conversations with the Franciscan priest who was the campus minister and the diocesan head of campus ministry helped me understand the role of the campus minister and helped me understand that I had something to contribute. It took them a couple of months to sort out some arrangements before they called me to make an offer and get my answer. I decided to go for it. Helpful conversations with lots of mentors helped to steer me in the direction of saying yes. I moved into the spare room of an apartment owned by the parish. My roomate was a nun. Coincidentally, my college pal had joined another group of Franciscans that same month so he gave me his rickety but running Oldsmobile Calais, which got me through that first year.

Now, what I’ve described here is from my perspective these 18 years later. It was a gradual process of realization, discernment, prayer, mentors and good conversations that brought me to the point of saying yes to a 3 year internship in campus ministry. I don’t tend to describe things in a flowery or poetic way, I’m just kind of laying out the facts for you here.

I was accepted to Fordham University as a graduate student and went there for 4 summers to earn the M.S. in Religion and Religious Education. A scholarship from the Catholic Extension Society paid for my education since I was serving in a mission diocese. My 3 year internship ended as another 8 years of serving there began. Some more money was scraped together, year after year, through fundraising which paid me more than the internship. Eventually, I lived on campus, with the university very generously extending a sort of “staff” status to us campus ministers. I enjoyed my 4 years living in the faculty/staff apartments where I could bike and walk to everything we did on campus. I was single so my vocation was to serve the church by serving others, something I did wholeheartedly for those many years. We had meetings at 10pm, made 2 service trips a year with students, had a Mass schedule of 3 Masses on weekends, served dinner for 60 once a week and so much more. It was a dynamic ministry and I’m very proud of our accomplishments during those 11 years with a tiny operating budget and enthusiastic students to pull it all off. Since I love travel, I remember fondly the service trips we took to Philly, Syracuse, Western N.C.,NYC, Costa Rica and India.

At the end of my 11th year there, it was time for the Franciscans to rearrange where their friars were serving, I learned that the one assigned to be a campus minister at Wake was to be assigned elsewhere. This helped me begin my own process of discernment which led me to leave that ministry for something else which, at the time, I only knew the name for: Franciscan Passages. I have never looked back, never wishing I had stayed for year #12 and #13.I loved my years in campus minstry and would not trade them for the world. I am grateful for everything I got to do and learn during that time and also grateful that I left at the right time as well. One  of my proudest accomplishments is helping to create a spirit on campus where people avidly looked for year-of-service opportunities for after graduating and saw that as a viable option. I co-created a year-of-service job fair on campus and had many conversations with students who decided to go and serve. I think 10 of our students served with one particular program: FrancisCorps, which is a ministry of the friars I worked with. Another few dozen went all over the U.S. and abroad to serve others and to discern their own next steps in life.

I am now finishing up my 7th year with Franciscan Passages, through which I have given presentations, classes, workshops and retreats to thousands of people. My focus is always on the writings of St. Francis and St. Clare. I’ve done this in two languages in two countries and 15(?) states.

My own path to ministry has been something I never could have planned out as an undergraduate. I majored in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management with a minor in Spanish and one in International Studies. I studied abroad in Costa Rica for 6 months as a junior, which solidified my Spanish. I lived in an international hall with international roommates and friends which deepened my love for all things international. I’ve said “yes” along the way when I didn’t know what the heck I was getting into. Counting back from the time I entered Jesuit Volunteer Corps, it has been 19 years that I have been serving in ministry. So often, well-meaning people come at me to complain about the Catholic church not putting women in leadership roles. This happened a lot when I was in an academic environment. They’d stand there, in front of me, spewing vitriol at my Church because of this. Meanwhile, they’re standing there talking to me. While dissing me. I’ve often chuckled at that. Their seemingly righteous anger that women leaders in ministry are not recognized while they stand before someone who was a relatively young woman serving in ministry, in fact, in an official capacity for 11 years as an appointee of the bishop.  Bless their hearts as we like to say in the south.

I am grateful for the scholarships I have received to study.  The Conventual Franciscan friars gave me a scholarship to study for the M.A. in Franciscan Studies at the Franciscan Institute of  St. Bonaventure University, a place I went for 5 summers. Since then, I’ve worked there for 4 summers, helping coordinate the summer program. I even got to teach there last summer, my 10th summer there.

So, if you are reading this and you think you may be interested in ministry, I encourage you to keep looking into it. There are lots of ways to serve in ministry. Yes, in our Catholic Church. Yes, if you are a woman. Talk to lots of people, find some good mentors and don’t let the conversation die. Find ways to volunteer and to be involved. Maybe you should do a year of service like I did. I recommend certain programs over others, if that’s the case. (Namely, Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati, Christian Appalachian Project.)

I just want to share my own story in case it helps one other person live out their own story.

In Boston, there’s a statue I loved to visit. It depicts a dude in a ball cap with a waterproof jacket. I discovered it on a walk at age 22 and have tried to live it out his advice since then. Engraved are his words, “Dream dreams, then write them down. Aye, but live them first.”

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Offer it Up

This is my uncle. I am very proud of him and think you will find this article inspiring.

Al Ostergaard volunteers for parish despite disability

Starting the Holy Redeemer Thrift Shop gives him a chance to give back to God

– See more at: http://www.arkansas-catholic.org/news/article/4233/Al-Ostergaard-volunteers-for-parish-despite-disability#sthash.vhLxHWFt.tueeYqI8.dpuf

http://www.arkansas-catholic.org/news/article/4233/Al-Ostergaard-volunteers-for-parish-despite-disability

Why you want to know Allen “Al” Ostergaard: In spite of numerous health problems, Al continues to volunteer every day at the Holy Redeemer Thrift Shop that he started in the parish.

Parish: Holy Redeemer

City: El Dorado

Age: 70

Family: Wife Judi, five grown children and four grandchildren

IN HIS OWN WORDS

Arkansas Catholic’s theme this year is “Worth it.” What investments of time or money have you made to enrich your faith?

I am limited because I’ve got lots of disabilities and I am limited in what I can do, but I made a promise that as long as the Lord would allow me to get up every morning, I would dedicate my life to working for him and the Church.

How long have you been in Arkansas?

Since 1988. My wife’s mother and father are from El Dorado. Her daddy passed away in 1988 and we moved here to take care of her mother. I’ve been retired since 1977 because of a medical disability.

Did you always attend church as a family?

(When we lived) in North Carolina and Moorhead, Minn., Judi wasn’t Catholic yet, her children weren’t, and they started going to church with me. I liked that. Once we got here, Judi and her two kids really got involved with going to church with me on a regular basis. Judi expressed to me that she would like to take the RCIA course, so she and her two children took that. It was a short time later that they became Catholic.

What fuels your dedication to the church?

I had a real “come-to-Jesus meeting” several years ago. I was diagnosed with refractory anemia, which is terminal. Generally when they tell you that, you’ve got about six months to live. I went to confession when we visited Our Lady of Good Health in Wisconsin. There I kind of decided that I needed to do something with my life. I really feel that’s what I am doing. I feel so close to the Lord now. It brought a real closeness. I don’t know how to explain it; I feel like I am at the place now where I always wanted to be.

How did the thrift shop come to be?

I talked to Father Gregory (Pilcher, the former pastor) one day because we had this empty building down here, and I said “Father I’ve got a lot of time on my hands and I got an idea of a way to make the church some extra money.” I brought up the idea of a thrift store and he liked it.

How do you deal with your disabilities?

A lot of days I do work in pain. Father Gregory had an old saying when you had to go through an ordeal or pain or whatever, “Offer it up to the Lord.”

What does “offer it up” mean to you?

It is kind of a way that I connect. I just watched a movie the other day, “Killing Jesus,” and I know the kind of pain that he endured during his crucifixion, whatever pain I am suffering pales in comparison to what he went through. If he could sacrifice himself like he did, I can certainly work through some pain.

What would you tell others with disabilities who are not as active?

God finds a way to tap into your potential in lots of different ways that you cannot even comprehend. Never give up. I’ve found that by devoting myself to the Lord and to the Church, that everything is going to be all right.

– See more at: http://www.arkansas-catholic.org/news/article/4233/Al-Ostergaard-volunteers-for-parish-despite-disability#sthash.vhLxHWFt.tueeYqI8.dpuf

Serve a Year with an Alternative to Teach for America

New Mexico is a beautiful state. I got to go there in February 2015 to lead a daylong retreat for the teachers. St. Francis school was founded by Franciscans over 100 years ago in the tiny town of Lumberton, New Mexico. There were beautiful blue skies and a layer of snow on the ground when I visited. Most of the teachers are volunteers who give one or two years to the school, receiving in turn housing and a small living stipend. Take a few minutes to learn about Mike’s experience as a volunteer teacher and about Lilly’s too. You just may find yourself googling them so you can find out how you can go there!

I made these two videos for FREE. I love to ask people to consider giving a year of service and this is just one more way I help promote year of service programs.

On Praying for Vocations

At church, it is common to pray for vocations. Normally, we pray that young men and women will hear and heed God’s call to religious life.I have a lot of thoughts on this particular prayer.

The Youth

The emphasis is often on the young. In the 1950s, high school boys and girls had marriage on their mind and similarly, many were ready to make a commitment to religious life at that time.  Currently, the average age for Americans to marry is in the upper 20s. It is more realistic, in our cultural milieu for people in their 20s to start really thinking about their lifelong commitments. I’ve met fine men and women in their 40s and 50s who were novices in their communities, fully embracing their call to religious life.

Emphasis on those who will be called

Let’s imagine a big party is going on and people are really enjoying themselves inside. On the outside are people who wonder how to get an invitation. They wish they knew about the party in advance and wish they had been invited. The whole party would have been better if they had shown up and everybody knows it. In this situation, whose “fault” is it that there are people who would like to be at the party but instead are hanging out wishing for an invitation? I believe that the onus is on those who are currently in the party to go out and invite folks in, giving them lavish detail bout what’s going on inside, offering a glimpse, a smile and a warm welcome. It is up to those who are throwing the party to invite others.

Read my ten ideas for vocation directors to hear more: http://franciscanpassages.org/for_vocation_directors