The Coronavirus pandemic has affected all aspects of life, and the work of Mercy Volunteer Corps is no exception. In this extraordinary April, when we celebrate National Volunteer Month, Mercy Volunteers are more committed than ever to serving the most marginalized members of our communities. They continue to do so, some from community houses that have been deemed essential, to ensure that each person living on the margins continues to receive care and is not forgotten. During this special month of commemorating volunteers, follow along on our blog to read stories by alumni of Mercy Volunteer Corps whose lives have been forever changed through Mercy service.
By Sister Cathy Manderfield
I am a Sister of Mercy living and ministering in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I reside with two other Sisters of Mercy in a small convent nestled within a nonprofit organization called Mercy Neighborhood Ministries (MNM). The services offered at Mercy include programs for children, adult education support and a day program for seniors. I serve as the director of facilities and help manage things like landscaping, building repairs, renovations, ordering of supplies, food service and cleaning.
The two sisters I live with were instrumental in founding MNM more than 30 years ago. Although I only joined them just a few years ago, my introduction to and affinity for this community in North Philadelphia and for Mercy Neighborhood Ministries goes back over 20 years. MNM is located not far from where I served with the Mercy Volunteer Corps decades ago at Project HOME, an agency providing services and opportunities for individuals who have experienced homelessness. MNM was another service site for Mercy volunteers, and we often went to church on Sundays at the Catholic Church that housed the various programs that Mercy Neighborhood Ministries included then. Among many firsts in my time of service in Philadelphia was attending a predominantly African-American church. I was touched deeply by the participative style of worship and the depth of faith and feeling expressed in the prayer and especially music. We were invited to bring our whole selves to church in a way I had never experienced before.
My time as a volunteer coordinator with Project HOME would include more firsts. Not being from Philadelphia, I was afraid of getting lost and had never ridden a public bus before. Rarely did I have the opportunity to depend on the kindness of strangers, and I was not at all sure if I would be met with kindness. The bus route did not take me directly to where I needed to go and so I had to walk several city blocks to get to my ministry. Along the way, it felt as if my presence drew unusual attention. One person sitting on the stoop asked me if I was lost. As I walked on, a young person greeted me from a second story window with, “Hey Casper, it ain’t Halloween yet.” Before I even made it to my ministry site that first day, I sensed this experience would be the beginning of an altogether different kind of education. I began to wonder how I could have lived so far from the world I had just entered when it was only three hours from home.
How many more worlds existed beyond other boundaries I didn’t even know I had? Who and what did those boundaries exclude and why? In what ways was my best-self hidden, prevented both from contributing to and receiving the generativity of God’s love because of those barriers? One of the most profound gifts I received from my time of service was being helped by others to recognize and explore my questions. The people I served, the other volunteers I lived with, the Mercy Volunteer Corps staff and support people, the Sisters of Mercy and my co-workers at the service site each played a unique and generous role in expanding not only my worldview but also my capacity to love.
I am still engaging the very same questions that surfaced for me as a Mercy volunteer. I have chosen to live and work here because of the impact those questions have had on me as I have lived into them. This economically struggling community in North Philadelphia has taught me about privilege, resiliency, struggle, community, fear, hope, inequality, faith, suffering and generosity. In this place, I continue to be profoundly gifted by co-workers, neighbors, volunteers, sisters and the children and adults who spend their days with us. The community being created here has blessed me with a growing sense of oneness with all of God’s creation. My time as a Mercy volunteer was instrumental in showing me how to look deeply and lovingly into myself and the world around me to co-create that oneness. I am deeply grateful for that gift that keeps on giving.