As the CFJ’ first FaithJustice Fellow since 2012, I have had to navigate buses in the suburbs of Lawrenceville, living without intentional community, and also, explaining what the heck I was doing to others. As a daughter of Polish immigrants and the first in my family to graduate from college, my decision to pursue a service year often got lost in translation with extended family and family friends.
In Polish, there are no direct, or rather, precise translations of the American English phrases, “year of service”, “service year,” or “volunteer year.” The closest thing I can describe to my extended family in Poland, or in New Jersey was “woluntariat.” In Polish, “woluntariat’ indicates non-paid, voluntary work. According to this standard, “woluntariat” seems like a suitable translation. However, what are its connotations and implications? Does it imply gap year opportunity? Does it include non-profit work? Does it imply a year of growth, discernment, and service? As an American-born daughter of Polish immigrants, the connotations and implications of the term, “woluntariat,” are unknown to me.
What I can attest to is my Polish immigrant family’s and community’s reactions to my decision to pursue a service year after graduation. I am very lucky that my parents are supportive of all of my education- and career-related decisions. However, support, as I have learned, does not necessarily guarantee complete understanding. As I tried to explain in Polish what the heck I was doing at the Center for FaithJustice as a FaithJustice Fellow to extended family and friends, I felt a sense of misunderstanding: why would you volunteer for a year, instead of earning income?
It was only after much reflection did I empathize with their reactions. Many immigrants, particularly those who move for economic reasons, define success in their new country of residence by money and/or material goods. Dissatisfied with their situation in their home country (in my family’s case, Poland), they moved to the United States for a better life, conditions, and opportunities for their children. Furthermore, immigrants like my parents still remember what not having money looks like. As a daughter of immigrants in the U.S, however, I did not grow up in these same circumstances. I was born into different opportunities and privileges. I have had to remind myself of this difference in our upbringings.
Furthermore, addressing why I would even pursue a “year of service” at a “non-profit organization” often overshadowed the Center for FaithJustice, its work, and mission. I didn’t even try to translate the name into Polish, or go into detail of how, and why I ended up at the CFJ. I left a different service year opportunity (an established program of a different Christian denomination with intentional community) to navigate unchartered territory as CFJ’s solo FaithJustice Fellow.
The reason stems from how I fell in love with the CFJ and its mission, beginning with my serving as an adult volunteer on a JusticeworX trip to Dunlow, West Virginia last June. The fact that I was on this trip was mere coincidence or perhaps, Godly intervention. Drivers had cancelled, and CFJ needed extra 21+ volunteers. Luckily, I fit that category. Little did I know this would be the beginning of a much longer, love affair.
Although I was committed to a different service year, I helped out on this trip, thinking my time at CFJ would end at the end of the week. And strangely, as someone who is both shy and extroverted, I felt comfortable with the team, and opened up much more quickly than I usually do. Not surprisingly, two of our team members serve as mentors to me during my service year. CFJ’s President, Stephanie, oversees my work in the office, and Widian serves as my spiritual director.
Not only did I fall in love with the people of CFJ, but also, I fell in love with its mission. As Will (fellow team member) read out loud a poem by an anonymous victim of our broken world to JusticeworX participants, I re-learned a lesson C.S. Lewis taught me in The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity. Often, many question the existence of God (as I once had) after experiencing and witnessing the brokenness of the world. How could a God allow for this? But really, this is not God’s failure. It’s our failure. In theory, as Christians, we are called to be One. Therefore, if we were truly functioning as One, we would tend to what needs fixing: poverty, racism, sexism, the environment, etc, even if we are unaffected by these issues. These problems exist because we are failing in our call as Christians, not because “God does not exist.”
While C.S. Lewis initially taught me this, the CFJ introduced me to the Church’s solution to human complacency and lack of compassion: Catholic Social Teaching (CST). This is how I truly understood and fell in love with CFJ’s mission, “Faith without worX is dead” (James 2:26) in West Virginia.
Therefore, I return to my original question: do the connotations of the term, “woluntariat” capture any of this? Of this, I am uncertain. And while sometimes I have to explain the benefits of pursuing a volunteer year, I must recognize how privileged am I to even do so.
A year of service is a privileged opportunity that many people don’t or didn’t have, like my parents. It is thanks to my parents and their sacrifices that I even have the chance to pursue an opportunity like this. And so I want to use that privilege to help others. Therefore, I am grateful for the CFJ, and for taking the leap of faith as the CFJ’s solo FaithJustice Fellow this year. Let the adventure begin!