Living and working among the poor may not be for everyone, but 24-year-old Catherine Curley calls it a privilege. As a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Curley has been living in Santiago, Chile, since January 2010, working two jobs: in the English Room and Pastoral Office at a school – Colegio San Luis Beltrán – and at the Jesuit Refugee and Immigration Center where she does everything from conversing with people from other countries to planning reflection sessions with volunteers and employees.
“I came here because, before I graduated from Marquette (University), I realized how much I felt called to do something different in my life,” wrote Curley, who graduated with a double major in speech-language pathology and Spanish, in an email to MyFaith. “I had always loved community service and I love to travel and meet new people, so I thought I would combine all of these things into one big program.”
Volunteer work is something that Curley and her two younger sisters grew up with in their Delafield, half-Irish, half-Colombian, Catholic home, and something she enjoys, especially in Santiago.
“I do it because I believe that this experience is one that will allow others and myself to build relationships, to work for positive change, and to continually remain inspired by each other and our stories,” said Curley, whose family attends St. Joan of Arc Parish, Nashotah.
But the experience didn’t start out as she imagined. After just seven months, the other volunteer who had signed a two-year contract to be in the JVC program in Chile with Curley, returned to the U.S.
“It is impossible to describe how overwhelmed, vulnerable and sad I felt,” she wrote about the almost four and half months she was on her own before other U.S. volunteers arrived. “I was so far away from the U.S., from all of my friends and family and in a situation that was foreign, quite literally, to me in so many ways.”
Curley, who works with a large number of undocumented citizens from Peru and Bolivia, said that she sees firsthand that young adults are a key to solving the immigration issues. “They are the voters, future policy-makers and people who will be influenced by immigration for the rest of their lives. I wish that each young person could just spend one or two days in the life of an immigrant,” she said. “Since that is not possible, though, I’d wish that each young adult in the U.S. do some kind of community service where they get to spend one-on-one time with the immigrants to hear their stories and to be open to dialogue in a respectful and dignified manner.”
It was in that time of uncertainty and fragility, and through spiritual direction with Jesuits there, Curley realized God was the only one who could pull her through a situation that otherwise made her feel left behind and afraid.
“My friend’s departure started out as one of the biggest challenges of my life, but it came to be one of the biggest blessings. And my faith is absolutely what pulled me through and made the difference,” she said.
Curley said her faith has grown stronger and deeper since she first left for Chile, just as the country grew through the 69-day wait to rescue the trapped miners.
“I was very impressed by the concern and care with which this event made the Chileans treat each other,” Curley said of the way the miner story cemented the country’s unity. “I also liked how conversations and beginning steps were taken to highlight the changes that need to be made in terms of miners’ work conditions, the injustice there, etc. More than anything, I think what Chileans and so many others took away from the situation was the example set by the miners themselves: the sense of community and the importance of each others’ well-beings that they developed. They were an example for everyone.”
Curley, who plans to return to Delafield in January or February 2012, said she and her faith have been changed by her experiences.
“Concretely, I think I would say that I am more patient, more gentle, and more trusting in God and in the goodness of others,” she said, after spending time in the country that has been through an earthquake, tsunami, the coldest Chilean winter in 98 years, a hunger strike by 33 indigenous men and the suspense of awaiting the fate of the trapped miners. “My faith has absolutely also changed. I struggled daily with what it means to be a Catholic woman in today’s church. I struggle with what I even define as ‘the church,’ given everything that is happening. I also think my faith has deepened profoundly. I see and experience God in new ways almost every day. I feel the shared humanity between myself and others much more.”
She hopes to return from the two-year contract as a better human being.
“I hope to be less selfish and more compassionate. I hope to be more patient and less worried about unimportant things,” Curley said, adding, “I hope to learn how to live my life as one great example of love.”
What’s on your iPod? Ha, great question! On my iPod right now: Eddie Vedder, Glee songs, Ben Harper, On The Rocks, Dixie Chicks and Chopin.
If you could dine with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? This is such a hard question! I think I’d like to talk to my grandfather, David, because he passed away when I was only 5 years old. But from all of the stories and memories I’ve heard of him, he sounds like a fantastic human being that inspired other people quite a bit. I wish I could have known him more.
Who has made the biggest impact upon you? This would actually be my grandmother, Patricia. She is by far a wonderful example of intelligence, humor, dedication, strength and lightheartedness all at once. I have had conversations with her that I will never forget, conversations that have truly changed my days, and, in turn, my life. I look up to her and her example very much.
What does your normal weekend look like? On Friday evenings I help to lead a student youth group at my school. Then after that the other leaders and I might get pizza or go to one of our homes to chat more. On Saturday mornings I go to a street market to buy our house’s food for the week – mostly I purchase the vegetables and fruit there. On Saturday afternoons and evenings I try to rest if I don’t have anything planned with friends. Then on Sunday mornings I attend Mass with my other community mates. After lunch with them, I either do very simple things – like reading, my laundry or preparing work – or I might got o a café to try and use the Internet so as to talk with friends and family from home.
Favorite Bible story/scripture passage/prayer This is also difficult to answer. But a prayer that I go back to and find peace in is Psalm 23.
Favorite quote I have so many! But one that I really go back to time and time again is this from Rainer Maria Rilke, “This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love: the more they give, the more they possess.”
What was your confirmation name? Why did you choose that name? I actually didn’t take a confirmation name. My entire legal name is Catherine Elizabeth Garcia Curley, which at the time seemed quite long enough to me. I remember not wanting to add on another name, especially as Catherine and Elizabeth were both already options. This is actually something that I kind of regret and wish I could do over.
What do you enjoy most about going to Mass? I really love how centering Mass can be. I find that sometimes I enter into Mass feeling very overwhelmed, tired, or frustrated, but then the ceremony begins and I calm down. My favorite part, though, is usually the homily. Even if I don’t feel like a reading is particularly applicable to my life in that moment – even though it usually is, just below the surface – I almost always find a way to connect it to my own daily life via the homily. Plus, when humor is infused into a good homily, there is just something that gets me! I look forward to the homilies and I almost always leave Mass feeling encouraged and with better perspective because of them.
Favorite pastime/hobby/activity Reading! I love to read anything and everything: books, magazines, newspapers, etc.
What is the most important thing you want to accomplish in life – personally, in your career and spiritually? Personally, what I want to most accomplish in life is to have a loving, healthy family. I hope to have a family that is aware of its role in the struggle for social justice and that values the dignity of each and every human being. In terms of my career, I prefer to think of having a vocation. A vocation that allows me to work with others, to accompany and be accompanied in life’s struggles, and to ease the suffering of other people. If in this vocation I can positively impact just one person, then that will be enough. As for my spirituality, I hope to always have trust. To have trust in God and in Life. I want to go forward in this life – we only have one life! – with my hands open and in trust rather than closed off and fearful. If I can first attain this trust that God is always with us, and always loving us, then I think I can also attain peace, even despite the world’s challenges. So yes, those are my answers: family, accompaniment, and trust.
How do you live your faith every day? I try to live my faith each day in many ways. First, I try to take nothing for granted. If I see a beautiful sunset, witness a stranger’s act of kindness, or receive a friend’s good news, I try to take it all as a blessing. I think Albert Einstein once said that “there are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle, and the other is as though everything is a miracle.” By attempting to follow the latter, I feel refreshed and inspired – motivated to pay forward the beauty that I witness. I also try to live my faith by usually listening more than talking, by conversing with those who are ignored, and by trying to be positive for others. Additionally, I am constantly trying to do meditation in the morning and the Ignatian Examen of Conscience at night. From the way that I talk, act and pray, I try to use my faith as the base of everything else in my life.