The following is a guest post by María del Pilar Desangles, an Assistant Director at the Center for Community Service & Justice at Loyola University Maryland.
Desangles holds a B.A. in Anthropology from University of Central Florida and a M.S.Ed. in Community and Social Change from the University of Miami. She is an active member of St. Matthews Catholic Church and LEAD Ministry (LGBT Educating & Affirming Diversity). Desangles joined the St. Matthew’s Pastoral council in 2015. Previously, she worked with an immigrant farmworker community in Central Florida where she was the Director of Service Learning at Hope CommUnity Center. Desangles lives in Baltimore City with her wife Adrienne Andrews and their puppy Luna.
“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?” ― Dorothy Day
When I was 21, I began a year of service through Notre Dame Mission Volunteers (NDMV). I had not intended to do a year of service through a religious organization, and was very nervous about what that meant. Like many twenty-somethings, I identified as somewhat spiritual, but not religious. At the time, I had mostly been exposed to the Catholic church’s strict expectations and the shame that came with not meeting those expectations.
After a little research I learned that NDMV was founded by Catholic sisters. I was impressed with their work and language, but skeptical of what it meant to work within what I perceived to be a fairly monolithic institution.
I began my position at the Hope CommUnity Center, formerly known as the Office for Farmworker Ministry, an organization dedicated to serving Central Florida’s immigrant and working poor communities through education, advocacy, and spiritual growth. The fear of rigidity was quickly dispelled as one of the sisters, who later became my mentor and one of my closest friends, warmly hugged me as she met me for the first time. Immediately, I began to feel the radical love and acceptance that I had always heard about in homilies, but had rarely felt in practice outside of my family.
I quickly realized that hugging and connection was a central part of the culture at HCC. I confess I did not immediately realize how essential, revolutionary, and important it was to the work we were doing, and to the community that I as getting to know (and getting to know me!). I did know that the long days of tutoring and mentoring youth, being in awe of adult students coming in at the end of a 12-14 hour day of labor in the fields to learn English as a second language, always started and ended with hugs, laughter, and kinship.
Close to three months after my service year had started, the same sister, Sr. Ann Kendrick SNDdeN, invited me to church. Initially, she asked me to help her distribute flyers after mass for the Farmworker Credit Union where I was serving part of the time, but made sure to add a “no pressure, but it would be nice” invitation to come to misa (Spanish for mass) with her beforehand.
At this point, I was eagerly following around Sr. Ann, or “Sr. Annita” as so many called her, hoping to absorb what I perceived to be her magical community organizing powers. But I also followed her because she had the uncanny power of restoring me back to myself. The more I was around her and others who could truly receive me, the more I was able to receive others. We need community to restore us to ourselves. I enthusiastically, but nervously accepted the invitation to misa. It had been a long time since I had gone.
It turned out that it was December 12, and it was the celebration of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. That night sparked a revolution of my heart, and I felt at home in my new predominantly Mexican and Central American community for the first time. The misa with the traditional Mexican matachines dancers, and the sheer adoration for Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was like no other misa I had experienced before, and at the same time like every misa I had been to before.
I had forgotten how much I loved the ritual, and culture of a Catholic mass, and as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, how much I needed to be reminded of its importance to me and my identity. I felt the mutual embrace and acceptance of my new community that night and a deep commitment to my work. I experienced solidaridad for the first time.
As a documented immigrant, I was better able to identify and articulate my privileges when sharing my stories with others, and helping to contextualized our countries broken immigration system. My new community taught me how to show up with my full self. I will never forget, a couple of years later when I was working as a full-time employee at HCC waiting for bail to post around 2am after one of our moms with very small children got into a car accident, and the police officer took her into custody, because she could not prove she had any papers. Gracias a Dios she was released to us early that morning, and we were able to reunite her with her children.
My new community taught me about faith. But a faith that is fearless, and perseveres. All I could do then, and all I hope to continue to do for the rest of my life is to continue to show up with my whole self and receive others. Misa that night and the experiences of kinship that followed changed me forever.
What I found through my precious time with these Catholic Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur is the incredible power that exists when you combine kinship with institutions. Through their example, I learned that when people within an institution are able to receive one another across race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status etc., it sparks the revolution of the heart as Dorothy Day mentioned, and brings us closer to a more just and equitable world.
I find that here in Baltimore I continue to pursue this through my work at the Center for Community Service and Justice at Loyola University Maryland. I believe universities, especially faith-based ones like Loyola are uniquely committed and invested in communities to work for a more just and equitable world. As Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” I have almost been working in a faith-based, Catholic context for a decade, and every day I am so thankful for the opportunity to show up to work and community with my whole self, and receive others.
The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.