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"Community Understood" - A Lenten Reflection

A family of four posing in front of green ferns and pavers.

Susan and John Freund were GSV volunteers to NongKhai, Thailand from 2015-2017. Outside of volunteering, they have lived in the city of Chicago since 2006. Susan trained and practiced as a licensed massage therapist for many years before transitioning to an administrative role with Catholic Charities. John has worked as a pediatric nurse at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Hospital of Chicago since 2017. They live in the Logan Square neighborhood with their 2 children Emmalynn (5) and Sylvan (2).

Community Reflection

Susan and I entered GSV as non-traditional volunteers as a married couple in our 30’s. We felt established in our identities and our ways, but walked straight in to the challenge of living life by the 4 tenets. If you look at community as a circle with many layers, ours looked very different the moment we left Chicago.

Community Understood

As we settled into our year of service, we found that at the center of our circle was the two of us, a relatively new community perhaps under-tended. That was followed by each of our Thailand communities - overlapping, but quite different. Next, the GSV community and then our community back home who made an effort to accompany us in ways small and big, followed by friends and family that had been a part of our lives for so long.

The central circles were buttressed by everyone’s commitment to live by the four tenets and Just Love. Susan and I had to work together to create our weekly community nights, live according to a budget, and to be mindful and intentional about how we lived together and amongst the Thai people. We were able to connect deeply with each other and our fellow volunteers. This reshaped who we are as people, as a couple, and how we continue to look at life and community.

Community is Heartbreak

Susan and I had a unique 2nd year experience where we returned to New York for a GSV retreat with the intention of building a new community with 2 additional members volunteering in Thailand. It was natural to fall into routines when we returned to Thailand, as opposed to developing into that new community.

I was unprepared and unable to see the inherent power that came with my age, my established role at the site, our established community rituals, even the fact that we were a married partnership. We also did not re-experience the disorienting challenge of being in a new country, with a new climate, language, and customs. When I was trying to be helpful, it turned out I was not. Things I did like trying to explain things or trying to make decisions to ease stress, ultimately were the opposite of helpful and in the end our community never found a way to functionally communicate until it was too late.

Years later there is a lingering sadness and feeling that we let our community down. We were also met with profound loss at times, as members of our Thai community passed away and staff and patients moved away from the project.

Community is Complicated

The closest experience we have had to the isolating experience of re-entering the broader American culture, was having children. It was and is an isolating, unique, and life-changing experience with each child, even though it is such a well-known occasion in most societies and communities.

Community after volunteering is more challenging after defining values of devotion to service and the four tenets. The constellation of tenets we have committed to are often counterculture to the American way. We continue to try to blend our past experiences and values into our current American experience, but it is difficult. Now, we fill our buckets through different communities, and try not to be distracted by what looks luxurious albeit misaligned with our values.

Community Lifts

And, our communities have continued to be a God-send. People unexpectedly sending support when Sylvan was born at 28 weeks and needed 2 months in the neonatal intensive care unit. Unexpected faces dropping by to lend support or a hug. People dropping in from many different communities in necessary and unsuspecting ways, and unexpected overlaps between our professional and faith communities.

Community has become building and maintaining relationships that lift us up and help an important part of myself feel seen or made more whole. It can be the values of 2 people or a group of people resonating together, so that value shines more brightly. It lies in being open to people and voices from the past dropping in and sharing connection. Community seems harder to come by, more fraught with insecurity, more difficult to build at this stage of my life, but with intentionality and openness to spontaneity, it helps us find ourselves, trust ourselves, know that we are not alone. Weather storms. Touch lives in ways we may never see or know. And, at the expense of being corny - Just Love.

- John and Susan Freund

GSV 2015-2017

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