For seasoned volunteers and local nonprofits alike, the Ignatian Volunteer Corps is a match made in heaven.
This summer, Catholic Philly ran an article I wrote about IVC’s Philadelphia/South Jersey Chapter; this week, the Jesuits of Canada and the US posted my article about IVC nationwide–including IVC’s new virtual community. Enjoy!
It’s been a whole year, friends! One year ago today, I locked the door of Gwynedd Mercy University’s campus ministry center, walked through the empty parking lot, and drove away into my new life.
I knew it would take me at least a year to get my bearings, and that I had to resist the impulse to fill my calendar with everything that raised its hand first. For years, I had proclaimed that I wanted to be a “freelance me,” and now I was actually doing it. But what did “it” look like, exactly? The joy and terror of a freelance existence are intertwined: it’s the fine line between getting to decide and having to decide what to do with your day / week / year / one wild and precious life. (Thank you, Mary Oliver.)
Se hace camino al andar, wrote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. The path is made by walking. As I have walked this unfolding path, a delightful companion on the journey has been my godson, Jeff Civillico.
We are the bookends of our family—the oldest and youngest of seven cousins, both holding degrees in theology from Jesuit universities. (Fun fact: I’m often described as “profound—and surprisingly funny,” while Jeff is precisely the opposite.) Jeff’s career has always been a freelance adventure, so he has been both an inspiration and guide for me this year. With gratitude, I’m delighted to share his story with you.
As I mentioned, Jeff and I both have undergraduate degrees in theology—Saint Joe’s for me, Georgetown for him—but there our stories diverge. I became a campus minister, spiritual writer, and retreat facilitator; Jeff became a professional juggler, Vegas headliner, and keynote speaker. (Bonus: the next time someone asks, “What can you do with a degree in theology?” you have a whole new answer!)
Jeff’s passion for entertainment predated his interest in theology, but since there was no major for what he wanted to do, he figured he might as well study something that interested him. Arriving at Georgetown just days before 9/11, he was drawn to learn more about world religions, which led to a concentration in Religion and Culture. (See, I told you he was surprisingly profound!)
Jeff’s career path had already taken him from juggling in his parents’ living room to performing at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Williamsburg’s Busch Gardens; a couple summers of cruise ship gigs during college led to a couple years of Disney World gigs after graduation. Then the bright lights of the Vegas strip beckoned, and Jeff got his own show: Comedy in Action. For many performers, that would be the “BOOM – Made It!” moment. For Jeff, however, it was simply a new beginning, as he constantly strives to expand and integrate his life’s work. “A goal achieved,” he likes to say, “is just your next starting point.”
Jeff had a ten-year run doing family-friendly comedy in various Caesars Entertainment venues, at one point performing as many as ten shows a week. By 2019, however, he was down to just one—Wednesday evenings at the Paris—by his own choice. Though wanting to keep a foothold on the strip, he needed to free up time for new creative ventures: from guest-hosting the local ABC affiliate’s “Morning Blend” and serving as spokesperson for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum to giving keynote speeches and emceeing large corporate gatherings in cities across the country and around the world.
Meanwhile, there was an ambitious charitable endeavor taking shape in Jeff’s imagination. Recognizing that Vegas is home to a community of generous performers, in 2011 he founded Win-Win Entertainment, a non-profit that enables entertainers, athletes, and other celebrities to share their time with children in need. Thanks to Jeff’s professional network, in 2017 Win-Win began to expand, starting with Minneapolis then Salt Lake City, Orlando, San Francisco, and more. They are in a dozen cities nationwide now—and still growing.
Being founder and CEO of a non-profit may not be what gets Jeff the most attention, but it is, by far, his most satisfying work. (It’s also another intriguing thing one can do with a degree in theology!)
So, what takes a person from juggling for spare change at the Inner Harbor to running a national non-profit and performing around the world? That feels like such an amazing leap, one that can’t be accounted for by the simple passage of time. Here’s the secret: it wasn’t a leap at all. Instead, Jeff credits what he calls The Power of the Pivot.
In a keynote address by the same title, he explains it this way: “A pivot is a small change, made with one foot on the ground, that forces you to focus on your next step.” This is a perfect description of what Jeff has done in his career. He has made a series of pivots:
Living room to Inner Harbor to Busch Gardens to Disney World to Vegas
Juggling to clean comedy to keynote speeches to emcee work
Volunteering personally to match-making local volunteers to establishing a national volunteer network
A pivot is a small change, made with one foot on the ground, that forces you to focus on your next step.
Through each change, Jeff has kept one foot on the ground and intentionally pivoted in the direction he wanted to go.
The coronavirus crisis hit the entertainment industry hard. Everything Jeff did—as a performer and a philanthropist—was based on personal presence and audience interaction. In a heartbeat, venues were closed, events were cancelled, and the last thing anyone wanted in a children’s hospital was a non-essential stranger walking from room to room just for fun!
Fortunately, Jeff already knew all about the pivot. To help corporations hold successful meetings in the dreaded Zoom format, he branded himself as “your virtual host,” using his nimble wit and contagious energy to emcee more than 60 corporate, charitable, and educational gatherings since March.
For Win-Win, Jeff had begun to work on the idea of “virtual visits” even before the coronavirus era. When the shutdown hit, again he pivoted quickly; Win-Win is now able to bring smiles to kids who really need them in 23 programs nationwide, through customized performances on in-house television channels.
To onlookers, it might seem as though Jeff made this leap to virtual venues effortlessly. But the secret, again, is that it wasn’t a leap at all. Jeff kept one foot on the ground of his mission—the WHY behind the WHAT of all his endeavors—and pivoted to a new HOW. (Thank you, Simon Sinek.)
And here, our disparate paths begin to converge. I still remember how my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing on the evening of March 12, as parishes and groups called to cancel their Lenten retreats and my event calendar collapsed like a blown tire. At that point, I’m not sure I’d even heard of Zoom; now I’m giving Zoom retreats for St. Placid Priory, all the way across the country in Lacey, Washington. Although I miss being in person, I am moved to be able to touch people’s hearts at a distance; during my first Zoom retreat, participants “came” from as far away as San Diego and Scotland. Maybe you can join me for the next one: Does Everything Happen for a Reason?Tuesday, August 25 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern.
As we chatted about that commonality, Jeff observed that we offer two things people are craving in these very strange times: entertainment and spiritual sustenance . . . the funny and the profound; each of us has pivoted to continue meeting those needs.
Pivoting is not just about changing external tactics, Jeff suggests. It’s also about the shifts in attitude and mindset that we need in order to move forward in changing times. This is similar to one of the key points in a retreat I first developed in January, called Take Nothing for the Journey? Packing for the Unknown. I suggested that, as we “pack” for an unknown future (which is to say, every day we get out of bed in the morning), we need to let go of assumptions about the way things have to be, and hold onto qualities like flexibility, curiosity, patience, and a good sense of humor. This is true more than ever in the coronavirus era.
One of the things Jeff and I have marveled at is that he was talking about the power of the pivot and I was talking about packing for the unknown before the pandemic broke over our collective heads. While it’s tempting to pride ourselves on having been prescient, the fortunate timing simply affirms our shared message: everything we need to get through this long season of uncertainty is already inside us.
Whatever challenge you are facing, I pray that you are able to keep one foot on the ground, fortify yourself with a useful mindset, let go of what is not essential, and focus on your next step. Together, we can pivot our way to what’s next.
May your ordinary (and far-from ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed!
Jeff Civillico recently celebrated a 10-year run on the Las Vegas Strip as a Headliner with Caesars Entertainment at the iconic hotel properties The LINQ, The Flamingo, and The Paris. His clean, family-friendly “Comedy in Action” show remains highly acclaimed: voted “Best of Las Vegas” three years in a row by the Las Vegas Review Journal, named “Entertainer of the Year” by Vegas Inc, and honored by his fans with a 5-star rating on Yelp, Ticketmaster, and Google. Jeff now takes his renowned clean comedy show to performing arts centers and major corporate events and conferences nationwide. He also serves as a Host and Keynote Speaker. When Jeff is not Hosting, Entertaining, or Speaking on-stage or on-camera, he is focused on the continued expansion and development of his national 501c3 nonprofit Win-Win Entertainment. Win-Win Entertainment brings smiles to children who really need them in hospitals and foster homes through in-person and virtual visits from performers, athletes, and celebrities.
“Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” – Luke 10:42
For many of us, these words of Jesus to Martha do not sit well. “Raise your hand if you feel sorry for Martha,” I often ask. Inevitably, more than three-quarters of the hands in the room go up. The poor woman was just trying to put dinner on the table, for Pete’s sake. (And for James’ sake, and John’s, and Andrew’s . . . . those guys were hungry!)
The “Mary/Martha Incident” is one of my most requested dramatic interpretations, no doubt because it touches into a tension present in church folks everywhere. Call it action vs. contemplation, or doing vs. being. As busy, busy people, deeply involved in families and communities and ministries, we may actually draw our identity from going the extra mile on a regular basis. We don’t want to hear that we’ve missed the mark—that doing better would somehow involve doing less.
Yesterday, the Mary/Martha Gospel was one of the assigned readings for Mass. Today, I want to share one new insight that came as I pondered it with my parish faith-sharing group last week.
The insight came because of the pairing of Luke’s Gospel with the Genesis story of Abraham offering hospitality to three visitors. The Roman Catholic Lectionary is arranged so that the first reading, usually from the Hebrew Scriptures, echoes the theme of the day’s Gospel reading. So, before hearing Jesus chastise Martha for griping about being “burdened with much serving,” we hear Abraham being rewarded for offering lavish hospitality to strangers, who turned out to be God and a couple of angels. (That’s a dramatically over-simplified take on the readings, I know. Hang in there with me.)
One big difference between the two stories, of course, is that Abraham had help. He didn’t make the rolls himself; Sarah did. He didn’t roast the steer himself; his servant did. (I can almost feel Martha rolling her eyes.)
But here’s the new thing that really caught me this week. Running to Sarah, Abraham says, “Quick; three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.” And then he selects the aforementioned choice steer, and gives it to a servant, who “quickly prepared it.”
I’m sorry; what?
If you’ve ever made bread, you know: if you’re starting with flour, rolls are going to take a while. Like, hours, waiting for the yeast to rise. It also takes hours to make a roast—and that’s when you’re starting with a nice package from the Acme, not a live animal frolicking in your field. The double use of the word “quick” in this story may mean that the characters hastened, but it doesn’t make it a quick visit by any means.
How long did the three visitors sit in the shade of the tree, bathing their feet and sipping a cool drink and chatting with Abraham? What did they talk about? What else might Abraham have had to do that afternoon, that he let go of because being present to these strangers was more important?
“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”
And there’s the rub. For many of us, it is easier to perform quality actions than to pay quality attention. To let the interruption of our day become the substance of our day, without resentment. To take the time–whatever time it takes–to be with those God has placed in our path, entertaining angels knowingly or unknowingly.
I am not always good at this. I empathize with Jesus’ description of Martha in my Spanish Bible: Tu andas preocupada y pierdes en mil cosas. (“You go about worried and lose yourself in a thousand things.”) But I appreciated the reminder, this week, of what I’m called to do.
In the words of Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881):
Life is short, And we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us. So… be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God, who made us, who loves us, and who travels with us be with you now and forever.
As always, may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed–especially when they are interrupted!
Snow has begun to fall in Philadelphia. After a flurry of morning errands, I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, savoring a third cup of coffee. On my campus, only “essential personnel” are working. The people who plow the snow and salt the walks—as well as those who feed our students and who ensure their safety—are all on the job.
Already this morning I’ve interacted with so many working people: the postal service clerk who accepted the package I mailed; the man at Acme who sold me salmon for tonight’s dinner and the lady who rang it up; the woman at the corner bakery where I got some fresh bagels. They are all at jobs from which they will have to make their way home in weather, having provided services which were lovely and convenient for me to receive, though hardly essential.
And that’s not even to mention the largely invisible (to me) network of people hard at work doing all sorts of critical jobs: nurses and doctors and police officers and firefighters and utility workers, to name just a few.
I know that I haven’t posted anything in a while, so this seems like a good moment to share the chapter from my book that addresses the dignity of work and worker. This goes out with my thanks to anyone who’s on the job today. May you be safe, warm, appreciated, and well-compensated!
Chapter 21 Finding God at My Feet
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. — John 13:14
“Shine your shoes, lady?”
I was in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just south of Laredo, Texas, where I was leading a week of spring break service. My students and I were headed back to the border after experiencing the infamous bridge crossing—Mexicans going one way to work, Americans going the other way to shop. At the moment, I was busy pretending not to hear the fellow calling out to me from the street corner.
I am not a person who gets shoeshines. Having bad feet, I buy footwear that’s as practical and supportive as a good friend. And because I accept (yet resent) the fact that I am never going to skip around in pretty little flats or sexy stilettos, I generally ignore my shoes unless they hurt. But there was no ignoring this persistent young man.
“Shine your shoes?” he called again, literally running with his shoeshine kit down the block to catch up with me. “Look at your shoes!” he cried. “I’ll shine them fast, good price!” Only then did I glance at my sturdy black boots. Scuffed and dusty, they looked like something I’d fished out of a dumpster. The man had a point. I acquiesced, and he went to work—right in the middle of the sidewalk.
I was mortified. Standing there with four of my students while this young Mexican man knelt at my feet for what seemed like an eternity, I felt as conspicuous as if I had purchased a giant sombrero with the words frivolous American embroidered across the brim. Unaccustomed to being served in this manner, I prayed that no one had a camera.
Then I noticed something. He was doing a really good job. He polished and buffed vigorously; he was in the zone. The man was a professional, doing his job with flair and efficiency. My shoes had never looked better—even right out of the box.
As a further mortification, I needed to borrow money from a student to pay him—a “good price” being higher than I had expected, but worth every peso.
What lingers from that encounter is confusion about my own discomfort. The inequality I experienced as the young man knelt at my feet could have gone either way. On the one hand, I was a tourist “rich” enough to hire someone to do this menial task for me, and he was a laborer stuck hustling business in the street. But to leave it there would be to deny the dignity of work and worker. To be on the receiving end of his skill was humbling, for he was a good shoe-shiner, and I am a crummy one. He deserved his good price, and my respect. I’m glad he got both.
Think of the many people who provide services for you (trash collector, grocery clerk) and hold them in prayer, one by one. How do you show your gratitude for their good work, and respect for their dignity as children of God?
Today’s post is an homage to anyone who works with children.
Last Wednesday evening, my Alternative Spring Break team spent about 90 minutes doing after-dinner childcare at Bethany House, an emergency shelter for women and children in Cincinnati. We do it every year. It’s always challenging, but this year was aggravated by an unexpected toy donation that arrived just as dinner was ending: dozens of light-up flying discs. (The kind where you pull a string on the handle, and the thing goes sailing across the room.)
I don’t know what the (presumably well-intentioned) donors were thinking. Did they imagine that these kids would be able to play with them in a park or on the beach some moonlit evening? Did they envision for one moment what a dozen kids in two small basement rooms would do with spinning, careening, light-up toys? Any preconceived notions my college students had about actually engaging with the children went out the (non-existent) window, as we spent the whole night trying to keep our charges from injuring themselves or one another as they shrieked, ran, and launched the practically-weaponized toys at one another and at us. Oh, and cried when they broke. And accused one another of stealing the unbroken ones. And cried some more.
We experienced a stark contrast the next morning, as we kept company with the kindergarten class at Corryville Catholic Elementary School. Those kids were just as squirmy and excitable as the ones at the shelter, of course. But the difference was in the relationship. We didn’t know the Bethany kids, and they didn’t know anything about us except that they were never going to see us again. The Corryville teachers, on the other hand, knew the kindergarteners by name, knew their quirks and interests, and had gained their trust, so they were able to personalize their approach to even the crowd-control aspects of education. We watched twenty-some five year-olds sit cross-legged, hands in laps, and read along with a Dr. Seuss book on the smartboard. Amazing!
I do not draw this contrast to be critical of Bethany House. The staff there is busy trying to attend to their residents’ most basic needs—literally, food and shelter—while helping women coming out of chaotic living situations to find some stable ground for themselves and their families. The temporary nature of emergency shelter rules out the kind of careful attention that a kindergarten classroom allows.
But children desperately need such careful attention. It’s not my gift (I work with college students for a reason), but I am in awe of anyone who possesses it. The heroic patience and endless self-giving that good teachers and other childcare workers demonstrate deserves to be praised–and compensated–as the foundational work of tomorrow’s society.
I’m home from Cincinnati now, heading back to work in the morning. I will resume my meetings, and project work, and to-do lists. But I will carry the images of those Bethany House children in my heart, praying that, when this rocky transition is complete, they will find themselves in a place where they are seen, known and loved by the many grownups in their lives, just like the little ones at Corryville.
There is another group of children on my mind., this one much closer to home. On April 7, our Mercy honor society (Sigma Phi Sigma) is throwing a baby shower for new and expectant moms served by Catholic Social Services in Norristown. We will decorate, and serve food, and make a fuss, and send them off with useful gifts. If you would like to help, check out this Amazon wish list for things like diapers, wipes, onesies, blankets, etc. All items will ship straight to Campus Ministry at Gwynedd Mercy University. Just remember, the shower is on April 7th so we need things ASAP!
If your daily life or chosen work immerses you in the lives of little children, God bless you. Thank you for everything you do. I say it every week, but I say it with extreme fervor in your regard:
May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!
Friends, I have a dilemma. It has come to my attention that the working title for Chapter 16 of Finding God in Ordinary Time is problematic. To those who get it, it makes perfect sense. To those who do not, it’s baffling. (This is not what I’m shooting for.)
Here’s the chapter, which I originally intended to share on this last Sunday of Winter Ordinary Time simply as a nice segue to Lent, with its invitation to almsgiving. At the end I will tell you what I called it, and ask for your suggestion. Obviously, a free signed copy is yours if you come up with the winning chapter title!
Chapter 16: Finding God in . . . ?
How do we decide what to give?
In my years as a campus minister I’ve been fortunate to travel to Mexico City with students many times. One of the problems for the tourist there (as for urban pedestrians just about anywhere) is how to respond to people who are begging. So often in Mexico City I encountered tiny crones sitting on the sidewalk, wrapped in dirty blankets, heads down in sleep or shame, one calloused hand extended for passersby to see. They gave no accusing stare to those who passed them by; they didn’t confront us with a fast-talking pitch or a conscience-prodding sign. They simply sat immobile for hours, murmuring heart-wrenching blessings to strangers who paused to press a coin into their palm.
On my first visit I often found myself unprepared to give: the airport currency exchange had doled out maddeningly large bills, difficult to break even at small local shops. And so, the next time, I secured a supply of ten-peso coins. Each was worth about a dollar; they were easy to carry in my pocket (unlike bills that had to be fished from my travel wallet) and satisfying to bestow. A nice solid coin. I roamed about the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe like a trippy fairy godmother, never passing one of those dear old souls without giving a coin and receiving a blessing in return.
But was that praiseworthy? If I compare giving to not giving, sure. But if I compare what I had, even on my person, to what those ladies needed . . . ugh. The logical part of me protests that even had I emptied my bank account to help those women (that is, sold everything I had and given to the poor), I might have had treasure in heaven, but there would still be an awful lot of poor widows in Mexico City. Yet that observation, however true, does nothing to uncomplicate my feelings about my peso-giving choices.
Nor should it.
Whenever students and I talk about this, I first make sure they understand that the systemic and sociological factors at work in poverty are vast and complicated, but can be addressed. (Perhaps one of them will graduate and do just that.) Then I explain the concept of tithing, and encourage them to commit to supporting charities that address underlying causes as well as immediate needs. I let them know that, whatever they decide, the important thing is that they respond thoughtfully.
And finally I take away any tidy bow they were hoping to tie on the lesson by telling them this: From a spiritual perspective, we should never grow comfortable with the discomfort of others—even when we feel like we’re down to our last two coins.
Well there you have it. My original title? Finding God in the Widow’s Mite.
It you can think of a title that captures the message of this chapter more clearly, please leave it in the comment section below. The only “rule” is that it has to start with the words “Finding God” and then the preposition of your choice.
That’s the end of my sneak peeks for a while; liturgical Ordinary Time returns in fifteen weeks. I am going to try to keep up with the Sunday blog posts, though; this has been fun! I anticipate some significant book announcements in the next few weeks, so stay tuned, and do follow this site if you’re not already.
May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!
I do love the story that appears in this chapter of Finding God in Ordinary Time. I’ve been telling it for years, in the wake of a particularly moving encounter on an Alternative Spring Break experience in Savannah, Georgia in 2009. Since Gwynedd Mercy’s own ASB teams just started their 2018 adventure, it seemed like a good time to post it. To them I say: May each of you find–and remember–your Rose!
Chapter 8: Finding God in a Flowered Housedress
I have called you by name: you are mine. — Isaiah 43:1
Rose was scary. And she was scared.
She hovered in her bedroom doorway in a flowered, old-lady housedress and ratty slippers, her chopped-off hair looking like it had been styled in an asylum. Eyes full of suspicion, she peered anxiously at the do-gooders who had come to mess up her apartment. But it was that or eviction.
I was the head do-gooder, sent by Rose’s social worker along with four of my students as part of an alternative spring break service experience. The apartment had descended into filth and chaos, we’d been told, since Rose’s “boyfriend” had been transferred into assisted living. The landlord was ready to bounce her, so it was our job to make the place habitable—and not just for the many roaches scurrying through the cabinets.
I was so proud of my students that day. They donned gloves and tackled that awful kitchen with good cheer, emptying cabinets, throwing out contaminated food, and washing every sticky surface. I had the far easier task of organizing the living room: tossing discarded food wrappers, newspapers, and tissues; organizing anything that looked worth keeping; dusting everything I could get my hands on. There weren’t as many roaches to be alarmed by, but there was Rose, watching me with alarm. She didn’t respond to any overtures so I went about my business quietly under her apprehensive gaze.
How is this her life? I found myself wondering. Having been blessed with what I considered a full and meaningful life, overflowing with friends and work, travel and adventures, I was increasingly distressed by the emptiness of this poor woman’s existence.
And then I found it. Hidden among TV Guides and junk mail was a birthday card, the kind you get at a dollar store. I peeked inside. My darling Rose, someone had written, I will always love you. — your Bill
My eyes welled up, and I gently placed the card in a prominent position on her freshly dusted end table. To me she had seemed like a pathetic creature, yet she was someone’s darling Rose. She was a social worker’s challenging case, a landlord’s problem tenant, and our Tuesday project, yet a man named Bill had remembered her birthday and had selected, written, and mailed this card with its tender message.
I do believe that we are all precious in the eyes of God. But I was humbled, that day, to realize that a person I could barely bring myself to look at was precious in the eyes of another human being as well—one who had penned the words we all long to hear.
Who do you find difficult to look at, never mind love? Try to imagine them precious in the eyes of God, and even in the eyes of another human being. What shifts inside you?
May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed.