AMA Concert 2015

 

On May 31, 2015, all the work of the Philadelphia Sisters and Friends of the Assumption came together in the annual AMA Concert. Featuring violinist Jason Depue and accompanist Elena Jivaeva, the concert is a fundraiser for AMA and an opportunity for Friends of the Assumption to gather together for fellowship.  An AMA alum also gives his/her reflection in the form of a speech during the intermission.  This year, we welcomed Emily Szelest, who served in Chaparral, NM. Below is a copy of her introduction and speech.

 

 

 

 

Introduction: Emily was first drawn to the AMA program in 2009 during her time as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first encounter with the Assumption Sisters occurred at her Newman Center's "Dollar Dinner", where a joyfully persistent Sr. Sylvia corralled several young ladies to serve in Chaparral, New Mexico for a week that summer. During that summer's mission, Emily fell in love with the Chapa community and decided to apply to volunteer in the AMA program the following year. 


Emily currently lives in Albany, NY. She works as a youth minister and completed her graduate studies at the University at Albany in early May where she received her Master's degree in Social Welfare. She recently accepted a position at Samaritan Counseling Center in Scotia, New York, where she hopes to have the opportunity to serve those struggling with their mental health and other life stresses, especially through the means of art. Her experience in Chaparral, New Mexico has greatly influenced her career decision, and she consistently reflects on her memories in Chapa as a source of insight and inspiration, and to help her better serve her community back home.

 

 

Emily's Speech: Superglue and Tumbleweeds

 

            Welcome Assumption Sisters, former missionaries, friends, and families. Thank you to each ofyou for being here today, for your generosity and your support in any way you have given it, whether it be financially, through prayer, through service and time and talents, or any way you have shared yourself. Thank you to Jason and Elena for this beautiful music, as well to St. Joseph’s University for hosting

this event.

 

             I am very grateful for having been given the opportunity to be an Associate Missionary of the Assumption (or AMA, for short), and am grateful to have the opportunity to speak with you today a little bit on my experience as an AMA. To this day, it has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life, and I think often of the time I spent in Chaparral, New Mexico (or, as it has been affectionately dubbed, “Chapa”). To be honest, I’m not quite sure how to put together a speech about the year. There were beautiful people and memories, there were funny stories, and there wereinterior trials and growth. I think sometimes when we’re at the end of our college careers and we set off into the world, we have an idea of the big things we want to do. We take our unmet desires and place them inside of a place, or a person, or a career, imagining that this thing…finally, this thing will fulfill us, or make our lives more extraordinary. Perhaps I, too, had a little bit of that way of seeing in my mind at the time.

The best part of my time in Chapa, though, was not its extraordinariness. But that it was spent in Littleness. I learned of the often ordinary means through which Love works. And as I grow older, I become more and more convinced that love is like breathing: you live inside of it without realizing what you’re inside. Choosing it, each day, merely because it’s become a part of you. And it’s simply what happens as you partake of the Eucharist and prayer and community life. And you don’t realize it’s happening until you stop breathing. Until you leave your loved ones, and you become short of breath.

So I hope to share with you today, not extraordinary stories,but ordinary ones.

 

One of my favorite stories surrounds one of Becca’s (the other volunteer in Chaparral) and my first encounters with a family we called, “The Doritos” (named after their mother, Dora). Now, mind you, we didn’t know them yet. We are just getting our feet wet in a strange new land, hoping to make great first impressions. One of our first evenings there, though, on the basketball court, Dora’s daughter, Brenda, accidentally flew into my elbow…yes, her face went into my elbow, not the other way around. After making sure Brenda’s eyeball was alright, while panicking about the loss of her bifocals, and my concern that they would have to buy new ones, we went to the parking lot to call the Sisters and see if they had anything to fix them.

Their mother, Dora, who we had not really known at the time (a simultaneously strong, kind, and sarcastic woman who spoke only Spanish) was sitting in the car waiting for her daughters. I was terrified of her. I approached her nervously as the girls humorously explained that I had elbowed Brenda in the face, breaking her glasses. I assured her that I would buy them new ones if need be. Alas, we called the Sisters to see if they had any SuperGlue. The conversation went something like this:

Ring. Ring. “Hello?” It was Sr. Tere. “Hi, Sister. We were playing basketball at the park with Brenda and Iris and Claudia, and I may have accidentally broke Brenda’s glasses. Do you have any SuperGlue at your house, and maybe we can come over and fix them?”

“What? Oh, I’m going to give you to Chabela”

“Hi, Sr. Chabela…” I proceeded to explain the story again. “Do you have any SuperGlue?”

“Any what?”

“SuperGlue”

“What?”

“SuperGlue!”

“What is that?”

“Super-”  “-It’s a type of really strong glue that can fix things.”

“Oh, let me go see. I think we have some.”

 

I hung up the phone to everyone’s laughter as they explained to me that the only thing they heard for the past five minutes was the word “SuperGlue” coming from my mouth.

We all got in the car and went to the Sisters’ convent to remedy the situation. As we were still new to the area, I looked to the backseat and told Brenda that she’s going to have to direct our way around here, since we still don’t know where we’re going. Then Becca says playfully, “Well that’s going to be kind of tough, since she can’t see anymore.”

After several minutes of laughter, we got to the house and operated. Becca held Brenda’s glasses tight for 30 minutes, to their breaking once she released her fingers’ grip. Brenda was left glasses-less, and I was left with the nickname, “SuperGlue”.  Over the next year we became very close to the Doritos.

Becca and I continued to spend a lot of time with the families in Chapa and found that our ministry, instead of doing extraordinary things, was rather one of presence. We volunteered in the schools, tutored students after school or for their GED, had a computer available for last-minute essay assignments, hosted Friday night activities for the youth at our home (Casa Maria Eugenia), played soccer or dodgeball on free nights. became really good at making chocolate chip pancakes (our favorite late-night study snack for students who came over to do schoolwork), and baking personalized decorated birthday cakes. We discovered that our time was not our own, as we realized our ministry was also largely one of simply being available.

The Sisters were amazing, and their witness of love and solidarity is a testament to God’s love. They enjoyed Mexican Train game nights, and sangria. (Though unfortunately we never combined the two). To this day I miss all of the Chabela-isms that became a part of our everyday vernacular: Madre de mi Corazon!, or Okay Maguay; or Criatura (which could refer to small children, objects, or current thoughts), or Blah Blah Blah Blee Blee Blee (which could refer to really anything). Or our favorite Sr. Magdalena quote til this day, which remains, “What type of animal is this?” (while she was looking at the meal Sr. Anne had cooked for the day). Or perhaps it is that time she was speaking with a friend on the phone, and after several minutes of laughter and friendly conversation said, “Quien eres?”

            We became close friends with the Martinez family and witnessed the love and sacrifice of Cruzita and Nicolaus (and ate more chimichangas than is humanly possible). We swelled with pride when we watched Nicolaus’ daughter, Lily, care for the little kids at camp with such tenderness and maturity. We experienced joy and affection when the Rodriguez boys finally opened up to us and laughed during a car ride to visit their parents. Or when Jesus jolted up in spastic anticipation before the scary part even happened in the horror movie. There are too many stories to tell. Too many moments of “ordinariness”.

We also, however, witnessed things that our privilege had protected us from. We witnessed loved ones having a fear of ordinary activities like driving, or the hoops we had to jump through to get an undocumented friend a driver’s license so he could work. The effects of a family being separated by the border.

             I consistently marvel at how the families in Chaparral persist in love and hope. “I believe in Love”, a Sister told me recently on a retreat I’d been on. “We must repeat this phrase,” she said, “ even when we’re out there. Even when it gets dark. Because it’s the greatest reality. Believe in Divine Love.”

I want to thank each and every one of you, the Sisters, Michelle, benefactors, former AMA’s, and families and friends of the AMA program, for contributing to the opportunity for young adults to experience a year of service immersed in a community of solidarity and love, and to learn more what it means to love.

              Becca and I were avid readers, and during our time in Chaparral, she had introduced me to one of her favorite books, entitledThe Sunflower, by Richard Paul Evans. Upon our parting in July 2011, I had written her a parody of The Sunflower on our life in Chaparral because she always said she wished her life would be like that book. I think I will end this talk by  quoting the “intro” to our new rendition of the Sunflower, which was appropriately entitled, The Tumbleweed:

 

Casa Maria Eugenia (The Tumbleweed) is sanctuary, as much to me as the children we have rescued from the pains of doing their homework alone. But I have considered that it might be more. For in a world where evil seems to triumph more often than not, Casa Maria Eugenia is evidence that we might be something better- evidence that we might be good. So while few will ever know or care about the work we do, the worth of this little home is far greater than the number of children we embrace. For perhaps it is us, not them, that have need of embracing. And to that end, Casa Maria Eugenia is more than a place. It is hope.

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