Franciscan Influences: Experiencing God Through Service

Joan Conway Features

This is the third in a series of essays from the Province’s partners-in-ministry. The last appeared in the Dec. 22 issue of HNP Today.

Maryland resident Joan Conway was recognized recently by two publications for her work at St. Camillus Parish. She appeared in the Dec. 30, 2010 issue of the Greenbelt News Review and the January 2011 issue of The Washingtonian, which recognized her and the 11 other Washingtonians of the Year at a luncheon on Jan. 18.

In the reflection below, Conway describes how her experiences at the parish’s food pantry and at Washington Theological Union inspired her to “attempt to follow the lead of Francis and Clare.”

In 2004, I was invited to lead a discussion at the HNP Globalization Conference titled “Hunger, Food Security, and Globalization.” The preparation and delivery of this presentation resulted in a liminal moment. For the first time in my professional life, I could bring my whole self into a room while giving a formal nutrition-based presentation. Prior to this time, my career focused on leading human nutrition clinical trials for the United States Department of Agriculture and acting as a visiting scientist for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. But I had only been able to fully express my spirituality outside of the laboratory or lecture hall.

In that classroom at Siena College, I had the profound sense of being able to be wholly present to the audience. This experience of freedom was a turning point. Soon after, I enrolled in the Washington Theological Union to study Franciscan theology and spirituality, I retired from research, and became even more involved with the food pantry at St. Camillus Parish. It is the whole of my experiences at WTU, St. Camillus, and especially the food pantry that has inspired me to attempt to follow the lead of Francis and Clare.

Within the life of Francis, his encounter with the leper tells us of the power of the process of seeing the other and being seen, of listening to the other and being heard. This, for me, is the essence of my current work. Learning to allow this to happen and to accept this gift has been transformational.

Practicing “Letting Go and Letting Be”
Managing many details of a protocol or a manuscript was a daily part of my job at USDA and the impact I had was a direct result of this multi-tasking. The coordination of the pantry, which has two sites, 150 volunteers, and involves the procurement and transport of 3 – 4,000 lbs. of food weekly, draws on this well-developed ability to manage details. The challenge for me has been in practicing ‘seeing and being seen’, ‘listening and being heard’. Writer Barbara Fiand refers to this process as “letting go and letting be.” Certainly when the rubber meets the road in ministry, the encounter with the other is often the place of challenge, and it is not so easy in reality to let go and let be. But the realization that it is possible offers hope.

Our mission in the food pantry is to offer safe, adequate, nutritious, and culturally-appropriate food to all those who come to us and to meet and greet each person as the true manifestation of Christ who she/he is. Along the way, we have gotten distracted by local politics, policies, the desire to be efficient, to improve our data entry process, to write grants, to decide “rules” for who can get food and how often. The amazing thing is that God has used all of this — each and every discussion, each and every movement of a can of food, each and every shopping trip — to bring us to where we are. We do not know the “perfect” way of doing this thing called a “food pantry”, but together we are doing our best. What has God done with our efforts — despite our limitations? In 2010, God used us to feed 5,500 families and, in doing so, we probably touched 20,000 lives.

Finding God by Embracing the Poor
It is my strong belief that I need to share with another. Like Francis and Clare, I receive so much in return — the gift of intimacy with another — the gift of the experience of God present in the compassion that arises when I am able to see a brother and sister and permit the look into each other’s eye. This is the gift that Francis received from God when he was able to reach out for that first time to the leper.

Like many others, in seeking an experience of the presence of God in my life, I have been blessed with the quiet sweetness of private moments. However, what the ministry in the food pantry offers me is the opportunity to experience the sweetness of an experience of God in relationship with another. This is especially true when working with the families in need, even with those who I may find challenging, greedy, or game playing. Somehow, as I continue to strive to find the face of Christ in everyone I meet in our work together, I do just that— I find God’s presence.

When I realize the situation of having so many families in need in the face of real human and resource limitations, I am pushed to “let go and let God,” as they say. But most important of all, I am being pushed into letting it be! I am put into a place of poverty in that I can do no more with my multi-tasking skills. In accepting my poverty in this regard, I am more able to open and stretch into this learning of letting be. Even in the small ways in which I can allow this to happen, I am experiencing more deeply the abundant love of God for the hungry. In the recent past, this love of God for the hungry has come in the form of unexpected donations of food, the receipt of a relatively large check, and simply the serenity of the acceptance of what is.

JoansenIt has been in trying to use Francis and Clare as my models that I have been growing in the practice of letting go and letting be. Clare especially taught us a great deal about the privilege of poverty through her total reliance on God to provide for her poor sisters. This man and woman from the 13th century knew intuitively that is was by embracing their own poverty and embracing the poverty of others they would find God. Working in the food pantry, I am beginning to learn the lesson that they left for me.

My life has been enriched by the friars who have served or currently serve at St. Camillus: Lawrence Hayes, OFM, John Heffernan, OFM, Michael Johnson, OFM, Charles Miller, OFM, Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, and by the writings of Sr. Ilia Delio, OSF, and Fr. Joseph Chinnici, OFM, Br. William Short, OFM, and Michael Blastic, OFM.

— Joan Conway, a native of New York, has been a member of St. Camillus Parish since 2001. She is pictured in the rear photo with Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski.

Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office invites lay people interested in sharing their respect for Franciscan values to submit a reflection to Jocelyn Thomas.