Generosity of FVMs Impresses Senior Friar

William DeBiase, OFM Features

Since 1989, the Province’s Franciscan Volunteer Ministry (FVM) has been providing young adults with a way to grow — both spiritually and in their service to others. A  friar of 48 years, who has lived and served with the FVMs at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia since 2002, describes his positive impressions of these 20-somethings.

PHILADELPHIA — The generalizations used to describe the 20-something generation are widely known. They have been called “the entitled generation,” enclosed in their safe and secure “balloons of life.” Some say, “They have no fire except for the sentence that begins with ‘I’.”

Perhaps these less than generous descriptions have a certain degree of validity. These broad strokes, however, are shattered when we see so much generosity in the lives of young people.

Not Every Sentence Begins with “I”
Hundreds of students, instead of boarding planes for Cancun for spring break. will head in other directions. Some will be found in Haiti working at infirmaries for the poor; others in New Orleans helping to rebuild. Still others will serve in Appalachia. It is good to remember that generosity in many cases is still synonymous with “youth,’ and that not every one of their sentences begins with “I.”

There is a group of young people who exemplify this generosity to a high degree. They are the FVMs, a ministry of Holy Name Province. These volunteers dedicate a year or two to work with the poor and homeless. This ministry began in 1989 when a small group of Siena College seniors were looking for a full-time service ministry, particularly one attached to the Franciscans.

Who are the FVMs?

The typical FVM has just graduated from college. Their college majors cover the gamut of possibilities. English, biology, political science and philosophy have all found their way to this ministry. Of these volunteers, approximately 68 were men and 90 women.

Usually, during their college years they were exposed to service ministry. This encounter with the poor opened their minds and hearts to people of whom they had only read about. They decided after graduation to give a year of their lives to service. As one of the volunteers, Dan, said, “I do not view the FVM year as a temporary phase in transitioning to the big job, but rather, an enduring call to do something that I feel close to my heart.”

What do FVMs Do?
The work of the volunteers varies, depending on which of the three ministry sites they are assigned to. Some work at St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen in the inner-city of Philadelphia. Others work in Camden, N.J., teaching English to immigrants, working with children, or serving in the HIV/AIDS ministry. In Wilmington, Del., another site, they are asked to teach English, tutor children and serve in the prison ministry. In each case, the “doing” is important, but who they are is more important.

Sue puts it into perspective. “The best thing we have to offer is our ongoing friendship.”

Again, it is not doing, as much as it is being.

Debbie, who served two years in Wilmington, says, “Perhaps the greatest gift of being an FVM is simply being present with the suffering, guilty, shameful,
bitter, angry and scared people in our society … the lepers,”

I have found that one of the most difficult things for the volunteers to get over is the “we” and “they” mentality. To be brothers and sisters in Christ eliminates any feeling of power.

Spiritual Growth
It is not a do-it-yourself program. They live in a community. It is in this community of fellow FVMs that prayer becomes alive. There is spiritual growth and relationships mature. This community is bound together by the daily celebration of the Eucharist. It is there that they are fed so they can feed the people they serve, and one another.

The Eucharistic-based community and the openness it gives birth to is the  backbone of the FVMs. Kelly, reflecting on her community experience, says, “In choosing to live in community, you choose to live outside yourself and to open yourself to new people and experiences that you never expected.”

The community life is simple. Some of the ordinary things of life, like TV, are missing. Sharing and taking into consideration other people broadens the horizons of the volunteers.

For these volunteers, everything they do is fed by their relationship with the Lord. Their vision of their work, of who the people they serve are, is Christocentric.

Their lives are a witness to God’s love made visible through the Lord, and made present through their ministry. Debbie, in speaking about her ministry to women in prison reflects: “I think of what my women say and the most horrific abuses and traumatic experiences they have been through. How can I possibly understand what they have been through? Jesus was sentenced to death, Jesus forgave his persecutors, Jesus knows what they are going through.”

Debbie continues: “My time as an FVM is precious, so very special. It has been the most significant and important transformation of my life. God is good, God is really good. My years as an FVM helped me learn how to give and receive the love of Christ each day.”

Where are They Now?

When the volunteer year is finished, what next? To go down the list of the 158 people who have served would just take too much space. However, to give an idea, several have opted for religious life, others have gone on to social service work, others have met their life partners while serving as an FVM.

We have doctors, psychologists, stay-at-home parents, teachers, counselors and missionaries who can be numbered among the alumni.

It should be noted that the Jesuits, Redemptorists, Salesians all have vibrant programs. I used the FVM as my paradigm because of familiarity and because I am a Franciscan. There are hundreds of young people doing good things.

Applicants for the 2008-09 FVM year are being accepted until August. Contact Program Director Katie Sullivan at 215-427-3070, or use e-mail.

—Fr. William lives at Juniper Friary in Philadelphia, near the office of the FVM program director.  He was featured in the Spring 2008 issue of The Anthonian.