Healing Through Spirituality at Mercy Home, Ep. 7 of Around Our Home Podcast

Healing Through Spirituality at Mercy Home, Ep. 7 of Around Our Home Podcast

– Welcome to Around Our Home, a show about the impact Mercy Home for Boys & Girls has on kids and families in need in the Chicago community. Each episode, you’ll hear informative interviews as well as supportive tips and strategies that you can use in your daily life to become a happier, healthier version of yourself. This is Around Our Home. I’m Christine Nikolich. My guest today is Mark Velasquez, Mercy Homes Milieu Support Specialist who specializes in spiritual development. Mark helps our kids encounter spirituality, something he views as connection to other people, to the world, and what makes you want to be a better person. In his role, he facilitates spiritual retreats for our kids and orchestrates events that help them connect to their own culture and the culture of others. He plays a major role in helping our kids heal from trauma and build brighter futures. In this episode, Mark tells stories about his experience at Mercy Home and how spiritual development impacts the lives of our kids.

– I’m Mark Velasquez. I work in spiritual development at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls and I’ve worked here for seven, seven and a half years. I think of my job as a blessing that I’m able to do it. I’m very happy that I am where I am and that I get to interact with young people at this organization the way that I get to interact with them. We define spirituality here in a very broad sense and we call it a big tent spirituality and where we want to create room for everyone. And so we think of spirituality as whatever it is it can’t teach you the world or to other people or makes you want to be a better person and we acknowledged that everybody comes into our doors with that. They bring that in with them and it’s our job to help and encourage that where we need it. So I get to come to work every day and encounter that sense of sacred, that sense of God within the youth that we work with. And to me, I feel very lucky that I’m able to do that. And it is, it’s easy sometimes to find that sense of sacred, that sense of hope, sense of grace and belonging and gratitude and all of the positive things that we associate with experiencing the presence of God in our life. But given the work that we do, that’s not always the case. Sometimes that’s not where we encounter God and I think that’s one of the great lessons in my time at Mercy Home has been that we have to encounter God wherever it is that our young people find them, even when that’s not in a positive way. I think specifically of a young woman who lived in our care for a while, who had just experienced the death of a loved one, someone that was very dear to her and it was giant and shocking and it felt like the world was collapsing on her and she didn’t lose her belief in God at the time, but she got very angry at God because what she saw, she saw the world crumbling around her and she kept asking why God would allow it to happen and it was causing a lot of anger. At the time I was thinking a lot about a class that I took in college, a world religion class. The professor presented us with a story or a case study of two Jewish theologians who had a conversation about whether or not God was to blame for the Holocaust. And they decided that God was in fact to blame and that it was okay to blame him which, at the time, was really mind blowing to me to think of God in that way, as God was a vessel for the anger and the blame that we had for him and that he was willing to be that for us as well. So with that in mind, I was, I asked this young lady if she ever thought about telling God that she was angry and if she was willing to just yell at God for a little bit. And I was also thinking of a Jesuit priest who once asked how, what would happen if you went into church and flipped off the ceiling, flipped off the frescoes on the ceiling? What would happen if you went in and yelled at God? And so I thought this is a possibility for a really powerful experience that we could allow her to be angry, to give her space to be angry about everything that was happening to her. And so for a couple of weeks, I worked with her on writing a lament, a prayer of just anguish and blame and anger and really asking where God was in all of this and asking for help and strength through it. When it came time to go into the chapel and the idea was she was going to go into the chapel and just let it rip, just say it, put it all out there. When it came time, she decided that she didn’t need to do it anymore and that the process of writing it was enough, that it empowered her to have the feeling that she did and that made her relationship with God okay. It didn’t perfect it, she wasn’t any less angry. She was still grieving heavily, but at least she had room for her relationship with God and she had hope in that. The best part of my job without a doubt, hands down, the best part of my job is four times a year, twice on our Walsh Campus, twice on our West Loop Campus, I get to take a group of our young people on a retreat and we go away for the weekend and we pick a theme. I pull together a group of really talented coworkers and we pick a theme and come up with retreat sessions and retreat ideas and we present activities and talks to young people over the course of a 48 hour weekend out somewhere far away from the stress of the city and their neighborhoods, and then the stress of being at Mercy Home. In my time here, I’ve seen the retreat work very powerfully because of the effort we put into it, but also because it allows our young people to just be young people. The retreat isn’t about religion or faith so much as it is about being together. It’s about community and connection and the desire to be better and the desire to be with others and to be connected to the world. And so that’s how we come up with retreat themes. What is going on in our young people’s lives at the moment that is getting in the way of their connection, the connection to the sacred, connection to each other? In that we’ve come up with some really, really powerful weekends, themes focus on empathy or focus on growth. The last retreat we did with our young people from the West Loop Campus was about, it’s about what gives you resilience to get through hard times. What gives you resilience to make it through a year of a pandemic where life seems to be strict and completely different. So what is it that fills you, makes you stronger? And they’ve been just a joy to be a part of, to be able to offer that to our young people, that depth of material and to offer that, but also offer a chance to make smores and to get in snowball fights in the winter and sometimes to play capture the flag out on the football field, just to be young and carefree. I think one of the most powerful retreats that I’ve been a part of, we realized that we had a much younger population than we normally are and we wanted to encourage them to think about themselves and their lives and their experiences in a very playful way because we thought that that was a good doorway into who they are. And so we decided we were gonna have them think about their experiences through the lens of superheroes and that was the theme. We called it “Empowered.” One of the first things that we did is we talked about superhero origin stories and how superheroes got to be who they are. And we broke it down into three categories of superheroes. Some super heroes are born heroes, are born the way that they are. Some of them, you get bitten by spiders and they are, you know, they become Spiderman and they become super heroes by chance. And then others, you know, witness a traumatic event like the death of their parents, like Batman. And it’s the trauma that makes them the heroes that they are. We had the kids think about their experience or what is the moment that defines who they are? Was is a moment of birth? What was it a moment of chance that they just happened to be in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the right time? Was it a moment of some trauma that affected the way that they saw the world? It was amazing to see them dig into their experience through that lens and it gave them a lot of agency and allowed them to grab pieces of their past and to think about it in a way that didn’t, that made them fuller, made them more fully who they actually are and connected them to their experience, and then also give them desire to be better. And to me, that’s what good spirituality should really do. I find myself often praying before I come to work and the prayer is mostly a prayer of asking for anything that I’m bringing in with me to just not come through the door with me so that I can more fully be a mirror of love that God asks me to be. But once, one time, the most fervently I’ve ever prayed for work and the only time I think that I’ve ever asked for anything in return from a prayer, like anything really big was a prayer I said thousands of miles away from Mercy Home at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland. And I was, I found myself there with four of our young people, two from the West Loop Campus and two from the Walsh Campus and another one of my coworkers. And I had convinced them to go to World Youth Day in Poland, in Kraków. I got the idea that I wanted to do it because I had done it myself when I was a young person. I was lucky enough to be able to go to World Youth Day in Denver and to spend a week with young people from all over the world and with Pope John Paul II. So when I started working at Mercy Home I thought this could be a way to expand the world of our young people. It’s really hard to explain what World Youth Day is to someone who’s never been there. When you go to World Youth Day, you are among others at all times and it was never more apparent for me how little I anticipated that even having been to three World Youth Days in the past. Like going as a group leader, I had never anticipated what it would be and what it would be like to lead a group through until we were in the airport at customs. And while we were in that line, we were in that line with young people from Brazil and from a few places in Central and South America and some Canadians and we were interacting with the world and someone was playing guitar and people are dancing. Now, so even in that frustration of waiting, there was community, and I think that was an open experience for everybody, but still a couple of hours later, I found myself outside of the shrine where they’re asked where pilgrims are asked to leave their intentions and and leave their prayers and what came to my heart, what I felt I needed to ask more than anything else was please just make this week a good week for all of us. Because I think in that moment, I was scared that what I had in mind was maybe beyond what I had anticipated. So not only is it the most fervent time that I prayed since I’ve been working at Mercy Home, it’s also the clearest sign that a prayer I’ve said has been answered because the week was phenomenal. It was an amazing experience even in its hard times, even in the frustrations, the experience we had while we were there just was beyond anything. And it was amazing to watch these young people experience World Youth Day the way that I had when I was their age, to see a bigger world and to interact with that world and to get to speak with and relate to young people from all over the world, just people from everywhere. And I, at one point, I thought maybe, you know, they weren’t as into it as I had anticipated. And because we were at the opening ceremony, which is when the, not the opening ceremony, the welcoming ceremony when the Pope Francis actually first landed in the country and he comes and celebrates with everyone. He speaks usually in either in Italian or in his native language. He was speaking in Italian that evening and as a World Youth Day Pilgrim, you take a radio with you and you to tune into a specific station, which is labeled and there’s an English station where it translates everything for you. So I bought radios for all of our young people and they thought that I was just giving them relics from the past. I had my radio on and I was listening and I turned behind me to see these young people and they didn’t have their radios on their translators and I gave them space and that was fine. I figured I could tell them that just was his message after it was over. And so when he was done speaking, I turned to them with the points I wanted them to know and as I started saying, one of the young people said, “Yeah, we know.” They’re from Italy. These people here from Italy, they were translating for us and they had made friends with a group of young people from Italy who were translating and I think that message probably hit home a lot more hearing it translated from someone their age. And then we got really lucky beyond that too. While we were walking to the pilgrimage, or we were making our final pilgrimage to the Mass site on the second to the last day, a day where you walk to where the final Mass will be and you keep vigil that night. You pray and you pray together and then honestly you sleep in a field with a million other people, which is an experience in itself. As we were walking, we came to the spot in the road where there were barricades set up and I directed the young people to, you know, down the road a little bit and there was still barricades and I realized we needed to be on the other side and there was a police officer standing there and I said, “Oh, I know there’s barricades here. Was there any way that we can get across the street?” He said, “No.” And I looked up the street and down the street and I realized that it was, you know, it was a main throughway that had been blockaded and it was blocked all the way down and I looked back at the officer and I said, “Is Pope Francis coming?” And he shook his head yes. “Is he coming right now?” And he shook his head yes. And about three seconds later we could see the motorcade, the police escort turn the corner and the Popemobile drove right by and we were the only group of people standing where we were and Pope Francis looked at us and waved and we waved back and cheered and that’s when I know that my prayers had been answered.

– Thanks for listening to Around Our Home. Thank you to Mark for joining us today and telling us more about how our kids connect to their spirituality at Mercy Home. Be sure to visit MercyHome.org/podcast to join the conversation, access the show notes and read more about what’s going on Around Our Home on our blog. Don’t forget to follow us on social media by searching at Mercy Home. If you have any questions, please email us at info@MercyHome.org. Please like, subscribe and share this podcast with your colleagues, friends and family. Mercy Home for Boys & Girls is a solution for kids in crisis and we hope this podcast will motivate you to support our mission. My name is Christine Nikolich and this is Around Our Home.

Welcome to Around Our Home Podcast, a show about the impact Mercy Home for Boys & Girls has on kids and families in need in the Chicago community. Each episode you’ll hear informative interviews, as well as supportive tips and strategies that you can use in your daily life to become a happier, healthier version of yourself.

#7 – Healing Through Spirituality at Mercy Home

In this episode, Christine Nikolich interviews Marc Velasquez, Mercy Home’s Milieu Support Specialist who specializes in spiritual development. Marc helps our kids encounter spirituality, something he views as connection–to other people, to the world, and what makes you want to a better person.  In his role, he facilitates spiritual retreats for our kids and orchestrates events that help them connect to their own culture and the cultures of others. He plays a major role in helping our kids heal from trauma and build brighter futures. In this episode Marc tells stories about his experience at Mercy Home and how spiritual development impacts the lives of our kids.

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