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Fall Ministries - Chaplains

Serving with Jesuit volunteers and beyond

NCR Staff
Newark, N.J.

Ministry begets ministry. Because there is a Catholic chaplaincy at Yale -- centered at St. Thomas More Chapel -- Stephanie Baralecki has occasionally been hanging around the Immigration and Naturalization Service asylum detention center in an Elizabeth, N.J., warehouse district. She’s been there to collect suddenly discharged “asylees” -- those given permission to remain in the United States.

Baralecki, 22, an interdisciplinary ethics-politics-economics major, was headed for the Peace Corps until one evening at St. Thomas More chapel, when students returning to Yale for graduate studies told about their Jesuit Volunteer Corps year of service.

What attracted Baralecki, who had never even heard of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, “was the idea of living in community as part of a faith-based program.” She applied.

A cradle Catholic from Metuchen, N.J. (her father is a Byzantine Catholic of the Ukrainian rite, but Stephanie was raised in the Latin rite), Baralecki soon found herself behind a desk in the second floor of a very Catholic office in downtown Newark, a space for both the Catholic Legal Immigrant Network and the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Soon she was teaching English for the Jesuit Refugee Service in the detention center. Last fall the Immigration and Naturalization Service killed the program.

The versatile Baralecki, who lives with four other young JVC women, shifted to something more akin to caseworker for immigrants being released -- sometimes with practically no notice, with no money and nowhere to go.

“Housing is the greatest challenge,” said Baralecki, who in late July was clearing out her desk for a move to Philadelphia. Jesuit Refugee Service “has a small emergency budget. We put them up at the [YMCA], and they can charge their meals.”

But that’s a stopgap. Limited housing is available with the Franciscan Brothers at Christ House in the Bronx. Otherwise, “we’re frantically calling around trying to get them longer term accommodation,” she said.

Inside or released, the asylum seekers, who have already come through some horrific experiences on a tortuous route to America, get trapped in the overloaded INS bureaucracy. If they’re granted asylum, they might have to wait three months or more for a work permit, she said.

Meanwhile, Baralecki is busily helping them get Social Security cards, a place to live and their INS papers straightened out, while they have no money and can’t work.

“The hardest part of my job,” she said, “is I feel limited in what I can do for the people -- I know many of them personally -- and I get frustrated by the INS red tape. At times you feel down over the whole thing -- what’s happened to them in life, what they’ve left behind and the struggle here to get a life started, and that’s where my JVC community is a big help.

“The community living, with times for prayer and retreats, those kinds of things, keeps you going when the frustration level is high,” she said.

At Yale, Baralecki was in a small community, a group of 10 or so Catholic students who met weekly to discuss the Sunday scriptures and how those scriptures applied to one’s personal life.

“It was a really nice community atmosphere [at St. Thomas More], with a lot of support from other Catholic students, probably most of them involved in some part-time volunteer work.” Several, said Baralecki, like herself went into fulltime service for a year or more after graduation -- into AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps or teaching in a foreign country.

Of her college generation’s Catholics, Baralecki speculates, “I think a lot of people my age are turned off by organized religion -- maybe the Catholic church in particular because of its views and regulations on women and homosexuals, that sort of thing.

“There are certainly aspects of church teaching I’ve got my own doubts about,” she said. “But overall I know lots of people who are on a real search for spirituality of some sort, and I find the ritual aspect of the church very attractive. It’s secure, it’s calming, it’s familiar, it’s appealing.”

By August, Baralecki -- who’d decided on a second year of JVC service -- had moved to Philadelphia, to Kairos House (part of Project H.O.M.E., NCR, Dec. 10, 1999). There she’ll direct activities in a transitional center for formerly homeless mentally ill men and women.

And after that? “The JVC motto is, ‘Ruined For Life,’ ” she said. “The four JVC values -- community, spirituality, social justice and simple lifestyle -- are expected to have an impact on volunteers that doesn’t end with your service. It’s supposed to affect life choices, and I think that’s true.”

When her Philadelphia year is done, Baralecki is likely to head to law school for public interest law. “I’m not sure what, yet.”

Versatile and engaging, committed and energetic, it probably won’t matter what -- Stephanie Baralecki has learned to minister in the Catholic tradition. And once hooked, it’s hard to release the bittersweet barb that calls one to service.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000