I am sitting on my bed, lacing up my shoes, and assuring myself that if the nuns reject me based on my footwear, I don’t want anything to do with them anyway. I have sifted through my closet and have decided to wear dark jeans and a black sweater with a white collar sewn into the neckline, so that it looks like I’m wearing a button-down shirt. It is a decision that has come largely by default, as this item of clothing is more professional than 98 percent of my wardrobe, which I’ve had for ages. However, the shoes I’m lacing up are new. And yet I’m still unsure if they are appropriate—white faux leather, with black stripes on the sides. They would be professional-looking, if I were a professional bowler, or perhaps a golfer, but, I am neither. In fact, I am not feeling particularly ready to be a professional anything. I am a college senior about to graduate. I am an English major without a specific career plan. I am going on my first job interview, and I am searching for some feeling of control. So I decide am going to wear whatever shoes I darn well please.
I arrive at a white, multi-family house with a small front porch. Sister Carol Mary, a Mercy sister with a long, dark, ponytail lets me in, and I am immediately charmed by the eclectic nature of the furniture and religious imagery scattered about the house. Dinner is being prepared by another Sister of Mercy and a few other women, one of whom wears a sweatshirt with a nature scene on it. They are reheating leftovers from a recent Easter dinner.
As an interviewer for the Mercy Volunteer Corps, Sister Carol Mary is my first contact with the Mercy sisters’ full-time volunteer program. If all goes well, when I leave the house, I will be one step closer to joining a community of fellow volunteers who have a desire to serve others—to “give back” as I and countless others, I’m sure, have said in our applications. Although I, for one, am not quite certain what I’m giving and to whom.
I’d spent hours flipping through a cross-referenced guide to domestic and international volunteer programs. Among the sites listed, one caught my eye: a group of volunteers would live in trailers on the Navajo reservation in the high desert of Arizona, it said. They would work at a school for children with special needs. I was struck by this description, because although everything in it would be a new to me, it still felt like a place that was familiar, somewhere I could belong. And this feeling had led me to the two-family house and the dinner and the interview, where I sat trying to convince a Sister from an order I’d never heard of to let me join a bunch of people I’d never met so that I could travel to a place I’d never been and try to do a job for which I wasn’t sure I was even qualified.
I sit down at the table, and we say grace together. The food is good, and later in the evening the women clean up the table and I am led to the living room for an interview. As I walk out, one of the women, the one in the sweatshirt with the nature scene, looks at me and wishes me good luck. And then she looks down at my feet, and she says with genuine enthusiasm: I like your shoes. And I think, for the first time in a long time: everything is going to be ok.
Ten years later, the charism of Mercy still speaks to me. And my experience with the Works of Mercy has helped me to understand the responsibility each of us has toward one another. It has helped me to see how my faith must be a choice, how easy it is to become complacent, the need to remind myself to respond to the Gospel call to Mercy. The good thing is that there are so many ways to say yes. Mercy is not something we bestow upon one another from on high in a sort of grand gesture, but rather something much quieter, more humble. It is an invitation, an openness, a kind of accompanying. To give mercy is a kind of emptying out of oneself out to make room for the love for another. With our lives we make Mercy a verb—mercying as pope Francis put it.
My friend, Sr. Camille once offered me some advice, which was once given to her: “Never let a woman stand alone.” But I think the statement applies to all, to men and women alike. This, in some ways, sums up the purpose of living a life of mercy—to let one another know that no one has to go it alone. To provide a place where people will accept you, even with your flaws—even when your choice of shoes is really strange.
This is an adapted excerpt from Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber, the managing editor of America Magazine.