Living the charism of compassion through Heart’s Home
Sister Catherine Kustusch, Servants of God’s Presence, is a member of Heart’s Home, an international organization of lay missionary volunteers, and directs its communications in the United States. The Rover interviewed Kustusch before her campus visit to recruit at the Career Fair on September 14.
Irish Rover: Please tell us a little bit about Heart’s Home and its mission.
Sr. Kustusch: We’re an international Catholic community of missionary volunteers who are in 26 countries. We have 42 houses on four continents. Our mission is very simple: We want to be with Mary at the foot of the cross in the heart of the world. Our first mission was started 25 years ago to be with children, especially those on the streets, those who are most vulnerable. We began our first two houses in Argentina and Brazil, where we are still. Then, from that initial mission of just going to a place where we knew the cross was and where people were suffering and opening our home to whoever needed us, we realized that actually there are many, many people who are suffering from a spiritual poverty of loneliness, and that suicide is an epidemic in many western countries. We continued to grow in our charism of compassion, and that was how we came to New York City in the United States. Saint Mother Teresa said that New York City is the city in the world that needs compassion the most, and that was why we decided to come here. Pope Francis talks about being on the peripheries and margins, and we make friends with those who are on the margins of society.
How did you become involved with Heart’s Home? What is your story?
The short answer is the Internet. The long answer is that God sent me. I had been working doing fundraising and communications for a campus ministry in Chicago. A little bit like the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew, though, something was missing. I did everything I needed to do, everything I thought I should, and I did everything with joy, but there was something more there that I needed to do. I felt like I needed to do something a bit extreme to be able to grow in love, if I was going to discover what God wanted me to do for Him.
I went to Kenya in 2010. We just visited with people at schools in the mountains to build a school-to-school relationship. We were a small organization, so we didn’t have a lot of people, and I really couldn’t fix any of their very real material needs. Towards the end, however, one of the teachers told us, “The kids will have so much more confidence in themselves because of your visit because they were important enough to be visited by somebody from a different country.” That really stuck with me and was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Being full of joy, but useless in the middle of nowhere was enough.
When I got back, I received a Catholic Volunteer Network catalog with all the possibilities to apply anywhere in the world. I said, “Okay God, I’m listening.” I had wanted to go back to Africa, so I looked up the only four organizations with missions there, and Heart’s Home was one of them. So I went to their website. It was a life in community, first of all. That was very much what I wanted and felt called to. The second reason was the life of prayer. We are pretty unique volunteer experience in the sense that we really ask our volunteers to be in full mission, which means that we ask that they commit to a pretty intense life of prayer, almost monastic. We do morning and evening prayer, daily Mass when possible, daily Adoration, and we pray the rosary because the quality of the gift of ourselves is only going to be the quality of our relationship with God.
The third thing was a word that I have a hard time finding in English. In French, it’s gratuit, which comes out in English as gratuitous. It’s just this sense of “just because.” It is the experience we have receiving God’s love. His love is gratuitous. It was a free gift. We didn’t earn it and we didn’t do anything to deserve it. He loves us just because He loves us. We want in our mission to offer that kind of friendship to people. A friendship that is unconditional. “You as a person are my friend because you exist. Not because you’re perfect. Not because you’re talented. Not because you’re powerful. Not even because you’re poor and I want to fix your problems. But just because God sent me to your neighborhood to love you.” I think there are a lot of problems that need fixing, but I can just offer my presence and be, and that would be enough, and I think that is often what is enough. The rest as they say was history. I did not get sent to Africa. I spent a year and a half in Thailand instead.
What do you personally do with Heart’s Home? What is your day-to-day life and experience like?
I have a long to-do list that never quite gets done, but that’s beside the point. We live here in Brooklyn right now. I have also lived in other places in the world. My first mission was in Thailand. I also spent a year in El Salvador, and then I spent two-and-a-half years in France. Each was very different, but what I’d say is common to all of those is that life in community and a life of prayer. Here there are seven of us, and we begin and end our days with prayer. That’s a big part of my day actually. Depending on the day, the mornings are a little bit quieter, and they’re at home.
I think one of the things that has really always been beautiful about Heart’s Home is that we want to be contemplatives in the world, and that contemplative life is really not on the outside very exciting. It’s doing the same thing over and over again with a lot of love, just like Mary and Joseph and Jesus in Nazareth. So, we want to be in Nazareth with the Holy Family. Let everything we do be a way to find God and also a sign of love for our neighbor, because that’s what we do. We each take a turn to cook, and we each take an hour of adoration. Then we visit. Sometimes we go here in our neighborhood. Sometimes we visit friends who are in nursing homes. There’s once a week that I go to the homeless shelter that’s around the corner from us. It’s a really beautiful experience. Tonight actually we’re going to visit another friend who is also in a psychiatric ward. In the middle, I’m trying to take a little time at the computer because I’m also here in the States in charge of communications. I’m way too busy and never busy enough because there’s so many more people, our neighbors, waiting to be loved.
What is the relationship between your vocation to being a religious sister and your vocation to serve through Heart’s Home?
They go together. I think I wouldn’t be a religious sister if it wasn’t for Heart’s Home because when you’re called to a vocation, you’re called to a specific vocation. God never calls you in the abstract, and He never calls you tomorrow. He calls you to here and now, to a very specific person or community. He brings you that person or community when you’re ready. It really required a leap of faith to jump and say, “Here and now, what I want to do is give my whole life to God,” but I quit my very nice job, left everything I’d ever known, and moved to the other side of the world, because God called me to that. I think that my vocation became very clear when I gave myself away to other people, especially to the poorest of the poor, without thinking about myself or about my “Plan B.” That’s how they are connected, and they’re always connected.
I was struck over and over again in Thailand by the people we visited, by their situation, and by their pain. I really had the experience of being at the foot of the cross, quite literally. I somehow knew that that was the only place that was really worth being, that was the only place that really made sense.Then, when I began to ask the question of what God might want from me afterwards, it became very clear that whatever I would be doing, I wanted to continue to seek His face in the poorest of the poor because that was where I had found Him. It wasn’t about me changing anybody’s life or fixing their problems, but understanding that even in my own poverty and my own inability to love, God could do what He needed to do.
What are some ways people can become involved in Heart’s Home?
The first way for sure is the reason I’m at [Notre Dame]: we are looking for people to travel all over the world. We are looking for young people between ages 18 to about 30 who are interested in a one to two-year mission in an international community. So, it has to be somebody who is really open to and interested in living with young people from different cultures. My first mission was with a woman from Vietnam, two from France, and one from Argentina. We’re looking for someone who is good physical and psychological health. Again, it’s very intense mission, and you have to be ready for it. We’re looking for someone who is rooted in the faith of God and leading a very intense prayer life. We’re looking for someone who just feels called to share daily life with those who are in their neighborhood, in particular the poorest of the poor and children, but wherever we are in the world that might sometimes look different. I think it’s just about wanting to live a radical hospitality of the heart and being ready to open your heart to those that need love. That’s about it! We don’t have any specific professional requirements. We just have an application, and we ask for interview and references.
I am part of Heart’s Home as a religious sister; we are called the Servants of God’s Presence. That really is part of this larger lay ecclesial movement called Heart’s Home. In the beginning and to this day the majority of us are lay volunteers. Some of the first volunteers had this amazing experience and really found love in life in mission and then said, “I want to do this for the rest of my life,” but if you go on a short term mission, it doesn’t mean you’re going to become a nun. We have people who are full-time who are lay-consecrated, but the rest of us are really in short-term mission living in community with each other.
Then we’re also looking for people who are partners in mission, particularly here in the States. Each missionary has to raise both financial and spiritual supporters. We’re always looking for both. We’re looking for people that want to give financially but also people that want to pray for us daily. We know that some give by going, and I had the real privilege to be called to this life, but some go by giving.
Is there anything else you would like the readers of the Rover to know?
Stabat Mater Juxta Crucem: Mary stood at the foot of the cross. I think that’s the thing I want to finish with that. I feel so lucky to be called to be with Mary at the foot of the cross and live out compassion in a way that she lived out compassion. She’s really taught me a lot about love and what that looks like and in more than just words. Being part of this community and this family and being in mission, I’ve discovered that love is both harder and easier than I ever thought possible.
Reba Luffy is a senior living in Howard Hall and studying Honors Mathematics and Theology. Her favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.