The Family We Choose and the Family that is Thrust Upon Us

Two volunteers sit on the dock looking out over the water and into the sunset.

“Blood runs thicker than water”

Hannah, Kristin, Faith and I pose next to a table outside of our house, decorated to represent one of the stations of the cross. Different religious objects sit on the table such as bougainvillea flowers, a cross, praying hands and a photo of Jesus.

“For better or for worse”

Jesuit Volunteers and a neighbor walk to the edge of the shore. Two of the group prepare to throw fishing line out into the waves.

“In sickness and in health”

There’s the family you’re born into and the family you marry into, but there’s one other family that you don’t always come across: the family you choose. Well, in JVC’s case, it’s more like the family they choose for you. And I’m not talking about host families — that could be an entire post in and of itself — I’m talking about community. 

When you commit to JVC International you are not just committing to two years of service, you also commit your life to at least three other strangers who will spend the next year or two years together with you. In a foreign setting, especially in Tacna this means they are about the only three other Americans you’ll see in town (although a casual run in with Mormons has become a common occurrence). 

Hannah, Faith, Kristin and I pose around our kitchen table with a Thanksgiving feast: green beans, a chicken, pumpkin pie, and wine.
Enjoying our homemade, hodge-podge Thanksgiving feast.

Family: you love them, you fight with them, sometimes you want to bash them over the head with a baseball bat. The same can be said for a JVC community. Like your overprotective mom or your uncle with a terrible sense of humor, you can’t really “get rid” of your community members. There’s no moving out if things get rough and there’s usually not anyone else who can meet your need for a break from life in a foreign country and spend an afternoon speaking your own language. With such a small house and an isolated neighborhood, you sometimes don’t get out much, leaving your only interactions to be ones with your work-site and the people you live with. Your living experience could easily transform itself into one of tension and stone-silent dinners. Luckily I’ve been saddled with community-mates who have brought an essential component to any healthy living situation: commitment. 

A black and white photo fo Kristin, Faith, Hannah and I posing in our back patio, seated on an old wicker sofa. Paper stars hang from above and photos of Barack and Michelle Obama are in the background.

This commitment isn’t a “grin-and-bare-it”, “let’s just get through this” kind of mentality. It’s the act of choosing to commit to loving one another every single day.

Each week, community members choose to show up to dinner at 7pm sharp for a shared meal. They commit to spirituality nights and even dragging themselves out of bed at 6:50 am for 7 o’clock mass (we’re usually a little tardy on Sundays). During community nights, each of us makes the choice not only to share but to listen profoundly, hearing the reflections and experiences throughout the week of others with an open mind and a heart without judgement. 

It’s not about showing up and checking the attendance box, it’s about being present to each other. When you’re living in a foreign country or new city, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your head. The first six months can seem like a humiliating torture as your tongue fails you, you miss cultural clues, and even find yourself falling over on the bus a rather astonishing number of times (anyone else? just me?). When the days are tough, it may seem hard to ask yourself to sit down at 7 pm, take a deep breath, and listen to the experiences of someone else’s day. But that’s exactly what our community does. Day after day we return to the same common space and choose to love the faces seated before us, for better or worse. 

Hannah and Faith stand in the clothing section of Mercado Grau. They are smiling, carrying backpacks and holding market bags full of groceries.
JVs Hannah and Faith during the weekly market run.
Photo by Johnny Maldonado.

Community is not just about being present and listening, it’s about vulnerability too. You can’t be a good community member without opening that little box of fears and faults and saying, “hey, I’m struggling with this…” or “you know, I need help with that”. Speaking from experience I myself have been challenged by this aspect of community on multiple occasions. It’s taken more than one community member telling me that I needed to rely on others more for the lesson to finally sink in. And once I opened up that little box of vulnerability, I realized how much closer my relationships became as people realized that I needed and relied upon them.

So it takes commitment, vulnerability, and love to build a healthy community. Seems simple. The actual execution of it is a little harder. What has helped our community of four is a binding document, a mission statement that we hope to live out in the next year, and a willingness to adapt. We’ve lucked out on this because most relationships and friendships aren’t always built on such a strong foundation, but this does not negate the importance of hard work and honest conversations throughout the year. 

A group photo of three generations of Jesuit volunteers with local Jesuit priests and a priest-in-training. As always, Padre Juan Manuel is in the corner taking the selfie for us.
Three generations of JVs and the Jesuits of Tacna enjoy a yearly barbecue together.

Someone recently sent me an article about how to make exclusive relationships last. The article claims that love isn’t something that stays the same within us for the rest of our lives. Sure, you can “fall” in love, but staying in love? That’s a choice. A choice you’ll have to make today and every day for the rest of your life. Although this may be speaking to exclusive relationships, I believe this same choice is applied in our intentional Jesuit Volunteer Corps community day after day. I can only hope that once my time with JVC ends, I carry with me the power of love and commitment that I have discovered and strengthened within me day by day here in Tacna, Peru.

Kristin, Faith and I pose during a community night where we learn a dance called the marinera. Kristin stands with a handkerchief and a hand to her mouth. Faith and I hide together behind a straw hat, pretending to kiss.
A goofy community night in which JVs attempt to learn some traditional Peruvian dances. ¡Que roche!
Hannah laughs on top of her bed, lying next to our prank: a fake man made of  pineapple head and her stuffed clothes, reading her book and wearing her usual headlamp.
Hannah suffering the fruits of our prank.

Originally published at

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