I lead the Catholic Volunteer Network (CVN) – but am not Catholic. My journey to this unique place has not been overnight or accidental. It comes from years of commitment to unity.
CVN is the leading faith-based service organization fostering full-time, faith-based lay mission service. Our membership consists of 155 Christian volunteer programs serving throughout the U.S. and in over 100 countries. In any given year, up to twenty percent of our programs may be identified as Protestant. In addition, volunteers who serve in CVN programs range from cradle-Catholics to spiritual seekers. Recently, the CVN Board of Directors affirmed the importance of witnessing to our identity as Catholic and ecumenical.
This approach works because, to a great degree, both CVN programs and volunteers respect each other’s identities and goals. As they learn about each other via extensive application processes, a relationship of understanding and trust begins. The result is clarity about needs and expectations, and in many cases a willingness to engage with “the other” for a significant amount of time. When a year-long volunteer community is ecumenical, learning that enhances and transcends that experience can transpire. CVN thinks that is good—that faith and mission throughout life in a complicated world requires an openness to understand other approaches to faith, community, and service.
Openness to different experiences put me on a path of fostering Christian unity. Therefore, when a role with CVN became a possibility, I was drawn to it not despite it being Catholic – but because it is Catholic. I wanted to be part of a network discerning how a commitment to Jesus Christ unites us and enhances witness to his Gospel in the world. But I did not get to that place without a mixture of providence and intention.
Years ago, I was the Director of Public Policy for Call to Renewal (CTR), a diverse network of national churches and faith-based organizations united to overcome poverty. CTR’s vision was that Christians from across the theological spectrum working together could inspire other Christians to foster relationships across denominational affiliations, as well as inspire political leaders to work together across the aisle. It was an attempt to break down the divides created by labels such as liberal and conservative, and to honor a range of anti-poverty strategies often considered to be at odds with each other (e.g. strengthening families and supporting government programs).
Members of CTR included Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Peace Churches, and more. National leaders from these churches agreed that progress could be made to reduce domestic poverty if they chose not to allow theological and doctrinal differences on other matters to prevent collaboration. Because of this, many Christian leaders met counterparts for the first time and nurtured relationships grounded in openness and a willingness to learn. Many found a new respect for different approaches to faith, as well as different views on how to reduce poverty.
That experience and others broadened my theological and political perspectives. Since then, I have sought to build relationships and bridges. I still have convictions and disagree with others, but am less likely to judge quickly or to shut doors. I am more likely to be curious about how God wants me and others to engage despite differences.
Sometimes unity means affirming a shared connection to Christ, getting to know another, and seeing where that leads. Sometimes it is a strategic partnership to pursue change. I just try to witness to what I believe – and pray God can act through me and others.
I pray that you, too, find special ways of witnessing to the strength of Christian unity. I pray that openness and experience will transform you. The world needs our example.
To learn more about Christian unity, please click here.
To learn more about faith-based service opportunities with the Catholic Volunteer Network, please click here.
Yonce Shelton serves as the Executive Director of Catholic Volunteer Network in Takoma Park, MD.