NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – Every day at Christ House in Washington, D.C., Melissa Jantzi, a nurse at the long-term respite clinic for men experiencing homelessness, experiences what it means to be grateful:
For a hefty, hot meal.
For a favorite football team winning the game on television.
For a hug from clinic friends, who help mend loneliness.
In a recent interview at the 32-bed, in-patient residence — founded by Church of the Savior, as part of its large network of urban ministries — Jantzi said that she is inspired by the men who model gratitude amid life's challenges. Some of these challenges include living on the street, suffering trauma, grappling with addiction, and moving beyond incarceration.
Jantzi recalled that many of the residents remained optimistic, despite diagnoses of cancer, diabetes, or less serious conditions that are scary nonetheless, when faced alone, without a home and loved ones. In the tangle of crises, they search for, and find, a steely thread of hope.
"If I came down on hard times, I could go home to any number of friends, but so many of these men have no one to turn to," Jantzi said. "So many of them are not only experiencing current trauma but effects from prior trauma, sometimes spanning generations. And yet, so many of the men remain optimistic and are wise beyond their years. They inspire me, and I get so much more than I give."
Service Adventure launches young adult onto caring career path
Jantzi is no stranger to receiving more than she gives. She recalled also receiving such blessings when she participated in Service Adventure, which is a program of Mennonite Mission Network. From 2011 to 2012, she engaged in the gap year program for 17- to 21-year-olds in Albany, Oregon. Through Service Adventure, Jantzi connected with people and experiences that led her to nursing, woven with an Anabaptist care for the marginalized. During her year-long term, she volunteered at Albany Mennonite Village, a retirement community, where she trained to become a certified nursing assistant, and at the Helping Hand Homeless Shelter.
"Working at the shelter gave me a passion for the population of people who don't have homes," she said. "It's the people at these shelters who need good healthcare the most, who very often receive it the least."
At the shelter, she worked in the kitchen, the thrift store, and at the Christmas tree farm. "It was really cool, because everyone who stayed there was required to volunteer some of their time," Jantzi said. "The staff members and some supervisors were people also experiencing homelessness. We all worked together, and it was so great. It was a great leveler of the playing field."
After graduating from Eastern Mennonite High School, she had not decided what to pursue in college, and Service Adventure set her sights on nursing, Jantzi said. And then, after pursuing nursing studies at Eastern Mennonite University and graduating in 2016, she volunteered for a year as a nurse in the Christ House respite clinic. She, then, joined Serving and Learning Together (SALT), a Mennonite Central Committee program, which allowed her to volunteer at a nursing school in Zambia for a year.
After her time with SALT, she returned to Christ House to work full-time, a non-traditional career path that she set out on in Albany, almost a decade earlier.
"Most graduating nurses usually go to a medical-surgical unit of some kind, to get hands on experience," Jantzi said. "Where I am going is certainly not a well-worn path, or popular direction — no other graduate that I know from my class is doing this."
Following Jesus, not the status quo
Jantzi is not concerned with maintaining the status quo; rather, she cares most about closely following Jesus, by partnering with others on a path towards healing and hope.
"The most joyful aspect of what I do is seeing real transformation in some of our patients," she said. "When they begin feeling safe, they let their guard down and trust again, and many of them strengthen in their resolve to battle addiction."
Heartbreaks, however, still happen. "The most challenging part of my vocation is to hear of those who die early from the wear and tear of the difficulties of their lives," Jantzi said.
Some of Jantzi's favorite moments are when she meets former residents on the street, where for an ever-so-brief moment, they go down memory lane and smile at the good times.
That crossing of paths is similar to how Susan Nisly, director of Service Adventure, feels about the intersection of young adults with experiences that shape their futures.
"We've had people who thought they wanted to be a nurse end up becoming child counselors," Nisly said. "We've had people who were sure they didn't want to work with children end up becoming a teacher. Melissa is another example of a young adult who gained some insight and direction while being a part of Service Adventure. It's such a beautiful success of the program."