By Ben Gartland
Hannah Coley had a choice to make.
About to graduate from college, she attended a retreat to discern whether to accept a placement with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) as a pastoral assistant and retreat minister in Punta Gorda, Belize. Walking with a trusted spiritual advisor, Fr. Steve Mitten, SJ, he told her to close her eyes and listen closely to the nature surrounding them.
“Well, I definitely hear birds,” she told him.
Father Mitten, an expert birdwatcher, told her there were numerous species of birds calling out at that moment. “And I think they’re telling you to be in Belize,” he said.
Coley’s Jesuit education started at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where she began to understand the concepts of Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching during her junior and senior years.
Drawn to these concepts, Coley chose to study philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. She grew close to several of the Jesuit scholastics who were her classmates and who would later become both spiritual advisors and friends. They and the surrounding campus ministry community allowed her to have conversations about faith and larger philosophical questions about social justice and ethics.
“I wanted to craft questions for myself and about my identity as a woman who is spiritual and religious,” she said. “Being part of a Jesuit network in a Jesuit university is exactly where I wanted to be.”
Coley had been fully immersed in the Jesuit experience, and as she began to think about life after graduation, applying for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps appealed to her. Like many applicants to JVC, she was hesitant, but she was unique in that she was worried JVC might be too comfortable given her Jesuit history.
“I knew it would be a challenge no matter what, but I thought maybe I should explore another service organization or another opportunity for that kind of work after graduation,” she said. “It was something I had been wanting but I wasn’t sure if I should be doing exactly what I wanted.”
Still undecided, she applied and received the offer from JVC to be placed in Punta Gorda. She remained undecided as she went on the retreat and walked with Fr. Mitten and realized, as she listened to the birds, that joining JVC was, in fact, God’s call for her.
The day after the retreat ended, she accepted the placement and five weeks later moved to Punta Gorda.
As a Jesuit Volunteer, she continued to develop her spiritual life through relationships formed with both Jesuits and other people in the communities. She learned the most about God and spirituality while in the villages because of the long journeys it took to get to some of these places, saying each trip was “like a pilgrimage.”
She continued to ask questions and receive answers about her identity as a woman in the Church, forming relationships with the “extraordinary” female leaders in the community’s churches and learning to recognize the ways women in the Bible were called to be disciples and leaders.
Following her two years in Belize, she heard another call and moved to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to become a spiritual formation teacher. Again, the Jesuits were there to guide her through her transition as she intentionally chose to work where the Jesuits are.
Now, as a teacher at Red Cloud Indian School, she engages with kids whose faith journeys don’t always mirror her own in a community that has faced many hardships. She continues to examine her role as a disciple and woman for others through prayer and conversations with others, which she knows how to approach thanks, in part, to her life with the Jesuits.
“The Jesuits, other than family, have been the most important and incredibly consistent source of support and guidance in my life thus far,” she said.