From the Reaching Out newsletter of the Ministry of Caring Inc.
by Edwin Zuluaga
When I decided to be a monk in October 2010, it was right after I graduated from high school in Miami, Florida. I felt that I had a purpose in life. Growing up in Miami, I was exposed to parties, clubs, alcohol, and drugs, I won’t deny the fact that I had a wild ride as a teenager. I always told my mother, “If the house cat can leave at 11 p.m. and be back 6 a.m., I don’t see why I can’t either.” Boy, did I give my mom a lot of grey hairs.
During this period of “darkness,” or so I call it “lost,” or as I always called it living in an ideal self, I realized through time that there was more than just partying and going clubbing. I then started to notice all the poverty around me, even in our own neighborhood. It affected me so much that, during my senior year of high school, I got involved with a Haitian group that would collect goods and furniture and ship it to Haiti. This was during the time of the catastrophic earthquake that left many people in Haiti devastated.
Helping others and seeing the impact it had on the community fulfilled me interiorly, which led me to the religious monks known as the “Franciscan Friars.” Once I was accepted into the community, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. All I could think as I joined the monks was the life of one of our many early social work role models, Jane Addams. She lived amongst the poor, and that was exactly what we did as monks. We would live amongst the poor so we could serve their needs at all times.
My first year as a monk, I was located in Gun Hill Road in Bronx, NY. The name gives it away; we literally lived next to the projects where we heard constant gunshots throughout the day. However, at the refectory under the church, we served food for the poor where the homeless, unemployed, drug addicts, gangsters, and prostitutes are all welcomed. We would come together and have a meal every day at 1:00 p.m. It seemed like a multicultural big family. We all respected each other no matter where we came from, and honestly, that was the most rewarding experience I had ever encountered.
Working with immigrants in Santa Maria, California, was another great opportunity, I had the privilege to cut hair for the homeless, and I was able to provide social services for the immigrants. It was quite an obstacle at first, because they didn’t speak Spanish or English. However, when someone was hungry or thirsty or in need of clothes, that was not hard to understand.
I met many social workers throughout my four years as a monk. When I decided to leave the order, I knew that in a heartbeat I would go back to school and get a degree in social work, because social work to me designates religious life, in a sense. The way the monks lived was to serve the needs of others and provide social services for the needy. However, as a social worker, you may have more resources to provide services to the needy. Once I left the monk life, I always told my friends and family, “If I’m not a monk, then I will be a social worker for the rest of my life!”
To me, it is such a privilege to have social work as a major, knowing that every day, someone will inspire you or knowing that you’re making a difference in the lives of those who don’t have a voice in our society. To some, social work may be just a degree or a job, but to others like myself, it’s a way of life.
Edwin Zuluaga is a BSW student at Florida International University. He is a first generation student and will be the first college graduate in his immediate family.