An Interview with Anna Mayer

by Gordon Nary




Gordon: How has your experience of parish life contributed to your spirituality?


Anna: Growing up, both of my parents were heavily involved in ministries at our parish in Urbana, Illinois (St. Patrick), and from an early age, I had the opportunity to experience a real sense of community in our parish. I was blessed that it was a community that provided not only faith formation and the sacraments but also encouraged and supported people in living out our calls to service and justice.


I consider my experiences of cooking at the local Catholic Worker House alongside my parents and attending week-long mission trips with my high school youth group as some of the most transformative and eye-opening experiences of my life. For me, community and service have always been integral parts of my spirituality. Then, while studying at Notre Dame, I had opportunities to further develop these aspects of my spirituality through a number of courses and service opportunities; the people I encountered invited me to reflect on how these experiences informed and influenced both my spirituality and future vocation.


Ultimately, this led me to participate in a year of post-grad service in Chicago while living in intentional community with other volunteers. Since moving to Chicago, that intentional community and a number of parishes have supported and enriched my understanding of the importance of community and relationship in the process of fulfilling our Gospel call to service and solidarity with the marginalized and those in need.


Gordon: When did you join Taller de José and what were your primary responsibilities?


Anna: I joined Taller de José as a Compañera (or “companion”) in 2011 while serving as a volunteer through the Amate House program (the young adult volunteer program of the Archdiocese of Chicago). My primary responsibility as a Compañera was to accompany clients, which can take a lot of different forms. I met with clients to listen to their stories and assess how Taller de José could help them achieve their goals. From there, depending on the client, I would provide referrals, assist with phone calls or filling out documents, and in many cases provide off-site accompaniment to locations throughout the city of Chicago. My role in accompanying clients was to support them in a number of ways; sometimes I provided translation or interpretation, other times I provided knowledge and education, and in some cases, my primary role was to serve as a supportive presence.


Gordon: What interested you in the work of Taller de José and the immigrant community it serves?


Anna: I was drawn to Taller de José because I really connected with the mission and the way that the staff talked about the work. I resonated with the idea of accompaniment as an approach that seemed different from other social service agencies I had encountered, and I was excited by the idea of working at an organization with a Catholic identity; I could tell by the way that staff talked that their faith very much informed their work. I had also previously had the experience of living outside of the United States, which helped open my eyes to many of the challenges that immigrants face in adjusting to a new country. I could identify with some of those difficulties and barriers they faced, but I also knew that they brought with them so many strengths and gifts. I saw Taller de José as an opportunity to honor those strengths and walk with community members as they utilized those strengths to overcome the challenges they face.


Gordon: What are your primary responsibilities as Executive Director?


Anna: As Executive Director, my role is to work with our Board of Directors to ensure that Taller de José is able to fulfill our mission of connecting people to services in the spirit of the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph. In order to do that, my time is split between working with our Director of Mission Advancement and board to secure funding for the ministry, working with our program staff to monitor our programming and support them in their roles, and working with our community partners to strengthen partnerships that both support organizational capacity and the services provided to community members. But, ultimately, I see my role as serving as a “compañera” as well—my call to accompaniment is to accompany our staff, community partners, board members, supporters, and community members. And I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately as we prepare to celebrate our 10th Anniversary as an organization.


In our celebrations, we are looking forward to expressing our gratitude for all those who have been companions to Taller de José, whether that has meant serving directly as a compañera or walking with us in other ways.



Gordon: What are the four aspects of accompaniment that you shared in your recent presentation about your ministry?


Anna: Accompaniment as a response to deep listening – Taller de José originally began as a response to listening to community members and responding to the concerns they expressed. In the same way, each encounter of accompaniment at Taller de José requires that we listen with the heart to each client’s story, and then respond in a way that reflects the uniqueness of their situation and story.


Accompaniment as mutual – We believe that accompaniment, when done well, should be a mutual experience. Our goal is to recognize that both parties bring unique gifts and strengths to the encounter and that by walking together, we can leverage those strengths to achieve more together than each person could achieve alone. The accompaniment isn’t about our staff having all the answers but about committing to walking with individuals.


Accompaniment as effective but impractical – Over the years, we’ve seen accompaniment help our clients and community partners achieve significant results. Our clients have shared that the unique nature of accompaniment provides them the support they are looking for to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. However, accompaniment can also be an incredibly time intensive process, and, in some cases, despite our best efforts, we still come up against systems and policies that prevent our clients from achieving their goals. But even in the face of some of these “impracticalities,” our faith calls us to continue providing accompaniment.


Accompaniment as a ministry – As a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph, we see our services of accompaniment as a ministry, not just a social services program. For us, this means that we work to ensure that our services are rooted in and reflect both the Charism of the sisters of unifying love and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. It also means that we believe it is important for us to accompany one another as staff and volunteers because our experiences of accompaniment and community inform the way that we then accompany our clients.


Gordon: What is one of the greatest misunderstandings that people have about recent immigrants?


Anna: I think that one of the misunderstandings about immigrants is that people tend to make big generalizations that lump all immigrants together. In the same way that native-born citizens of the US are incredibly diverse, so too is the immigrant population. Each immigrant has their own unique set of circumstances, including country of origin, language, the reason for immigrating, education, struggles, faith, and skills. When we oversimplify these aspects of the immigrant experience, it prevents us from having a compassionate, comprehensive response to how we can welcome immigrants in our communities. Our goal at Taller de José is to respond by following our clients’ lead; we know that they are the experts of their own lives, so our goal is to support their goals rather than imposing our own.


Gordon: What was the most emotional experience that you have had while accompanying someone?


Anna: One of the most powerful experiences of accompaniment I had was when I had the opportunity to accompany a client and her husband to a neurology appointment at Cook County Hospital. We ended up having to wait several hours to be seen by the doctor, so while we waited, we had the opportunity to learn a lot about one another. I learned that my client had been experiencing severe fatigue and other symptoms for a number of years, but that numerous doctors had been unable to diagnose her. Throughout our conversation, I could see how attentive her husband was and how much it pained him to see his wife going through this. But in addition to talking about her medical condition, I learned about their children and their studies in school, and how proud they were that their children were growing up bilingual. Several hours into our wait, I was touched when they pulled out some sandwiches they had brought (knowing it could be quite the wait) and showed me that they had brought one for me as well.


During the first visit with the neurologist, he was able to provide an initial diagnosis and scheduled a follow-up visit. On that second visit, it was clear that the treatment recommends by the doctor had made a huge difference, and I could see the relief on the faces of my client and her husband. After that appointment, they expressed their gratitude and shared how much it meant to have someone walking with them during a scary and overwhelming time. It was humbling to me to hear how much my presence had meant, especially because they had opened their lives to me and taught me so much through the process.


Gordon: Why are the services that Taller de José provides unique among other organizations?


Anna: Taller de José’s services are so unique because we are able to physically accompany individuals offsite, providing additional support that so many other organizations don’t have the capacity to do. We believe that by specializing in this form of accompaniment, this helps support our clients as they seek services elsewhere. And it helps support other organizations because they are able to focus on their own missions and what their organizations do best. In our 10 years of ministry, we have not found another organization that utilizes this same model of accompaniment.


Gordon: Please explain why Taller de José is a ministry of presence.


Anna: Being a “ministry of presence” means that we strive to provide services in a way that first and foremost recognize the dignity of each individual we encounter, and that means that the most important thing we can do is to be present to those individuals. Regardless of the outcome of our services, we believe that there is value in letting people know they are heard and seen, and we then work to support them in making their voices heard in the systems they seek to access.


Gordon: What are the three most important lessons that you have learned at Taller de José?


Anna: Patience – A ministry of presence can require a lot of patience because it often means just being with people, even when it doesn’t feel like we’re “accomplishing” anything. I love this quote that I think expresses that well: “Teilhard de Chardin wrote that we must "trust in the slow work of God." Ours is a God who waits. Who are we not to? It takes what it takes for the great turnaround. Wait for it.” ― Fr. Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart


Listen and ask good questions – In serving as a compañera, I quickly learned that I did not have all the answers and that I was better able to accompany my clients when I listened well first. And that lesson has stuck with me in my various roles as I’ve learned to listen to our community partners, staff, and other supporters.


Humility – When I find this work most challenging, I often turn to the reflection written by Bishop Ken Untener called “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own,” In it, he reminds the reader, “We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.” This helps remind me that this work is so much bigger than me and encourages me to continue to do my small piece of the work as best I can.


Gordon: Please explain what means to have is a “Mary” approach to a “Martha” Culture”?


Anna: At Taller de José, we are always striving to support our clients to achieve the tangible results they are looking for. Certainly, these types of results not only benefit our clients, and they are also the results that are most recognized and respected by society. But we really believe that the heart of accompaniment is to be present with individuals, accompanying them no matter what the results are. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, clients may not receive the results they are hoping for, but our goal is to ensure that throughout the process they know that they are not alone. For us, having a “Mary” approach means that we prioritize listening and presence as the most important aspects of our work; accompaniment is more than just the tangible services we provide—it is a way of approaching each encounter as a sacred opportunity to be present with Christ.


Gordon: When we are told by Christ to love our neighbor, many of us do not comprehend what this means. You and your colleagues at Taller de José demonstrate this daily.

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