Bill McJannet found advocacy service, spiritual community, through Jesuit Volunteer EnCorps
Bill McJannet arrives for his meeting, coloring book in hand.
The devoted grandfather of three has been assigned by King County’s dependency court to be a voice for a young child who has been neglected or abused, perhaps living in foster care.
McJannet breaks the ice by breaking out the coloring book. “You just start coloring with them, talking with them,” said McJannet, a 35-year member of St. Stephen the Martyr Parish in Renton. If they’re too young to color, he interacts by playing with them. “They warm up really fast.”
As a Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer, McJannet “is the one who is very proactive in making sure kids are safe and their well-being is kept in the forefront,” said Rie Takeuchi, a King County CASA specialist and McJannet’s supervisor. “He’s very passionate about the children he serves.”
McJannet meets monthly with each child and talks regularly with parents, grandparents, social workers, doctors and others involved in the child’s life. McJannet is often the only constant in a child’s life, and is tasked with learning what is in the child’s best interest. Then he makes recommendations to the court about the path that will provide the child a safe, permanent home.
He approaches it all through the eyes of faith.
Despite the “real issues” these parents and families have, McJannet said, “you can still see the love and you can still see the struggle to try and get past this, and how hard it is for them to do it on their own, and how hard they try to do it.”
It reminds him of “our trusting in God,” McJannet said, adding that his service has dovetailed with his faith, making him more compassionate and understanding.
“I can’t tell you how much more I live out of gratitude now,” he said, “spending time with people who haven’t been given what I have been.”
God doesn’t send a fax
After retiring from the truck-leasing industry two years ago, McJannet was looking for a new way to give back.
He has long contributed to his parish community, teaching religious education at St. Stephen’s when his two sons were young, and leading the lector group for many years. He is part of a parish group on centering prayer, is a member of the parish’s “40 Weeks” team, and for more than two decades taught the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “I loved the program, loved journeying with people in their faith journey, just loved everything about it,” McJannet said. But “I wanted to do something more one-on-one with people on the margins.”
He spent nearly a year discerning what that would be.
“Certainly I brought it to prayer. That’s always where you start,” McJannet said. He begins by asking: “Just help me have a desire for this, or help me discern this.
“I never get a fax or anything,” he said, “but eventually something kind of bubbles to the top.”
During his months of discernment, McJannet asked a lot of people about their volunteer experiences. That led him to Jesuit Volunteer EnCorps, a group for people 50 and older who want to serve in a meaningful way and be part of a supportive spiritual community. (For more about JVE, see box.)
By talking with JVE staffers and hearing from members of his monthly group about where and why they serve, McJannet has found his niche. “Being part of JVE keeps my work as a CASA from being [just] a humanitarian thing that I do,” he said.
JVE stresses spirituality, community and social justice, as well as simple living. “I love that aspect of it,” McJannet said. “An awful lot of my life has been, ‘How do I secure the home and family?’” Now he reflects on “what feeds my soul and what doesn’t. How can I in some way advance the kingdom of God historically today, and socially today? It’s a very humbling experience.”
McJannet is deeply living his faith, finding spiritual value in “difficult volunteer service,” said Helen Pitts, the Seattle JVE coordinator. “Bill has this ability to see the good in everyone, no matter who they are,” she said. He embodies “all the best of Catholic values. He’s just really a beautiful, kind person.”
Bill McJannet. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Tuning out, then coming back
McJannet’s parents grounded his young life in those Catholic values. “The faith was always a huge deal with Mom and Dad,” said McJannet, the second-oldest of 11 siblings (eight of them sisters) in a family that included foster children. The family said the rosary and prayed before meals. They lived a block away from their north Seattle parish, Christ the King, and the kids attended Catholic schools through high school (he’s a Blanchet grad).
But McJannet lost interest in church-related things as a teenager. “Cars and sports and girls are a whole lot more interesting than this God stuff,” he remembers thinking. “I pretty much tuned out by 16. I kept going to church on Sundays because I liked living at home,” he said, laughing.
McJannet married his non-Catholic high school sweetheart, Shirley, when he was 19 and she was 18. They had a Catholic wedding, but “once I got married, I just quit going to church,” McJannet said.
It was more apathy than outright rejection of the faith. “I just couldn’t be bothered. There were other more important things going on,” he said. “Maybe some people stick with it from A to Z, but a lot of us, you kind of have to walk away to come back.”
While attending the University of Washington (where he studied math, then business), McJannet often walked right past the building that housed the Newman Center Catholic ministry. But one day near the end of his college years, “I just felt physically drawn, almost, to go in there.”
He stepped inside, where a few people were sitting on a couch, talking. Someone asked what he wanted. “Is there a priest here? I think I want to go to confession,” McJannet said, surprised by his words.
Yes, there was a priest and he heard McJannet’s confession. “I really felt like I was embraced again coming back. And I was just a different person when I walked out,” he said.
“Quite honestly, I think primarily my mother’s prayers just drug me in there,” he added.
Soon after McJannet reconnected with his faith, a priest from the seminary came to help out at his parish. “The guy was just on fire with love for the Scripture,” McJannet said. “I just caught onto that enthusiasm.”
So he bought his first book on Scripture, The Two-Edged Sword: An Interpretation of the Old Testament, by John L. McKenzie. He’s been reading about Scripture and theology ever since. His favorite authors include Father Richard Rohr, Father Ronald Rolheiser and Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament theologian.
McJannet describes his spirituality as “somewhat eclectic,” influenced over the years by Jesuits, Carmelites, Franciscans and Benedictines, as well as his parish priests. “We all stand on the shoulders of so many,” he said.
Besides his parish activities, McJannet attends a weekly nondenominational Bible study led by a Seattle University professor. His typical days include prayers and Mass. “If I can get to daily Mass, at least I start the day with my head screwed on straight,” he said.
Photo: Stephen Brashear
Letting God sort it out
Finding volunteer service as a CASA is one of the blessings of McJannet’s retirement years. “I absolutely love kids,” he said. “I’ve always been someone that really connected with kids.”
To an outsider, the work may seem dark and overwhelming, “but there’s such lightness and joy in it, too,” McJannet said, because it involves children. Being able to cultivate long-term relationships is key, he said, because a CASA can be assigned to a family for 18 months to three years. Since becoming a CASA over a year ago, McJannet has been assigned to five cases; three are still active, and he planned to take on another case in July.
While advocating what is best for the child, “I also really try to do what I can for the parents, because a lot of them are just feeling overwhelmed by what they have to do” to get their lives back on track, McJannet said.
“It’s easy to be judgmental looking at the initial [case] report. But the more you dig and the more you learn, there’s a whole substrata to this, as there is throughout life,” he said. “God is love and love equates to compassion and forgiveness and inclusivity.”
McJannet is well attuned to the children and families he works with, and “we … feel very, very fortunate to have him as a volunteer here,” said Takeuchi, his CASA supervisor.
As McJannet works on his cases, making recommendations that can affect the futures of children and families, he puts his trust in God.
“It’s not up to me to fix this,” he said. “I do everything in my power. I don’t hold back anything, and I just let God sort it out.”
Become an advocate for a child
Bill McJannet is one of 320 Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers in King County serving 816 children in 2016. The need for more CASAs is great — about 40 percent of children in the King County dependency court have no CASA to represent them. The CASA program operates in counties throughout Western Washington; training is provided. Visit www.kingcountycasa.org or wacasa.org/volunteer for more information.
Based in the Ignatian tradition, Jesuit Volunteer EnCorps (a program of Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest) was created for people 50 and over who want to find meaningful volunteer service and be part of a supportive spiritual community. JVE’s core values are simple living, spirituality, community and social and ecological justice.
Participants commit to part-time volunteer work, two group retreats and monthly JVE gatherings from September to June. An optional book club is available.
JVE groups are forming now in Seattle, Tacoma and Bainbridge/Kitsap; the application deadline is Aug. 15. Learn more at jvcnorthwest.org.
Reading with meaning
Jesuit Volunteer EnCorps has an optional book club through Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest. Selections are focused on Jesuit Volunteer core values. Here are the 2016-17 selections:
Simple living — Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go, Richard Rohr
Community — In the Neighborhood, Peter Lovenheim
Social Justice — The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henriquez
Spirituality — Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber
2017 (through July)
Social justice — Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild
Ecological justice — Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
Later selections will be announced at http://jvcnorthwest.org/60th/#book-club
This story originally ran in Northwest Catholic's July/August 2017 print edition under the title "A voice for the children."