This past September, Tom Chabolla ’81 was named president of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the largest full-time Catholic volunteer program in the world. Chabolla has spent most of his career in Catholic and secular service and justice agencies, including the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Service Employees International Union. As an undergraduate at LMU, he earned his degree in liberal studies, with a minor in business administration, and later served as a chaplain in Campus Ministry. Twice he considered ordination to the priesthood, with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Society of Jesus. He later married his wife, Carolyn, and has two daughters. Chabolla visited the LMU campus in early December, when he was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.
You’ve been president of JVC only for a short time, but how do you describe JVC?
JVC is an opportunity to engage young people, typically right out of college, through a year of service in which they live in community and reflect on the four JVC core values: simple living, social justice, spirituality and community. As part of that process, the volunteers work in to local organizations that are serving underserved, low-income communities, adding capacity to those organizations. And, hopefully, they have an opportunity to reflect on how that experience influences their next steps in life.
Does JVC identify potential sites for volunteers based on decisions about which issues in society are most crucial at the time? For instance, would you decide you need more volunteers working with groups focused on immigration next year, as opposed, for example, to those working on poverty or hunger issues?
We are looking for organizations that give volunteers a very high percentage of time working directly with clients or those being serviced by the organizations. We haven’t prioritized certain issues, but we certainly look for organizations that are deeply embedded in the most important issues in their communities.
Can you describe some?
Well, nearby to LMU is the St. Joseph’s Center in Venice. They’ve been a longtime partner with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Also, Homeboy Industries, the organization started by Greg Boyle, S.J., is a partner agency here in Los Angeles. We have a number of volunteers who are teaching at elementary levels at Cristo Rey schools or other inner-city schools. One of the things I’d like to do is see if we can identify opportunities we haven’t looked at before, perhaps organizations that may appear more attractive to graduates who haven’t been attracted to JVC in the past, such as engineering students or architectural students. Can we find a placement for them that ties their interests and skills with work being done in communities?
“Ruined for life” is a famous JVC motto, but does the organization track the career paths of volunteers after their service ends?
Up until now, that has been an anecdotal process. Frankly, I’d like to be able to do longitudinal studies to see where JVs have ended up or how the volunteer experience has affected them. Some volunteers stay in the nonprofit world, but a majority probably goes to the corporate world and are successful in their own companies or in large financial institutions. If we can do a better job knowing where former volunteers go, then we may be able to create opportunities for volunteers when they’re done — entry-level jobs that possibly match their interests with what former volunteers are doing. One former volunteer with his own business told me that if he had a choice between hiring someone who has come from a top M.B.A. school with top honors and someone who spent a year in service, he would probably want to pick the person who spent a year in service because it shows that that person has confidence, is willing to take risks, is open to new ideas, and has an entrepreneurial spirit. We can do more to not only create important experiences in someone’s volunteer year but knit together the former JV community.
Is the satisfaction you feel at JVC — where you’re placing people in work sites before many of them have made career decisions — different than the satisfaction you felt working directly for justice, say at the Catholic Campaign for Human Development?
It is different. In some of previous places where I’ve worked — that are doing incredible work — I was fairly removed from the work because of my administrative level in those organizations. JVC allows me to have a leadership role but also be more connected with the work being done by the JVs. Being able to connect people at a very personal level to their values, hopes and aspirations is very satisfying.
At what points in your life did Jesuit and Ignatian spirituality touch you?
Being in the Jesuit novitiate in what was then the California province was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. My education at LMU also made a lasting impact on me. I took a course on violence in America with Professor Joe Tiedemann in the history department. The course enabled me to question the causes and relationships among things happening in our country, whether it was violence, racism or other key issues. That course has stuck with me to this day. I didn’t understand its impact until I was in the novitiate.
What was happening inside you, spiritually, between your LMU experience and your decision to explore the Jesuits?
I was a two-time seminary drop-out. I was in the Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary, the high school seminary for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, in San Fernando. Then I decided I needed a break from seminary and came to LMU. But there was always a sense of unfinished business. A couple of years after graduation, I decided I had to answer that question before I could go forward. (Actually, I met my future wife at LMU. We kept in contact, and much to her chagrin, after I went into the novitiate.) I was fortunate to have Wilkie Au as my novice master and spiritual director — that was a tremendous gift in my life. It was the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises that allowed me to understand one of the key truths of Jesuit spirituality: If I can know and understand where my heart is pulling me, God wants to follow me there. If I’m true to myself and my values, that’s where God wants me. God hasn’t preordained that he wants me to be a priest or to be in a religious order. But God wants me to follow my heart. That allowed me to make the choice to say, no, I don’t want to be a priest but I want to be part of the church that I learned through the Jesuit community and through the conversations I had with Jesuits, those I got to know who worked on Central America and the sanctuary movement. That was the church I wanted to be part of and the reason I went to grad school, and the reason I’ve chosen to work for the church for so many years. The spiritual exercises set the direction.
A foundational question in Ignatian spirituality is “What has been your experience of God?” How do you answer that question?
There are so many answers to that question. When I was in the novitiate, my friend Leo Rock, S.J., was on the novitiate staff. He was a spiritual director. People would come from all over to have spiritual direction with him. Leo had a question: “Why did God make you?” And his answer was, “Because God thought you’d like it.” Not everybody can connect with that question. I am fortunate to have been born in the United States and have access to many things. For people who have experience war, violence, hunger, desperation, that answer doesn’t resonate to them. But what it said to me, was, again, that what God wants most for me is to pursue where my heart is. There is a saying attributed to Pedro Arrupe, S.J. — Go where your heart is. Today, that’s how I would answer that question.
Photo courtesy of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps