VAC Interview: Amy Cordon, Baton Rouge

This is the first interview in our new series, profiling the Victim Assistance Coordinators for Catholic dioceses around the country!

This month, we interviewed Amy Cordon from the Diocese of Baton Rouge in Louisiana.

As you’ll see, Amy is a talented writer in addition to doing this important and emotionally taxing work. Here’s a highlight, from when Amy was asked what she wished people knew about her work:

“I want people to know that they don’t know everything about what we’re doing, unfortunately. It seems like the only stories you hear about are the bad ones in the news. The only people who know are those who have lived it as survivors and those who work every day to make sure it never happens again. These people are my heroes, frankly. And, the people we work with in this healing ministry are your Catholic brothers and sisters. Never forget that! They are still sitting on the pew next to you and you’ll never have a clue who they are.”

 


Interview with Amy Cordon
Director, Office of Child and Youth Protection and Victim Assistance,
Diocese of Baton Rouge

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you end up living where you are now?
I was born in 1970 in a tiny marble quarry town, in the heart of Alabama’s “Bible belt.” We were blessed with lots of trees, land and creeks, so we were always playing outside growing up. I mostly liked climbing trees as a child. The taller the better. I fell from the top of one when I was 6 and was on the ground unconscious until they found me. After that, the inside joke in the family when I would get into trouble would be “Well she did hit her head.” My siblings still like to keep this joke going even today, of course.My dad’s work moved us to Louisiana when I was around 7 years old. My Alabama accent was so heavy when we first moved that the 2nd grade teachers couldn’t understand me. So, they enrolled me in diction classes. I kept thinking that I wasn’t the one with the strange accent! I asked them both to enroll themselves in diction class so that I could understand them too…so that was me in a nutshell at 7 years old, pretty much an all-around joy.

Growing up, you might say I had a tough time with any type of overly strict or formal learning environment. What saved me was probably my intense curiosity and love of reading. Teachers would give me different types of assignments to keep me plugged in and interested. If I wanted to know about a subject, I basically just read everything I could get my hands on and then started asking questions from there. I was often frustrated when people I thought should be smarter than me because they were older, didn’t know the answers to my questions, so I would keep looking for someone who could answer it. One time without permission, I called one of the embassies in another country to ask a question. It was fine until the phone bill came in! OK. I guess you could say I had to learn the hard way about most things growing up!!!

I was a rule follower in general as a young person, until I felt the need to get personally involved. I remember overhearing my mother telling the school secretary when they called that she must be calling about my brother, not about me, right? “Oh, and bring a change of clothes, she has mud from head to toe….” I had beaten up the school bully after he threw rocks at one of my classmates. This was of course after telling the teachers and nothing being done. Back in those days, they didn’t think intervention was needed for that sort of thing. The principal called me in for a lecture and said that he couldn’t believe my behavior and it certainly wasn’t reflective of the sweet, kind and lady-like girl he knew me to be. I was secretly thinking to myself that he needed to find a new line of work because my behavior was exactly reflective of the person I was! I had managed to make it to the top of every tall tree out in the cow pasture and lived to tell about it after falling out of the tallest one! A brat on the playground was no big deal as far as I was concerned. As you can imagine, I had a lot of hard life lessons to learn about how to
maneuver in the world especially in dealing with people.

I tried hard to follow rules after that. I pretty much stayed out of trouble up until I graduated High School. The government tried to recruit me to go to linguistic school right out of High School, but I told them I had to go to college first because I had promised my mother that I would graduate college before I got married. The next thing on my checklist was getting married, so I had to follow the list. I’m laughing
as I say this because every time I ever made my own checklist, God would take his big red sharpie pen and just write all over it. Before that though, I spent my Summers growing up doing mission work in mostly Latin American countries. I will never forget staying inside this one hut with a dirt floor. It was the cleanest most beautiful dirt floor house I’d ever seen. Well it was the only dirt floor house I’d ever
seen. But I fell in love with the people in that house. There was a big crucifix and Mary statue, though. I remember staring at it when nobody was looking at me looking. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I didn’t want to. I also remember feeling something beautiful inside my heart while I was looking at Mary, but I didn’t know how to explain it, not being Catholic. We didn’t have one in our house. These people were truly poor money-wise, but they would sweep that dirt floor every morning. Seeing different people and situations gives one new eyes. I was blessed to be able to get out and travel at a young age. I’m thankful that my parents allowed me to experience that.

Where did you go to school?
I like to say that I went to the Holy Ghost School for Difficult Children of God…. for anything I’ve learned in my life, really. I’m still enrolled and haven’t been kicked out yet, although I’ve probably come close a few times. God is good and merciful, truly. Anything I feel that I’ve learned that has gotten down into my core, He has had to teach it to me directly, usually through situations like I described or by Him
using other people in my life. Frankly, it’s a rough school to be enrolled in. I started to question my Pentecostal family when I was around 10 about why Jesus specifically said that to have life, you have to eat his body and drink his blood….I pointed out that we didn’t do that in our church like my Catholic friends did in their Church every single church service! And, I was totally sure that Jesus didn’t sound like he was talking about his body and blood in any kind of symbolic way! They made us read the Bible at home on our own and of course, I started on one of my sagas to understand, which lead ultimately, to my conversion to Catholicism many years later. “Here I am, Lord!” OK.

As far as formal schooling, I studied foreign languages and Psychology in college (Louisiana), with the intent to go to law school afterwards. I earned a degree, but I was about third year through my Psychology degree and realized, wait a minute, this is not an exact science! The professors were truly saints, though. I failed the Unconditional Positive Regard practicum, which is probably to this day, still being used as the model on how “it is not done.” I didn’t fail it because I didn’t grasp the skill. I failed it because I didn’t agree with the premise of that technique at that time in my life. People in their early 20’s know everything about everything, after all! I like to tell my colleagues when they become frustrated with me now, “Be glad you’re not dealing with my 20-year-old self!” I’m also a trained investigator.

Do you have a family?
Yes, I’ll be married 30 years in September to a wonderful husband. I have one son. A cute story about my son. He turned to me in the car one day when he was 8 and said “Mom, I want to preach the Gospel!” I hope my initial thoughts are not still recorded in heaven somewhere. He said he also wanted to get married and have tons of kids, so I gently pointed out that Catholic priests do not get married. He said that he would talk to the Pope about it and it should be fine. I remember thinking that is something I would have said at 8, ha ha….no problem, just call the Pope up and talk about it. Goodness.

How long have you been a VAC? What drew you to this work?
I was appointed VAC for Baton Rouge between 2005 and 2006. I had been a case worker for a few years, working with abused children in foster care. There came a point when I needed a break for my soul, so I went to work in the clinical setting for our local Catholic healthcare system (Franciscans). It was only meant to be a short break, but I ended up staying there for 8 years! It was the first time I felt like I was
working directly for Jesus. I loved being able to openly pray with people who needed it and not get in trouble for it. I look back now and realize that God was teaching me many things during that time. Everyone had their special nun too as a type of mentor. My special nun totally understood me, and she clipped my wings a few times (ouch), but still managed to love me unconditionally. It was the first time I
felt that special unconditional love, the kind a Catholic nun has for you when you’re being taught something important and they “make you” learn it because not learning is not an option. I guess you could say I grew up as a professional during that time too. I had a lot to learn. Before learning to work in a professional work environment like that, I was working every day in rough neighborhoods, driving a red sports car and wearing jeans and a baseball cap to work. This is what God does…. He just throws you in there! Rough around the edges and all! I was sitting at my desk one day and I was talking to someone about how I really liked being able to pray with people at work in the actual moment or in the crisis as it unfolds. That person asked me if I got bored, where I thought I could work afterwards. I remember
saying, “Well, the only other place I could probably tolerate would be working directly for the Catholic diocese.” Ok, it was a remark, but when I said it, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and it was like everything went silent in my mind. It was a very strange experience, but I heard myself say it and hearing myself say it left the strangest impression on me because it was like, “Where did that come from?” A
couple of years later, I became friends with one of the priests who visited other clerics in the facility. He told me one day “You know, you would be really good at this particular ministry at the diocese……” I remember laughing out loud because the Lord immediately reminded me of what I had said a couple of years prior. The rest is history, you might say.

Do you have other roles at the diocese? What are they?
I oversee the implementation of making sure the diocese is doing what it needs to for training the children on personal safety within the context of their Catholic faith. We make sure the adults working with the children and vulnerable adults are screened and trained as well on how to recognize red flag behaviors. We stay busy! My true love, though, is having the privilege of working with the people who find the
courage to reach out after years, sometimes decades, and being able to walk this healing journey with them. I can’t describe it, but it is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given to me. I feel like it’s tied into my purpose somehow. When you think about it-who would have predicted that a tree-climbing, Alabama, Pentecostal, in trouble for bucking the system child would convert to Catholicism through a
series of falling in love with Mary in a dirt hut and asking questions until I realized, Oh, I’m really Catholic in my heart! I’m not sure if everyone would agree, I’m still a work in progress on some things (I’m still learning), but my Catholic colleagues and priest friends are hanging in there still trying to get me straight almost 16 years later.

What is one of your personal qualities that you think makes you suited to this work?
Ok, that’s a question that’s hard to answer. I don’t know that you could say that I’m suited to do this. But I show up and I bring my heart. That’s all I feel that God has ever asked me to do. I’ve also learned to just be in the moment with people. You must stop thinking about the outcome of things and just be with people in the moment you’re in. I do OK with that. I also do not have any problem listening to other people who are angry. I guess I’ve just never taken it personally. The pain must come out and people need to know they’re in a safe place and that they can literally say anything without being judged.

What is a quality that you are still working to grow in, related to this work?
I question God sometimes about why I’m here. I do not understand how I ended up getting to do this. But sometimes that’s God’s way. He chose some of the most unlikely folks to do special things in the Bible stories we read. Some of the biggest sinners, too. I know that by anyone’s measure there are always smarter, more advanced folks who probably could write books on ways to do a better job with this. I read those too-by the way, my friend Sue Stubbs just wrote a beautiful book, The Way: Stations of the Cross for Survivors of Abuse. You all must read it. It is amazing. But, to answer your question, I try to read as much as possible about different areas in mental health and how to be more sensitive to what abuse victims are going through. I get it personally, some aspects of what they’re going through, but every survivor, myself included, has a different scenario and those different scenarios affect your life in a distinct way. What works for one person’s journey doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. So, I think I’m always looking to my colleagues and other clinicians to inspire my work. Also, one grace I think the Lord has given me is an absolute concrete understanding that I’m not actually doing anything. He’s the one doing it. I’m just showing up and bringing my heart to the table. When you realize you’re not the healer, that Jesus is the healer, then that takes all the pressure off. I give advice to new colleagues and I tell them. Show up fully, love fully and you’ll be OK. Other than that, my day starts off with the Holy Spirit. I usually say something like “If you don’t walk in front of me today, it’s probably not going to go very well…” I keep it as simple as that.

How do you take care of your own mental health while doing this work?
I send out a proclamation (email) that I’m taking a day. They know what that means. And, then I take it. I only do things on days like this that are personally life-giving to me. It may be that I’ll sing worship songs in Hebrew all day with my feet propped up or I might go out and do some photography. I also like to pretend to do origami (I’m not great but I try). Things like this.

What would you want people to understand about your role?
I want people to know that they don’t know everything about what we’re doing, unfortunately. It seems like the only stories you hear about are the bad ones in the news. The only people who know are those who have lived it as survivors and those who work every day to make sure it never happens again. These people are my heroes, frankly. And, the people we work with in this healing ministry are your Catholic brothers and sisters. Never forget that! They are still sitting on the pew next to you and you’ll never have a clue who they are.

And, I’d also like for folks to know that when you do your training so that you can volunteer, just know that someone in the room is possibly watching and being healed just a little bit more, by knowing that you care enough to do it, without complaining, because you’re helping
to keep the promise of keeping today’s children safe in the Church. I can’t tell you how important it is to follow through on these promises for those who have been harmed in the past. They are also watching when you complain about having to do it. Don’t complain, do it and support the program! I also want people to know that we don’t do this ministry alone. We have so many holy priests, deacons and Bishops supporting us and helping us bring Jesus to people. I couldn’t do this without a Bishop that truly gets it. I’m blessed with a Bishop that not only gets it, but expects everyone to do their part, thank God. You don’t hear much about it because so much of our work is confidential but thank God for our clergy who are working with us, not to mention abuse survivors themselves who are stepping up and the army of child protection coordinators it takes to run the program at the church and school level.