Vivian Shannon’s Presentation at the YCP Executive Speaker Series, May 9, 2023.
Good evening! I am ever so honored to be your very first YCP Seattle executive speaker and I hope I live up to the expectations of being “the first.”
Personal background: I am an adult convert to Catholicism, I am a wife of 33 years, mother of four adult children, grandmother—or Bibi—to one 10-month-old grandson, and am proudly an Army brat, Army wife, and an Army MOM! I have had an exciting and incredible professional journey as well as a turbulent faith journey in my 56 years and I am humbled to share parts of my life story with you this evening.
As you know, I am currently the executive director of the Fulcrum Foundation here in Seattle. We support all 72 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Seattle which encompasses all Western Washington. We support families with tuition assistance, support schools, and support educators who are aspiring to be leaders.
Before I came to Fulcrum three and a half years ago, I was the senior vice president and chief advancement officer at the YMCA of Greater Seattle. Before that, I was the capital campaign director of a $350M campaign at West Point, the United States Military Academy.
Back in my early days, long before I got married and had kids, I was a non-denominational churchgoer and “born again Christian.” In college, I am not proud to say, I was a big Catholic basher. I mocked the idea of confession, “hokey” incense, and “praying to saints.” I did not then understand how God was going to direct me and how our blessed Mother was going to be such an integral part of my faith journey.
My husband was an Army officer and a deeply devoted Catholic. The comedian Jim Gaffigan affectionately refers to his wife as a “Shiite Catholic” and I say that my husband falls into that category as well. When we married, I agreed to allow our children to be raised Catholic, since I had no real allegiance to any particular denomination. I dutifully attended Mass with him, followed along in the missal, learned all the songs, and one day, our firstborn son, Ryan, was getting baptized. And as I was standing at the baptismal font, it was like a movie loop began playing in my head and it was a fast-forward glance at Ryan’s future First Communion. And I could hear him asking me, “Mom, why did you let me become Catholic? You chose it for me, yet you didn’t choose it for yourself?”
THIS was God’s first poke in my heart that started me discerning becoming Catholic. Mary also began appearing to me in weird ways. I dreamed about her a lot. I saw visions of her in my mind and felt her presence. I had a small statue of her on my dashboard because somehow it made me feel safer, even though I wasn’t Catholic. Every time I saw an image of her somewhere, it felt like a sign and another poke. One night, Ryan was especially fussy, and I went downstairs with him to turn on the TV. It was about 2 a.m. and back then, cable TV offerings were somewhat limited. But when I turned on the TV, there was a documentary about all the Marian apparitions from around the world. I looked up at the ceiling and said out loud, “OK, OK. I get it. I’ll talk to the priest tomorrow about becoming Catholic.” I mean, what are the odds that THAT would be what was on TV that night? It was another fairly large sign. And this time I listened.
I went through RCIA and became Catholic at the following year’s Easter Vigil. Which incidentally remains my favorite Mass of the year.
Once I converted and over the ensuing years, I wanted to do ALL the Catholic things. I became a lector, I founded the Catholic Women of the Chapel group at Fort Lewis, I taught CCD, I was on the parish council. I couldn’t get enough of my faith. Getting that deeply involved brought me closer to God and to the community that surrounded me
I went on to have three more children and with them came a lot of fatigue, stress, and chaos. I soon found myself entering a spiritual desert. I couldn’t feel God anymore. I was too tired to pray. I resented having to go to Mass and have my children crying or being too loud and having to take them out to the vestibule in order to not disturb others. I wondered what was the point of even going when I never heard an entire homily. I complained about this to my husband who said only one thing: “God knows you’re there.” UGH. I talked to our parish priest often and frequently. He helped guide me through the difficult days and prayed for me. I believe this made all the difference.
Why do I share these things with you? It’s because I know that at your age and the stages of life you are in, there are so many things that can pull you away from your faith or from going to Mass regularly. You have stressful jobs, maybe young families, aging parents, depressing headlines…oh, and there was that thing called COVID-19. So many stressors. And those things can make it really, really easy to detach from church, your communities, and your faith. Yet, here you are tonight. You are a member of this amazing organization and that must mean you are listening to the Holy Spirit. You are allowing God to work in your life, and for that I say, “bravo you!”
God gives each one of us signs all the time. We aren’t meant to navigate the challenges of life alone. The Holy Spirit opens paths and doors that we never see coming or expect. Our hearts need to trust God. Case in point: the pokes that led me to this role at Fulcrum.
Let me tell you a brief story. I had been at the YMCA for a few years and, for a variety of reasons, felt the time had come that I needed to move on. I was a finalist for a really awesome job at Fred Hutch and felt great about it. When I gave notice at the Y, a colleague came into my office and said, “I can’t believe you are leaving. But let me ask you a question. Are you Catholic? You’re Catholic, aren’t you?”
This was an odd question to be asked, but I answered with, “Yes, I am. Why do you ask?” She replied that she had been talking to her brother over the weekend and he mentioned a great job, but a requirement was to be Catholic. Her brother was the recruiter tasked to find the new executive director at the Fulcrum Foundation. I knew her brother, as he had done some work for us at the Y. My colleague asked if she could tell her brother I was leaving the Y. He called me within five minutes and told me that he had this great job that he knew I would be perfect for. He told me about the Fulcrum Foundation. He begged me to meet with the board chair (even though I had a final interview at the Hutch the next week). I felt another poke inside me and decided to meet with the Chair. We had an amazing two-hour breakfast and the wheels were quickly set in motion for me to come in for interviews the following week.
My last interview was with the superintendent for Catholic schools. As I was driving to that meeting, I prayed to God for help in my discernment. You see, I really thought I was going to go work at the Hutch. But this opportunity at Fulcrum felt so incredible. So I asked God to give me a sign of some kind if Fulcrum was what I was meant to do. A few minutes later, I walked into the superintendent’s office. She was finishing up something at her computer but invited me to have a seat at her small conference table. When I set my things down and looked up, my eyes landed on her windowsill and on the 15 different icons of Mary lining the sill. Hmmm…poke poke poke poke poke. We had a great conversation and I ended up telling her my conversion story in becoming Catholic and how Mary had played such a big role. I then told her I had prayed coming over for a sign and that when I walked into her office and saw all the icons, I got goosebumps all over. At that point she looked at me and said, “Well, if you are looking for a sign, check THIS out!” And she spun around in her chair and on the back was a giant tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe tied to the back of her chair. I felt the largest poke to date and knew in an instant that Fulcrum was what I was meant to do.
Now, the reason I tell you this is because while I had been at the Y, (where in Seattle, the C in YMCA is more of a lower-case C than a capital C), I never was bashful about talking about being Catholic. And I guess I talked about it with enough frequency that the colleague who I referenced earlier remembered that I was Catholic, and intentionally came to my office to tell me about this job. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today. So, my message here is, even in secular Seattle, we should never be bashful about sharing our faith, or living our Catholic values, or talking about being Catholic, because people do pay attention, and you just never know what opportunities can come along with the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Like I said, God gives us signs that we never see coming or expect. We just need to be willing to look for them and recognize them for what they are.
2021 and 2022 were the hardest years of my life to date. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021. I lost both my parents in 2022, four months apart and that was very traumatic for this only child. In the fall of 2022, my husband was diagnosed with his third unique cancer. This series of events had me on my knees. I was mad at God, I was overcome with grief, and absolutely could not pray, but also had a job that required me to be functioning at a high level. I felt a constant state of guilt that I was letting my team down because of all the time I was away from the office. But even in those darkest days, God didn’t give up on me. He allowed others to carry me. A colleague at Fulcrum sent me a sympathy card after my dad died and in that card was a small prayer card entitled “The Surrender Novena.” The words inside were exactly what I needed and I immediately began the 9-day novena. And when the first 9 days ended, I started again. After several rounds of saying this, I began to feel a shift in my body and in my heart. “Jesus, I surrender myself to you. You take care of everything.” It allowed me to give it all up to God and let him drive. What a relief it was. My husband and I continue to say this novena daily and we can both say it has made a huge difference to us.
It was because I was working at Fulcrum that I had the gift of a colleague who could send me that card. God knew I was going to need the people at Fulcrum long before I ever got here. They have lifted me up and kept me afloat and I can’t imagine going through the last two years anyplace else. And, because I responded to God’s pokes, I now have the immense privilege of working for an organization that supports Catholic education. I did not attend Catholic school but neither did my kids and I have so much regret about that and feel honored to help give that opportunity to so many who desire it. Fulcrum’s mission strengthens the vitality, excellence, and sustainability of Catholic schools through funding and thought leadership and we live by values that increase access to Catholic education, especially for those furthest from educational justice. We serve everyone and we act in communion with all. If I hadn’t seen the signs and responded appropriately, I would not have the joy of serving in this way and every day I wake up thankful to do this important work.
That’s why I say to you that no matter where you are in your life, you aren’t ever alone. God is always with you, even at your jobs. He knows what is coming for you and is preparing the path to it. As young professionals, I encourage you to make time for God daily in your life. It doesn’t have to be about going to Mass. It can be as simple as saying a Rosary while you’re driving to work, or listening to spiritual music, or getting in bed and turning on the Hallow app and praying your way to sleep. There are so many ways to stay connected to God. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. He will carry you through.
My challenge to you is to find the Surrender Novena) online and say it for 9 days. And then for another 9 and another 9. After 27 days, I guarantee that you will find yourself in a different place in your faith and you will be glad you did.
Thank you so much for inviting me here tonight. We each have our unique journeys in life and I hope to chat with some of you and learn about your own journey and what brought you here tonight. I wish for you God’s deepest blessings.
Please follow Fulcrum’s social channels, sign up for our newsletter on our website, and learn more about us! We would love to have you attend our gala in January, the Celebration of Light on January 19.
Thank you again and God bless! It was such a privilege to be your first executive speaker. Good night!