Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Meaning of Volunteer Service

Almost a year ago I was asked to write an article about volunteer service for the Bolivian Salesian magazine. It's not a masterpiece, but it explains a little something about the meaning of our lifestyle. Also, it was written and published in Spanish, and actually sounds a lot better in the original, which is kind of a nice feeling as a non-native Spanish speaker.

Sacrifice, Love, and Example in the Life of a Volunteer

The Meaning of Sacrifice

When God calls us to a missionary experience, no matter where or for how long, he asks of us a sacrifice. It may be something as simple as our time or abilities, but there is always something we must offer to Him. It is a way of asking us, "What are you prepared to surrender to me? Your time, your abilities? Your friendships, your work, your culture, your language, your lifestyle, or your way of understanding the world? Do you believe that this calling is worth more than all this?" The missioner answers "yes" and, like the man who sells everything to buy the land where he discovers a great treasure (Matthew 13: 44-46), sacrifices everything necessary to go where God waits to reveal his grace.

Two years ago, I arrived in Bolivia for the first time to begin a year of service with the Salesian Lay Missioners. When I boarded the plane in the United States I was excited, and sure that I was about to begin a  beautiful experience. But, looking through the windows of the car as we drove from the airport to the orphanage, "Hogar María Auxiliadora," I could only wonder  "what have I gotten myself into?" Nothing looked like my homeland. I had no idea how I would function, how I would settle in to a place so different. I felt confused and lost and I knew I had an entire year ahead of me. In that moment I wanted to say to the driver "turn around! I'm going back to the airport!" Thanks be to God, I couldn't speak enough Spanish to get in the way of His plans like that.

Throughout the following months, I learned to trust that God would return to me everything that I had left behind to follow Him. When I was alone, the sisters, the girls in the orphanage, and the community accompanied me. When I couldn't speak the language, I learned to give and receive the kind of love that cannot be expressed in words. When I missed my home culture, I began to see the beauty of the Bolivian culture. When I felt useless and small against the material and spiritual needs of the girls, I finally recognized God's providence. I thought that I had lost everything by coming here, but in reality I had found the great treasure that is God's love.

The Meaning of Love

This same love lies at the center of the calling that each of us receives. The presence of each volunteer is a testament to this love. We know that the poor, the abandoned, and the afflicted are loved by God, because God calls us to surrender ourselves for them, following the example of Christ. But it is a great mistake to think that my mission, as a volunteer, is to bring the love of God to Bolivia or to this orphanage. The love of God is already present in every place and in every person. My mission, then, is to find it, rejoice in it, and reflect it back to others. Is there any task more beautiful than this?

The labor of each volunteer, no matter what it is, is above all a gift to the actual volunteer. In my  case, I came to offer a year of service to the girls of Hogar María Auxiliadora. But, as the months went on, I learned that each day I received more than I could ever give. At the end of the year, I renewed my contract, then ended that year by doing so once again. The decision to stay had nothing to do with what I can offer to this place, but seemed rather a matter of what God was revealing to me through these girls. In this way, the love that I encountered was not just God's love for these girls, but God's love for me reflected through this calling.

The Meaning of Example

The experience of volunteer service, in many cases, makes no sense to the world. It is a special calling that confuses others. When I presented the idea of committing to a year of service, I found many friends and family members who saw it as a year of frivolous wandering. Even today people ask me "so when are you coming back home to start your life?" or "when are you going to finish this little adventure and come back to reality?" In a world where the value of each hour is measured in dollars and each experience is only good for impressing others, the confusion of others towards volunteers is notable. In the midst of these doubts and criticisms, we find our second mission: preaching through our lives.

The work I realize is a service to the girls in the orphanage, but it's also an important testimony about Christian life. Each day I spend here, despite the difficulties and challenges, I am communicating something important to my family and friends. When they see me, growing in spirit and happiness for the life of service I live here, I hope they realize that my joy does not come from the superficial things of this world. It can't come from material wealth because I receive no pay. It can't come from prestige because I simply work alongside the rest. According to them, dizzied by the infinite desires of this world, the love of God cannot be enough to satisfy us. But the joy and peace we posses as God's servants is proof to the contrary.

I encourage you to explore the call of God in your own life, and discover for yourselves the meaning of sacrifice, love, and your example in this world.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

1 Corinthians 13

1 Corinthians 13 for Cross-Cultural Workers
Tom Krohn and Melissa Tataspaugh-Krohn, Maryknoll missionaries in Madagascar

(If you haven't read 1 Corinthians 13 lately, check it out first and this will make a lot more sense)

If I speak with the tongue of a national, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I wear the national dress and understand the culture and all forms of etiquette, and if I copyall mannerisms so that I could pass for a national but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor, and if I spend my energy without reserve, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love endures long hours of language study, and is kind to those who mock its accent; love does not envy those who stayed home; love does not exalt its home culture, is not proud of its national superiority.

Love does not boast about the ways we do it back home, does not seek its own ways, is not easily provoked into telling about the beauty of its home country, does notthink evil about this culture.

Love bears all criticism about its home culture, believes all good things about this new culture, confidently anticipates being at home in this place, endures all inconveniences.

Love never fails, but where there is cultural anthropology, it will fail; where there is linguistics, it will change.

For we know only a part of the culture and we minister to only part.

But when Christ is embodied in this culture, then our inadequacies will be insignificant.

When I was in America I spoke as an American, I understood as an American, I thought as an American; but when I left America, I put away American things.

Now we adapt to this culture awkwardly; but Christ will live in it intimately. Now I speak with a strange accent, but Christ will speak to the heart.

And now these three remain: cultural adaptation, language facility and love.

But the greatest of these is love.

I'm Back!

Many months ago I let this blog go dormant for various reasons. I often felt too overwhelmed by my work to sit down and write something coherent.  I also worried about repeating myself to my readers, as I am struck over and over by the revelation of the same truths. Most of all, I just figured that after three years no one but my mom was still reading this thing.

Eventually, coming in to contact with old friends and new acquaintances interested in my experience reminded me to check up on this blog. Turns out, it's had a lot of traffic over the last two months. Most of that is from google or from the SLM site. People are looking for information about the missionary experience in Bolivia, they're arriving at my blog, and they're finding...not a whole lot. 

Visiting the US this month made me realize that I have neglected an essential part of my mission: sharing it with the world! What exactly makes this a fundamental duty of any type of mission work is a topic for an entirely seperate post. For now, just believe me when I say that I screwed up here. 

But I intend to fix this.

It's overwhelming right now to try to sum up the last year, not to mention the new ways I've come to understand the two that preceded it. If you've come to this blog hoping to be introduced to the SLM program or the missionary experience, here are a few of my favorite posts (that sounds vain) from previous years to get your started. 

Right now I'm enjoying a little time in "la patria" (the homeland). I spent a month in Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon visitng friends and family, and am now in New York assisting in the preparation of 18 newSLMs. On August 19 I will return to Bolivia to continue my research (now as a professional, rather than as a Salesian Lay Missioner), with the adolescents of the Zona Sud of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

I could use some help getting started, so if there's anything in particular you'd like me to write about, please let me know!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

But what exactly are you doing??

The investigation on the youth of the vicaria is zooming along. This is probably one of the most interesting and meaningful things I’ve ever participated in. It’s also one of the most exhausting. The project is so necessary, but so immense. I wish I could just post my briefings on here so you could learn everything you ever wanted to know about where I live, but it’s all in Spanish. I’ll try to put up a few summaries soon, particularly about the more peculiar aspects of the vicaria, like land regulation in the agricultural district. Okay…maybe that’s only interesting to me.

Here’s a little summary of what I’ve been doing and why you haven’t heard from me in weeks:
To begin with, the zone assigned to us is right in the middle of the poorest and historically neglected region of Cochabamba. In addition, the vicaria where we operate spans two districts, one of them is primarily urban and the most densely populated in the region. The other is the largest and least densely populated, where the majority of the habitants don’t even have access to water or electricity. The two are both extremely troubled areas but about as different as you can imagine. Right now I’m doing a massive literature review and collection of secondary data, but I’m already starting to see themes emerge that we can begin to plan our own studies on. Because the information is so poorly synthesized I’m getting a crash course in land regulation, school administration, urban planning, migration studies, cartography, economics and labor distribution, public health, etc. etc. etc. The information comes as fast as I can retain and process it. At the end of each month I give two presentations and turn in two reports: one to all the social services coordinated through the church (which is the majority of the social services, given that everyone is afraid of Zona Sur. The state hasn’t even established police presence here despite it being almost half the population of the county), and the other to the Comisión Juveníl, a small group dedicated to identifying and responding to the problems of the youth in the zone.

The first was a geographic and demographic study of the two zones, an analysis of their common and contrasting characteristics from the perspective of our social services, and some ideas about how their characteristics both illuminate or hide psychosocial difficulties, For example: district 5 supposedly enjoys a dramatically higher quality of life than most other districts, but indicators of community violence, school enrollment, etc. are pretty grim. Looking carefully at the census data you can see that the majority of the indicators they used for standard of living don’t have anything to do with the actual socioeconomic situation of each family, but rather access to government-regulated resources like water and electricity due to proximity to the city center. The location of the district improves some factors but hides a lot of the actual needs of the community.

The second will be a summary of psychosocial conflicts and identity formation in migrant communities in the periurban zones of the vicaria. Most of the information comes from interviews from neighboring districts. The university had a bunch of interview transcripts that they just gave me. Never underestimate what you can get hold of simply by asking. Using existing research I’m trying to identify which communities are comparable. Can I use an interview about internal migration from Villa Pagador to talk about the experience of young people in Loma Santa Barbara? Yes. To talk about youth in Itocta? No. Because one hit its population boom six years before the other and one community is primarily from Potosí while the other is from Oruro. What a mess. But it’s REALLY helping to identify some of the most urgent concerns in the vicaria and will give us an idea of how and where we want to do our own studies soon.

The summaries and presentations help us to coordinate, extend, and improve services. A lot of the existing works, including all the ones run through the church, don’t communicate and don’t necessarily recognize the needs outside their particular region or specialty. Laying out the data gives everyone a common lens to view the problems in the populations we serve and a common vocabulary to begin problem-solving together.

Finally, when OFPROBOL is searching for a financer for a new project in the zone, they need a briefing on how, empirically, we know there’s a need for the project. I’m preparing one now on why we suspect a high instance of sexual violence despite the very low reporting rate in the zone. We’re hoping to create a second operating base in Zona Sur for CUBE, an organization dedicated to preventing and responding to sexual violence. When they get settled, probably early next year, I’ll be extending one of their previous studies to be able to compare sexual violence and reporting rates amongst teens in the Zona Sur and the wealthier city center.

So that’s the basic outline of what I’m doing this year. As you can see, the year is going to fly by!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Videos 1 and 2

Some noisy sugary fun from awhile back in the hogar

Alicia and I dancing in the hogar for the anniversary party

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Power of Presence

I know that you’re waiting for more of an explanation about my decision to stay, but I’d rather post some old stuff first. Sorry. Kind of.

I remember early in my second year I was teaching some of the older girls to make pancakes and they were telling me stories about past volunteers. One of the oldest girls, who I had recently had some pretty intense talks with, looked at me with her eyes full of some unspoken meaning and said “lots of people have come. You’re the only one who stayed.” It was then that I realized that, yes, my work was becoming more meaningful and more effective, the longer I stayed and the more I learned, but the act of staying in itself was its own message. It was a way of saying to the girls, “I’ve seen you at your best and at your worst, I’ve witnessed the good and the bad. Despite the bad, and because of the good, I want to keep walking with you.”

I taught, I scolded, I celebrated, I danced, I learned, but, more than anything, I was simply here. Here to teach five year olds to tie their shoes, here to light candles when the power was shut off for weeks, here to listen as a girl whispered to me about her nightly flashbacks of being raped by her cousin. Here to hold a nine year old in my arms after she tried to take her own life. Here to teach second graders to turn cartwheels, here to accompany a teenager to court to face her abusive stepfather, here to say to them after they danced in the church for the first time “I’m so proud of you!” and here to tell our little girls “I remember when you were this big.” I’ve done a lot of different things here over the last two years, drawn upon a lot of experiences, and learned a lot of new skills, but I don’t think any task has been as important as the simple act of being here.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, really, that simply being present with someone can be such a profound, though challenging, act of love. God’s greatest act of love was to die for us, but I’d argue we undervalue His showing up on this earth to begin with. We know we are loved by God because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:11 ). Though his miracles and teachings were essential, sometimes when I read the gospel I feel it was his ordinary presence, walking amongst the poor, kneeling beside the sick, eating with the rejected, that shocked and confused and comforted the most. In fact, it was in the ordinary act of sitting down to share a meal with his disciples, not the hours of teaching and interpreting of prophecy beforehand, that Jesus was recognized on the way to Emmaus.

When we come to teach, to plan, to heal, to develop new projects, we are making a statement about the worth of others; they deserve a better life and future. But a lot of our girls, in addition to these things, desperately need to simply know that they are worth the love and attention of others, just as they are. That message isn’t conveyed by all the work we do to shape them, though yes, that is important. It is revealed by simply being here with them. It’s a way of saying, goals and dreams and "development" aside, I´m happy to be with you, just as you are.

Found this under my bed...Holy Week

Holy week in Bolivia is absolutely beautiful! The entire week is packed full of traditions and images and prayers that force everyone to stop and really think about this beautiful time and what it means for our faith. An extra special effort is made to show that, for Bolivian Catholics, Holy Week is the climax of the liturgical year, and the events it celebrates are the core of our faith.
I apologize that this post is a little “dry.” It doesn’t really have much of the imagery it should to truly capture the events of the week. But…if it’s any consolation, there are pictures (uh…soon)!

Every palm Sunday the crowd gathers together a few “blocks” down the road to listen to the gospel reading in which Jesus, amidst the excited crowds that laid olive branches in his path, entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Padre Pepe, both years, took care to explain that entering on a donkey was a symbol of humility and peace (a horse-mounted king would be a symbol of war). Then Padre Pepe climbs on a donkey, and we reenact the same scene, waving our palm branches and shouting praises to our God, who sent us a just and peaceful king in Jesus Christ. It´s a wonderful opportunity to put the imagination to work and consider what it would have been like to witness this event in Jerusalem and to consider how it impacts our lives today. It’s kind of alike a big interactive Ignation exercise.

On Thursday, we celebrated mass, and we of course reenacted Jesus washing the disciples´ feet. Because this is the day we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, mass was followed by a holy hour filled with prayers for world peace.
The next day, Good Friday, we gathered in the church at 5 am to carry the big crucifix through the town to pray the Stations of the Cross. As the sun slowly rose, we stopped at houses throughout the area where the owners prepared little altars. After praying one of the stations, we pray for whoever lives there. Padre blesses their home, and we continue, singing, down the road. The whole thing lasts something like three hours, but it’s definitely one of my favorite events of the year. There’s something really special about the parish gathering together to bring the reality of Christ’s passion outside the walls of the church and in to the community. Although it’s typical to fast on Good Friday in the US, in Bolivia there’s a tradition of feasting. There are twelve different foods, including fish, arroz con leche, and bizcochos that the people eat while traveling to different churches. Sometimes they just set up a makeshift barbecue outside the church and have a cook out. The funny thing is, I can’t seem to find anyone to explain exactly why they do it. They usually mumble something about the twelve apostles, then shrug and say “it’s just what we do.”

Saturday night, Easter vigil, is the height of the celebration. The mass is what you would expect in a US church; everyone gathering outside to light their candles, the blessing of the Holy Water, etc. The three newest girls in the hogar were baptized that night and looked absolutely adorable in their matching white dresses. After mass, most of the catechesis classes and the girls from the hogar perform dances in celebration of Jesus’ triumph over death.

This year, I helped the girls put together a particularly special dance. I wanted to get the older girls thinking about their role in the hogar and also to get them thinking about what Easter really means to them. The first half of the dance only featured the older girls. When we were putting the dance together I asked them what words and phrases expressed what Easter meant to them. They came up with words like joy, togetherness, no fear, etc. Then I asked them to come up with a movement that expressed that feeling or idea. They demonstrated things like jumping, bowing, holding hands and moving in a circle, etc. After they all had a chance to share, I helped them arrange their chosen movements in to a finished piece of choreography. The portion they created ended with them kneeling on the ground, at which point the little girls entered carrying baskets of flowers. The little girls had some simple choreography, mostly just simple “follow the leader” style movement, which ended with the little girls kneeling in a circle and the older girls dancing their “togetherness” movement around them. Then each girl knelt with one of the little girls on their knees in front of her. From behind, the older girls guided the little girls’ hands in a series of movements that echoed the first piece of choreography the teens had created. They guided them to bow, to reach, to yada and todah and all those other wonderful things I learned from Judy Mandeville’s sacred movement class. Finally, the older girls helped the little ones to their feet, and lead them to throw petals from their basket towards the adorned cross by the altar as they exited.

I was so proud of the girls. What they danced was truly their creation and a genuine offering to the Lord. The little girls looked so small and innocent and the older girls looked like guardian angels teaching and guiding them in prayer. The church was so uncharacteristically quiet and I felt like the girls were truly communicating something about this most holy day.