Sunday, November 22, 2009

Easy as A B C

During end of the school year conferences this week we discovered just how behind many of our girls are. We had an idea of it as we were helping with homework every day, but now that we have report cards in front of us things are looking pretty dismal.
The little girls especially have a lot of catching up to do and most of them will be repeating their grade next year. In the meantime, I'm teaching summer school to the five girls, Kindergarten through second grade, who still don't know they're alphabet. This only begins to chip away at the work ahead of us. Addition, spelling, division, sciences...there's work to be done in nearly every subject of every grade level. I can think of dozens of causes for this situation. There are not enough adults to go around when it comes to supervising the girls' academic life, the hogar and teachers are not in very good communication, the girls, likely because of their family situation, still lack a lot of skills and traits necessary to succeed in school, the girls are constantly offering to do each other's homework, by the middle (or sometimes the first day of classes) of the year they're too behind to catch up so they just fall further and further back because no one realizes it, etc.

In the meantime, the girls still want dance lessons from me, voice lessons from Johanna, and piano lessons from the both of us. I think I've also been volunteered to teach guitar, or at least that's what the sign up sheet on the wall suggests. I want so badly for these girls to have the opportunity to try these things. Their environment and background create a great need for opportunities to learn some self-confidence, discipline, perseverance, self-expression, respect for self and others, etc. Music and dance lessons are great opportunities for all of this, but when placed along side the academic needs as well, I feel completely overwhelmed. I know I can't offer everything I want to or everything they need. For now I'm just trying to offer everything I can.

Summer schedule:

5:15 prayer with the hermanas
6:00 running with any girl who wants to give it a shot (it's been a blast to see them get in to this and stick with it even though it's tough at first)
7:00 breakfast, washing clothes, scripture, etc
9-12 summer school with the little ones
12:30 lunch
2 Enlish class (high schoolers MWF, hermanas Tuesday)
3-6 Piano lessons, patroling the computer room, homework help, and (somehow it's going to be fit in starting this week) dance class
6 prayer with the girls
6:30 dinner with the hermanas and any extra homework help, dance, etc with the girls if there's energy left over from the day
8:30 Salesian goodnight and "house meeting"

I love it and see the importance of every bit of it...but sometimes I can't wait for Saturday. It's really discouraging to be running from English class to a piano lesson, trying to think whether the song on the radio would be good for the teen dance class, fumbling with your keys to open the computer room to tell the girls to quit playing, and then a little girl comes up with her favorite book and you have to tell her you don't have time to read it to her. I like being here, I like being busy, I like everything I'm doing. I just wish it could be enough.

PS: anyone want to move to Bolivia for the year and help out? We could use another volunteer (ladies only).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sent Forth

Six months ago, in my daydreams, I was consumed by Bolivia. When I pictured myself here, I naturally didn't give much thought to how my life and relationships in The States might continue on. My imagination remade me in to a Bolivian and I shrugged off all of America besides "I'll miss you" and "how do I pay my loans off?" I left with just a backpack and thus didn't expect to be carrying so much with me. I think sometimes it's fashionable to be "psh! like, so over America" and it's easy to over-romanticize being submerged in a new country. I didn't realize how close I would still be to home. More importantly, I didn't expect to be so grateful for it.

Christ teaches us that we must be prepared to sacrifice our entire lives out of love for Him. This includes our belongings, our security, our homes, and, most challenging for the majority of us, our relationships. Not all of us are asked to leave it all behind, but our loves should be ordered in such away that we could if called to. When I seriously began to consider what this meant for me in my own life, I did not anticipate how very present those relationships would be to me here. Being led in to mission may mean that you leave your relationships behind you at "home," but they never disappear. The people that I love are no longer down the hall or across the street or even "just a phone call away." I volunteered to slip away from a lot of people, ocluded by geography or time or a dramatic separation of experiences and life paths that has consequences I cannot anticipate. But my friends and family are here in a way I never expected. Paradoxically, I would not be here if I couldn't leave them, but I also couldn't be here if I didn't feel like every one of them was with me somehow.

It is not vain or prideful to say I have been loved deeply and abundantly in my life. It is a testament to the generosity and care of God, manifested through the actions of the people around me. This love shapes us. This is the only way we learn to love and serve others and it starts from the very beginning of our lives. Our parents and siblings, hopefully, take us home, smother us in hugs and kisses and just enough time-outs and scoldings to teach us right from wrong. We learn we are loved, that we have the potential and the knowledge to make good decisions we can take pride in, and that there is always a safe place for us to come back to.

Then we start school. Our ""profes" teach us to raise our hands, to take turns, and that math isn't so bad after all. We learn to respect and listen to others and the impact we have on someone simply by believing in them.

Then we take an interest in the world. We join churches, we travel, we take a look at what makes us mad or joyful in the world. We learn to discern, to fight injustice because all people have value, and to listen carefully to God's call in our lives.
It carries on like this with every person we meet. My roommate is at my side day after day, through good and bad, and I learn from her how to be present. My leadership team looks with a genuine delight at every person and I learn the power of acceptance. My family sends me a care package and I learn to be generous and thoughtful. My profesor lets me sit in her office for hours babbling about how directionless I am and I leave understanding so much more about listening and the role of love in our vocation. I burst in the door hysterical about some new, probably unimportant bit of drama and my friend sighs and breathes out the explicatives I was afraid to say and I learn the beauty of empathy.

I wish I could reflect each of these qualities at once, but I think that only Christ could pull that off. But learning from each of them brings me a step closer to understanding His perfect love. Jesus tells his disciples "love one another as I have loved you." This love is channeled through the people put in our lives who teach us by their example how to love others and give us the strength, tools, and security to do so.

When I left I feared I was abandoning my friends and family. I see now that I was actually sent forth by them. It may be that the only thing the two concepts hold in common is the distance. I pray every day that my actions can be a testament to the love I have been shown in my life. I am encouraged and emboldened by every email or letter that reminds me that I am always accompanied by the prayers and thoughts of someone far away. My experience here is dependent upon God's love, which is and has been revealed to me through all of you. I hope you can all come to see the presence of God's love in your life without having to move out of the country. Now go hug someone and tell them how they have taught you to love better. As for you and me, this will have to do. I love you all! Thanks for loving me!

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Johanna and I are pretty spoiled here. We live in one of the nicest buildings in Itocta, we have all our basic needs taken care of by either the hogar, the religious community hosting us, or the SLM program. We´re not exactly roughing it and I can´t complain. Despite our own comfy position, we do see a lot of suffering around us which is hard process sometimes.

It´s easy to think of poverty as simply a lack of material goods, and of course this isn´t excluded from the poverty Bolivians experience. We pray novenas all the time, asking God to provide the money for this month's food for the hogar or for someone to be healed because we can´t afford their surgery or medicine. Our neighbors plow their fields in thin sandles because it´s all they have. It´s easy to look around our village and see a lot of things missing that are household staples in the US.

While the absence of  "stuff" may make life more difficult, it doesn´t account for a lot of the suffering of the impoverished. Hunger and illness are difficult enough to bear, but we are also beginning to see how poverty affects basic psychological and social needs as well.

A few disordered examples:
Security and safety- Material need leads people to crime out of desperation. Several people we have caught trying to pickpocket ourselves or other people on the street have been mothers carrying babies. You can´t help but wonder if this is how they feed their children. Also, there are a lot of families, including young children, on the streets. We´re always safe in the hogar long before dark and I wonder what fear these parents have for their little ones on the city streets late at night. Crime is rampant, the dogs are everywhere, and the rats are huge and hungry. Even families living in homes have to worry about the adobe bricks (many people can´t afford real brick) crumbling in the rainy season.
Privacy- The people on the street really have no place private to go as they sell from their tents and carts all day long in the concha. People urinate and breastfeed pretty much anywhere. When they do come home, the houses are often way too small to give anyone much privacy. We see a lot of our neighbors scrubbing their shoulders clean outside under the spicket after a day in the fields, or children bathing in dirty ponds and irrigation channels outside the house. Life overflows from the cramped houses and I feel like I´m peaking in to windows as i walk the roads in Itocta.
Childhood and family- Work is scarce and there´s no actively observed minimum wage if you can find work in the first place. A recent news article on BBC reported that, despite child labor laws, a third of children and adolescents work to help feed their families. A twelve year old bagged my groceries the other day. A lot of our girls are here because their families can´t afford to feed them and had to choose between sending them here or sending them to work. Sometimes their parents left because they could only find work with family or factories or fields in other cities or countries. Poverty has completely torn apart their families because they have to choose between staying together and staying alive.
Respect- In bolivia, if someone treats you like crap but may potentially pay you, you better put up with it. People are forced to work in miserablt jobs with inconsistent pay because getting paid half of what you were promised for twice the hours you committed to is better than not getting paid at all. A lot of the girls talk about parents or siblings working for people who some weeks just outright didn´t pay them. There was nothing they could do about it because there was no other work to be found. The need and lack of education of the people makes them almost defenseless against political and judicial corruption as well.

It´s hard to reconcile the image of a loving and sheltering God who shepherds and provides for His people with the poverty around us. I´m glad that this is something I could struggle with here in Bolivia, surrounded by people whose faith shines despite the obstacles around them. I don´t know if I could do it if I wasn´t able to be here to see how these people make sense of their own suffering and spirituality.