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.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Your attention, please!

Life keeps flying by. I keep thinking of wonderful topics (community visits in Santa Cruz, my trip to the US, the continuing adventures in the hogar, Holy Week, dance competitions, birthdays and mothers day, and on and on and on) to write about and finally get serious about my goal to share more of my experience here with you all. I really will recommit to the task soon. For now, however, I'm skipping over these subjects, no matter their importance or how long they've been waiting in the background, to make an important announcement.

In my last post, I wrote about being comfortably directionless, ready to do more, but in no hurry to leave. I was immersed in discerning the best place for me next year, and God has generously dropped a beautiful opportunity right in to my lap! My current director put me in touch with another Salesian office of project development. They coordinate the funding and development of projects like technical schools, food banks, day care centers, etc. initiated by Salesian groups. We had a long talk about everything they were willing to teach me about project development, and all the ways I could use my research and statistics skills to support their work. They asked if I would be willing to work with a priest to evaluate a series of projects, beginning with a technical school, that he's been building to support families, children, and young adults living in rural poverty throughout his diocese. It's basically a "create your own position" job that will allow me to use everything I know to the extent I'm willing, and give me opportunities to learn plenty more besides. And it's all for the service of others within a faith-based organization. Does it get better?

Here's the carefully avoided punch-line: It's here. The priest, unbeknownst to the folks at OFPROBOL when we first spoke, is my own parish priest, Padre Pepe, who is often considered the father of our hogar. I'll be living in the hogar for a third year, enjoying the relationships that have grown and deepend over the last two years, taking care of our littlest ones in the morning, then heading out with Padre Pepe to spend the bulk of the day immersed in this new exciting position.

I'm sorry to everyone who got an extremely vague response when they asked at any point over the last month "when are you coming home?" I was waiting to work out the details with my director and the sisters, discerning my final decision, and breaking the news to my immediate family first.

I still have a lot more to say about other factors that influenced this decision, how much I miss you all, and a few more thoughts about the transition from year two to year three, not to mention all the things I haven't shared over the last few months. For now, however, I'm just happy to share this exciting news with you all.

I love and miss you all. I couldn't be here without you.