This is a guest post.There are two phrases that I consistently use to describe our mission trip to Haiti—“it was interesting” and “we learned a lot.” One of our students recently attempted to call my bluff on this. “Beth, you do realize that those two phrases used in conjunction with one another are code for â€˜it was terrible,’ right?”
It was not terrible; it was in fact a really good trip. It was by far one of my most adventurous service-immersion trips! I got to experience Haiti from the front seat of a four-wheel drive pickup truck—from the chaotic crammed streets of Port-au-Prince to the beautiful back roads of Barassa. I tried foods that I had never tasted before, I now know five full phrases of French, and I got to observe tarantulas in their natural habitat. It was interesting, and we learned a lot! I would be remiss if I tried to sugar coat the experience. It was not easy.
Our travel partners from the Eastern Illinois University Newman Center made it clear that our mission was to walk in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Haiti. While EIU has established some great relationships with various Catholic organizations, solidarity is not always clearly defined. Its ambiguity makes it inherently awkward and exhausting at times. Solidarity involves walking with people, not simply doing things for them. We lived closer to the earth than most of us are accustomed to—sleeping on lumpy cots on cement floors, taking cold showers, and eating “Fred” the chicken (a gift from a local farmer) for dinner. Most of us fell short in our ability to carry a meaningful conversation in Haitian Creole. Our ministry of presence—attending Mass, touring schools, visiting a nursing home, feeding and holding infants alongside the Missionaries of Charity, playing spontaneous games of soccer with the kids—sometimes seemed insufficient, especially in the wake of such tremendous need.
Our Sheil Catholic Center team engaged in a heated conversation late one afternoon. What are we doing here?! We wrestled with questions of purpose and the meaning of mission. We struggled with the ways our American culture, and the academic environment in which we live and work, predisposes us to a definition of “achievement” which seems to contradict a theology of mission that relies on the slow work of God. Our desire for immediate results left us frustrated.
After many months of discernment, it was pretty clear that God was calling us to Haiti. From my experience traveling with our students to Nicaragua, I knew this was a call for me to do “more” in response to God’s love. The Ignatian principle of magis is not about how much we can achieve by worldly standards. It cannot be measured in how much money we make or the amount of personal recognition we receive. Likewise, living in solidarity with the poor is not defined by how many houses are built or how many lives are changed. Rather it is measured by living in closer proximity, loving with greater affection, and suffering alongside our brothers and sisters. Magis invites us to freely respond to God’s call and to live more fully the life God intends for us.
It also means that we may never see the complete fruit of our labors. We had some promising conversations with potential partners in Haiti, and we continue to reach out to new contacts in the United States, but I cannot know for certain where this will lead. As we continue to discern our next steps, I trust that God will place more information and resources in our path if this is indeed the place he wants us to go. It was interesting, and we learned a lot—which is a whole lot more than I could say a few short months ago. AMDG!
My granddaughter who just turned 16 went on her 1st Haitian mission trip today. I loved what you said about being a presence. In my own life I remember loving presences in times of sadness and that doesn’t leave you….we think we can fix things. But most of all we can be loving fellow travelers
I ask myself daily during my examen, which usually happens on my 1 1/2 hour ride from work: where and when did I encounter God today? Well, I was sitting in a crowded NYC bus, exhausted after a day of teaching both middle school children in one of the poorest districts in The Bronx and adults in an nearby Community College. I could not concentrate on my examen and decided to check my daily e-mail from dogMagis instead. Tears started to fall as I was reading your post. I have struggled for more than 10 years with your same question: What am I doing here (in The South Bronx)? After years of spiritual direction I have come up with two possible answers: God has an incredible and mysterious sense of humor, and I have been called to be a companion. I grew up as a poor girl in the country side of Puerto Rico but I always wanted to serve those that were even poorer than me. I realize that I was deeply influenced by my moms Sunday “visits” to her “neighbors”. I never heard her say “lets take this or that to our needy neighbors” even though we did. Most of our visits were about having a cup of coffee while listening to their stories or looking at the pictures of family members that were working far away from home. My mom had a way of tending at others that did not look like “charity” but as a family member lovingly caring for another. I started learning about human dignity with her. I myself knew the blessings of my neighbors’ visits to us when things were specially difficult for my family but I also remember some embarrassing moments of receiving misleading “charity”. I learned that when you accompany a person in need you are both blessed, and the community is strengthen. I am convinced that my mom’s silent mission blessed us both in slow, long lasting and unperceivable ways. While accompanying my mom I dreamt of becoming a missionary and traveling the world serving others in the same way she served her neighbors. In middle school my plan was to become a nun but then I ended up liking this boy and had to modify the plan. In high school I decided that I was going to study medicine and become a traveling missionary. Once during my first year of college I fainted at the first sight of blood and the plans where once again changed. I ended up studying sociology and education instead. After college, I once again made plans that were suddenly changed. My husband was accepted into a graduate program at Fordham University and we ended up in The Bronx, NYC. What a painful cultural shock! For 6 months I “went every day to my room, where no one could see me” to cry and lament in desperation to God. I came up to think that God was not answering my prayers, after all, none of my plans worked out. I was in a place and under circumstances that I would have never freely chosen if I had other alternatives. One day unexpected things happened to me. I was offered a scholarship without even looking for it, I was given free intensive English Courses and suddenly I was in a classroom at Fordham University. During the 10 long years of graduate work at Fordham I went through many periods of physical and spiritual desolation but it was the compassion of other volunteers and staff members of the Campus Ministry that sustained me. It was at Fordham that I came to know about Ignatian Spirituality. About two years ago, I became part of a Christian Life Community (CLC) and started seeing things differently. I now believe that God has been all the time holding my hand, instructing me about what it means to be poor and needy, about what it means to be a companion. He has been answering my prayers or better off, whispering to me all these years, after all, He was the one to put that persistent and burning desire of service in my heart. It was during my 30 days of Spiritual Exercises that I discovered that God has an incredible and mysterious sense of humor. While I was dreaming of a romantic view of mission I was actually practicing what you call a mission of solidarity. What started as a means of support during my graduate studies at Fordham has become my most demanding and painful mission: accompanying the poorest of the poor in the South Bronx. This poverty is not the same as the one that I experienced growing up in a beautiful countryside area, it is deeper and much more complex. As a teacher you do not end up being thanked with a cup of coffee and an uplifting conversation, you do not end up with a daily feeling of accomplishment. On the contrary, I am usually under stress, work to exhaustion, and rarely acknowledged for my good work except when I am needed to mentor new teachers. I rarely see the long term effects that my commitment/company has on my students. My friends and family members ask me why if it is such a “terrible” job I am still there, why not work in an exclusive school, after all I have a Ph.D. I am not used to see things in what you call “the American way” or what I call the “capitalistic mentality”. Mission can not be measure in terms of concrete, observable profit, not even in emotional/feel good profit. There is no mathematical formula, no economic graph that will show the relationship between our investment and what we gain from it. So we come back to the same questions of: why are we here? What are we doing here? One thing usually comes into my mind during the most difficult times of my job/mission, an explanation I heard from a Salvadorian describing her memories of Monsenor Oscar Romero: “We were so abandoned, so needy, so much in pain. Hearing and seeing Monsenor Romero among us gave us the feeling that God did not abandon us, that he indeed walked with us during our most difficult time, he did not left us orphans.” I have to remind myself that the value is not as much in doing many things to my students but in being an invisible presence of God to them when many prefer to leave them alone in their struggle. They will likely forget most of the scientific concepts that I try to teach them but hopefully they will remember how they felt having me around. You might have not left many material things done in Haiti but many will grow up remembering your presence and knowing that they were not left alone during their most difficult time. May you be blessed abundantly.