Santa Cruz, Bolivia
As a newly trained Salesian Lay Missioner I was assigned to one-year experience at an orphanage in Santa Cruz, Bolivia housing 110 girls ages five to nineteen. The discernment process that led me to actually taking the plane out there last March took several years. But God spoke clearly. And when I lingered, allowing other projects and plans to get in the way, my friend was there to remind me of my calling. So with the paperwork rolling, excitement mounting, I prepared my things and I was off…
Lusciously green, Santa Cruz looked inviting from above, in spite of the poverty visible even from that height. Two sisters took me to Hogar Casa Main in their red pick-up. As we drove by the girls walking home from school they waved madly and screamed out their hellos. The girls approached me freely. We got beyond the introductions and immediately they began their drill of questions and comments. They were intrusive, they were imprudent, getting into my space, in total disregard for boundaries. I felt poked and probed, under ongoing scrutiny. When the next volunteer arrived two days later I was grateful to share some of the overwhelming attention I was getting with her.
Things stabilized, daily routines kicked in and I began to adapt to their ways. And slowly, as another volunteer would so appropriately put it, the girls “made me love them” with their candor. I came to appreciate simplicity in a new way, growing accustomed to the Spartan environment in the volunteer house. No decorations, no ceiling fans, no T.V., no comfortable bed. Mass was offered daily, the rosary prayed every day. And every day, all of us, from the youngest to the oldest washed our clothes by hand and hung them out to dry in sweaty Santa Cruz. The tasks the sisters had us perform varied from time to time: check the girls’ lockers, supervise them with their laundry, supervise them in their study rooms, help them with grooming (cutting fingernails, washing hair, removing lice).
I played with the girls during their free times and experimented using different approaches with them in the study rooms. They ran me through an obstacle course of fire and then back again and they “taught” me how to become the teacher I never knew I could be. I found the balance I was searching for, I found I could be firm yet kind. And I became at home with them, in and out of the study rooms, taking time especially in the evenings to just sit and chat, to hug and be hugged, to touch and be touched, allowing the probing and poking and the sometimes rough handling patiently. Yes, I learned patience, I learned to hold back my anger, to forgive quickly and to love in spite of the hateful comments (and blows!) thrown my way at times by angry girls, in spite of the hate-filled silent treatments I was dealt by resentful girls, in spite of the occasional mocking remarks made by some of the older girls who disliked having one more person telling them what to do.
And we went through stages, and through trials, and I struggled, and I learned, and I leaned heavily on my friends’ and family’s prayers, advice and words of encouragement. I persevered and I made it through the obstacle course. Despite these hurdles and the extreme poverty I was forced to face each time I went out onto the streets of Santa Cruz and the poverty I sometimes felt had seized me in my powerlessness to help and to be more, I made it through. Physically, as the year progressed, I felt weakened by lack of sufficient sleep, by parasites and amoebas, by the daily stress of “raising children,” but spiritually I became stronger.
And my love for the girls grew, and their love for me grew as well. And those who had treated me as an enemy became my friends. They taught me to love, they helped me open my heart and see the divine so clearly through them. They gave me a glimpse into God’s heart, and I felt privileged to serve God through them. Their simplicity, their innocence, their uncomplicated spirit spoke to me. They were poor in knowledge, in family affection and in worldly goods, but so very rich in love.
These were broken girls who had been subjected to sexual, physical, psychological and verbal abuse most of their lives, primarily by their own parents and yet they continued to reach out in love in spite of it all. And love, after all, is the most important thing to have. “And the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). I went to Bolivia out of a need to give of myself and avoid the stagnation of my soul and I returned filled to the brim with the awareness and experience of what love truly is. This culture shock went beneath the surface to the depths of my soul and has transformed my life.