Honduras!

Me: “Guess where I’m going for Spring Break?!?!” Dad: “Please say anywhere but Honduras…” Me: “Uhhhh…” *mischevious grin*

I was just perusing through my posts and noticed that something very important was missing.  I am doing something major in one week and I failed completely to write about it.  I guess the excitement of nunhood has been consuming my thoughts lately 🙂

Anyway, every year my school offers the opportunity to participate in spring break service trips to various places around the country.  For the first time, this year they planned an international trip.  Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, of course I applied.

That’s right folks, in one week I will be traveling to central america once again, to Guatemala’s neighbor, Honduras.  We are working with a program called Students Helping Honduras and staying in El Progreso.  This organization recruits groups of college students to come for one week and assist in building schools and with various other projects.  Their main purpose to improve opportunities for children in Honduras.  They work on building schools, providing school supplies and also run a children’s home.

Since I’ve been so multimedia lately, here’s a video about a village they’re basically building from the ground up:

This will definitely be a new experience for all of us, as we’ll be working with a new organization and with other college students from around the country.  It should also be an interesting experience for me personally, since I have recently surrendered by desires to be a foreign missionary.  It will be more important than ever to listen to the still small voice of God during this trip.

Isaiah 55:8-9 “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways”

Once in a while, as I’m going about planning my perfect life, God stops me in my tracks and sets me straight again.  I have all of these grand plans involving saving the world and “changing the system”.  I said in my last post that I want to have a “cool” life.  My idea of that and God’s idea are probably radically different.  I’m okay with that though because God’s plan for my life will be AMAZING, not just cool.  In order to follow his path I have to leave the one I’m on and give up all of those big plans I have for my life.  And this is incredibly scary.  What if instead of being a roaming missionary and saving all of the children of Africa he asks me to stay in little old Scranton?  What if instead of ministering to the desperately poor he needs me to tend to the spiritual needs of the lost and lonely teenagers of this country?

Ironically, the one thing I am fairly certain God is calling me to doesn’t scare me at all but is something I long for.  It is also something I am scared to talk about because I’m afraid of what others will think.  Recently I have realized that if I am ashamed of what God wants me to do, there is a serious problem.  He should be the only one I am trying to please.  As Galatians 1:10 says: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

So it’s time to tell a story.  This story starts a few years ago when I was in high school.  My relationship with God was just beginning to blossom and I had just recently begun to trust him when he asked me to surrender my life to him.  I was at a Steubenville Youth Conference with my friends and brother.  Before the last Mass of the weekend an announcement was made that there would be a blessing of all those who were discerning Religious Life or Priesthood.  Sometime during Mass an image popped into my head:  me walking up to the altar when they asked who was considering Religious Life.  I knew without question what God was asking me to do and I was shocked.  The possibility had never even crossed my mind and God took me completely by surprise.  Throughout the rest of Mass I argued with God and sat in complete disbelief.  As Mass drew to a close and the time was coming near, I began to sob and asked God to not ask this of me.  Then they asked any girls interested in religious life to come forward and against my every instinct, I began the long trek towards the altar. Tears streamed down my face but I knew I was doing the right thing.  We were asked to promise to discern God’s call for a year.

Later my brother said in surprise: “I never knew you wanted to be a sister!”  and I replied in distress, “neither did I!”

I only seriously thought about the possibility of becoming a sister for about a month after the conference, and then in the midst of school and boys, it fell by the wayside.  Then I went to college and everything changed.  Suddenly I had a solid Catholic community to foster and support my faith.  For the first time in my life I was around Sisters and I learned what it actually meant to be one of them.  After fighting with God for the first couple of years, I finally admitted that God was still tugging on my heart.  After much discussion, discernment and prayer, something incredible has happened: my will is in line with God’s.  Not only have I embraced the call to religious life, I want to be a Sister.

As graduation nears, I’ve realized that I’m trying to figure out how I can mesh God’s plan with my own by being a sister while still doing all the things I want to.  This is not true surrender and is only causing me stress.  I am continually being surprised by God and reminded that his thoughts are high above my own.

Matthew 16:24-26  “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

Psalm 23:4: Even though I walk through the darkest valley…

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

In my post about my summer plans I mentioned that I felt a little lost when I returned from Tanzania.  That was a bit of an understatement but I’ve been struggling with the idea of posting about it.  What I’m about to share is very personal but I think it’s necessary to tell you about it.

My whole life I’ve been a hardcore perfectionist and hate letting people see when I mess up or am upset.  College has pretty much cured me of that though and I’m learning how important it is to let other people see my scars and tears.  This newfound openness was put to the test this past year.

As I’m sure you can tell from my posts about Tanzania, I had an incredible experience of God there.  His presence has never been more tangible than it was for those two months.  My relationship with Him became effortless and my faith grew in leaps and bounds.  When I returned home it felt like I had left God in Tanzania and my life was suddenly void of any meaning.

About a week after I returned to the states I wrote this:

I felt so much closer to God when I was living simply in Africa.  I wasn’t surrounded by possessions and my days had a pretty simple routine.  It was easy to connect with God.  But God doesn’t want our faithfulness only in the easy times or only when we’re in trouble.  He wants our love and devotion all of the time.  Carrying over what I learned in Tanzania is the real test.

I am not proud of the person I became during the period of time between coming back and returning to school.  The sudden lack of structured routine and responsibilities drove me to extreme laziness and a complete lack of God.  Once I got back to school this got better:

I’m finally back at school and I feel like I’m alive again.  I have a purpose and a role here.  My break from God is over. I hate that it happened at all but all that’s left to do is forgive myself and try harder.

Then around November, when all my work started piling up, I found myself missing Tanzania more than ever.  I became apathetic and depressed; I no longer cared about what I was doing and lost sight of what God needed me to be doing.

Here’s some excerpts from my journal at that time:

My energy is entirely spent; I have given everything I have.  It takes so much energy just to smile and pretend everything is okay.  My walls are falling down and my mask is starting to crack.  I don’t have the energy to care about anything anymore.  I just want to shut down and forget about everything, pretend the world doesn’t exist.  People are expecting things of me and I have nothing left to give.

A sorrow has seeped into my soul and I don’t know where it came from.  Simple conversations, smiling, takes more energy than I can muster, but I have to do it because I can’t let anyone see my weakness.  I am eternally cheerful – this just doesn’t happen to me.  How can I fight something I can’t name?

Soon after this, the cycle started all over again with Guatemala.  I wallowed in my sadness rather than trying to get help (because I didn’t want to admit that something was wrong) or fight it in any way.   Finally God gave me the kick in the pants I needed:

Last night I was genuinely and completely happy for the first time in months.  The fact that the feeling was completely foreign to me finally made me realize that I have a problem.

A song called “Sunrise” by Brandon Heath helped get me through this period of time.  That moment was definitely my sunrise.

Everything turned around after that.  Anytime I felt sadness overwhelming me, I prayed fervently for God to lift the darkness.  And He did!  As soon as I identified the root of my apathy (missing Africa and a distance from God) it was much easier to fight it with Jesus’s help.

I should add a disclaimer to this post and say that I also suspect that I suffer slightly from SAD(Seasonal Affective Disorder) which probably contributed to my depression occurring during the winter.

While it is unfortunate that this happened, I am absolutely sure that it has made my faith stronger.  In fact many Saints and holy people, such as Mother Teresa, went through periods of darkness and we admire their faith.  I’ve been falling deeper in love with God every day and am trying to learn as much as possible about His incredible love for us.

A while ago I wrote about the dangers of apathy and now I have experienced those firsthand.  It is complacency that will be the downfall of Christians, not horrendous sinfulness.  Take a moment today to really think about the incredible things God has done for you and the wonder that should be your response to that.  Becoming numb and ignorant to the world around me created a chasm between God and myself; don’t let the same happen to you.

January 4th – Picking Coffee!!

I’m going to start putting dates on my posts so you have context as to when each thing happened.

Picking coffee...yes those are my hands

Today we finally did what we had all been anxiously waiting for – picked coffee!  Coffee is the heart and soul of Guatemala and we were excited to get into the nitty gritty of that heart and soul.  We all became addicted to the stuff within 24 hours of being in San Lucas.  It was time to see where liquid sleep comes from.  This might surprise you but coffee does not start out looking like the beans we buy.  They look like cranberries to begin with and then are roasted and go through a complicated process before they get to the store shelf.

Another thing I didn’t realize is that coffee trees often grow on the side of a mountain, so picking it can be quite precarious.  People risk their lives everyday so you can have that delicious cup of joe that gets you through the day.  We balanced on rocks and against the trees and experienced the life of a coffee picker for a short three hours.  I have such an appreciation for coffee now!  We were exhausted after just three hours – I can’t imagine doing that for hours every day.

Between 12 of us we picked 75 pounds of coffee that morning.  Bringing the experience full circle, after lunch we worked in the garden where the coffee trees start out as baby plants.  We were weeding and for some reason this is where I started losing my sense of purpose.  I started getting really anxious about what God wanted me to do in Guatemala and why he had brought me there.  I think this is a sign of my lack of trust.  God has the bigger picture under control and to me the pieces might not fit together, but for Him they do.

Back in San Lucas…

Back in San Lucas, we finally got to get our hands dirty with some concrete service.  A wall was being built by the women’s center, so they put us to work helping with that.  We created columns to support the wall and all worked on different parts of that.  It was cool that we all created a part of something bigger.  That reminded me of the fact that we all have a role to play as part of the group and in the world in general.  As part of our reflection we’ve been talking about how we’re all connected as one human family.  We are all an essential part of this family and God needs each and every one of us to bring about his kingdom here on earth.  This is an idea I understand intellectually but haven’t quite accepted in my heart.  I’ve been struggling to figure out my role recently and where God is calling me.  For example, building those columns felt meaningless until you thought about the fact that it freed up the more skilled workers to do something more important and helped get that wall built a little faster and the women’s center opened sooner.  It’s all about perspective.

That afternoon we shifted gears and learned a little more about Guatemala’s people and it’s history.  A woman named Shona who helps run the parish programs talked to us about her experiences in San Lucas.  She has been living in San Lucas since before Fr. Greg came so she has experienced the incredible difference he has made first hand.  She talked about how poor and oppressed the people were before he came, especially the women.

The most heartwrenching thing she talked about was a period of violence in 1981.  There was a ton of guerrilla warfare in response to the severe oppression the people were experiencing.  The Mayan people were coerced into helping the guerilla fighters who offered them land, houses and money.  Once the government found this out they targeted the Mayan people as a whole and began killing anyone who was even remotely suspected of helping the guerrilla fighters.  The families of these targeted people were often killed also.  Shona’s husband was caught helping the guerrilla, was captured and presumably killed.  She never knew for sure what happened to him and has to live with that horror every day.  She must have told her story a hundred times but still teared up when talking about her husband.

After her husband was taken, Shona and her children became a target also.  Despite this danger, she helped countless mayans during this time.  She told one story about traveling to rescue 11 orphans who were hiding in a church a few hours from San Lucas.  They had to pass through three military checkpoints on the way back and convince the soldiers that all these children belonged to Shona.  She literally risked life and limb for these children she didn’t even know.  The thing about her story that amazed me the most was her complete trust in God throughout everything she went through.  She kept saying, “Gracias a Dios” – Thank God.  It would have been so easy to blame God for all of the terrible events of that year, but instead she leaned on him for hope and strength.  I long for the courage to trust that completely.

New Year’s Weekend in Chichicastenango

The City of Chichi

We traveled to a city called Chichicastenango (Chichi for short) to celebrate New Year’s Eve and do some service at a school there.  It sits 6,000 feet up a mountain and we spent a good two hours navigating precarious turns and cliffside roads.  Sometimes the road was so vertical that I was terrified we were going to start sliding backwards.  On the upside, the height offered a breathtaking view of Lake Atitlan and its surroundings.  We stopped a couple of times to take it in and marvel at the beauty of creation.  Finally we reached the town outside of the city were we were staying for the weekend.

We stayed at a school called Centro Educativo Anunciata, in the girl’s dormitory.  Upon arriving, we were given a tour of the school and grounds.  The students range from pre0schoolers to the equivalent of ninth graders.  There are about 600 students total, include the 200 girls who board.  The school is specifically for marginalized indigenous children and the sisters who run it will actually turn away students who do not fit this criteria.  All the students pay whatever they can based on their family’s income.  Some of the students do extra chores or work at the school to pay for their tuition.

The most powerful part of the tour was seeing the chapel.  There were a bunch of beautiful murals painted by the

Chapel Murals Painted by the Students

students.  The main one, by the altar, depicted people from many different villages connected through the Eucharist and was a very powerful image.  The others showed the events between the Assumption and the Crucifixion.  While we were in the chapel, our chaperon began telling us about the most recent period of civil war in Guatemala. Religious men and women were being martyred left and right during this time.  They eventually had to close the school and it was occupied by the army.  The building that is now the chapel was used as a torture chamber.  As soon as I heard this, my stomach turned over and I was horrified just thinking about what had happened there.  But then I realized that something beautiful had been made out of this tragedy and that it is somehow appropriate for a church to be built on the blood of martyrs, sacrificed in imitation of Jesus.

My mind and heart full of what I had experienced, next we we took a walk into town, which slowly turned into a hike up the rest of the mountain.  As if we weren’t high enough already, we proceeded to climb to the highest point in Chichi called Pascal Abaj.  There is a Mayan altar there and we happened to come down upon a Mayan Priest performing a ritual.  The ritual was in thanksgiving for the old year and to welcome the new one.  I felt awkward, like I was invading his privacy, but it was interesting to see.  We were all standing reverently, when suddenly the priest’s cellphone rang.  We were all shocked and tried our hardest not to laugh.  To our surprise, he answered it! This broke the magical atmosphere and showed how much modern technology has invaded our world.  It was a perfect, ironic picture of the meeting of traditions and the modern world.

Our first night in Chichi was New Year’s Eve and the Guatemalans definitely know how to celebrate.  We had a traditional meal of tomales and a really thick, delicious hot chocolate.  After this we went to Mass, which I was happy to be able to experience.  We were literally the only white people in the church and a lot of people stared and pointed at us.  Since Spanish is not the first language of the indigenous people, sometimes the priest would randomly switch to Quiche, the indigenous language, during Mass, which made it all the more confusing.

After mass, the sisters at the school, treated us to some fruit and dessert.  We had another traditional New Year’s food – a hot punch with fruit such as pineapple, apple, coconut and raisins.  It was good, but definitely took some getting used to.  We sat around playing games and talking to the sisters as we waited for midnight to arrive.

As the hour approached, we crowded onto a small balcony to watch the fireworks that were already starting.  Of course, there are no laws regulating the use of fireworks so everyone sets off their own, which I’m sure is perfectly safe.  In Guatemala, it is a tradition to eat twelve grapes at midnight, which I think has to do with the twelve months of the year.  So at midnight, we all embraced, celebrated and ate our grapes, as fireworks went off from every which direction.

I need to add a note here that the fireworks lasted for at least the next two days – apparently celebrations are dragged out as long as possible in Guatemala and everyone looks for the littlest excuse to party.

The next day we woke up to a new year and finally got our hands dirty doing service.  Our task in Chichi was to paint the school’s two basketball courts which were becoming faded.  It seems like something small, but I’m sure the students spend a lot of time of the courts and will definitely be grateful that we freshened them up.

While we were painting the first court a family came and played soccer in the field next to us.  It was yet another example of how people here celebrate life and just enjoy every day.  They came over to talk to us and offered us a fruit called Nispera which came from their own backyard.  Later we found out that they had brought the fruit for themselves but gave it all to us, because they knew they could always get more.  The generosity of the poor is just so beautiful!  They are generally willing to share what little they have, especially if you are a guest.  Their attitude is completely countercultural in this world of greed, yet they are happier than most of us.  I just think we have so much to learn from the poor, about humanity and what’s really important in life.

We also tried another new fruit called Anona.  It tasted like Rastifari, which I had in Tanzania.  Trying new foods, especially fruit, is one of my favorite parts of traveling.

That night we went out on the town and visited El Hotel Santo Tomas where a group of marimba players were performing.  The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala and very popular – the performance was excellent.  The hotel itself was something to see and like its own mini museum.  The original owners collected statues, paintings and artifacts from 13th and 14th century churches.  All of these items covered the walls of the hotel and were incredible to look at.  There was also an outdoor courtyard in the middle of the hotel which contained a garden overflowing with beautiful foliage.  We sat down amidst this beauty to share some chips and guacamole then headed back to the school for bed.

Our last day in Chichi was a Sunday, so we headed to Church in the morning.  We had been warned that some people might be performing Mayan rituals during Mass and they did indeed.  It was slightly distracting but they were very subtle about it.  There were slabs of stone in the aisle and about half way through mass an old lady went to kneel by them and start the ritual.  I’m still not sure how I feel about this being done during mass but I think it is good that they are able to combine Mayan traditions with the Catholic faith.  It says a lot about starting where people are at and not forcing a people to abandon all of their traditions when they convert to Christianity.

The town of Chichi becomes one huge market every Sunday so as soon as Mass was over we got lost in the crowds for a couple of hours.  As in Tanzania, this kind of environment overwhelms me and is not really my favorite thing.  Everyone is begging to make a living and its hard not to feel bad for all of them.  The children begging you to buy their wares was especially heartbreaking, especially the disabled ones.  I bought a few things and then headed back to pack up for the drive back to San Lucas.

Looking back, I think the weekend in Chichicastenango was my favorite part of the trip.  I felt at one with the people – especially during mass and rubbing elbows with them in the market.

Another Step in the Journey

Women of San Lucas

It’s time to start writing about my next adventure!

Now that I’ve gotten a taste for traveling, I can confidently say that I am irreversibly addicted.  The next stop in my traveling adventures is Guatemala.  In December I will be participating in a service trip to San Lucas Mission (http://www.sanlucasmission.org/index.php).  This mission serves the village of San Lucas, which consists mostly of Mayan people.

Picking Coffee

Their main source of income comes from growing coffee.  The priest in charge of the mission has set up a fair trade program for selling the coffee at various institutions (my school for instance – hint hint).  The mission has established programs to help the people in the way of education, healthcare, housing and legal assistance.

Parish Elementary School

While serving there, we will basically be doing whatever they need us to.  There is a parish elementary school which volunteers usually assist at.  Unfortunately, we will be there when the children from the school are on vacation, so we will not get to work with them.  I can say for sure the we will be picking coffee beans one day, which will create a great sense of solidarity with the people.  Other than that, God will use us for whatever the people need most.

I am especially interested to see how this compares with my experience in Tanzania this summer.  How will the poverty be similar?  Different?  I am eager to continue to learn how we are all connected as a human family.

Gaining Perspective

The single most important thing I gained in Africa was perspective.  Perspective on life in general, on what it means to be rich and what it means to be poor.  I mean I had a vague idea of how blessed I am but now I really know, with certainty.  A few things became very clear while I was living in Zanzibar.  As Christians, we are constantly warned against becoming attached to worldly riches because they tear us away from God.  Now I know how true that is.  Living simply for two months gave me a whole world of clarity.  Not only was I not surrounded by possessions, but the schedule of my days was simple too.  Boiled down, my days consisted of praying, eating and working.  I didn’t have time to be lazy and didn’t have things like tv and the computer to take me away from God’s will.  I was rich spiritually, while I was poor materially; like the people I was serving.  Except for the fact that my poverty couldn’t hold a candle to theirs and I can only hope to gain half of the joy they possess.

Americans are stereotypically thought of as rich and while us middle class folk laugh at that idea, guess what?  It’s true. You’re rich.  You have things most people in the world couldn’t even imagine.  Even the poor of this country are better off than the poor of Africa because they have access to social services and government help.

Yet I look around, at my friends and family and see that the majority of United States Citizens are not happy with their lives.  We always want more; to be more successful, more beautiful, richer, smarter.  Statistically we have high depression and suicide rates.  I don’t understand why this is.  We can’t blame money or success because these things are not inherently evil.  The problem starts when we let the desire for more control us, consume us until we lose sight of what is really important.  It comes down to one question: why are we so unhappy?

There is one clearly dividing factor between our culture and that of other countries, especially African and Hispanic nations:  family.  In African and Hispanic cultures, the family is the core unit of society.  I think we have lost sight of the importance of family in the U.S. and that has made a world of difference.  If someone has a strong family support system he or she is better equipped to handle crises and tragedies.  Someone without that support seems more likely to cave under stress.  I have been blessed with a big, loving family and I know for a fact that has made all the difference.  We just spent a week together celebrating my Grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary and I was reminded once again how incredibly lucky I was to be born into the family that I was.  So many people do not have that though.  Mother Teresa said: “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”  According to the World Health Organization, the Suicide rate for the U.S. in 2005 for males was 17.6 per 100,000.  Honduras and Haiti had zero recorded suicides in 2003.  I realize that poverty and happiness are complicated ideas, but family does seem to be a key factor in the equation.  If we follow the logic of Mother Teresa, those who are rich and lonely are actually poorer than those who have nothing but a loving family.

My head is spinning from all of this and I am left with the question: who is really poor?

Did It Really Happen?

I’m sitting at home wondering:  Did the past two months really happen?  If it weren’t for the over three hundred pictures proving that I went to Africa, I would be convinced that the past two months have been a dream.  I’m sure that just yesterday I was sitting in bed dreaming about the day I would go to Africa.  It was supposed to be someday in the future when I would have an incredible experience that would change my life.  But that someday already happened.  It’s done; I’m back – my life is changed, I am changed and I’m wondering, what now?

That’s the only problem when you’re dreams come true; what happens after?  I mean going to Africa has been number one of my list of things to do and it’s checked off.  And I still have my whole life ahead of me so how do I top that?  Well the answer is obvious: go back, go for longer and see more of Africa.  I only got a small taste of a small part of the continent and am hungry for more.

I read something in a book recently that had a profound effect on me.  It said we should beware of using the word “someday”.  This ambiguous word can cause us to continuously put off our dreams until they never come true.  One elderly person I talked to about my trip said, “I had always dreamed about going to Africa ‘someday'” and guess what? she never did.  Since reading this, I’ve become very conscious of using the word and try to avoid it.  I didn’t save Africa for “someday” and I’m so glad I didn’t.

Now jet lag is setting in so I’m going to say goodnight before this turns into incoherent babbling…

Not Goodbye, But See You Later

I leave here tomorrow but I’m actually not too broken up about that fact, because I know I’ll come back to Africa as soon as possible.  I’m also excited to tell everyone about my experience.  Sharing all that God has done in these past two months is definitely a way of evangelizing.  I even have an interview with my local newspaper(thanks Dad), which I’m very excited about!!  I’m finding that Africans don’t like saying goodbye and usually part by reassuring each other that they will meet again.  I have a feeling I’ll be back in Machui before long.  The people here have definitely worked their way into my heart and I wish I had longer to get to know them (and to learn Swahili!).

My last week in Machui has been busy, busy, busy and I apologize for the lack of blogging.  When I get home and have a chance to process the experience, I know that I will be doing a lot of writing.  Now I’m off to pack!