Sunday, October 21, 2012

Turning 24

Adorned in flowers thanks to
some very sweet girls!

I celebrated my 24th birthday this past Thursday in my new home in South Sudan.  I had in mind something small and humble- this was not the case.

The celebration was a daylong event and as far from simple as you can imagine.  During the morning school assembly, two of the girls from class 7 each made me these beautiful flower necklaces, which were simply gorgeous.  After they all sang to me, I addressed the school briefly, thanking them for loving me and making this place feel like home for me. 

Fr. John Peter cancelled school after 10:20 am for the festivities to begin!  The first event was a girls’ football match.  I addressed the players, inaugurated the match with the first kick, I sat in the seat of honor, and every couple of minutes the student announcer (whose commentating was literally hilarious) would exclaim, “Today we celebrate the birthday of Sister Grace!”  I am not used to so much attention!

One of the most beautiful parts of the celebration was the opportunity for the students to eat lunch together.  Despire the hour long “lunch break” the students take each day, no food is consumed during this time.  They simply do not eat all day.  Many students have an hour walk from home to school, the school day lasts form 8 am until 3:20 pm, and additionally many students remain for sports’ practices until 5pm.  They consume nothing during these hours.  As part of my birthday celebration, a group of girls spent two days preparing the meal from food grown and harvested by the students in the school gardens.  They ground maize to make asida, a pasty, starchy food that is a mix between mashed potatoes and bread.  They also cooked African peanuts, ground them, and prepared them for peanut butter.  The food was delicious!  I was so happy that on this day each child left school with a full meal in their belly.
But that’s not all!  After lunch was the Teachers vs. Pupils football match!  Some of our teachers are really intense, and the student players are amazing- they’ve made it to the semi-finals already.  The game was so much fun, and the teachers played incredibly well!   The whole student body stayed to watch.  Unfortunately, the game ended in a tie (1:1) a bit earlier than anticipated when one of the student players collapsed, unconscious, from heat stroke.  Did I mention that the day was really hot?!The excitement ended with a trip to the hospital and a few bags of IV fluid later, he was responding again and doing ok.  

When I returned home a few hours later, the celebration continued in our Salesian community!  The fathers and brothers prepared a big meal and we ended the night with a community viewing of Shrek 4. 

I have to thank my beautiful and amazing partner, Cait, for everything she did to make the day amazing.  I am so blessed to call her my mission partner and friend!  I could not have felt more loved by my African family this day.

Twenty-four is a year I have been anticipating for a long while.  Why?  My dear St. Therese died at age 24, as did many other great saints, such as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (soon to be Saint!), and St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  No, I’m not hoping to die this next year, and I don’t think it’s in the plan.  But I do believe there is a great grace associated with this age, and I want to make this a year of sanctity.  These young saints accomplished such great things in their 24 years.  I am so far from the holiness they achieved during their days on earth, but I hope that, by the intercession of these beautiful saints, I can become a stronger, more virtuous, more loving woman in this next year of my life.  I’m so excited to be 24 here in South Sudan!  I don’t know what exactly this year will bring, but I am confident that it will be unbelievable.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Little Successes

Success in missionary life is almost impossible to actualize.  Especially in the process of transition, it is difficult at times to determine which way is up and down, much less whether or not any of the activities of daily life can be deemed effective in any small or large way.

After two full weeks of settling into Maridi, I started getting used to the rhythm of life here, teaching a few classes and participating in daily oratory, living a life packed full of smiles and handshakes, name learning and games.  I thought my efforts were going relatively well-- though of course their results were in no way tangible.  It was mid- last week, that Father John Peter exclaimed to the community during evening announcements, "We should all be very proud of Grace and Caitlin, they have really begun their mission work today!"

I was caught off guard in the moment and thought to myself, What does he mean?  I've been teaching and playing with the children so much in the past weeks.  Hadn't I done everything he'd asked of me since I'd arrived?  I couldn't even recall what I had done new or different that day.

And he continued, "Today they taught songs in the school and played football with the girls!"  Oh, right- we had taught a new song to the Class 6 and initiated the girls' soccer team that day.  The whole community clapped.  And then it dawned on me.  Yes, just like we learned in orientation: Mission is not about doing, but about being and loving.  Yes.

Featuring my amateur guitar and vocal abilities and less-than-impressive soccer skills that day, while definitely some of the most enjoyable parts of the day, were far from what I considered the epitome of being a missionary.  The Gospel story this morning of Martha and Mary becomes all the more applicable.  I am Martha- my mind has been focused on what I was assigned to do- becoming the world's best English teacher or never missing a minute of any scheduled event.  No, what Father felt was most the most important thing that I could do for these children was to be Mary- to offer simple moments to just be with the children and to love them.  Skill and expertise were not the aim, but the amount of heart I could pour into my work.  This is where true "success" lies,  not only in mission but in the very essence of life.  Once again Mother Teresa's voice echoes in my heart, "You can do no great things, only small things with great love."

Some new friends from Class 6
This week I have also begun teaching a Scripture class to Grade 6!  I never anticipated teaching, but it's quickly become a highlight of my time here.  A few days ago, I asked one of the young seminarians in the community, Emmanuel, how his classes were going and if he enjoyed teaching.  His response was: "Yes, Jesus was a teacher, and we are called to follow him."  This has stuck with me ever since.  The nursing will come in its time, but meanwhile, I get to love children, help them learn something, and follow in the footsteps of the Perfect Teacher.  I teach one 40 minute period from Monday through Friday to 42 students, ranging from ages 12 through 19.  Only three classes in, and honestly, I already love them.  A lot.

I must admit that despite the language barrier and the moments of frustration and hesitation that naturally come each day, I am so deeply and peacefully happy here.   I strive to live simply and intentionally in every moment I'm blessed with here in South Sudan.  Jesus, help me to love.
"We must begin with love, continue with love, and end with love." -St. Francis de Sales

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Feast of St. Therese!

Today was a day of great joy- the feast day of my patroness and dear friend, St. Therese of Lisieux.  This was, perhaps, the best day I've had in Africa thus far.  I need to highlight some of today's sweetest blessings in order to thank The Little Flower for her most generous intercession.

--- I found a new and great contentment in the classes I taught today.  I may grow fond of this new ministry!

--- At school this morning a student jumped off a desk and sliced his head open.  I know how sadistic this may sound, as listed among my day's blessings.  ...But I got to be a nurse!  I've missed nursing so much!  It was a rush to clean and dress his wound, and then send him off to the hospital for a few stitches.  I was smiling while taking care of him; it's kind of cruel that I experienced any small amount of joy in this poor child's suffering.  I was glad to be present in his moment of need and to have been able to help him.  I pray for his quick recovery!  

--- This afternoon Cait and I taught a song to the 6th grade class, one that we'd learned in Juba during our stay.  The words are: "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, I love you.  I want to love you, Jesus;  I love you," repeated a few times.  You can't imagine how much of their hearts these children poured out into singing this song.  We had so much fun!  It was absolutely the highlight of the day.  Never did I ever imagine standing in front of any group of individuals, singing a solo to teach lyrics, and feeling completely comfortable.  I guess African culture will do that do you- if you have a voice, you use to praise God, plain and simple.  I expected to spend 10 minutes in the class, but the entire 40 minute period was over before I had realized what happened.  We were singing so loud to the guitar and dancing so crazily that by the end of the period half of the school was standing in the doorways and windows, listening and singing too.  Perfect joy.

--- With a mild amount of success, I made chocolate chip cookies on the stove today.  We don't have a oven, and I needed to satisfy my desire to bake.  The priests liked them!

--- Cait and I taught our new friends the hand-game, Miss Mary Mac, and then played about 1000 rounds with all of the girls, over and over again!  We had so much fun.

--- The girls requested me to play football (soccer) with them, and I played a full game, and really enjoyed it!  It's the little things.

--- It rained all during Oratory this evening. After the girls' football game ended, I sat down under some cover and watched the boys' game.  As the rain poured down upon them while they played, I recalled St. Therese's promise that after her death, she would continue her mission on earth by showering little flowers upon the world.  Today, on her feast day, I could put tangible reality to the floods of spiritual showers Therese was pouring into our hearts.  

--- Salesian tradition includes a daily "Good Night" talk, a short message given to the children at the end of the day.  With only a few minutes notice, I was asked by Br. Peter to offer a few words to the group tonight.  What a way to end the day, by sharing a little bit about my girlfriend Therese and her Little Way of Love.  

The day was simple, nothing extraordinary happened, but throughout each small moment I was overwhelmed with love.  How appropriate- this is exactly how St. Therese teaches us to live.  If you haven't already, especially in light of the feast we celebrate today, I'd encourage you to read the tab I've posted at the top of this blog, The Little Flower.  It talks in a bit more detail about who St. Therese was and gives an explanation for the namesake of this blog.  I'd also encourage you to ask for her prayers today as we grow evermore in the virtue of Love.  Therese is an amazing role model for us all.  St. Therese of Lisieux, Little Flower, pray for us all.

"Let us Love, 
since that is all our hearts were made for."