Saturday, December 14, 2013

A New Dream

Watching a movie after Friday night dinner was somewhat of a regular occurrence in our Salesian community
over the last year.  Only a few weeks after our arrival, Cait and I were given the honor of making the film selection, and we chose none other than Disney’s Tangled.  Classic.  It was a hit!

It’s funny how animated Disney magic never gets old.  In the movie, Rapunzel spends her whole life in her tower room watching the floating lanterns that glow every year on her birthday and dreaming of seeing them up close.  She meets a charming young man who accompanies her on her journey and, just as they reach that spectacular moment for which she’d been waiting, Rapunzel stops in her tracks, anxious about what is about to happen.  She didn’t know what she would do after her hopes were fulfilled, once her lifelong dream had become reality.  She expresses her fear to the man, and he responds, “Well, that’s the good part. You get to go find a new dream.”

Interesting enough, this simple kids’ movie that I’ve seen so many times hit me in that moment, and all these months later, I still haven’t forgotten.  That day, as my dream was at a launching point, I was just beginning to taste the sweetness of my new mission and anxious for all the glory to come.  And here I am today, at its close.  I’m feeling that uncomfortable mixture of joy and pain at saying goodbye to something that has been so good, while anticipating with excitement the comforts of home and being wrapped in the arms of my family and friends in the coming days.  I feel peace, and I know that God is guiding me towards my future.  But there’s a significant corner of my mind that is fearful, like Rapunzel, of what’s next.  As of now, I have no plans, no idea of what’s in store for this next chapter of my life.  What I do know, is that I will never be the same.  Life in America as I once knew it can no longer be the same, because I have been changed by a people and a culture that have taught me the meaning of life.  I don’t know what tomorrow looks or feels like, but I have nothing left to do but go figure it out.  As I sit here in this seat, soaring at an altitude of 34,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, I feel with certainty that when this plane taps down on American soil, something incredible is about to begin.  I’m off to find my new dream.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Grateful Heart

Happy Thanksgiving! Our South Sudanese Thanksgiving festivities took place a week earlier than the calendar suggested for logistical reasons this year.  As no one here (except the American volunteers) has ever even heard of Thanksgiving, it didn’t cause too much of a riot. We collaboratively prepared a tremendous meal, from the stuffing right up to the pumpkin pie, and were very proud of ourselves considering the limited selection of foods we have available to us in our village.  Our mash of community members, natives of India, Slovakia, Congo, Togo, and Syria, enjoyed a fully American celebration!

The day got me to thinking, and once I started doing so, it was clear that I have far too much to be thankful for in the past fifteen months than I can even comprehend.  My time in South Sudan comes to an end in a matter of days, leaving my heart with an abundance of little joys and great wonders to cherish forever.  As a testament of God’s goodness, here’s my top ten list of thanksgivings here in South Sudan.

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10. I am grateful for little boys that punch me in the arms and wrangle my appendages countless times a day, because it’s the only way they know how to say I love you.  

9. I love the opportunity to push my kids to become more than they perceived possible.  I love giving them outlets to expand their creative little minds to even greater limits.  I teach them dances, and they constantly improve in technique and grace. In art classes, I give them challenging prompts, and they create masterpieces.  Relationally, spiritually, morally, they are pushed to achieve higher limits and I am never disappointed by the outcomes.

8. There’s this little girl named Grace.  (Good name, right Mom?) She’s six years old and has the raspiest, yet shockingly high-pitched voice I have ever heard.   She’s constantly beaming, always followed close and at play with her little sister, Flora.  Every time Grace sees me, she runs whatever distance it costs to meet me, and with a wide, gap-toothed smile, she bellows, “Mi na kpi nyamu ro, Sister Grace!”  Her sentiment- I love you.  Then, as I wrap her into a tight hug, she tucks into a little ball inside my arms and giggles.

7.  Naked African babies.

6. I’m thankful for wounded little legs.  I’m not grateful at all for the pain they cause, but I love being able to help make them disappear.

5. In such a hands-on culture, it’s impossibly rude to see someone, be it friend or stranger, and pass them by without a handshake.  If it’s your friend, the shake lasts significantly longer.  If it’s a close friend, the handshake may take a couple different forms before it ceases and will frequently end in a snap.  The I-love-you shake is more like a clap that makes a hollow, deep sound.  If you really care for the person you’re greeting, your handshake may subtly transition into a lingering handholding for the entirety of the conversation that potentially has the two of you with interlaced fingers walking side by side to your mutual destination.  I greet dozens upon dozens of little hands every single day, and I am constantly thankful for it because each one of those sticky fingers is attached to a heart which I love.

4. I have been so privileged to oversee the Daughters of Mary, the most beautiful, zealous, and committed group young Catholic girls that I’ve ever encountered.  Their wild, playful spirits, combined with a thirst for righteousness in a challenging culture, inspires me daily and keeps me on my toes.  For every dance practice, catechism class, Marian hymn, one-on-one chat in the grass, Hail Mary, tickling match, belly laugh, and shared prayer, to God be the glory and thanksgiving.
   
3. I am thankful that God gave me the courage to become a teacher.  While I am neither trained nor qualified to occupy such a profession, I’ve managed to teach something to a classroom of children and loved every minute.  My seventh grade students have learned about their faith in a real way this year.  I love that my job directly affects the salvation of their souls, and that if they put into practice the things that I’ve taught them, they’ll be rejoicing in heaven eternally.  Trust me, they’ve already got one foot in the gates.  I’ve spent this year watching them grow in wisdom and knowledge, and I’ve seen them mature and grow from kids into young adults and beautiful people, both inside and out.

2. Praise God for the most amazing American mission partners and best friends a girl could ask for, being exactly what I needed at the exact moment I needed it throughout this entire year.  I am overwhelmingly thankful for the love I have been shown by each one of them and for the necessary support that they provided me.  Sisters Ariel and Theresa, your joy is infectious and your passion tangible.  Thank you for lighting a spark inside me since you arrived in September to keep me focused on the reason I came here, and thank you for loving the children after I go.  Brother Dan, thank you for your steadfastness, your courageous example, your wisdom, and for our many good theological conversations.  And to my faithful partner-in-crime, Sister Cait, thank you for sticking by my side through it all.  Thank you for your loyalty, passion, and constant witness and service to me and to our children.  Thanks for all the laughs, random facts, late night conversations, and awkward moments.  Thank you for demonstrating sanctity to me by showing me what it means to love until it hurts and to give without counting the cost.  The four of you are the best mission sisters and brother I could have ever asked for or imagined, and I love you all.  

1. My present reality is like a foretaste of heaven.  I’ve been loved harder than I’ve ever experienced.  Children that are so excited and overjoyed by my mere presence that their entire faces and bodies light up, just to see me walk by and smile at them.  When a simple hello and a handshake quickly turn into a story about a deep struggle at home.  Where kids see me and know that they are loved, so they return the favor before I even notice that they’ve noticed me.  Where a kid is screaming my name and waving from across an entire schoolyard, and that kid happens to be a six foot tall, seventeen year old male, but innocent as a little boy.  Where my class leaves me love notes on the board to welcome me to my class period on a regular basis, and then sings me a welcome song when I enter.  I am thankful for the simplicity of the children whose lives have taught me everything that is important: the simplicity of life, the value of family, the benefit of hard work, the gift of faith, the necessity of living joyfully through times of peace and times of suffering.  I am thankful for so many laughs, tears, songs, dances, prayers, conversations, games, illnesses, lessons, and spiritual promptings that have brought us together under the sweet mantle of Jesus and Mary.  I am thankful that a crazy band of impoverished children has had the ability to teach me the best of what it means to be a friend, a mentor, a confidant, a nurse, a sister, a Catholic, a woman, and a human being- simply by being as they are.  They're openness has allowed me to come to a deep, personal understanding of the limitless bounds when God is on your side.  I am thankful that God called me to be a missionary in Africa and that my cooperation with His Will was able to completely transform my life for the better through the hands of the small, the sick, and the poor.


We can do no great things, only small things with great love. 
–Mother Teresa of Calcutta 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Spiritual Motherhood


In the past month or two, a growing number of children have taken to calling me “Mother.” Those moments are always sweet and affirming, one of the best compliments I could receive.  It may, in fact, fuel my desires to stow all of them away in my suitcase when I depart for America!  On the other hand, I find it mildly unsettling, because although those words are so tender, I know that my place among them is not as such.  To my knowledge, despite coming from various degrees of extreme poverty, all of these children are loved and provided for by a parent or guardian.

The high-pitched, little declarations, “Sister Grace is my mother!”, as endearing as they are, opened up a store of emotion regarding my role among these children.  I know that I’m more than a teacher or nurse to any of them.  I’m a part of their lives.  They’re surely a permanent part of mine, like a seal on my heart.  I’ve watched them grow and change over the past year, many from scrawny kids to teenagers or young adults.  I’ve accompanied them through family troubles, school problems, and done a plethora of playing and singing in the meantime.  I know what makes them tick, and I know how to make them smile when they’re down.  There are explosions of mutual love during so many interactions, in their running to greet me, smiles half the size of their faces, and the comfort of a tight hug and a warm conversation.  The relationships that exist between us are authentic and of greater value than any material possession in the world.  All that having been said, I’m neither their mother nor even their older sister; I’m not even a permanent fixture in their physical worlds.  So what am I?

My questions were answered very directly by Archbishop Fulton Sheen in his book, The World’s First Love.  The book is a compilation of deep reflections on the person of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  Very briefly after these questions had started surfacing and stirring in my heart, the next chapter of that book met my answer head on: Spiritual Motherhood.

Sheen writes:
To beget a body is blessed; to save a soul is more blessed, for such is the Father’s will. There would, therefore, seem to be implied in all [single people] the necessity of apostleship and begetting souls for Christ.

This call to love souls into heaven spoke directly to my circumstances.  It also answered a lot of questions about what I've actually been doing for the past year.  The reason that the kids feel so loved by me is because I’m offering them something unique that they haven’t experienced in the same way before: the love of Jesus via the love of a woman.  Before Cait and I arrived in this village, the children had never before met strong, female role models.  Surely, there are plenty of good and faithful women in their parish and community, but there had never been a female presence at the Salesian Mission where we live.  The religious sisters that now stay here came a few months after we arrived, and all the previous priests, brothers, and volunteers were all men.   When we showed up a year ago, the kids shuttered at a hug or pat on the back, because the only way they were used to being touched by adults is in a strong, disciplinary manner.  In the beginning, they wouldn’t tell us much about their lives, because they weren't used to opening up to adults or receiving nurturing in their trials.  They were very close with and knew well the love of the Salesians community over the years, but the love of a woman is something unique and incomparable.

Today, toddlers up to teens run to hug me, ask me about my life as well as tell me all about theirs, they trust me and appreciate my presence here.  This isn’t because I’ve been their physical mother, but a spiritual one.  This week in my seventh grade religion class, I jumped into some meaty material on the commandments, not the watered-down version they’re used to hearing.  I was able to share with them the Truth of Christ, something that I’m sure no one has told them so directly before.  I want them in heaven.  I’m here fighting for their souls.  I’m not here just to teach a curriculum or to dispense medications.  I’ve also not been sent here to raise the kids or to adopt them.  I’m here to share with these children the most valuable lesson any human person could ever receive: the insatiable Love of Christ.  

I realize now that this responsibility spans much further than a year of missionary service.  Fulton Sheen writes that when we reach the gates of heaven, the Almighty Father is going to ask each one of us how many souls we have begotten for His Kingdom.  Whether single, married, or religious, we will be judged by the same standards.  Whatever our present vocation may be, our calling is each the same: to touch those around us with a radical love that penetrates deep beyond the surface and that calls others to do the same.


If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
Love never fails. 
(1 Cor 13: 1,3,7-8)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

One Year Later

It’s been a year.  I’ve had three hundred sixty-five days of intimate friendships, precious moments, and sweet memories.  I’ve survived fifty-two weeks without a hug from mom or a face-to-face conversation with any of my favorite people from home.  For an entire year, I’ve worn one pair of shoes every single day and a combination of five outfits that have kept my knees and shoulders from ever meeting the South Sudanese sun.  I’ve denied comforts and foregone all the #firstworldproblems in order to have my life radically transformed by a motley gang of precious, mischievous, and affectionate African children.

If I could possibly summarize a year’s worth of life lessons and transforming experiences, it would be best done through the following quote.

The most important hour is always the present.
The most significant person is precisely 
the one sitting across from you right now.
The most necessary work is always love.
(Meister Eckhart)


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People first. Life is comprised of so many choices.  In the modern world we live in, even here in the jungles of Africa, we face the daily struggle of being consumed by a cyber-world that can swallow hours of our time in what feels like just a moment.  The rule I’ve set for myself from the beginning of this mission is to always choose the person in front of me before anything else.  If I have planning or grading to do for school, but a little one wants to play, the schoolwork can be done later so that the child can be loved now.  If I want to check facebook and see what everyone did over the weekend, but I know the kids will be overjoyed for me to come greet them before the school day begins, I try to always choose my kids.  When it comes to responding to an email from home versus a meaningful conversation with one of my site partners, I try to be present to the one before me.  This started out as a mental rule for mission, but I’ve realized that this outlook will directly translate into my life back home.  I need to constantly put people first.  They're what really matter.

Fear not.  There’s something awesome about being called a “missionary”.  It’s like a mental superhero cape that you throw over your person as you step onto foreign soil.  There’s a complete trust and surrender to God, knowing that, since He’s already gotten you this far, He must want to do something wonderful through you.  It enabled me to walk into this mission ready and unafraid to do whatever He wanted of me.  In the beginning, I saw myself taking risks, entering into difficult conversations, ready to go out of my way to help someone who needed it, not hesitating to do whatever love demanded.  The results were glorious-- beautiful relationships, lots of little victories, and many visible graces.  But here’s the thing.  I’m just me, just trying to love, and without any special powers to do anything different than what I’ve been capable of doing every day for my entire life.  Back in the States, far too many times, I hesitated.  I knew the right thing to do, but what would people think?  What would the consequence be?  Aren’t I too busy right now?  And the list goes on.  As this fearless me has tackled teaching middle school classes, fostered meaningful friendships with teenage boys, and gotten a delicate handle on two foreign languages, I realize that the impossible is always possible with the help of God.  It doesn’t matter where I am or what magical wardrobe I’m donning, but what does matter is that God is beside me and ready to work through my weaknesses.  The only effort He requires is just for me to try.

Simplicity.  We need so much less to survive happily and peacefully than we can even fathom in our luxurious homes in America.  I’ve barely missed the restaurant chains, strip malls, or ten-dollar movie tickets of my past life.  I spend half my day on Saturday, every Saturday, washing my clothes by hand.  I save every scrap piece of paper, plastic, or fabric lying around in hopes of using to for a future project in school.  I don’t have any money, but neither does anyone else around me.  I eat the same food every day.  I wear the same clothes every day.  I wear my hair in the same style every day.  And you know what?  I’m still happy.  I’m happy just being me, without the fluff.  I have nothing to hide behind-- what you see is what you get.  What matters are the matters of the heart.  I’m valued for my ability to [attempt to] dance, to draw, to bandage a wound, and to love Jesus.  I’m loved because all I have to offer is Jesus, and fittingly, He is Love.  

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It’s been a wild ride and a challenging, exciting adventure.  With three remaining months, I’m hoping and praying to take in and appreciate every last second with those sweet children and loving adults who have unknowingly taught me how to view the world through different eyes.  To God be the glory.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Preciousness of Life


This week I caught a unique glimpse at the fragility and gift of life.  In general, I see life’s preciousness 1000x more clearly since coming here, in the radiant faces of too many malnourished, malaria-infected, barefoot little Cabbage Patch Kids that run around this place all day.  Having witnessed the contrast of the full circle of life within the last week has offered new vision to my daily African routine.

On Sunday morning after church, among a crowd from my Daughters of Mary group, we went to visit our friend Joice, a new mother who had delivered her baby girl less than 24 hours before our arrival.  As I picked up the little babe and cuddled her in my arms, I was thinking of nothing except the tiny and beautiful masterpiece before me.  Then, as I watched her being passed around by the group of excited primary school girls and looked into the proud face of her teenage mother, impressed upon my heart was the weight of the situation.  This society is overloaded with children producing children.  Yet despite the difficulties and many cultural imperfections, still they grow into good, strong women like their mothers before them.  It became all the more apparent what a miracle it is that this unbelievably tiny human being now has an irreplaceable role to play in the story of the world, despite the fact that her life was a “mistake”.  That little girl, at one day old, was indescribably perfect and her future limitless.  Maybe she will light the spark that this nation needs to change for the better.  

On Friday morning, not but five days later, the news reached our compound that the mother of one of my students had passed away overnight.  I hadn’t met the woman, as she lived a distance away from our mission, but I am very close with her daughter, Mariam.  With this horrible news, Cait and I went as quickly as possible to the funeral place to offer our condolences and mourn with our children.  My first moment of heartbreak was to gaze upon the beautiful, young woman before me that didn’t look much older than fifty.  The second was to be clutched tightly by Mariam as she wept into my shoulder, repeating again and again how her mother had left her alone.  No words were adequate, so I held her in silence.  The same pain surfaced minutes later, when her younger brother was in my arms.  It’s impossible to convey the emotion of consoling these devastated teenage children left with only their memories of a woman who impacted them so deeply during their short lives.

I can’t even begin to imagine their pain, and yet this is the reality for each one of my students who have all suffered the loss of immediate family members.  I have students absent from my class for funeral services on a regular basis.  A nation rampant with disease, an underdeveloped healthcare system, the continued practice of tribal witchcraft medicine, and the physical and emotional trauma that accompanied decades of war in their homes, among so many other factors has left all of my students heartbroken and devastated time and time again.  Seeing it firsthand illuminated for me the pain that they all have to swallow and suppress on a daily basis in order to keep looking forward each day.  A pain that somehow becomes normal.

For a culture of intense trial and suffering, I can honestly say- never have I met a more joyful people.  Why?  It’s simple.  Because they’re happy to be alive.

Life is a gift.


“Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is too precious, do not destroy it.
Life is life, fight for it.”
― Mother Teresa

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Beauty

Today I feel called to share something a bit deeper than the goings-on of Don Bosco Health Centre and the like.  The past few weeks have been a transformative experience for me, internally.  I’m going to share, really deeply, my heart.  I pray God will do with this moment of vulnerability what He will.

The biggest interior struggle that has been consistently plaguing me throughout my months here in Africa and for most of my life is this concept of feeling beautiful.  In my mind, beauty has always been a feeling that was amplified or diminished based on how close I was to my ideal weight and how often I was complimented on my appearance by someone outside myself.  Last year before mission, completing my first half-marathon, finally having parted with four years of cafeteria food, and having a handsome boyfriend to remind me constantly, left me feeling beautiful for the first time in a long while.

I never anticipated that coming to Africa would so drastically challenge that.  With a monotonous and fixed daily diet of almost exclusively carbs and vegetables fried in oil, my weight was affected in a way I would never have predicted before coming one of Africa’s poorest countries.  Additionally, it came as a little bit of a shock to enter into a culture where it is not offensive to call someone fat.  My sense of self-worth was on a steady decline.

Something needed to change within me.  I decided to dedicate the entire month of July to serious fasting and reflection on who I am in the sight of God.  I challenged Him to unveil my beauty, though, deep down, I doubted he’d truly be able to counter this lifelong struggle.   My sinful, human nature felt too wounded.  Of course, I was wrong.  God’s grace is more powerful than any human insufficiency, and He cares about our every need.  God had a profound message of healing and hope for my little heart.

As I began, my immediate question was this:  I know that the object of beauty has intrinsic, unmerited value.  For example, the beauty of a tall oak tree, a vibrant flower, or a sweetly composed melody remains constant.  Why then does my human beauty seem to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis?  Why does it feel like a seesaw inside me, contrasting from highs to lows based on material, physical things like clothing and hairstyle?  It immediately surfaced that I had confused the concept of attractiveness as synonymous with beauty.  Being told I was beautiful or feeling that way was directly linked with looking attractive to someone of the opposite sex.  I knew this couldn’t be true beauty.  Attraction is based in emotion, which is subject to change with ones mood.  Though attraction is also a good, it doesn’t go beyond the surface.  Beauty must be more.  Why?  Because God is the ultimate source and foundation of all beauty.  Because God is perfect beauty.  Because within anything of beauty, God is present.  From the heavens to the earth to every human being that walks this planet, beauty dwells where God is found, and God is found in what is beautiful.  If you look at a mountain range, a rainbow, or an African baby, what do you see?  Beauty.  Why do we see beauty?  Because God is marvelously hidden within.

This reflection reminded me of an experience I had while studying abroad in college, during a few days spent with a group of friends in Interlaken, Switzerland.  The snowcapped Alps were breathtaking.  As we stood in awe, gazing up at the wonder before us, one of my friends shared with me this beautiful reflection:  When God created the world, woman was the last and most precious gift given to Adam in the Garden.  She was the crown of all God’s creation.  All other created things were for the necessity or pleasure of the human race.  To God, the human person, created in His own image, is exceedingly more ravishing than any object He had made.  Before God, as a human being and specifically as a woman, I am incomparably more beautiful than even the Swiss Alps, and, in fact, He only created this grandeur in order to give humanity a small, pleasing glimpse of their own magnitude before Him.  I recall this moment often when I gaze upon the beauty of the world, as I can more clearly see God’s love for me within it.  
As I began to distinguish the difference that existed between beauty and attractiveness, I still hadn’t fully understood the depth of this beauty in a way that satisfied my desire to feel physically attractive.  I kept digging for answers in prayer, which just so happened to be supplemented (unintentionally) by the book I was reading, “Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love”, by Edward Sri.  Here’s what I learned.  In the context of relationship, attraction is surely a good, but it is not an end.  Alone, physical attraction is far too shallow to sustain any relationship.  Physical attraction seeks for pleasure.  One is only attractive to the depth and breadth of a cultural expectation: size, shape, dress, hair, looks.  It is a fantasy realized or the indulging of a carnal desire.  Independent of other greater goods to sustain relationship, physical attraction will ultimately dissatisfy when good looks fade with age or when someone more aesthetically pleasing comes along.  Of course, we all hope to be physically attracted to our spouses every day for the rest of our lives, but I’ve come to realize that perhaps that which lasts, and, in some cases, even that which initially attracts, isn’t attractiveness at all, but, in fact, beauty.

Beauty is the image of God within—the goodness, the virtue, the wonder with which God has graced each human heart.  It lies in the soul and radiates outward, presenting itself purely on the face, in the words, deeds, and in the very nature of a person.  It can be measured by the profundity that one is moved towards God in the presence of another.  Beauty is what draws two people together and keeps them together for a lifetime.  This beauty surpasses all limits of age, shape, or any material accessory.  Beauty draws ones whole self, the person is drawn to the person, and the sensual desires are thus satisfied by this goodness that radiates outward from the depths of the soul.  As a radiant, multicolored sunset naturally draws ones spirit heavenward, so should the good within the beloved be a gateway of the goodness of God.  

I can only picture Our Lady in this moment.  As she strode towards her cousin, Elizabeth, on that Visitation day, not only living completely in the Will of the Father and united in intimate friendship with Him, but physically carrying His Son within her body, nothing more beautiful could ever have been or ever will be on this earth.  In that moment, Mary could have been saggy-skinned, baggy-eyed, 400 pounds and sun burnt, and Elizabeth wouldn’t have been anything but captivated by her beauty.  Captivated by God Himself.

As I process all this, I come to a marvelous realization.  What I was searching for all these years was actually quite skewed and, in fact, in many ways an impossibility.  While focused on attractiveness, I was working for a goal that could never be satisfied, no matter how thin, stylish, or glamorous I might become.  I suddenly see myself with a new clarity.  What I want is to be beautiful, and suddenly, beauty is attainable.

 I am beautiful because I love.
-Our Lady of Medjugorje

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Loving Like Santo

There are so many kids here that are impossible not to fall in love with.  They bat an eyelash and you are instantly captivated.  Once they come up and hold your hand, it’s game over.  They start calling your name across the schoolyard, running to you with beaming smiles and open arms.  The kids here are radiantly beautiful, and in no other circumstance in my life have I ever felt so loved or enveloped by sweetness.

Of the dozens of bright-eyed, smiling faces that greet me on a daily basis, there is one that usually takes a little more effort to reciprocate.  Santo is a ten-year-old boy who wanders freely; he doesn't go to school or do any significant work at home, he just spends his days roaming around alone, and usually winding up in our yard.  He is always dirty from head to toe, with soiled, ripped clothing and a foul odor.  I meet Santo at least once in a day and usually far more.  He yells, “SISTER!” from any distance, no matter how far away, and he continues to shout until I take notice and respond.  A massive smile and a distinctive “How are yooooou?” is followed by a hug that lasts far too long, usually until he is removed from my body.  There is the occasionally inappropriate touching, and then calling me his wife.  He tells people that he’s bought both Cait and I for 4 Pounds… (We are worth far more!)  If I let him, he throws an arm over my shoulder and keeps us walking side-by-side, literally until he is removed.  The next bit of the conversation is a routine dialogue that never varies from the following:
              "I'm fine. How are you?" I reply to his initial shouting across the playground.
              "Fine. Gomoro (I'm hungry)," he informs. "Issm tachy munu (What's your name)?" The question never fails to follow.  Let me assure you, the boy knows my name quite well.
              "Grace.  Issm tachy munu?" I reciprocate.
              "Santo," he'll say, like this is news to me.  Then he'll inevitably question, "Sister Caitie wen (Where is Sister Cait)?”
              "Kporo yo (At home),” I inform.
              "Brother wen (Where is Brother Dan)?"
              "Kporo yo (At home).”
              "Abuna wen (Where is Father)?"
              "Kporo yo (At home).”
And so it goes, Santo will continue to ask me about every Salesian community member that lives or has ever lived in our house for the entire length of time until I reach my destination and we part ways.

Perhaps you’ve already picked up on this, but Santo is a child with special needs.  He’s an epileptic, so he drops into convulsions on the ground at any moment without warning- quite frequently, in fact.  There is no special school for the handicapped, and no support for those with special needs in this place.  I’d say he’s lucky to even be alive and to have a mother that takes care of him at all.

As I have interacted with Santo day in and day out for all these months, it has become very easy to give a quick handshake, shrug him aside, and continue on my way.  It’s easy to become short when he repeatedly asks the same questions.  It’s especially frustrating when he acts like he’s your husband.

But as I have recently started to take a step back and look at the boy who stands before me, I am suddenly struck by the image of Christ.

Santo loves unconditionally.  In almost a year, there has not been a single time that I have passed him by without fully receiving all the love he has for me.  I could be a quarter mile away and if Santo spots me, he’ll scream for me relentlessly until I respond.  He is the same with every member of our Salesian community.  It doesn't matter how short or unkind I've been in the past, he's always ready with big hugs (uncharacteristic of this culture) and his unique and massive smile that literally beams.  Santo has profound joy upon interacting with any other human being.  Genuine elation results from something as insignificant as one of the Brothers walking past him.  It's something that many Christians strive for, that limitless ocean of charity, that Santo innately offers the world through his simple little life.  Santo is teaching me a beautiful lesson, one that I have been taught over and over again but rarely observed in such a concrete way: My vocation is to love.  

Santo calls me out in my weakness, first to begin by better loving Santo himself, the little one who loves me so much.  From there, I must strive to offer this charity with every daily interaction.  When I am tired, when I’m grumpy, when I’m feeling introspective or down on myself, and for a million other reasons every day that I forget my simple duty in this world, Santo calls me to love others as Christ Himself loved.  Just as with Santo, Christ can only use our human weaknesses to aid us with His glorious and capable strength.  

When I think of this pure love, I can’t help but call to mind one beloved priest that served on our campus at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Fr. Rick.  Fr. Rick had a tremendous daily workload- teaching classes, leading many groups on campus, commitment to his religious order, spiritual life, and priestly duties, not to mention his main apostolate, which was heading the Priestly Discernment Program on campus.  Despite Fr. Rick’s packed schedule of work, prayer, and daily activity, he never stopped loving.  The person in need was never second to his To-Do list.  Father was never more than a phone call away, day or night.  Students flocked to him for spiritual advice, wisdom, and encouragement regularly.  Why?  Because he has been graced with an inherently and undeniably Christ-like way.  He loves as Jesus loves.  When Fr. Rick looks at you, it is like Jesus himself is gazing into your soul.  His words are always Spirit-filled and life giving.  I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since.  Fr. Rick is a father, brother, mentor, confidant, confessor, supporter, cheerleader, and friend to literally hundreds of students on that campus, because each and every one of them feels uniquely cherished and cared for by his paternal presence, as I’m sure the Apostles did when they sat before Jesus.  I have thought more than a few times throughout this mission that if I were to love the little ones here just a tiny fraction as much as Fr. Rick has loved our campus at Franciscan, I’d consider this a complete success.

Innocent, silly little Santo has called me to love radically today.  He has called me to reach outside of myself and to emulate Mother Teresa’s challenge:

“I have found the paradox, 
that if you love until it hurts,
there can be no more hurt, 
only more love.”

I think we all need a little more love. God bless you, Santo. Mbori du na mo.    

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Thank Heaven for Little Girls

The first six months of mission, all summed up, was lots and lots of little boys.  With a bit of teaching and nursing in the mix, if I were to abbreviate those months, it would be hanging out with the boys.  Our compound just seems to attract them, little boys always hanging on our fences, collecting mangoes, or running around playing with homemade toys composed of sticks, grass, and collected garbage.  Every evening for oratory they flock for sports games nearly one hundred in number, and they dominate our school, especially in the upper grades.  Working with boys was a foreign concept to me, my experience with them seemed to cap at 10 years-- the age of my little brother Ben when I left him behind last September.  Beautifully in accordance with God’s plan and unanticipated by me, I fell in love and spent countless hours playing and spending time with so many little boys ranging from toddlers to twenty-somethings (not so little really).  The funny thing is I thought it couldn’t get any better.

That is until a couple of months ago when a new duty changed the course of my mission experience.  This new responsibility has me knee deep and ever surrounded with my favorite thing in the entire world…  little girls.


Sometime back around February or March, Fr. John Peter asked me to take charge of a girls’ group in the parish called the Daughters of Mary.  The goal is that the girls, who range from 8 up to 18 years in age, come together with a common love for our Mother Mary to stand apart and live holy lives despite the temptations of the world.  To join the group, they make a promise before the whole church community to love and emulate Mary and Jesus for the rest of their lives, to attend daily mass and go to confession on the regular, and to study catechism weekly.  After they make this beautiful promise, they have the privilege of participating in the liturgical dancing for the Sunday Mass each week.
Their dances look a little something like this:
Trust me, they make it look easy. 
I’ve tried learning the steps myself, and my 12+ years of cheerleading
has failed me when it comes to stepping along with these girls!

Diving head first into Daughters-of-Mary-Land was easier said than done at first.  They were a little bit intimidating for me, due to their close-knit friendships, lack of English, and overly confident, pre-teen attitude for a select few of the 15+ ladies. (From Africa to America, girls will be girls!)   They didn’t let me in as easily or quickly as the boys had, so I shied away from them.

I have since learned that was my loss!  They are some of the most remarkable young women, and my feeble attempt at leading them has been a pure gift.  The magic elixir for them letting me on the inside was teaching them a dance of which I am particularly fond-- none other than Slumdog Millionaire’s closing number, the Jai Ho.  Alongside one of my best friends from college (I love you Jessica!), I taught this dance to a large number of girls in my college dorm to perform for a campus function.  The dance is epic and has been a legacy ever since, so to teach it to my little ones in South Sudan was ridiculously fantastic.  The little Sudanese girls loved it as much as the Franciscan University student body, and it has made its appearance more than once in the last few months.  The Jai Ho pulled through, not only as a crowd-pleaser, but also as an avenue into fifty little hearts that are ever changing mine.

The South Sudanese Jai Ho, ladies and gentleman:
Aren’t they awesome?!
Sister Grace's Dance Troupe

Ascending from good to great is what happened to my life as a result of leading the Daughters of Mary.  After several simple weeks of meeting the girls after daily mass and helping with catechism classes on Sundays, Fr. JP informed me that a new crew of Daughters needed to be prepared to join the group on the Feast of Mary Help of Christians, celebrated on May 24th.  My list of girls grew longer and longer as so many approached me for wanting to join.  They continued to touch my heart with their nearly perfect attendance for daily mass, as well as bi-weekly prep classes and dance practices in preparation for the big promise day.  All the while, we've been growing in love for Mary together!

Little cuties practicing for their promise
In order to more fully prepare them to make their promise, and as a special treat for their dedication to the Church, the Daughters of Mary participated in their first ever retreat!  As a retreat-leading rookie (Thank you, Jesus, for the gift of Sister Cait!), I had no idea how this thing would go down.  The girls were pretty much exclusively excited for the idea of sleeping away from home (slumber party!)  and really had no idea what being on a retreat actually meant.  Helping them to discover that was a treasure.  Not only did we have perfect attendance with FIFTY-THREE girls in our care for the three-day extravaganza, but they were attentive, participatory, and enthusiastic throughout.  Despite many chaotic, disorganized, and stressful moments that surely went down (did anyone know it takes over two hours to make tea for fifty women on this continent?), their passion and purest love of God throughout that weekend has embedded itself in my heart forever.

After two months of planning, practicing, and preparing for their Feast Day, my nineteen lovely ladies were pants-wetting excited (not literally, thank goodness) to make their promise and become Daughters of Mary.  Standing before those sweet girls as they promised to forever love Mary and devote themselves to Jesus in the Eucharist, watching their mothers tie the group veils on their heads before praying over their daughters, and hearing them sing to our Blessed Mother my favorite Marian hymn, Immaculate Mary, was radically moving in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.  With all the senses, I was able to take in the beauty of the feminine heart given forever to Jesus in love.  It was a moment of grace that literally took my breath away.  The tears of joy and gratitude fell silently down my face as I prayed over each precious soul, beloved of the Master, gifted to me by Jesus, through no merit of my own, to love so entirely for this short time.  The saints and angels surely danced on that day, and I can imagine the wide smile across the face of Our Immaculate Mother, Mary. 
Thank you, Jesus, for my little girls!

If you aren’t tired of watching my girls dance, please check this one out.  It’s a dance to Chris Tomlin’s “Lord, I Need You” after the Feast Day Mass and an experience of deep pride for me in the beauty that radiates from these girls.  I feel that this dance speaks so much more about the strength of their faith and the purity of their hearts than my lowly words could ever express.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mangoes!


For those of you privileged enough to have engaged in my pre-mission ranting, surely eating mangoes was close to the top of the list of things I was most excited for in Africa!  After arriving in September only to receive the news that mango season wouldn’t occur until April, I was entirely disappointed and impatient.  Though the homegrown passion fruit, bananas, papayas, pineapple, guava, and oranges surely satisfied, my eagerness never faded.  For the past months, from the moment the little baby mangoes started growing bountifully on the trees, I’d find the darling little things on the ground and run around telling the kids how excited I was that mangoes were coming!  I’d pull the stems off the fallen fruit and be enamored that they smelled so fragrantly, while still being so small and immature.  I started eating mangoes on a daily basis at least four weeks before they became ripe, and, though green and sour, I loved them nonetheless.

Ladies and gentlemen, be assured that mango season has come, and it has not disappointed.

Seriously though, I’m enjoying the mangoes a little bit too much.  What’s filling me up even more than the juicy, fibrous fruits is, for the first time in the seven months that I’ve been in South Sudan, seeing my kids constantly full-bellied.

Every mango is like a piece of artwork
A few months ago, it started wearing on me.  “How are you?” I’d ask cheerfully.  “Gamoro,” they’d reply.  I’m hungry.  I was worn from hearing this typical response as I gazed down at distended bellies and frail little bodies.  After so many weeks and months, my heart not only continued to ache, but it started to burn.  I became emotionally exhausted of hearing children tell me they were hungry.  What could I do about it?   Nothing.  I was left simply to pray that God in His goodness would satisfy their needs.  

No one loves mangoes like Sister Auxilia!
Not only has God met their need, but He’s filled them up with the sweet gift of mangoes!  The poorest, orphaned little ones can be seen with a half-devoured mango in hand, its juice dripping from the corner of their mouth, at nearly any point in the day.    Massive mango trees are located every couple of feet in our village, each bearing several hundred fruits.  There’s more than enough to go around.  The mangoes fall down when they are heavy and ripe, unless the treasures are snatched by little hands scaling the boughs of the trees or when they are struck by a stone thrown at exactly the right point in the fifty-foot tall tree to cause the perfect fruit to fall into the hands of its seeker.  It’s amazing what these kids are capable of doing in their quest for mangoes.

Behind the sister’s house where I live, there are two enormous mango trees.  I am continually amazed when I am sitting in the backyard and a plump, handsome mango seems to fall from the sky basically into my lap.  It’s like living in the storybook, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”  Like a gift falling down from heaven, it continues to be a strange and wonderful phenomenon.  So I’ll sit in my backyard for some time doing this or that, and I collect mangoes as they fall, one by one.  After I’ve acquired a bunch, I take them outside and pass them around to the first kids I can find.  Our mangoes are so plentiful the sisters could never even begin to eat them all, so not only is God providing the most delicious food for His dear children, but He’s giving me the gift and the consolation of being able to give away the little something that I have with the children that I love so much.


I won't mention God's other special gift from heaven to fill the bellies of my kiddos: plump, juicy, and protein-rich
.....termites.
That's a story for another day.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Least of These

I am more convinced than ever that angels are really present on earth, touching us through souls placed in the paths of our life.  

Yesterday afternoon, I sat on my front porch with my best pal, Cait, eating a freshly ripe mango from the tree in our backyard and greeting villagers as they walked down the mud road past our house.  One of my favorite pastimes.  As I waved and acknowledged one young woman from afar, I watched her change her course and head in the direction of our compound.  Intrigued, I met her at the gait and got a good look at the lady I'd seen at a distance.  She was covered in mud, it was caked on her face, arms, and clothes.  She looked to have around eighteen years, emaciated, was crippled at the right arm, walked with a limp and carried a large stick to assist her in walking.  She wore a ripped and tattered piece of cloth tied into a dress and was drooling out of the right side of her mouth.  Amidst the distressing facade, she was beautiful, overwhelmingly and undeniably beautiful.  I was captivated by her; sensing immediately that I was encountering an angel on earth, one of God's most beloved ones.

We exchanged simple pleasantries; she didn't respond to anything I said in English, so our communication was limited.  She talked in a soft, calming voice, with a pitch of intrinsic sweetness.  Her name was Nazenty, and she reported to be doing fine and headed home.  It was evident that the handicaps that plagued her externally were not at all mental.  As the brief conversation came to a close and I anticipated her departure, she then stopped, looked into my eyes and shared, "Mi na kaza."  I am sick, she said.  And with that, she lifted the hem of her skirt to reveal the largest, most distressing wound I've yet to see here in Africa.  One was there on the back of the right leg, from calf to ankle, and the other on the outside of the left thigh. The looked surely to be burns, though I didn't know how to ask in Zande language.  She told me they'd been pestering there for seven days without care, covered in dirt and swarming with flies.  My heart wanted to cry for her.  

The next couple of minutes were some of the most tender moments I've experienced in my life, that encounter that leaves you with goosebumps and a replaying memory that wont shake.  Words were no longer necessary.  I gathered supplies from my room, then washed, medicated, dressed, and prayed over her frail, wounded, paining extremities.  Meanwhile, Cait went to her room and collected a fresh cloth, dampened with cool water, and helped her to remove the dirt from her face and hands.  I was marveling at Mother Teresa's call to serve the poorest of the poor, and the Scripture verse was replaying in the my mind:
"Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." Mt 25:40

God is profoundly present in those lowly ones he has called to himself, the poor, the sick, the orphaned, the abandoned, the lonely, the unwanted.  Of those whom the world rejects, Jesus assures his constant presence. Their reward will not be in this life, but it will be assured in the life to come.  It is through them that we glimpse heaven and are drawn nearer to it ourselves.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Family

The more time that goes by, the more I miss my family.  I’ve been itching for a hug from mom, a good laugh with dad, and some hangout time with my sisters and brother.   I’m often reminded of them in day-to-day life, as I interact with the community here in Maridi.  God graced my heart with a marvelous consolation in my homesickness this past week- the gift of a family here in Africa.

Last Sunday afternoon I was invited to the home of the Alex family.  My friend Victoria had invited me to come after mass, saying that her mother wanted to plait my hair, meaning put it into African braids.  I was more than willing to let her play with my hair and to spend a little bit of time outside of our compound.  The afternoon quickly became evening, and at the day’s end, I was sure it’d been not only one of my favorite experiences up-to-date, but one of the most memorable afternoons that I’d have in my South Sudanese adventure.

The Alex children are some of the most active in our parish and school and many of them are very close to our Salesian community.  They live only a short walk from our compound, and participate in almost every activity we offer.  Of their 12 children, six are enrolled in our Primary School, three of the boys are altar servers and come for daily morning mass and games every evening, two girls are in the choir, and all of them are darling.  Mary, the mother of their family, is the head of the Parent Teacher Association in our school and is an all-around great mother.  She has raised all her children to be responsible, courteous, and respectful, while still being free-spirited, joyful kids.  They are some of the best around.   

After arriving on the compound, Victoria immediately showed Cait and me to her room, which was one of the nicest we’d seen.  She then served us a full lunch, of chicken, rice, and bread.  (Absolutely incredible because a) people here never eat lunch, they eat one meal a day at dinner time; b) people here rarely get bread, a particular treat; and c) people here NEVER eat meat, except on holidays and feast days.  Her generosity and love towards us is extraordinary.)  With extremely full bellies, the hair plaiting commenced, taking over two hours to complete.  We had such a nice time throughout, the whole family sat in the little house we were plaiting inside, talking, singing, taking photos, playing cards, and even a football match transpired.  Mary was so sweet, I think she really enjoyed herself too. 
After my fantastic, new hairstyle was finished, the family invited me to sit and spend the rest of the afternoon.  We sat preparing supper together: peeling peanuts, de-stemming spinach leaves, grinding oil fruits, and enjoying good company and good conversation.  They walked me through their gorgeous garden, full of pineapples, guava fruits, bananas, cassava, and so much more.  The boys played ball in the yard, the men worked on the motorbike, and everyone was just together.

A few impressions remained with me at the day’s end: the good, the sad, and the beautiful.

The Good:  Family life.  Family is the center of everything here.  Generations and extended families  live all together in one place, sharing everything and enjoying life together.  They’re without distraction.  The kids can’t jump in the car and head out with friends, to sports practice, or anywhere else really.  They don’t plop in front of the television or go hide at the other end of the house.  They don’t have iPhones, facebook, or digital technology to hide behind.  They’re together, all the time.  Sure they have some activity that take them away from the house for a few hours a day, but otherwise, they’re enjoying the simple companionship of the people who are most important. 

The Sad: The stark contrast between men and women.  Seeing the family unit up close that day confirmed what we’d heard again and again, and witnessed from afar, about the expectations of women versus men.  After the hair braiding had finished, all the girls, from Mama Mary down through the 6-year-old, Cecilia, spent the afternoon preparing the evening meal.  That is, all except for Sarah, who spent over two hours ironing all of her siblings’ school uniforms.  When Mr. Alex saw me helping with cooking and learning from his girls, he first asked how long I planned on staying in South Sudan, and then, after I said that I didn’t know, he quickly remarked, “I want to marry you to my son.”  Nice.  While I imagine a compliment exists somewhere behind those words, I knew he’d said it because he saw I was capable of doing housework.  Meanwhile, all the boys were enjoying their Sunday afternoon.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone was enjoying; they were all together, sharing good conversation and good company.  (The Alex’s all speak English well, which is a rarity and a pleasure for me!)  But while the girls spent their time doing chores, the boys were playing games, running around, and being kids.  This picture is the cultural norm, the expectation of a South Sudanese wife and daughter.  The women carry the water, care for the children, prepare all the food, do all the cleaning.  The husband buys his wife from her parents at a high price of dowry, and from then onward, they are expected to fulfill a very demanding role.  This mentality must somehow change, but it will be a slow process.

 The beautiful: A new home.  I enjoyed all the events of the day, all the togetherness, the games and the good company.  But what elevated the day from just a nice time to one embellished on my heart was the welcome and the acceptance of the Alex family.  Mary spent half her day braiding my hair, so generously offering her time and talent, while engaging me in questions about my life and heart.  The little girls, Gisma and Cecilia, were timid at first, and by the evening, we were all singing and playing together.  My friend, Victoria, now seems somehow more like a sister to me.  I was expecting to have a nice afternoon, what wasn’t expecting was the genuine warmth and care of a family. 
I really felt loved.

 Just when I think my heart has reached its capacity from the love I am able to give and receive in this place, Jesus expands it a little bit more, in the exact way I am most in need.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lenten Sacrifices

This has been by far the most interesting Lent up to date.  I began the season with the typical penances; I’d given up bread and all beverages apart from water, and I’d promised God I’d be more faithful to personal daily prayer.  What I’ve discovered is this: Mission is in itself is a penance.  Paralleling the satisfaction and joy of daily life is the daily commitment to sacrifice.  This joy masked the small struggles of daily life for many months; and without coincidence, the Lord chose this holy season to open my eyes to this daily sacrifice, offering me the opportunity for growth and a greater dependence upon His grace.  It’s truly a gift, but it hasn’t been easy! 

As well as continuing in my daily nursing responsibilities at the Health Center, my heart fell right back into its home among the students of Don Bosco Primary as we begun the new 2013 school year in late January.  One my missionary highlights, and probably one of the most uplifting moments of my entire life, took place amidst my first lesson in my Religion class with Grade 7.  After I had strategically mapped out how the class schedule would unfold, what the course outline would look like and had all my notes ready to go, I woke up the morning of that first lesson and said to myself, “I have to teach them about LOVE!”  How could I start my Religion class any other way?!  Love, the aim of our Christian life, the greatest of the virtues and commandments, my personal mantra.  So I quickly scrapped my plans and during slow moments at the hospital was looking up Bible verses and putting together the key points.  It was during that particular class, as I was proclaiming how loved we are by Jesus with all the passion and fire in my being, that I suddenly felt the weight of what I was doing.  I was taken aback by the silent movement of the Holy Spirit in my heart:  “This is why you have come, to love them and to teach them how to love.”

I adore the many fascinating personalities and discussions that fill up my class periods every day after lunch, and I keep myself quite busy in the mornings working at our Hospital.  We’ve been open to the public for one and a half months now, and it seems we are developing a nice rhythm and routine in our facility, despite the unpredictability of each day.  A few favorite moments stand out in my memory.  The first was an adorable, spunky little boy from our Class 1, who came for a dressing.  Despite his endearing presence in our clinic, that particular day I was in a less than pleasant mood, feeling overwhelmed and thereby rushing to get the work done.  Though this small boy doesn’t speak much English yet, as I sat there like a stress-ball trying to accomplish the task at hand, he suddenly began to sing a popular church hymn under his breath, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, that you do unto me…”    How quickly my attitude then changed.  A similar experience occurred this week as I was again dressing wounds for another one of our school children.   While I knelt on the ground, pouring water and wiping clean this boy’s dust-covered, little brown feet in preparation to then cleanse his wounds, I was suddenly jolted by the realization: I am washing the feet of Jesus.   I am so unworthy to serve Jesus in these beautiful people, and I so often forget the gift that sits right before me.  I love being able to love them!

A special gift in the past few weeks also included the widening of our Salesian Lay Missionary family here in Maridi.  Two of my brother SLMs came to join in our community, Tom for two weeks and Dan has come permanently!  It's been a gift to enjoy friends- I love my Sister Cait, but a fresh English-fluent, young American face in the mix has been so much fun for all of us!  We miss Tom now that he's gone back to Juba, and we are loving the addition of Dan to our family!  He already fits in perfectly.

There are certainly many unanticipated challenges within this Lenten season, opportunities to recommit to my call here in South Sudan, through both the good and the... less good.  The intricacies of different relationships within the community are certainly stressful at times for all involved, and learning to live as a unified whole in our work and in our recreation isn’t always easy.  I’m also suddenly more and more aware of the rice and beans we eat for 95% of our lunch and dinner meals, and I find it hilarious how my subconscious mind has been recalling food like memories lately.  I’ll be walking down the path to my house and suddenly envision the Seafood Alfredo dish from the Olive Garden, or a Chicken Bites Wrap from the Pub at Franciscan University, or a Cheese steak from the Perk.  Working so much and hardly having any down time is certainly taxing over a period of so many months.  My computer broke and is being sent to America for repair, so in the meantime I have to borrow from my site partners or deal without one.  I’m running out of topics to give talks on after evening oratory.  Sometimes I just want to be in charge of my own schedule.  I’m still like an infant trying to speak Zande language.  How do I respond to a love letter from my student!?!  So many little struggles, small Lenten penances, that are hardly but a bother in the big picture of my incredible life in South Sudan.  I thank Jesus for giving me these tiny opportunities to unite myself to His Passion and Death, so that come Easter Sunday, I will not just have been missing mango juice for forty days, but hopefully I’ll find myself renewed and invigorated amidst His glorious Resurrection. 

"The world offers you comfort, 
but you were not made for comfort; 
you were made for greatness."   
-Benedict XVI

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Learning to Nurse

The hospital has opened!!!

After months of anticipation and expectation, the big moment has finally arrived, and Don Bosco Health Center is a fully functioning health facility.  The first week was void of the overwhelming and stressful emotions anticipated, by the grace of God it was quite peaceful and calm- the polar opposite of my year of nursing at Lehigh Valley Hospital on 6K!! :)  (Shout out to my girls!  Miss you all!)  Since our hospital is staring brand new and the majority of the staff are foreign missionaries new to this culture (except the doctor and laboratory technician who are locals) we are starting out very slowly with the cases we accept in our facility.  Right now simple illness and simple medicines are all, the rest are being referred to Maridi Hospital in town.  Our practice will advance as we gain experience and become more comfortable with the types of patients walking through the door.  For these reasons, and because God is compassionate and merciful, there we no major events in the first week, but a pleasant environment for healing ensued.  It was a consolation after all the nerves in preparation!
Don Bosco Health Center Staff:
Sister Meriline (nurse/supervisor), me, Sister Shanta (assisting),
Dr. Grace, and Stewart (lab tech)
Opening Day Mass
Some patients waiting to see the Doctor
Opening Day
The surprise came in week two.  Over the weekend, Sister Meriline, the head nurse and supervisor of the hospital announced she needed to take another trip to Uganda to reconcile all the discrepancies with our medication order.  No problem… except leaving me as the only nurse in the whole place on my second week of nursing in South Sudan!  Our quiet first week had offered me the experience of giving a few intramuscular injections, a little bit of wound care, and simply passing pills.  Hardly any real nursing at all, which wasn’t a problem for me until a first week of minimal experience left me the RN in charge of whatever would walk through the front door in the week to follow.  Again, my human weakness leaving me worried about something that I knew God would take care of in the end.

The week of Sister’s absence, although different and more challenging than the first, was successful and peaceful.  Inevitably, some serious cases did walk through the door towards the end of the week: two cases of severe malaria in young babies, a young woman who could hardly stand from the effects of advanced typhoid fever, and an elderly man with pneumonia.  Had Sister Meriline been present, I’m certain she would have performed much of the care of these patients, and I left to observe.  Instead of feeling frazzled and unprepared for the tasks that arose, thanks to the circumstances, the outcome was an unexpected emotion: confidence.  Despite the unfamiliar equipment, the list of medications here that we aren’t using in the States, the rusty skills I haven’t been practicing after all these months, yet I was able to tackle all the obstacles that arose.  Nothing so challenging occurred, but every small success left me with a little flower of fulfillment and gratitude for the Lord’s faithfulness.    

In other news, school opens on Monday!  Stoked.  Let the fun begin!

***
“He said not: You shall not be troubled, you shall not be tempted, 
you shall not be distressed.  
But he said: You shall not be overcome.”
-Julian of Norwich