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.