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.


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