My childhood dream was to participate in a mission abroad. When I heard about the Salesian Lay Missioners (SLM) program, I applied immediately—and very quickly discovered myself working at an orphanage for girls in Bolivia.
I was elated; I was living my dream! Yet, as always, the devil seeks to steal our joy. It wasn’t long before doubt crept in: Am I actually ‘doing mission’ well? I wondered. Are my efforts worthy?
Sure, I work hard for the 17 girls, ages 1-7, under my care. I change diapers; feed them; bathe them; dress them; and tell bedtime stories. But mission is more than just service. There’s a spiritual element at work, too; or at least there should be!
I know so many wonderful people engaged in mission work in the U.S. and abroad, and so many of them experience meaningful spiritual connections with the people whom they serve. These missioners provide religious education, engage in deep conversations, and sometimes they even bring others back to the Church. But I certainly don’t have deep conversations with toddlers and young children. Was I missing something? How could I best serve my girls from a spiritual perspective, when so much of my job is rooted in pure practicality?
I brought these questions to God in prayer. And He offered His answer!
This orphanage where I serve divides girls into one of several dormitories, based upon their age. I work with the youngest girls, ages 2-7. As we neared the end of the most recent school year, it became clear that one of the girls, living in a dorm for older children, was going to be demoted to mine. Her name was Veronica, and she had failed the first grade. The Sisters who run the orphanage believed she would benefit from being placed in a different setting, with a smaller group of girls.
“Every person, and especially every child, has a right to know that they are loved, that they are precious children of God, and that they are wanted!”
While I agreed with the Sisters, the news hit my heart like a ton of bricks. I imagined how deeply this move would affect such a sweet little girl. I remembered sobbing when I had received my first “bad grade.” I remembered the pain of moving schools and losing friends. I couldn’t imagine enduring such a failure so publicly, and without any parental support.
Time to be a missionary!
Before Veronica even stepped foot in my dorm, she became one of “my girls.” I prayed for her. I played with her. And every time I saw her, I gave her a huge bear hug, and begged, “Vero, when are you coming to live with me in our dorm? When are you coming? I’m waiting! I want you here so bad! How much longer do I have to wait?”
She always gave me her biggest smile as she assured me, “Soon, soon! I’m coming, I promise!”
We played this game almost every day, for two months, before Vero came to live in my dorm. When she finally arrived, she brought nothing with her—for she had nothing to bring. She simply marched in, glowing with confidence, and announced, “Eden! I am here now. I am here to live with you!”
I hugged her tightly and swung her around. I had never heard such a giggle, or seen such a smile. Mission accomplished! I thought. Months passed without any problems. I even forgot about our game!
Every night, as I put the girls to bed, I give them each a hug, a kiss, a fist bump and a high five. (Elaborate, I know, but they love it.) Months after Veronica had first joined us, she chose one particular night to pose an important question.
Like so many of my girls, Vero usually hugs me as hard, or as fast, as possible—but this time, she offered such a gentle, long hug, that I was taken aback.
Without letting go, she quietly asked, “Eden, you want me, right? You wanted me here with you. Right?”
Holding her tightly, I assured her, “Of course, Vero, of course. I love you, and I want you here!”
On the verge of tears, I wondered if anyone had ever told her this before. How could I ever have thought of my job as “purely practical?”
Later, as I lay in bed listening to the crickets, toads, and motorcycles that characterize a Bolivian night, I reflected on why I was really in Bolivia. And it is this:
Jesus sent his disciples to bring the gospel, or “Good News,” to the world. The Good News is that we are redeemed; we are loved; we are wanted by the only person who matters. And it is our job as Christians to teach others about God’s love by modeling it for the people we serve.
On the surface, my job in Bolivia is to take care of 17 rambunctious little girls. But now, thanks to Vero, I understand that my mission is to ensure that each one of them hears the Good News. Every person, and especially every child, has a right to know that they are loved, that they are precious children of God, and that they are wanted!
Veronica is thriving in her new dorm; she is certain to finish this year well and advance to the second grade. Since that evening when she asked me if she was wanted, I’ve been calling her by a new nickname, Querida, which often translates as “Dear.” But for Veronica and me, it’s more than that. The word querida comes from the verb querer, meaning “to want,” or “to love.”
And so she is wanted, and loved. Just like you.
Now, go tell someone else.