In this past year, I have been given the opportunity of a lifetime, the pleasure of serving the girls of Hogar Maria Auxilliadora, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. These girls have taught me more than just how to braid their hair in every which way, dance suave like a Bolivian, and speak Spanish, they taught me life lessons I could not have learned anywhere else. Most importantly they have taught me to serve completely selflessly. When many of us serve, we find ourselves serving with the expectation of seeing tangible results from our work or finding some form personal gain. In my time here, however, these girls have taught me to serve completely selflessly. Although these girls and this experience have provided me with more happiness, joy, and love than I could have ever asked for, I have learned how to serve for the sole purpose of the betterment of their lives.
Now what has serving as an SLM done for me? Very simply, it has given me the opportunity to reflect on a life in service. I am reassured I made the right decisions. Walking the Camino de Santiago, I came across this quote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 3:7 I am blessed and so are you.
My experience as an SLM changed my whole life. Prior to going to Bolivia, I was nominally Catholic but living my life as an atheist. Working at the Hogar was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I had to admit pretty early on that I couldn’t do it on my own. So I started praying and relying on God out of pure necessity, and He took that measly offering and drew me into a relationship with Him. With the patience of the Madres, the girls, and our director, and the friendship of my fellow volunteers, that relationship grew to become one of the most important parts of my life. God took everything I thought I knew about myself and turned it on its head. My experience as an SLM helped me to genuinely allow God into my life and acknowledge His care for and control over my life. It made me a better person, and eventually a better teacher, wife, and mother than I ever would have been otherwise.
As an SLM, I learned perseverance and trust. I learned to let God, other people, and even places surprise me with their goodness. I once thought perseverance meant blindly forging ahead while pretending not to be bothered by whatever trials I had to endure. Jesus died for me on the cross, people said, so why couldn’t I just deal with the pain? But perseverance isn’t forging or dealing or comparing. God is not asking me to carry my own cross so that I might impress him with my strength. He is asking me to go beyond the end of myself so that I might learn to rely on him. Perseverance is moving forward while holding on to hope. Along the way, I tell God I can’t do it. This is pointless. It’s not going to work. I want to give up. Then, God whispers to me, "Hold on. Just one more moment." He wants me to keep walking when I can’t see where I’m going because the view from where he is leading me is better than anything I could imagine.
My year as a volunteer with the SLM program completely changed my life. I knew that God would use this year to bring me closer to Him, but I had no idea just how much I would grow. The biggest lesson that I learned was in how to trust the Lord completely and fully. I realized that for most of my life I was only pretending to trust in God’s plan for my life while really relying on myself and my own choices. Simply saying “yes” to serving with the Salesians was a huge step of trust for me because this was something I never would have planned for my own life. That is how I knew without a doubt that it was God’s will for me and not my own.
Throughout the year, there were many times when my trust was tested. There were times that could have (and really should have) been scary or overwhelming, but when I relied on the Lord instead if myself, He brought great comfort. He didn’t make difficult times easy, but he made them beautiful and fruitful. He brought joy into simple moments and He showed me the love of His son in daily interactions. There are a million things I learned this year as an SLM and I won’t take the time to write them out now, but I will say that I am confident that it was exactly were God wanted me to be and exactly what I needed to continue my journey to Heaven. I learned things about myself and about my faith that I don’t think I could have seen so clearly in any other circumstance and I am forever grateful.
I went hoping to give love and learned that I was sent to receive it. My looks, my previous professions, my age did not matter…I was loved by the children for simply being. On the rough days, when nothing else made sense, giving and receiving love from the children kept me grounded and reminded me of my purpose.
What have I learned from my experience in Bolivia? PRESENCE! And I mean being present, as in totally in the present moment and also aware of my presence at the hogar. I was asked not too long after I came back what my role was while I was down there. It’s been a year since I’ve been back, and I still haven’t got a clue, but I do know that God wanted me to be present to those girls…to just be there is enough-working and studying side by side with them. I am enough, and if I truly believe that, then hopefully those girls can believe that as well. That they are beloved daughters of God, just as I am. I am not going to change the world, the hogar, or anything that is wrong with society, but I am enough. My presence is enough, and my impact-frankly-doesn’t even matter compared to the love that we shared for our brief moment in time together. I continue to take that love and that PRESENCE with me everywhere I go.
I have learned many things spending a year with the SLM program. Living in community, working with the youth, giving back to God through service what He has bestowed on me in the way of gifts and talents, being more independent and trying new things and loving and receiving love unconditionally.
Being an SLM gave me the opportunity to discover my inner, God-given strength and resilience because I faced challenges and adversity that were unique to the country and community I lived in. I experienced situations that I would never have encountered in the United States, and as result, I have the confidence that I can go anywhere in the world and not just survive, but actually thrive. The resilience I discovered as an SLM will allow me to pull through any stressful situation in the future.
The most profound thing I learned was the abundance of God’s grace. That his love for me is never ending. I fell in love with the Bolivian people and that is only a portion of the love that God has for all of us. And I need to extend that grace to His people. And through that grace, we are our brother’s keeper. We need to give what we have and safeguard the welfare of those in need.
As an SLM the most important thing I learned was that you are the one who is blessed by serving others!
God blessed me in ways I couldn’t have imagined and answered my deepest questions about life when when I gave him of my time talents and treasures through service!
Years after my mission, I still talk frequently about what I’ve learned and what has changed for me as a result of being a Salesian Lay Missioner. I think the most obvious lesson I learned is what I’m truly passionate about–helping children and communities in the most difficult situations have voice and support. Working closely with the Salesians, I also had a newfound understanding of the realization of faith in action and the necessity of compassion. I’m grateful that I have continuing relationships with my fellow missioners and Salesians I lived with, and the experience completely changed my life.
The Salesian Lay Missioner experience broadened my horizons and exposed me to a new culture, and different a way of life — one of poverty, simplicity, and joy– a lifestyle that many people around the globe live. I carry that with me every moment of every day.
Upon returning from my SLM experience, I made the decision to work in an area of poverty in the U.S. and attempt to serve those in my community the best way I can. Although I lead a life of privilege compared to those in dire conditions around the world, I try to live simply, and make decisions that would most positively affect those around me and around the globe. To be blessed with so much, and to be able to have an experience like the SLM experience is an overflowing of God’s love. I now try to live up to what God wants for me because through this experience I realize I have been given so much, and “to whom much is given, much will be expected.”
I learned that happiness is hidden in simplicity and humility. I learned that God provides when you abandoned yourself in His providence. I learned that no matter what you’re going through, there are always more reasons to be happy than to be sad. I learned that leaving everything behind is hard but it also provides a deep sense of freedom. I learned that God has a purpose for every single detail in our life, even if that means loosing 12 teeth :-)! I learned how to be me, to live from within and to not fear expressing who I really am. I learned that love is a decision, not a feeling. That you have to choose who and how to love, and every decision in life requires sacrifice. I learned that there is growth in consistency. I learned that life is about giving. I learned that love is the cure for this world. I learned how to live.
Just love the children that you are going to work with, think of the longing that they may need from whatever the hurting that they may be going through, and do exactly as Saint John Bosco has taught from all his teaching (you can not improve on what he has perfected) and remember St. John Bosco’s words, "Love what the children Love, and they will come to Love what you Love".
I learned that I was both stronger and weaker than I thought I was. Mission brought out an ability to persevere which I didn’t know I had in me and which carried me through difficult situations; yet I realized that I couldn’t muster this perseverance on my own — only the Holy Spirit inspired and sustained it.
I will say that there are many things I learned from my experience as a Salesian Lay Missioner. Many of them are everyday things that provide a deeper understanding of the great opportunities and gifts we have in the United States, but as well realizing that happiness can and does exist in simplicity, which is one of the things I loved and miss about Bolivia.
The greatest thing that I learned is trust; particularly trust in God. There are many obstacles that hinder our ability to trust God, others and ourselves. They may be past experiences, doubt, fear, etc. To be a great Christian – no matter your social or educational background, we all need to rely on God and we are able to do this through trust. It is the most challenging thing to do as adult American because we are cultured to become independent citizens after leaving our parents. However, being a missionary my sense of dependency (or perhaps, co-dependency) on God was revived. Trusting God enabled me to further trust in the gifts God has given to me and then that trust was extended to others.
As an SLM I learned and experienced the love of Christ. That even though we have differences and at times face hardships and trials, the love of Christ lives above all else! Being an SLM taught me about our call to love others and gave a sense of passion to the mission that Christ calls us all to. It helped strengthen my beliefs by turning the written Word of God into an action in my everyday life. To read and pray with the Scriptures is truly important, but to live and experience the Gospel as a missionary gave a whole new meaning to Christs commandment to ‘love one another as He has loved us’ (cf. John 13:34).
In my year as a Salesian Lay Missioner, the greatest lesson God had prepared for me was how to face my failures with an attitude of Christian charity. I was nowhere near being a perfect missionary, but I learned to accept my mistakes, be humbled by them, and offer them back to God. I came to realize as an SLM that God wants all of me (even the parts of myself I try to hide from him) and that despite my brokenness, He can work through me to greet the children he entrusted to my care.
The greatest joy I had during my time at Don Bosco Da Lat was participating in the prayer life of the Brothers and Priests I lived with. While the schedule was quite demanding, it was extremely rewarding spiritually. My prayer life was so rich during my year even though there were many times when I was unable to follow along in English and didn’t understand what was being said. I experienced tremendous spiritual growth during my time on mission.
Next was witnessing how fully the Priests and Brothers live their faith. Even in hardship and through intense work schedules the joy they have in serving Christ was a blessing for me to have been able to observe and be a part of.
Lastly, while there were many many things I learned and grew from as a result of. The vitality of the Catholic faith in Vietnam was striking. I expected to witness religious suppression but I was pleased to find that expression of Catholicism was wonderfully evident everywhere I went. The number of Catholic churches amazed me and the number of homes displaying statues and “shrines” to Mary and Jesus by far outnumbered what we see in the US. They literally put us to shame.
I really learned what Mother Teresa meant when she said:
The fruit of silence is prayer
The fruit of prayer is hope
The fruit of hope is love
The fruit of love is service
The fruit of service is peace
I also learned to celebrate every day with true fervor, to absolutely dance at every party or gathering, to have some of my all time laugh attacks with co-volunteers, to party like a banshee with 120 orphan girls, to enjoy and respect the human side of religious sisters, and to happily live in an entire house that is smaller than my current kitchen.