As the plane took off on July 16, heading for Ecuador with Tracy Kemme, my heart was full. I said to her, “This is such a miracle to me! Even six months ago I could not have imagined that I would be going on this great adventure!” The connection with the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill (Greensburg, PA and Korea) and their mission in Pedro Carbo, Ecuador had barely been established. I also was reluctant to make such long-range plans still not quite trusting that my health would hold. But I received the grace to trust that this opportunity was God’s Providence and I said “yes” without a moment’s hesitation. As I mentioned in the previous post, my understanding was that I would be consulting with the Sisters about their ministries in the clinic and school and that Tracy and I would offer a retreat to the staff about the charism of the Sisters of Charity.
Before beginning that experience, Tracy and I spent some days visiting the people and places she had served as a Rostro de Cristo volunteer from 2008-2010. I had decided to just flow with whatever schedule emerged. Tracy had so many friends to visit and I tagged along on some occasions, enjoying the reunions and the chance to experience wonderful Ecuadorian hospitality. Other times I worked on our charism retreat outline and spent some time with the Rostro volunteers who were finishing their year of service. I was deeply impressed by their commitment to simple living, ministry, community and spirituality.
In Duran, across the river from Guayaquil, Tracy took me to the parish and clinic where Sisters of Charity Barbara Padilla, Ruth Jonas and Ann Dorenbusch had served twenty years ago. The clinic, named for St. Elizabeth Seton, has her statue in the main hallway and several of the staff remember our Sisters with great fondness. I saw “Goat Hill” behind the parish where Sister Ruth climbed to find and form small faith communities. In her last newsletter from Ecuador in 1989 Sister Ruth expressed her firm belief that the people would carry on the mission of Jesus in the ministries of preaching and healing. It is evident that they have.
I went to Pedro Carbo a few days ahead of Tracy and connected with the Korean Sisters of Charity. The town is a little more than an hour from Guayaquil/Duran. Four Sisters assumed responsibility for the mission three and a half years ago and it includes a “clinic” and a “school”. They live on the top floor of the clinic which is actually a mini-hospital, offering 24 hour service that includes emergency care and obstetrics. The school serves seventy children with special needs. About half are hearing impaired and half have other physical and mental challenges. Needless to say, the Sisters have their hands full!
Communicating with the Korean missionary SCs our common language was Spanish which made for some hilarious conversations. At lunch soon after my arrival I received a draft schedule for my visit. That was when I realized that I was going to be offering “health checks” to the school children, the teachers and their children, as well as some people out in the countryside. I wasn’t sure exactly what was expected of a “health check” but I remembered the words of Sister Blandina Segale, a great Sister of Charity pioneer in the days of the Wild West: “Do whatever presents itself and never omit anything because of hardship or repugnance.” I decided that I would try to do whatever the Sisters asked. In the bedroom I would be sharing with Tracy was a little drawing of a Korean Sister sleeping in the grass. In Spanish it said “No se preocupe” and I assumed that the Korean letters below spelled out the same message. “Don’t worry.” That became the mantra for the rest of our time in Pedro Carbo.
The next surprise came at the conclusion of Mass in the local parish that evening. In the announcements the pastor invited all the youth of the parish to a retreat day that the Sisters of Charity were offering- and the date and time were the same as the retreat Tracy and I were planning! At each Mass we attended during the following week the priest encouraged “all the youth of the parish” to plan to participate in our retreat day. Tracy and I just looked at each other: No se preocupe!
When the other Sisters from the U.S. (4) and Korea (5) arrived we began the schedule of daily activities at the school: arts and crafts, music, baking, and “health checks”. We worked in little teams that usually were tri-lingual: English, Korean and Spanish. One day Tracy’s music team was assigned to the the class of students who are profoundly deaf. The plan was to put the boombox on the floor and have them sense the vibration for some dancing. Almost immediately the teacher began getting messages in sign language from the students. They couldn’t feel the music! The teacher explained to Tracy in Spanish. She looked at her co-presenter, Sister Sun Hiang, and tried to communicate that they needed to develop a new lesson plan. Somehow it worked and all was well. No se preocupe!
On two occasions we set up our medical “clinic” in little communities an hour away from Pedro Carbo. My experience as a family doctor in the colonias of Texas and Mexico helped me to be comfortable with wherever we set up shop and whatever was available for examinations, diagnosis and treatment. Tracy and Sister Judy, RN were the receptionist/medical assistant and sent with each patient or family group a scrap of paper listing the medical concerns to be addressed. Some of the little notes with commentaries from Tracy almost threw me into hysterics but I tried my best to maintain at least some degree of professional decorum ! Once I looked up to see a dog walking around in the area where a physical therapist was offering treatments to several people laying on mats on the floor. Another time I glanced up as a random pig made its way down the road outside my door. No se preocupe!
It rained steadily on the night before we were to go to the most remote area scheduled for our services. I was sure that we would cancel. The rain and the mud would surely keep everyone away. No se preocupe. The people came. On foot, on burro, on horseback, on bicycle…the people came! I started seeing entire families- sometimes with a few of the neighbor’s children as well- each with a scrap of paper and more of Tracy’s little messages. Sister He Chun, RN was my assistant. She did wound care and packaged little plastic bags of the simple medicines we had brought with us: ibuprofen, vitamins, antacids, tylenol… At some point in the morning everyone was offered soft drinks and sweet rolls. I looked at the line in the reception area and never saw an end. Toward the later part of the morning the families came to us with various craft projects they had made with the other Sisters while they waited for the “health check”. No one complained about the long wait. The final tally for the morning was 86 patients. I was glad I didn’t know that ahead of time!
Tracy and I were also called upon as translators in various situations. We translated the homilies preached in Spanish by Fr. Herbert, a retired missionary from Austria. Then another Sister would translate from the English version into Korean. If you remember the children’s game “telephone” you can imagine that we wondered how things were understood after the last translation. The homilies were especially challenging when Fr. Herbert was delving into some deeper theological waters. I was always grateful to be able to ask Tracy, “Did you get that???” No se preocupe!
The retreat was our last day in Pedro Carbo. We adjusted the format as best we could with the limited resources at hand, in case all the parish youth came! As it turned out, we had about 15 teens and young adults and another 15 staff from the school and clinic. The young folk added a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the group and were wonderful participants. The retreat introduced them to the life and spirituality of St. Elizabeth Seton and it was fascinating to see what elements of her story resonated with them and what inspired them. She truly is a saint with universal appeal: a daughter, wife, mother, widow, convert to Catholicism, teacher, religious sister and founder of the Sisters of Charity. Once again we had nothing to worry about.
As I packed for home I had some time to reflect on the Divine Providence that had directed each moment of my experience in Ecuador. I remembered each person who welcomed me with gracious hospitality, offered a meal or a cold drink, peeled an orange for me to sip the juice, gave me a hand into or out of the van. I gave thanks for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill who invited me to share in their Ecuador immersion and for the charism of Elizabeth Seton that we share.
I know that I will be “unpacking” this experience for a long time. As I uncover more layers of meaning I promise to share them here with you. No se preocupe.