I was on the last leg of the journey home from ten days in Ecuador with the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, Korean and US provinces. It gave me a good bit of time to begin to reflect on my third opportunity to experience the mission of Charity shared by congregations who trace their roots to St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac and most especially St. Elizabeth Seton.
Five Sisters from the U.S. province and five from the Korean province spent a week on mission with the Korean SCs in Pedro Carbo, a small town north of Guayaquil. The Korean province assumed responsibility for a small clinic and a school for children with special needs five years ago. Tracey Horan and I helped with Spanish translation and offered some service with the other visitors in the school. We also facilitated a retreat day for the Sisters and staff. For me, it was a joyful reunion with the Sisters on mission and their dedicated co-workers. I saw the progress they have made at the school which serves mentally and physically challenged children along with the hearing impaired. They have added a program for early childhood intervention and enhanced opportunities for occupational, physical and speech therapy. They even have a music therapist on a two year commitment with the Korean equivalent of the Peace Corps.
As the days passed and we offered our ministries with students, teachers and parents, I often reflected on the words of St. Vincent: “The reverence with which we minister has greater importance than what we do.” During my own preparations for the trip, I had reminded myself that I was going to learn and to receive much more than I was going to do or to give. My goal was to stretch my awareness and grow my understanding of the needs of these sisters and brothers in Christ. Humble service would be a point of encounter. We would be mutually enriched according to the degree that we could serve with reverence.
In so many ways we experienced our interdependence. We depended on the teachers to communicate in sign language for the students for us, on the cook to show us how to prepare food for the school lunch, on each other for tri-lingual translation from morning prayer to evening Mass. We offered art projects, music and dance. The students, teachers and therapists gave handmade mementos to take home and performed songs, dances, poems and dramas for us. We offered classes to parents on nutrition and the experience of happiness. We were given delicious and nutritious Ecuadorean cuisine and we saw firsthand what genuine happiness looks like.
On Sunday we said good-bye to the Sisters in Pedro Carbo and we flew to Quito, high in the Andes. We visited the “Mitad del Mundo”, the zero latitude point that marks the division between the North and South hemispheres. We learned about the multicultural aspects of Ecuador and the scientific curiosities unique to the equator. But I couldn’t stop thinking about being at the edge of two hemispheres. My life has been almost exclusively lived in the reality of the North and West. But for the past ten days I had been immersed in the South and East, thanks to my Ecuadorean friends and the Korean Sisters.
On so many levels I was invited to hear, see, think, taste and feel life from a different reality. Beyond the most basic instructions that gave me pause, e.g. “Don’t brush your teeth with water from the faucet”, deeper questions surfaced as they always do when I am confronted with the great disparities of life. Why can some of us waste gallons of potable water every time we let the water run as we brush our teeth or flush the toilet while many others have no clean water to drink? Why must some people live with the smell of car exhaust and unending noise of the street while others enjoy the privilege of fresh air and quiet? Why would some people be happy to have the “extra” clothes that we could leave behind and not even miss them from the closet? My own questions kept coming and they made me uncomfortable.
Standing at the equator I was conscious that although half of the globe was south of me, way more than fifty percent of the people in this world live with less than I have always taken for granted. I have been blessed with opportunities beyond imagination and through no merit of my own. The experiences of the past ten days are included in those. How will I allow myself to be changed by them?
When the disciples returned from their big “mission trip” telling Jesus about all they had seen and done, he said to them, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to
hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10:23-24. So I ask myself another uncomfortable question: “What responsibility comes with such seeing and hearing?” The answer might be found in the very next section of Luke’s Gospel. Someone who wanted to test Jesus asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered with a question, “What does the Law say?” The inquisitor-turned-defendant replied that we must love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. “But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10: 29
In my heart I am still standing at the “Mitad del Mundo”, hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan. How will I be neighbor to the more than half of the world left at the side of the road?