I began reflecting on this trip on the plane ride home. I found Bolivia to be a paradox. It is old, yet new. It is steeped in indigenous tradition, yet secular. It is a country that seems to be “in-between”—emerging, developing, and growing; attributes that I too possess as I try to discern my role in mission.
After spending time with the Lay Missioners, I am now able to answer my own questions. They walk with the people, providing unconditional love, affection, and respect for those most in need, mainly the children, the elderly, the imprisoned, and the disabled.
A large number of Bolivian children live in community in hogares (casas or houses). Reasons for placement vary: extreme poverty, neglect, domestic violence, or lack of family. Lay Missioners offer their time and love, assisting in their care. The children learn that they matter, that they belong, that they are loved. They learn that continuing their education gives them opportunities for success.
Lay Missioners offer unconditional love and respect for the abuelas (grandmas) of Cochabamba—women who have struggled and given of themselves all their lives and now find themselves old, tired, vulnerable, and lonely. Lay Missioners help them obtain the necessary documentation to receive a government stipend, provide them opportunities for companionship, and assure them that, in fact someone does care.
The imprisoned in Bolivia live in community and lead lives very different from prisoners in the US. Each person must find his/her own means of existence and hope; “cells” are bought or rented; meals and even transportation to court must be individually financed. There are no guards within the prison walls. Inmates maintain order in a loose form of democratic government. While the physical conditions are primitive, this system does not sever relationships and family ties. Wives, children, and others, including Lay Missioners, are allowed to come and go freely. Many family members actually reside with the inmates. It is in stark contrast to the US practice of solitary confinement. Lay Missioner Joe Looney who obtained a Bolivian Law degree to better serve the people, provides legal advice; they are truly fortunate to have his assistance.
Bolivians are bringing their disabled and challenged persons out of the shadows and giving them a life with dignity. The Maryknoll Lay Missioners have partnered with the Bolivians involved in this grass-roots endeavor to change the lives of many disabled individuals. Lay Missioner Bill Velicky works alongside these craftsmen and women to design and build custom neurological wheelchairs. These are the first of their kind to be manufactured in Bolivia.
Just as in the entire Maryknoll family of priests, brothers, sisters, and Affiliates, individual Lay Missioners discern how, with their individual talents and interests, they can best serve in mission and use their abilities for the good of the global community.
This FAB trip was truly an immersion trip. We enjoyed traditional food as we ventured from the urban sprawl of Cochabamba to the more rural towns of Tarata, Cliza, and Punata, each with its own distinctive flavor. We were fortunate to be in Quillacollo for the feast of the Virgin of Urkupiña, visiting her famous shrine before the hordes of pilgrims arrived for this most important celebration. We visited the Maryknoll Language Institute in Cochabamba, founded in l965 to acculturate the many missioners who were extending their ministry throughout Latin America. We celebrated cultural night there, with its traditional food and drink, and were treated to an ice cream social that brought all the missioners in the area together. How wonderful it was to be present in a space that speaks volumes of mission, both past and present.
When I am asked, “How was your trip?” my answer is, “Different from any other I have taken.” When asked, “What did you do?” my reply is, “We played with the children, giving them our attention. We met with the elderly, showing them they, too, were worthy of our visit. We celebrated the official opening of a specialized wheelchair factory, and we witnessed the beautiful festival of The Virgin of Urkupiña.” But mostly we were present. We were there to visit and learn, and to BE with the missioners and people of Bolivia with a non-judgmental mind and an open heart.
Did I learn about the Maryknoll Lay Missioners? My answer is: most definitely, yes. Together with other lay mission groups and laity, they walk with the people of Bolivia, offering themselves as a conduit for compassion, justice, and peace to those who are most in need. This is what they do in every country where they serve and in each ministry they choose.
Many thanks to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Bolivia—Joe Looney, Caitlin Reichelderfer, Eileen and Bill Velicky, Minh Nguyen—for giving us the opportunity to meet the people whom they serve. Additional thanks go out to Lay Missioner Director Sam Stanton for answering our many questions and for providing us with a wonderful experience.
Mission happens everywhere that one walks with empathy and compassion for those in need—at home or overseas. While technology is a big help in bridging the communication gap between different countries and languages, there are times one must be physically present to experience God in the other. Perhaps a Friends Across the Border trip will be part of your journey, your chance to GO AND SEE.
For information about upcoming FAB trips, go to: http://www.mklm.org/take-a-trip/mission-immersion-trips/. Santa Orlando’s unabridged article may be read at: http://www.friendsacrossborders.org/newsroom/come-and-see-in-bolivia/.