Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sister Teresa

                Sister Teresa is 87 years old but has dementia so she thinks she’s about 72, depending on the day. I’d believe she was 72 simply by looking at her lively spirit! Sister Teresa brings joy to everyone she speaks to. She used to be a music teacher so she’s always ready for a song or a beat and lights up at the chance to sing together. She can hardly follow a conversation for five seconds (literally) but she’s always asking you about yourself. I’ve introduced myself to her each time I see her and she never fails to make me feel like the most special person in the world, let alone in the room.

                Just the other day I went upstairs to be with her at our usual time. Little did I know, my day was about to become unforgettable. I sat next to her and she said, “Hello lovey, what’s your name?”

“Christy!” I responded.

“Ah, that’s nice! Where are you from?” she asked with a shining smile.

“I’m from America!” I told her.

                And then what I never thought would happen, happened. She remembered me!! I was overjoyed. We talked and sang and I read to her and we had a jolly old time. But then it was time to leave. She became very anxious and with a terrified look on her face, exclaimed, “But I don’t want to lose you again!” My heart sank. I told her that she wouldn’t lose me and that I’d see her tomorrow. And with the look of a small, scared child being dropped off at school on their first day, she said, “I love you”.

                I told her that I loved her more and then had to rush out of the room before I started crying. I don’t know why people get dementia. I’ve been thinking about it a lot while I’ve been here. My theory is that it must serve as some sort of purgatory during our time on earth so that, maybe, it will be shorter when we die. It seems to me to be the truest test of faith. In the moments when you can tell that Sister Teresa is terrified, she repeats to herself, “Jesus, help me”. Though her mind is gone, she finds the strength and willpower to continually invite God into her heart. It really opens your eyes.

                When Sister Teresa exclaimed, “I don’t want to lose you again”, I couldn’t help but think that this is how God must feel when we begin to turn our minds away from Him. But He’s always right there, loving us, patiently waiting for us to say hello again. It’s impossible to grasp the extent of His love. But it’s beautiful to ponder.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Sisters of Cowley, Oxford

It's been a little over a month since I arrived and I guess it's about time I posted another blog! There exists a Salesian newsletter of sorts and this month it is focused on the sisters of Cowley, Oxford. I've been asked to write a little something for the column about my short and sweet time here, so I'll just pass it along to this blog. Here it is:

The House of the Love of God

                Mother Mary Mazzarello referred to the first home for the Salesian sisters as “the House of the Love of God”. After living with the Salesian sisters of Cowley, Oxford for a little over a month now, I believe she was really onto something. I have never before witnessed the Love of God so visibly everywhere I turn. Each one of the 14 sisters here is like a mirror of Christ reflecting His light throughout the house, making it ever so bright and cheerful even on the rainy days.

                The halls seem to be flowing with graces bringing peace and joy to every room. It’s really as if God’s rays of love shed light even the shadowy areas, as I have not experienced one of those “bad days” that I recall existing before my time here began. Surely this experience is attainable outside of these walls. It must be. God is so present and tangible here and I have no doubt that this is heightened by His warm, welcome invitation into the hearts of so many beautiful women living together for His purpose. If there is just one of the countless lessons I’m learning here that I could choose to carry with me through my life, it would be the unceasing oneness with Christ found in every heart.

                My time here is a blessing. I cannot put into words the impact this one month has had on me. I came to help but am receiving so much more. My duties include gardening, painting fences, helping around the house in various areas, and providing stimulation by engaging with the sisters. I would hardly call these “duties”, though, as I would choose to partake in all of them without being asked! Before I arrived, I did not foresee the days of sheer joy I would have in my Oxford home. I am forever grateful to the sisters for unknowingly deepening my love and wonder of God and I will always remember this time in my life that is trimmed in gold!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Trail of Love

                I am a missionary. I have been sent out into the world on a mission for Christ, to leave behind a blazing trail of love that leads others to Him. This is hard to wrap my mind around sometimes. There are moments when I ponder the formation I’m receiving and I almost feel as if these months abroad are simply preparation for the mission of the rest of my life. And that’s exactly how it should be. If there’s a time in my life when I feel stagnant, as though I’m not actively becoming the best version of myself, that’s when I’ll start to worry. I mean, wouldn’t it be silly to say that the height of my spiritual life was during my mission? As if afterwards, I’m just going to revert to how I thought, prayed, and lived before my mission began? May God give me the grace to always continue upwards towards Him, bringing as many of His children with me along the way!

                God provides so many opportunities for this if we are just open to Him. He’ll do all the work! He makes it so easy if we just cooperate with Him! Yesterday was a fine example of just this. I went to London to visit a friend from Texas and when our visit was over, I was ready to explore London on my own. I was so excited to take on the city without a wingman; free to go where I please and do whatever I like! But God had His own plan and boy, He is so creative! Old Street underground station happened to be closed for the weekend, so I headed off walking in who-knows-what direction in search of another station. Along comes this boy who looks to be about my age, casually walking the same way as me. I asked him if he knew what was up ahead and by the sound of his thick Dutch accent, I knew he wouldn’t give me the answer I was looking for. He was from Amsterdam, just in London for a couple of days for a job interview, and asked me if I wanted to join him for the day since we both had nothing planned. I was extremely skeptical and hesitant, but after pretending as if I didn’t hear the question the first time, I reluctantly agreed the second time he asked me.

                My new friend, Ruben, ended up being an incredibly beautiful person and I will never forget the day we spent together. He was ever so gentle and one of those people in whom Jesus is so visibly seen. He randomly asked me, out of nowhere, if I was religious. I was so taken aback because we hadn’t spoken of anything having to do with God or religion up until this point. I immediately thought, “What is God up to?!” With a shocked expression, I anxiously answered, “Yes!! Why?! How did you know?!” He simply laughed and said it was just a question. He was simply curious. And with that, Christ was so tangibly with us for the rest of the day, laced in and out of comments and conversations. How beautiful and comforting life becomes when He is invited!

                My day spent with Ruben was very special to me. I don’t know if our encounter will bring him closer to God, but I trust God’s plan and I have a feeling He brought us together for a reason. I have this beautiful image of our day spent together, traveling all over London, and everywhere we went we left behind a fiery trail of love leading to God!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Adios and Hello!

August 14, 2013

I’ve been in Oxford, England for a week today and never thought it could fly by so quickly. I live in a convent for the sick and elderly nuns where you’d think the time slowly drags by, but I can assure you that this is not the case. I don’t know where the hours fly off to!

Just one week ago I was saying goodbye to my friends in Spain. Bidding farewell to people more affectionate, welcoming, and loving than any I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. The girls from the salon who I taught English to invited me to go to lunch before I left and it was so much fun! At the end of the meal, they all surrounded me and gave me a big photo of us all together on which they each wrote a special goodbye note. I was not expecting this and it really warmed my heart. A couple of the girls began crying and everyone seemed to be looking at me as if asking, “Why aren’t you crying, too?!” This actually happened more than once during my last few days of goodbyes. I usually am a crier! This time in my life is so different for me, though. I’ve never before felt so content with each passing day. It’s hard to cry when you’re so filled with joy! I have to admit: I did cry the final night.

Everyone from my apartment (plus a few others) returned to El Bailadero as they do each summer for 15 days. My last two days were spent there and I was grateful for this because I could spend as much time as possible with the kids right before I left. My last night was very calm and relaxing. When all the girls in my room were in bed reading, I walked in and began crying because I guess it finally hit me that I might not see my Canarian friends again. Their reaction was so touching; it just reinforced in my mind how beautiful and special these people are! They all started running around, trying to make me laugh and finding anything they could give me as a farewell present to remember them by! It was quite funny, actually, and looking back on it now it looks like a sitcom. I tried to refuse their gifts, but this is actually IMPOSSIBLE with Spaniards. They each gave me something that really meant a lot to them but I could tell that it meant more to them that I have it. Of course, this just made me cry more. It was a silly night!

And with that, my time in Spain came to an end. I really can’t put into words the love that was shown to me over these past three months. I have learned an incredible amount simply through the friendships that I’ve formed and I will carry these lessons with me throughout my life. I don’t know if I made any impact whatsoever on the people in return, but now I can keep them in my prayers every day! Now they have one more person praying for them. That’s quite special, if you ask me.

This brings us to Oxford! I’m in England!! HOW COOL! So far, everything about it is like night and day compared to Spain. I must say, however, that the people here have really surprised me as well. I assumed they would be a little colder and more closed-off, but no! Everyone here smiles at you on the street and says, “Ello! How are you?!” in their cute, little British accents!

I live with 15 sisters in a convent for the sick and elderly. They informed me that the school next door doesn’t open until September, so I’ll just be hanging around the house until then and helping with whatever I can! The sister in charge, Sister Anne, created a timetable for me in which each day I spend some time engaging with a different sister. All of the sisters are so beautiful and full of love! It’s inspiring! You feel God everywhere in the house. These women are so holy. I have much to learn from them. Three of the sisters who stay upstairs most of the time have dementia. I spent today with an ‘upstairs sister’, as I call them, and let me tell you…I’m going to cherish my health and my youth more than ever. How quickly our lives will slip by! In fact, I’m going to go for a jog right now. More to come later!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

July 27, 2013

                Eleven days and counting until I leave Spain and head for England. How quickly the time has passed! The week-long camp in El Bailadero was a great experience. El Bailadero is a big piece of property in Telde, close to Las Palmas, owned by the Salesians. It has a pool, gardens, a huge outdoor dining area, and a ton of beauty. During the week I mostly helped in the kitchen, learning so many new recipes and cooking tricks to take home with me. When I wasn’t helping in the kitchen, I was bonding with the kids. This camp was a completely different experience from the last. The kids were older and better-behaved, and it was so cool to sleep in the huge tents and bunk bed cots provided by the Spanish army! Some soldiers came on the last day to take them down while we all just sat and admired how quickly they worked.

                The most meaningful part of the camp for me was one night when I had to share my experience with the older kids. One of the sisters in charge, Sor Remé, approached me and said that the activity for the night was for the kids to listen to four special speakers, one of which was me! I told her I’d love to and that I’d go prepare something immediately. I asked if I should be ready after dinner and she replied, “No, we’ll begin in about 10 minutes”. I was nervous; I’m not going to lie! This was my chance to speak to the kids about having a relationship with God and I didn’t want to mess anything up! But I told Him to please speak for me, because He could do a much better job than I could. That’s for sure.

                We gathered in a big, empty, beautiful house on the property that was pretty much completely empty. Each speaker waited in a different room and the four groups of kids would rotate. I sat on the floor and anxiously waited for the first group to enter. When the door opened, the kids ran in and sat on the floor with me, forming a circle. It felt so friendly and comfortable, like I was about to share my life story with a bunch of my closest friends! They were so patient with my Spanish, helping me when I couldn’t find the right word, and they were so interested in my story. I think this was a new experience for them to talk to a girl somewhat close to their age who had a real relationship with God. They asked so many questions when I had finished speaking (and sometimes when I hadn’t finished speaking, which was funny). They seemed surprised that this girl who they’d been hanging out with for the week had this whole other side to her that they never knew about. It was so beautiful to speak openly with teenagers about God! This is a critical, formative time in their lives when they’re trying to fit in and define themselves. I hope that my words sink in and inspire each of them to seek a closer relationship with God. I wanted them to see that being passionate about the faith is an attractive quality in a person. Judging by their wide eyes and excitement in learning more about this way of life, I think this was a whole new idea for them. This night was an incredible experience for me because I felt that for the first time in Las Palmas—for the first time during my mission—I was actually spreading the word of God WITH WORDS. I do believe that actions speak louder than words. But having even one night of speaking with others about the faith was very special and I will never forget it. I did my best and the rest is in God’s hands.

                I had to leave the camp for two days to travel to another island called Tenerife for the graduation of my friend, Namibia. The night I left, all the kids were busy with an activity, but just as I was getting in the car they seemed to swarm from all directions! They were so upset that I was leaving (even though I told them I was going to return) and they said, in English, “You’re the best English person EVER!” Once they realized I was coming back, they calmed down, but this was so touching to me that as we drove away I actually started tearing up even though I was coming back in just two days! The people here are so incredibly loving. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Anyway, Tenerife was amazing. I didn’t get to see very much of it but what I did see, I loved. It is very similar to Gran Canaria, but greener. And it was so cool to see a Spanish graduation ceremony! Namibia is a psychology major, just like me, and this ceremony was only for psychology majors, which consisted of 78 students. The love and endless generosity that Namibia and her family showed me was very humbling and I feel blessed and honored to have had these people enter my life.

                To top it all off, one day after returning from Tenerife, I turned around and hopped on a boat to Fuerteventura! This was really a vacation. I feel so spoiled! There were seven of us exploring the endless beaches of this island for three days. We were a jolly little group, packed in a big black van and getting darker and darker (or in my case, redder and redder) each day. Fuerteventura is about the same size as Gran Canaria but most of the time it felt like the island was empty except for us! This is the island that all of the “giris” (foreigners) travel to for vacation, so the only people we encountered were from Ireland, England, or Germany. The people who worked in the snack shack next to our pool didn’t even speak Spanish, which was weird. It was interesting to see super white people again!

                That’s it for now! I have less than two weeks left and it’s time to start preparing my goodbyes. I’m excited to go to England, mostly because I can speak naturally with people there, but honestly I don’t want to leave Spain. I’ll just have to come back! That’s all there is to it!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

July 13, 2013

                You know the expression, “You won’t miss it ‘til it’s gone”? Gran Canaria is one of those places that I already miss and I haven’t even left yet! I’ve been away from my country, my home, my friends and family, for months at a time in the past and awaited the day of my return with great anticipation. Now, however, I find myself clinging to each day that I have here. Yes, there are brief moments when I miss my family and friends, but I’ve never felt so content with each passing day. The feeling of being exactly where you’re meant to be is unlike any other. I love letting God live through me! Some days are harder than others and I need to constantly remind myself to hand the wheel over to Him, but man, how much smoother life is in His hands!

                When asked what my favorite part about Gran Canaria is, I never hesitate to respond, “La gente” (the people). I thought people in Texas were friendly! This place is overrun by happy people. I don’t know if it’s the amazing weather or something in the paella, but I’ve never met so many loving people in one place. Even the residents from Polvorin, who have so little, are always smiling and ecstatic to say hello. Heck, even the dogs are happier. They play with rocks! No joke! Meanwhile, back in the US, how many toys do our dogs have? It’s funny because the Spanish have a reputation for being passionate and this is still the case here, yet you’ll witness a woman screaming her head off at her son and then turn around and make a joke, seeming completely peaceful. Unlike other places I’ve visited, the happiness here is not an act. The Canarians are truly joyful people.

                Another characteristic that I love about Canarians is their openness about everything. The first couple of weeks I was here, I was a little shocked by some of the things people would say to each other. For example: “You’ve gotten fatter”, or one blatantly confessing their love for a certain someone else. More surprise followed upon seeing the calm reaction of the recipient, which told me that this type of banter is completely normal and accepted here. Everyone is so real and open about their feelings. I love it!

                Now that I’ve rambled on about my love for Gran Canaria, I’ll give a recap about what’s been going on here. I have another camp beginning Monday and this time we actually get to sleep outside! There will be about 90 kids and 15 monitors. I’m so excited! This time the kids will range from 11-16 years of age, so I’m sure it’ll be a completely different experience than the previous camp. They’ll be visiting from different islands as well. Speaking of which, I was invited to visit two other islands during my stay here! Next weekend I’ll be in Tenerife for a friend’s graduation and then Fuerteventura the following weekend for a surprise goodbye gift for one of the sisters. Who would’ve thought I’d get the chance to visit other islands during my time here?! I still feel like I’m living in a dream. I can’t even begin to count my blessings. God’s love will never cease to amaze me!

Monday, July 1, 2013

June 30, 2013

                Today was the last day of a six-day camp we held for the kids from Polvorin (the very poor neighborhood). It was an all-day camp, beginning at 8:45 or 9 and ending anywhere between 10 and 12 at night. It was much more of a success than any of us imagined! It was great not only for the kids, but for the parents and the monitors as well. We had different activities each day: we went to the beach, the science museum, the library, a fire station (THAT WAS SO COOL), a beautiful, secluded pool, a water park, as well as different activities around the neighborhood. We were prepared for disaster basically the whole way through the camp but the kids really surprised us! I’ve never seen them so well behaved as they were during the field trips. They actually sat and listened to the presentations and were engaged and asking questions. The activities and games around the neighborhood were actually geared towards teaching the kids a different lesson each day, little did they know. For example, one day we played games that necessitated fighting, like musical chairs. Then, afterwards, we would get into groups and discuss why violence is so hurtful and should never be used. The kids debated, of course, but you could see the seeds being planted and their minds wrapping around the idea of loving one’s neighbor more and more.

                Each night, we would gather in the neighborhood church, San Francisco de Padua, and eat dinner together at a big table. The mothers of the kids volunteered daily to prepare dinner. They were so grateful to have the whole day free! They actually asked us if we could extend the camp for ten more days. Unfortunately, we were all exhausted after six. The last day of the camp, we began with mass and ended with a huge paella lunch where all members of the family were welcome! The kids were very sad to say goodbye, so I want to see if we can arrange a day each week where we all meet at the park. They’re the most energetic, crazy little rascals I’ve ever met but I love each one very much.

                Back at my apartment, the kids are home all day since school’s out for the summer. Something must be done about the boy I mentioned in my last post. The younger boys are taking after him very quickly and believe me, one is enough. What he needs is someone with him at all times, preferably a man. The educators and I have been discussing what can be done because things cannot keep going on the way they are. I feel so sorry for them because they are up to their eyeballs with stress. They say there is no money to hire another worker but I’m sure we can find another volunteer like me who can stay for a year or so. Yes, it’s just a year, but a year is better than nothing. Please pray that we can find someone!! We need a miracle with this boy.

It’s funny. I’ve been here for almost two months and still feel that this experience is so unreal. I bought my ticket to the UK the other night. I’ll be leaving Las Palmas on August 7th. I also said my first teary-eyed goodbye to a friend here, Sor Aurora, one of the three Salesian sisters that I work with, who left for Italy and won’t be back until the end of August. One by one as we say goodbye, it is bittersweet because on the one hand I wonder if I’ll ever see these people again, yet on the other I know that each person has taught me so much in their own way. They’ve shown me through their example—their kindness, compassion, and selflessness—such a beautiful way to live. I know that in the months and years to come, I’ll look back on a friend from Las Palmas and not feel sadness from missing them, but joy from the memories of the enriching experience I shared with them.

                Also, HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, MOM AND DAD!!!