Come and See… in Bolivia

by Santa Orlando- Maryknoll Affiliate – Albany, NY who recently participated in the Maryknoll Lay Missioner’s Friends Across Borders (FAB) program in Bolivia.

BO-PMD15_07783I am a Maryknoll Affiliate. I have met many Affiliates from the states and some from other countries. I know the history of the Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers and Sisters. I have spent time with Maryknoll Sisters serving in Guatemala as well as in Ossining, NY. I frequent the Knoll as often as I can attending conferences and celebrations, to visit the bookstore, to attend an Institute class or just to have lunch with a Maryknoll Sister. Yet, I did not know the heart of the Lay Missioners, I had not spent time engaging them in conversation or observing them in ministry. I found myself asking the questions, who are they? and what do they do? The need to know led me to experience a FAB (Friends Across the Border) trip to Bolivia. I needed to be immersed into the culture and reality of their everyday lives. Our group consisted of 14 travelers, ten of which were from Maine. Sam Stanton, Director of the Lay missioners, met up with us a day or two later. I met up with the entire group at the airport in Miami, equipped with my carryon luggage, a positive attitude and the willingness to participate fully in the experience.

I began this reflection while on the flight home to the states. I can only describe Bolivia as old, new, advanced, primitive, secular, and steeped in Indigenous tradition, truly a paradox in every way. This country is filled with the human family; they live their lives in familiar ways and ways I would never have imagined. This country seems to be “in-between” – it is emerging, developing, and growing; just as I am, as I continue to discern my own role in mission.

So what was my experience? What did I see? What are the Lay Missioners about? The answer: unconditional love, affection and respect for those most in need.

BO-PMD15_07586Unconditional love and affection for the children. Love and affection for the children in the many Hogars (casas or houses) where they live in community with other children learning that they matter, that they belong, that they are loved and have opportunities. Love, and extra attention for the children who are struggling to read. These children are learning that they can succeed, that they are capable; they are developing the internal self confidence needed to be a contributing member of society. Bolivia is doing what it can to care for the children and ensure that they get an education; they remove the children from the home – the US does not, two different ways to achieve the same goal.

BO-PMD15_08315Unconditional love and respect for the abuela’s (grandma’s) of Cochabamba, those that have struggled and given throughout their lives now find themselves old, tired, vulnerable and lonely with no place to turn. They are provided with the basic necessities, help in obtaining documentation to receive the government stipend, companionship and the knowledge that someone does in fact care.

Unconditional love and respect for the imprisoned men whose reality is one of survival in an environment where typical societal norms are meaningless. The only thing this prison has in common with our own system is the inability to leave and return to their own community; yet they live in community albeit much different than any I have ever witnessed. Each person must find their own means of existence and hope; “cells” are bought or rented, meals must be purchased on your own, even transportation to court must be individually financed. No guards are found inside the prison walls, order is maintained by inmates in a loose form of democratic government. Wives, children, family and others are allowed to come and many reside with the inmates. The physical conditions are primitive yet this system does not sever relationships and family ties; yes it is very different; I am unable to judge it better or worse than the prison system in our own country.

BO-PMD15_07730These are just a few examples of the Lay missioners living out their baptismal call in Bolivia, they walk with the people of Bolivia and allow themselves to be a conduit for compassion, justice and peace for those who are most in need. My questions are answered. I know the heart of a Lay missioner operates first out of Love. What they do and with whom they walk will differ in each country that they serve and in each ministry they choose. This diversity is found in the entire MK family, everyone offers their individual gifts, their time and talents as part of the global community.

This was an immersion trip, and immersed we were in the Bolivian culture. We dined on traditional food, with soup being the staple offered at both midday and evening meals. I was quite surprised to learn that Bolivia is a tea drinking country. Coffee drinkers beware, it is instant Nescafe imported from Brazil that is typically served. Vegetables are cooked and served cold while pitchers of flavored tea are served warm. Potatoes, rice and yucca are served but no beans, plenty of chicken, meat and even fish are readily available. Bananas, papaya and pineapple are plentiful; you will not go hungry in Bolivia.

We ventured from the urban sprawl of Cochabamba to the more rural towns of Tarata, Cliza and Punata. Each town with its own distinctive flavor. The infrastructure was surprisingly good as was the lighting on the streets. Each town had its own plaza across from the church, the meeting place for its people. Various size minivans, motorcycles, cars and buses were the mode of transportation, no chicken buses were seen and rare was the sighting of a small pickup overflowing with people or goods for market day.

BO-PMD15_08017We were fortunate to be present for the feast of the Virgin of Urkupina in Quillacollo; we visited the shrine prior to the hoards of people that would travel on pilgrimage for this most important celebration. We viewed the parade from the spacious veranda next to the church which was owned by missioner Joe Looney’s in laws. It was like being above Herald Square for the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade.
We had admired the “Christo” statue that watched over Cochabamba from atop the highest point of the city, we finally were blessed with a clear day to visit, it was worth the wait.

The Maryknoll Language Institute in Cochabamba is alive and well, it was founded in 1965 to acculturate the many missioners that were expanding their ministry throughout Latin America. The Institute has continued to evolve and now offers many other classes for the Maryknoll family and citizens alike. We were welcomed with open arms; we toured the facility, enjoyed a presentation on the upcoming feast, celebrated a cultural night with 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 the space that speaks volumes of mission both past and present.

A 5 hour drive landed us in the the tropical region of Villa Tunari. Here we revelled in the humidity that soothed our sinus cavities and dry skin. The pace of our trip slowed, we walked the streets and reflected together. The trip was winding down, but not without another day of travel to arrive in Santa Cruz the economical center of Bolivia. This was a cosmopolitan city boasting a most marvelous plaza and church. On a Wednesday night it was alive and electrified.

BO-PMD15_08606When asked “how was your trip” my answer is “different from any other I have taken”. If there is time I will explain, not to explain would be a dis-service to Bolivia and its people. When asked “what did you do”? My reply is, we played with the children, giving them our attention, we met and embraced the elderly showing them they too were worthy of our visit. We celebrated the festival of The Virgin of Urkupina. Mostly we were present. We had all taken the time to visit and learn and BE with the missioners and people of Bolivia with a non-judgemental mind and open heart. Many thanks to the Lay missioners serving in Bolivia, Joe Looney, Caitlin Reichelderfer, Minh Nguyen and Sam Stanton for answering my many questions and providing us with a wonderful experience.

Mission occurs everywhere one walks with empathy and compassion for those in need, at home or overseas. Technology is responsible for helping to bridge the communication gap between different countries, yet there are times one must be present to experience God in the other, in a foreign country. Perhaps a Friends across the Border trip is part of your journey, go and see, It is not so far afield, it may in fact be part of your journey.