As of today, I’ve officially been living in Cochabamba, Bolivia for 5 months. That’s crazy to think about. It has gone by so incredibly fast. There have been so many changes and people coming and going, and it’s been hard to really process everything that’s happened.
Just a warning: this is mostly raw, train-of-thought reflection of things I have been thinking about/struggling with.
Last Sunday, Megan and I went on a day retreat with two of our missioner friends at a Franciscan convent in Tarata (about an hour outside of the city). Most of the day we spent in silence: praying, reading, reflecting, etc. This was the first day in 5 months that I didn’t have other things I had to get done, but I could actually just sit and reflect and pray. There were a lot of things I thought about that day, and have thought about in the days since:
I was really excited in the weeks leading up to our retreat and just having that time to step back from the Hogar and the madness. As soon as I started to pray and journal, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about the girls. I missed them a lot. I was glad to have that time to just be in silence and in the presence of God, but I also missed the chaos. And I realized just how much I do encounter God within the girls, even when they’re difficult.
What I reflected on the most was why I’m here, and what my mission is here, and how that seems to have changed over the months (or I’ve just been able to see it more clearly). I feel like initially, I viewed this as a time where I would help the girls, love them, they would accept and feel that love, and then I would leave and maybe visit down the road and definitely take what I had learned and how I had grown back home with me. Which all of that is still true. But it’s different. Especially early on, when I was struggling, I just tried doing what I could but I also honestly looked forward to leaving down the road. At this point, though, I love these girls. I honestly do. And that’s kinda a scary feeling. I won’t always be here. I will have to leave eventually. And I won’t always be in perfect contact with all of them. I’ve realized how the missioner’s life, especially at a site like this, is really hard. You form these relationships, you fall in love with these girls, but then you have to let them go and move on. What does that mean also for the time I’m here? How do I love them in a healthy, stable way that will allow me to leave and not have a negative effect on them? The way I have been viewing it is to love them like Christ loves, helping them to feel Christ’s love through me, so that they can recognize that love and accept it from Christ and from other people down the road. The difficult task is figuring out how to do that in everyday life, with 37 girls, all with different personalities.
Another thing that has been really difficult is realizing that not only will I not be here forever, but neither will the girls. Three of our girls have already gone home to their families, which is fantastic because they are in a stable, loving home now with their families. While it was hard enough to say goodbye to them, however, there is another girl who will be going home soon and I am really struggling with that. We have become really good friends, and I absolutely adore her. She arrived in November, and within a couple weeks she had asked me to be her godmother for her First Communion. Even though she is leaving soon, her First Communion won’t be until next year, and I am not officially her godmother, she still sometimes calls me that. This girl always knows how to make me smile and is so much fun to be around. She gives the best hugs, and just really loves people. I know she misses her family a lot, and she will be going home to a safe environment with people who love her. But it’s really hard knowing I have to say goodbye soon. And then this again makes me think if I’m doing the best thing for them, or if me being here is the best thing for them. Is it fair for me to come in, love them, be an authority, and then leave after a year? I know I was called here, but sometimes I just worry about if I’m adding to their fears of abandonment and other worries.
Being here has also made me think a lot about how people, myself included, think about charity and donating. My family has been involved in charities since I was young, and that’s honestly a lot of the reason I am here. I have also gone with the thought that if I am able to help, I will. But when does charity start to hurt others? This is something I have thought about even at home, where my family serves at a soup kitchen once a month. Every time we go, we also bring toothbrushes, wet wipes, clothes, and other items to give to the men and women. Those are things they need, but are we just encouraging the cycle of homeless by giving them those things instead of forcing them to try to find a job? But also those are things that they need right now, and we can help right now, so shouldn’t we?
Those thoughts and struggles have continued here. As an American, I’m somewhat viewed as someone with money who can come in and just fix everything. But that’s not my job, and I actually can’t fix everything. I’ve struggled with how to give the girls gifts and do things for them that doesn’t enforce for them that Americans will just give them things if they’re cute. But it’s even more than me. There are people connected to the Hogar that are padrinos de ayuda (godparents of help). These people come for the girls’ birthdays and bring presents, usually clothes, stay for about an hour, and then leave. These people are from Bolivia, but I feel like they still enforce that same idea that people will just come and give gifts and then leave. About a month ago, some of the girls were talking to one of the Sisters at night after some of the padrinos had come earlier that day. Sister was lecturing them on how they act when visitors come. Apparently they had arrived, and the girls immediately asked what they had brought them. Sister was telling them that the proper way to greet a visitor is to say hello and ask how they are, not ask what gifts they have brought. Now of course this is something children in the US do as well, but I think it can be more destructive here. These girls expect that people will just come and bring them things. They don’t know their padrinos de ayuda well, and actually usually don’t even know their names. Sister made the decision that the padrinos are not allowed to come for at least a few months, and talked to all the girls about the situation. But this is still something I struggle with. And I don’t have a good answer for it.
There are definitely a lot more things at play than I thought there would be coming into this. And I’m thankful I am happy and feel at home here, but with that comes more questions and struggles of how to do what’s best for the girls and love them in the best way. For anyone reading this, I want you to know that I don’t have any answers, and I am not at all discouraging you from giving to charity. My questions and struggles are something I have thought about, and I encourage you to do the same and try to come to your own conclusion on the matter.
As we move into the season of Lent this week, I ask that you keep myself, my community, the Sisters, and the girls in your prayers. Please know I am praying for all of you as well. Thank you for reading and reflecting with me. God bless!