Thursday, July 21, 2016

With Love from Jacmel, Haiti

This summer I was given the opportunity to minister with Sisters Marilyn Minter and Inga Borko in Jacmel, Haiti. I arrived on June 18th and reluctantly left on July 19th.

When I shared the news that I would be visiting Haiti, people did not hesitate to begin asking what they could do to help. I received donations of peanut butter, thermometers, Tylenol, vitamins and other needed supplies. However, since one of the ministries I offered during my visit was a dance class for the older girls, I also asked for funds to purchase dance clothes. Everyone was so generous I ended up being able to buy the tanks, shorts, sports bras and dance shoes you see in the photo. The ages of the girls I taught ranged from about 10 to 20 years old. We had dance class for one hour every Monday through Thursday. During our first week I taught the basic positions of ballet along with basic movements. Sr. Inga was always there to help me translate and manage the twenty girls who came every day. After a couple of days I was actually able to say each of the five positions in Créole. I could also count from 1 to 8, and I could say "right" and "left". Very important words for a ballet class! The second week of class I taught them a dance I choreographed to "Hello" by Adele. The third week I asked one of the girls to teach a Haitian dance since she has experience, so she was in charge and I got to be a student for a while. Our fourth week was one of rehearsals because after Mass at the convent on Sunday, July 17 they showed off their skills by performing both of the routines they learned in class. It was a big event for them. We even made over one hundred cupcakes for the occasion! I'm so excited  they had an opportunity to perform in front of an audience. They enjoyed receiving so much attention, and they definitely deserved it.

Another ministry I helped with was arts and crafts in the late mornings. Sometimes the kids would work on puzzles, play with Legos, or enjoy playing some sort of game. However, both the children and young adults especially enjoyed making beaded bracelets and necklaces. If they could do it every day, they would!

This picture is from Friday, July 1st. It was my first trip with the mobile clinic. I was fortunate enough to go on three trips total. On this particular day, we left at 7:00 a.m. to minister to people at St. Rose of Lima Parish in the village of Decouze. Our team consisted of two Haitian doctors, two Haitian nurses, one Haitian pharmacist, a Haitian driver, and two Haitian wannabes (me and Sr. Marilyn). The drive was stunning. It was so beautiful that I didn't even mind feeling like a bobble head during our hour and a half drive up, or our hour and a half drive back down. The roads were unyielding, but the people we ministered to were kind. That day we saw about 115 patients, from several infants to a 93-year-old man. They would check in with one of the nurses first to provide their name and age, and then the nurse would weigh them and send them to one of two doctors. After seeing a doctor, they would come to where I was sitting with the pharmacist and receive whatever medications the doctors prescribed. I helped count out all the pills. I have no idea what we gave them, but I know sometimes it was pain medication, sometimes vitamins, and other times very serious looking stuff. It just made me happy to know that they felt cared for.

This was the first of two trips to the beach with the kids. Round one was on
Monday, July 4th. For the first round we piled all 12 of the kids you see here into one vehicle. It was amazing. The second time around (Tuesday,  July 5th) we added one more, so we had 13 kids in addition to the three of us. Beach day was another one of my favorite days because the joy bursting from every seam of these kids made me feel so alive. Even the cramped car ride was a blast. They sang songs at the top of their lungs and I joined in when a Mass song cropped up every now and then. While at the beach I splashed around with them a little, but I mostly loved watching them chase the beach ball and each other. They would roll around in the shallow waters on the shore and yell "Gade, gade!" ("Watch, watch!") and they'd show us how brave they were by submerging their faces underneath.

On Saturday, July 9th the Sisters organized a Divine Mercy pilgrimage. We took the young adults from our catechesis class. They had special scarves to wear with the icon of the Year of Mercy, and they happily tied them around their necks or on their heads. The day included a drive to the Immaculate Conception church in Zoranje where they received a mini lesson by one of the seminarians on the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. After that, Madam Omanie led us as we chanted the Divine Mercy Chaplet in Créole. Once we finished, the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation was available. Following confessions, we had adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, then we celebrated Mass together and concluded the day by walking through the Doors of Mercy two at a time. Before heading home everyone enjoyed a nice peanut butter and jelly snack.

On Friday, July 15th, Sr. Marilyn and I took a walk around the neighborhood to
visit with the children in their homes. They knew we were coming and they were so excited, they came to our place first so they could accompany us. They giddily and proudly showed off their simple homes, and we chatted with plenty of their family members and friends. It's a good thing I've been practicing and learning Créole!

Another great blessing during my time in Haiti was the community life. We celebrated Mass together (in Créole) every day. We prayed together twice daily, as is our Felician custom, and we had adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every day as well. On Sundays we had faith sharing, which is one of my absolute favorite ways to pray, and afterward we had movie night. We'd make our way to the kitchen from chapel and Sr. Marilyn would start the popcorn while Sr. Inga and I set up the laptop and projector. One night we watched a movie called "Hidden in Silence", which was about a young Catholic woman who hid several Jewish friends and acquaintances in her home during World War II. One Sunday we watched a movie on Mother Teresa called "The Letters" and on another night we enjoyed "Despicable Me 2". We found time one Sunday to go to the pool and swim for a couple of hours, but I also enjoyed the community life that wasn't recreation. I liked the quick grocery shopping trips, discussions on ministry matters, and last-minute schedule changes, along with the fact that we did almost everything together.

These  were just a few of the moments I enjoyed, but over a period of a month I enjoyed many more, and was challenged by countless others. At first, one of my biggest struggles was not being able to talk with anyone outside of the convent. By the end of my trip I could laugh with the kids and make silly jokes with my simple ways of communicating. I also had to adjust to a whole new culture. I didn't realize that I had glorified the idea of learning about other cultures until I was immersed in one other than my own. I thought everything would be perfect, like falling in love for the first time. It was, but then I also had to learn to embrace the imperfect aspects of my new love interest. I learned not to create my own idea of who someone should be, but to let them show me who they were so I could love them with sincerity. I also adjusted to the heat, cold showers, dusty feet, and children pulling on every one of my limbs. I sure am going to miss the Sisters, the children, the scenery, and the food.

To conclude with a phrase I learned in Créole:
(Praised be Jesus!)

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit

You, Lord God, have done
many wonderful things,
and you have planned
marvelous things for us.
No one is like you!
I would never be able to tell
all you have done.

Psalm 40:5 (CEV)

A couple of weeks ago, the Catholic Church celebrated Pentecost on Sunday, May 15th. Like most Pentecost Sundays, we were reminded of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit as well as the twelve fruits which follow. I enjoyed the reminder and promptly went about my busy life as usual. When I began writing this post, it had nothing to do with Pentecost Sunday, or the gifts or fruits of the Holy Spirit. I simply started by writing about all the things in my life that I recently felt grateful for, and as it turns out, many of those areas in my life coincide with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Makes sense. Gratitude usually comes when one has received a gift. Now I see that I have received seven very meaningful gifts. I feel blessed, as if God has leaned over to kiss the top of this silly girl's curl-laden head, placing upon it a heat that feels like tongues of fire.

"L" is for Love!
One gift that I've recently come to cherish even more is the community of sisters I live with. Let's face it, no one gets things right all the time, but especially not me. Ever since high school I have had difficulty getting up early. It seems that the earlier I have to wake up, the harder I struggle to do so. Now that I've had to be in chapel for morning prayers no later than 5:45 a.m., that struggle is definitely real. I'll be honest, some mornings I make it, and many mornings I don't. But you know what? None of the sisters here has ever come to me and asked, "Why aren't you making it to morning prayers on time?" I mean, it's a valid question. It's a question I would almost expect to receive, but instead the typical question is more like this: "I've noticed you're having a hard time getting up for prayers in the morning. Is there anything I can do to help you with that?" The forgiveness and support around here is top notch. But it's not just a gift for me. I've realized that this means I need to start rephrasing the questions I ask, too. When my students turn their work in late, I usually ask, "Why did you turn your work in late?" Instead, I should be and will be asking a question more like this: "I noticed you've been getting your work in late. How can I help you to get it in on time?"

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for the gift of understanding which can only happen when we join together in communion.

I have always had a wonderful circle of friends. My best friend Jenny has been a source of joy ever since we joined forces in the 5th grade. (We knew each other in 4th grade, but we didn't like each other. She thought I was trying to steal her best friend and I simply didn't like her haircut. Just goes to show that jealousy and vanity can be overcome!) Jenny has always been a model of strong faith. Her passion continues to inspire me even from miles away. My lovely friend Vanessa and her generous heart first helped to foster my love for the Spanish language and culture. Eventually, she became a great support as I pursued the joy that is my religious vocation. My fabulous friends Erin, Christine and Chanelle have contributed to my life as a dancer and as a Christian. Our late-night talks and silly shenanigans could never be replaced. My new bestie
Stephanie has made me laugh enough to keep me awake for nights on end. Our chats and pizza splurges give me energy and make me wish she'd just join the convent so that I could hang out with her more. There are so many of you with whom I have worked, learned and grown that I could not possibly mention all of your beautiful names here and the meaning you have given my life. The movies we've watched, the conversations we've had, the times we've laughed and cried together -- these are all so much a part of who I am that you're still with me. All of you, including those of you I took the time to mention, have contributed the many vibrant fibers that color who I am today.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for the gift of wisdom which flows through the faithful and sturdy shelters that are our friends.

My role as a mentor is one that I have sort of grown into over the past couple of years. I didn't know how important it was to create that boundary of authority until I realized what my classroom looked like without it. I know I still have a lot to learn, but as my third year of teaching comes to an end, I can see how the clearer lines of authority have strengthened my role as a mentor. Instead of my students coming to talk to me about drama with peers, now they talk to me about the deeper joys or sorrows that are taking place in their lives. Every time one of my students fell apart this year, tears streaming down her face, and she chose to bring that to me, I felt like the big sister God knew I could be. I felt like my students trusted me, but I knew that all along God had trusted me. God had trusted me to love them this whole time! I feel so honored that God would place such tender and fragile hearts in my care. That I would be one in a handful of people who gets to guide these girls along this part of their path still fascinates me. And yet, they are not the only ones who  gain something in the process. They teach me on a regular basis how to be more relaxed, how to be more responsible, and how to be more generous. Seeing them stand up for themselves
and each other, or signing off on their hours of service, even watching them play volleyball at lunch; it all reminds me of who owns the kingdom of heaven.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for the gift of receiving and giving counsel, especially when it comes in the form of a child.

Some of you may know, and some of you may just be finding out right now, that I really enjoy shopping. Seriously, it's one of my favorite things to do. Lately shopping online has been my preferred method since it saves me time and I'm able to find items that are difficult to find at the store. I've also been trying to change my shopping habits because of what I have learned concerning production behind the items I purchase. It started with a documentary I saw a few years ago called "The Dark Side of Chocolate". Ever since then life as I know it has come undone. To think that my purchases contribute to child slavery around the world; or to deadly working conditions in developing countries; or even force field workers to endure harsh chemicals in our own country; it makes me yearn for change. And how else will things change if I don't? So here I am now, browsing Etsy for organic cotton shirts; spending money on fair trade food and household items; using everything I have until it falls apart; all because I like to shop but saw a documentary that demanded I do things differently. It makes me happier actually, knowing that because I buy and promote brands like Alaffia, two or three women somewhere in Africa have healthy, stable jobs. It's not easy, and it costs more, but if I'm going to spend money I'd rather it go to individuals who need it rather than to large corporations who seek it.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for the gift of knowledge and for those who help bestow that knowledge upon us in their creative and varied ways.

Art by Katherine Skaggs
I think my image of God has been evolving. While I was in the novitiate, I saw God as someone who understood my hardships and cared for me. However, God was still just "someone". There was no personal relationship even though I knew God was active in my life. Now, I have been coming to see God as a parent. It's interesting because even though I have been calling God "Father" my whole life, I have never felt God's presence in my life to be that of a parent. Mostly, I think this was because I didn't see myself as a child, let alone God's child. Thankfully, this is shifting. Memories of myself as a kid have reminded me of the precious joy and innocence that still reside within me. Now that I see myself as a little girl in need of God's providential care, I can better appreciate everything God does for me. At the same time, I work harder to please God the way a child would her mom or dad. I think, "God would be happy if I tried harder to be generous with my time," or "God would probably not be happy if I choose not to get up for prayers today". In this way, I am a child who fears the disappointment of her parents, but also one who rejoices when she pleases them.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for the gift of fear of the Lord, which is strengthened and nurtured through love.

This year has been one of the easiest and happiest of my religious life. Having a few years of experience behind me, most of what I accomplished this year was like putting a cherry on top of a cake. Of course, that cake first had to be mixed together and baked in just the right way so it wouldn't come out lumpy, raw, or burnt. That means if this year was the cherry on top, the years before were the hard years of mixing and measuring. During those times I thought I'd never make it. I said to myself, "This is it, the cake is going to topple. The fun is over." But even then I stuck around. Even when I thought the world as I knew it was coming to an end, I didn't give up. I attribute that to God's grace. God always seemed to place people and events in my life exactly when and where I needed them. If I needed someone to talk to or commiserate with, I had someone. If I needed to be reminded as to why I joined religious life, a vocation event always seemed to remedy the issue. I still have at least three years remaining in discernment, but I sure am glad that I've stayed put for the past six. I'm glad, not because this year was easy and I'm glad I made it to this year, but because instead of believing that I shouldn't have to work to be a part of something I love, or that I shouldn't have to stay in a commitment if I'm "unhappy", I'd rather do the work that strengthens me than avoid the work and remain weak.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for the gift of fortitude, even and especially when it blooms in the midst of adversity.

This post would be incomplete if it did not include my family. Without them, my vocation to the religious life and my current state of peace would not be
possible. I have them to thank for my appreciation of solitude, for my love of people, and for helping develop my gifts of dance and writing. They are the ones who worked with God to prepare the soil where my soul would be planted. Here's a story to give an example of how my mom helped me grow: I was in first grade. We had reading time every day for some specified amount of time, and we got to choose our book. We were supposed to read a book from the shelf specific to our grade level, but I had happily chosen to read a sixth grade book - "Where the Red Fern Grows" - without any qualms. When my teacher noticed this, she asked me to put the book away and pick a different one, one that was specific to my grade level. Apparently I didn't think that was a good idea, so I did what she said, but I hid my copy of "Where the Red Fern Grows" inside of the first-grade level book. When she found out I was doing this, she spoke to my mother. Here's the best part! My mom wasn't upset with me. Instead, she asked my teacher why I should read lower level books if I was capable of reading books beyond what was considered my grade level. As a result, we settled on a compromise. I had to read the lower level books at school, but I could take "Where the Red Fern Grows" home to read. This tells me that my mother always believed in me. She pushed me hard (how else was I able to read 6th grade level books at my age?) because she knew I had the ability. Not only that, but she wouldn't let anyone deny my abilities. My entire family continues to believe that I am capable of great things and have in turn led me to believe this about myself.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for the gift of piety and for those family members who teach us how to believe in ourselves.

Come Holy Spirit
Fill the hearts of your faithful
And kindle in them the fire of your love!

Monday, April 4, 2016

You Have a Choice

Teaching world religions always opens up opportunities to talk about different concepts and cultures in class, but sometimes it leads us to discuss concepts that we think we are already familiar with, and we end up discovering a deeper meaning. We were recently having a discussion about the Hindu concept of Atman - it is the source of everything, it is the deepest part of us, but not something we can feel or define with any of our five senses. As I explained this, one student said, "Oh, like love!" Another student countered, "No, because you can feel love." "You can't feel love," someone else argued, but one student finally had enough and cried out, "What is love?" Of course that briefly took us off track as many of us echoed that famous 80's song: "What is love?! Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more..." but we soon returned to our discourse and I simply said, "Love is a choice."

I went home and the classroom discussion lingered in my head as it often does when it's a particularly interesting one. I started to wonder about the times I had chosen to love - times when I had chosen forgiveness, understanding, or compassion instead of resentment, distrust, or pride. It also made me wonder about the results of those choices.

The other day I made a phone call related to school and the man on the other end of the line was rude from the start. It bothered me so much that I consciously made the decision to return his unkindness. At the end of the conversation I hung up feeling very hurt, but after going home and crying on the shoulders of my Sisters, I realized I might have made him feel the same way. "What if I hurt him just as much as he hurt me? What if he goes home to an empty house and, unlike me, has no shoulder to cry on?" I felt terrible. Worse than the hurt I felt was the idea that I might have caused that hurt for someone else. Whether or not I believed he deserved it had nothing to do with the guilt that was slowly rising up; it was the knowledge that I had treated someone in a way I would never want to be treated. Looking back, I know it a was moment in which I had chosen resentment over forgiveness - I had chosen not to love.

It's no secret in the convent where I live - in fact, in my whole religious community - that waking up early is a huge struggle for me. Due to the varied schedules where I currently live, we pray Monday through Friday at 5:45 in the morning. Usually when I wake up during the week the first thought in my head is, "No." Well, our director of formation, Sister Suzanne Marie, recently came for Provincial Visitation and stayed at our convent. She and I had a nice talk about my choice of not getting up for morning prayers. Admittedly I had felt bad about not praying with the Sisters every morning. However, I had simply not found the motivation necessary to change my choice. After speaking with Sister Suzanne, I found that motivation; as you may have been able to guess, it was love. I want to be present for morning prayer now, not because I have to, but because I want to. To choose to be present to my Sisters means I am choosing love.

In just looking at these two examples, choosing to love versus choosing whatever is its opposite, brings about different results for me. Not choosing love led to frustration and guilt whereas choosing love led to peace and healing. In addition, it seems my decision not to love was self-centered, and my decision to love was actually other-centered. That's how I want to live: focused on others and choosing to love them no matter what. May God grant each of us the graces necessary to choose love no matter what.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Another Night Another Dream

About a week ago I dreamt that there was a large pond in our backyard at the convent. I stepped outside to enjoy the air and noticed that there were two dolphins swimming in the pond. I love dolphins, so I was happily surprised, but only momentarily. Soon enough I began to wonder how they had gotten there and how long it had been since they'd tasted their home in the ocean. Their dorsal fins were flopped over like the fins of whales who have been in captivity for years. Their sadness lingered in the dingy pond and made its way into my chest. I woke up just as I was designing a plan to return them to the vast waters that are their home.

Reflecting upon this dream stirred many questions for me:
  • Where is "home" for me?
  • How do I get there?
  • What is holding me back?
  • What "pond" am I swimming in that I need to be freed from?
  • What does true freedom look like?
Dingy ponds may be dark and lonely places, but I am confident that God did not intend this for my happy, jumping spirit. One day He will bring me back to the ocean where I can flip and dive in the freedom that He intends for each of us.

If you're in a place that does not offer you the freedom you hope for, then I pray that you too will one day be led by the hand of God to the ocean He created for you.