I am sitting outside my room. There is an adorable dachshund/golden retriever mix lying next to me. I am facing an inner courtyard that is full of gardens and an octagonal chapel that is both simple and exquisite. It gets hot here – in the 90’s and super humid, but I am comfortable in the shade this morning.
I have been in Ascención, Bolivia for a week. It took a while to get connected to the WIFI here, and I know I am a bit late with this reflection. You might be wondering what’s new? Well, everything!
I am living with the Tertiary Sisters of Saint Francis. They live in different places, but I am here in Ascención where the sisters are nurses, teachers and catechists. There is a routine here of prayer, work, communal meals and Mass. The days starts at 5:30 in the morning and finishes around 9:00 in the evening. There is time for work and time for rest. I admit to enjoying a siesta each day, it’s wonderfully refreshing.
In this climate, there are all sorts of new things to see. The birds are amazing. Each morning and evening hundreds of parrots fly over and a few macaws too! I haven’t done much birding yet, but am seeing new birds each day. I will have time to watch the birds more intentionally soon I am sure. There are also all sorts of butterflies. I even saw a grasshopper who flashed blue as he flew away. Large snails, lizards, frogs, and even a monkey, were some fun discoveries.
I began my ministry on Monday of last week. Each morning, I accompany Sister Yanira, who works for a Nutrition Clinic here. The clinic specializes in helping some of the poorest families find nourishment for their children. A few of the days we walked through a large neighborhood filled with houses made of repurposed wood with openings for doors and windows and dirt floors. Most had corrugated metal roofs. A few were made from layers of palm fronds. At first, I assumed they didn’t have electricity, but realized that the houses do. Coming from a place with winter, it seems impossible, but it works here.
This week I met the faces of malnutrition. Some were children who smiled and laughed, but their little tummies were distended. Even more distressing was to meet children who were fading. Children with no energy and no hope. It was heartbreaking and equally heartbreaking to see their parents and grandparents, loving them so much, but unable to give them what they need.
Sister Yanira brings them hope. She talks to them about the importance of nutrition and records each child’s information. As she does, she tells their families about the nutrition clinic, where they can get some staples like milk, and a nutritional superpower, Soya. Sister Yanira promises me that someday soon the children will have their energy back along with the bright spark of childhood that I have taken for granted until now.
Most times, it is only Spanish here. I listen and watch Sister Yanira’s work. When the children wonder why I am not talking I explain that I don’t understand a lot of Spanish. It seems kids have natural empathy and many times, they begin to show me kindness by coming closer, showing me their things, and sometimes even giving me big hugs. It’s a blessing that I appreciate.
My biggest challenge here is not understanding most of what is said. I participate in Mass and in prayer, but most times don’t pick up the meaning. At mealtime, I have to stay really focused because if my attention strays, I don’t understand the conversation. The sisters say in a month I will be able to understand most things, and in three months I will be participating. I am hopeful they are right! I have noticed after a week, I am picking up more. Poco a poco. It will come, I know it will! In the meantime, I continue to practice gentle patience with myself.
With the new life I am experiencing, I find myself in “figuring it out” mode. I spend my time watching to see how things work, learning quickly and asking questions. I tend to be more in the details and less in the big picture. Yesterday, however, in Father’s homily, I picked out the word “Bolivia” and had a moment of wonder as I realized I was actually here, in this place, at this time, following God’s lead. Woah, I’m in Bolivia – how incredible is that?!
Picture of the Week - Week 7
I know I missed posting a photo of the week recently, so here is one! This is a panel on the door of the chapel. The doors say "Praised be my Lord" on them and depict the Canticle of Creatures by St. Francis. It's really cool and of course, this is my favorite featuring birds from this area. You can see a parrot, toucan, rhea and (I think) a flamingo. I can't quite figure out the other one but will let you know once I see it in nature!
The convent is part of a Mission, opened by Jesuits when missionary work and colonization first started here. The mission grounds include the convent, chapel and large church. From my understanding (and forgive any inaccuracies because I learn in Spanish here!) they were started in areas where people lived a more nomadic lifestyle and the church became the center of small pueblos, where people settled. Ascención has approximately 18,000 residents.
Blessings can be seen in abundance here, from wood panels to smiling faces.