Mission immersion in Bolivia opened my eyes

By Lana Beckman, Guest Column

Before traveling to Bolivia in June, those going on the mission trip met for classes to read and discuss “The Aparecida Document,” written in 2007 by the General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean. Even though I was assured that this document was short, I was shocked to receive the binder and schedule for discussions.

I have to admit that I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. However, being a motivated student, I read every word and took notes in the margins. I was very interested in the culture and people, and Father Jimmy Jeanfreau, the director of the archdiocesan Pontifical Mission Societies, was not short on stories to fill my imagination.

In reading the “Aparecida,” I found that the idea of Catholic being universal is a very strong concept. We find Jesus in people, and in Jesus we find God, not only locally but also in a worldly sense.

During my personal development, I began to wonder why people continue to go on mission trips. In fact, the people I have met who have gone on one mission trip are almost always planning to go on another one. The question burned through me, and soon I began to investigate why I wanted to go myself.

In the months leading up to leaving for Bolivia, people asked me what I would be doing there. I tried to explain that it was a mission immersion experience, so I was not going to Bolivia to do a “job.” I eventually went back to the original flyer that I received from the mission office and read it. The goal says, “To develop and provide a pastoral mission program for touching the hearts of educators – those who touch lives of children and youth.”

I immediately realized that I really had no idea.

While reading the “Aparecida,” I came across the term “missionary disciple,” and I was struck. In my binder, I wrote, “We go to share the Eucharist. We go to be one in Christ with another people. The Eucharist is the common bond that brings all humanity together. So together as we share the Eucharist, they are our disciples, and we are theirs. We strive to bring more people together in this way.”

Then next to it, I scribbled, “Pretty tall order,” in a little thought cloud.

While I was in Bolivia, I kept a journal. In the beginning, it simply contained the daily activities of the things we did and saw. I was still stuck on the “what” of my journey. My roommate was Melissa Williams, who is my cousin and a music teacher at St. Catherine of Siena School in Metairie.

A few days into the trip, Melissa hurt her finger. As I reviewed my notes after the trip, I noticed I was very focused on her accident. I was also intrigued by people’s responses to it. I have notes about Father Jimmy taking care of Melissa and me. His devotion to her care and my need to be close to her, was not only comforting, but also inspiring. I also knew that I was getting a message from God, loud and clear: One of my missions in life is to care for others, like it or not.

When we first arrived in Bolivia, we were taken to a dairy farm. The owners had prepared a meal for us and were proud to show us their home and share its history. Then we attended Mass with them, and I noticed immediately that the children were very involved in the Mass. At first, I thought it was for our benefit, but as the week continued I realized the children’s involvement is a strong part of their culture.

The “Aparecida” states that getting the children involved early is essential because this involvement promotes human dignity. The Bolivians welcome the children to the front of their celebration of Mass. Children sing in the choir, read the Scriptures and collect the offertory. During the Sign of Peace, people walk around the church to shake as many hands as possible.

On the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Mass was celebrated in a full arena. After Mass, the people processed to the cathedral with the Blessed Sacrament in the back of a truck. This community of people is strong. Mass is very important to them. Seeing this commitment to Mass and community shows me why mission immersion is so important.

On Friday, we traveled to a forest in Samaipata for a hike to see tree ferns. Our driver, Juan Carlos, suggested that we see it. He seemed genuinely excited about us having a great time. In my notes, I wrote that he loved to serve and had a big, warm smile. Our affection for Juan Carlos began to grow in our hearts that day.

At this point, my notes began to change. I started writing about people, like Nicole and Manuel, the owners of Casa Patio, who took great pride in the villa and wanted everyone to feel completely at home.

The indigenous people never beg; they only walk around town trying to sell their goods. The parishioners of each church were always so glad to see us and embrace us. It is hard to explain heart and soul. I feel like that is what I got in Bolivia – a little piece of the people themselves.

In my reflection on the flight home, I wrote, “I hope to have more mission trip experiences. I am interested in learning about cultures in this very intimate way. I like getting so close to the people of God.”

What I continue to learn is that spirituality is not only personal but also global. I hope that all people can see that God is in my heart and holds the reins of my life. I now understand that what I “did” in Bolivia was grow my own heart and soul by witnessing the hearts and souls of people in another part of the world. This educator’s heart was definitely touched, and in turn, the Holy Spirit will lead me to touch the lives of the children I teach with a newly energized spirit.

God can fill tall orders.

Lana Beckmann is a fourth-grade teacher at St. Francis Xavier School in Metairie.

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