- April 30, 2009: Leaving Bolivia
- March 3, 2009: She's gone to Spain
- December 18, 2008: Merry Christmas
- October 28, 2008: Economics and politics
- September 13, 2008: Violence and confusion reign
- August 16, 2008: Elections
- May 22, 2008: Women
- April 7, 2008: Normal
- February 10, 2008: Rituals
- December 20, 2007: Christmas
- October 2, 2007: Marches, Parades, Blockades
- August 20, 2007: Back "Home" to Bolivia
- May 20, 2007: School
- April 11, 2007: Ayni
- February 22, 2007: Community
- January 25, 2007: Crisis in Cochabamba
- December 20, 2006: Christmas in Chilimarca
- November 7, 2006: The Dream
- September 4, 2006: Discernment
- August 7, 2006: Staying in Bolivia
- July 27, 2006: Hidden Blessings
- July 2, 2006: Waiting
- May 9, 2006: Ciudad de Los Perros
- March 9, 2006: Carnaval
- February 3, 2006
- January 18, 2006 : Arrival in Cochabamba
- November 22, 2005: Orientation
- October 25, 2005: Identity
- September 20, 2005: Humble beginnings
- September 5, 2005: Transitions
April 30, 2009
Letter #31: Leaving Bolivia
We leave Bolivia today.
A few days ago, we had a family meeting to check in with each other about how each of us was feeling about our impending transition back to the States. Celia responded, “I feel strange…I´m tired, I´m sad, I´m excited, I´m confused. I have lots of feelings and they’re all jumbled up…I just feel strange.” This statement captured how all of us were feeling as we reflected upon how difficult this transition was.
We left Seattle when Celia was only 2 years old. As a 6 ½ year old, she has lived more than half of her life here in Bolivia. For her, Bolivia IS home. She doesn´t remember much of anything about the States. Last week she asked, “Why can´t we just bring the United States to Bolivia?” The fact that she can be in only one or the other country and not both does not make sense to her. These past weeks have been very hard for her. She has little concept of where we´re going, she can´t image our house and where we´ll live. She cries at the drop of a hat and desperately hugs people that she believes she may never, ever, see again. In her mind, she is leaving her life behind, all that is known to her, and moving into uncharted waters. Yet, Celia is a girl who lives in the present, whoever is in front of her is her best friend; so though this transition time is difficult, we have complete faith that she will continue to amaze us with her ability to adjust to any situation.
Josh, who just turned 9 last week, is eager to return to the States. He can image going home to live in our house in Columbia City, Seattle. He´s excited about going to soccer camp this summer with his friends that he still remembers very well. Yet at the same time, he talks about how much he will miss his friends here in Bolivia. He wrote a poem recently about the sadness of leaving, of hugging his friends with tears in his eyes and saying good-bye, and then landing in Seattle and hugging his buddy Sarkis, picking him up off the ground and twirling him around in joy. Josh feels the bitter sweetness of it all.
Joe and I…well, at this point, we´re just exhausted. The past weeks have been long, hard, intense, and bountifully blessed. Latin American culture is MUCH more expressive than North American culture. Here, saying good-bye is very important and it needs to be done well. We had good-bye parties and meals for the entire last week. Bolivians are able to express themselves in a way that I´ve never experienced before. The expressions of gratitude, loss, faith, love and friendship are humbling and often overwhelming.
Today, we leave Bolivia, not knowing what the future holds, leaving a place where we have each grown enormously and been taught so much by our Bolivian friends. We move back to a country in turmoil yet filled with hope. We leave ourselves in the palms of God´s hands to carry us forward to the unknown and to give us the faith we need to make the transition to a new life once again.
One thing that is certain is our eternal sense of gratitude to all of you, our family and friends, who have generously, graciously, and unceasingly supported us along our journey in mission. We can never describe in words how grateful we are to you for your prayers, letters, thoughts and donations. Without all of you, we may have survived our time here, but we would never have thrived as we have. From the bottom of our hearts, THANK YOU!
During the next few months, we’ll be on the move. We will head to New York for a mission re-entry program, and then we’ll be back and forth from East to West coasts visiting friends and family, finally returning to Seattle to settle down in mid-July.
Please continue to pray for us in the upcoming months. We anticipate that the transition will be rough but excitingJ. We look forward to reconnecting with you in the months and years to come. Relationships are what mission is all about and we intend to carry that sense of mission forward as we return to the United States.
Peace, love and blessings,
Becky (Joe, Josh, and Celia)
March 3, 2009
Letter # 30
“She’s gone to Spain”
The grandmother sat in my office explaining over and over again how concerned she was about her 5 year old twin granddaughters who both had colds. I did my best to explain to her that the children had only been sick for 2 days and would get better soon. She finally broke down and started crying and explained to me how she was now responsible for taking care of these children because her daughter moved to Spain in search of employment which is so difficult to come by in Bolivia. The twins’ mother tried to take them with her, but, did not have the time or the money to care for them, so, she brought them back to Bolivia and returned to work in Spain. The grandmother was overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for the twins as well as the fear that something may happen to her daughter in Spain.
The story is so common to me now that I am surprised if I hear that no family members are working in Spain, Argentina, Italy, or some other foreign country. Several of the children attending Josh and Celia’s school are cared for by grandparents, aunts and uncles while their fathers or mothers seek to earn more money in Spain. Many of them leave their children behind because they believe that only after just a few years of working there, they can send back enough money to improve the lives of everyone in the family. They hear of jobs available in domestic labor or construction and do everything they can to get a visa to travel to Spain. What happens instead is that while they are gone, the entire family falls apart. The stress of caring for the children left behind becomes too much for the spouse, grandparents, aunts and uncles to bear resulting in neglect and physical or sexual abuse. Many of the children suffer psychological damage from abandonment and the uncertainty of their futures. Much worse, many children end up living alone or on the street and turn to sniffing glue (the drug of choice here) and are lost to their families forever. Now that the economy in Europe is declining and immigration policies are tightening, many people are returning to Bolivia disappointed and finding their families broken and suffering.
One of Josh’s best friends from school was being cared for by his father and maternal grandparents while his mother was working in Spain for over 3 years. While she was away, he experienced neglect and abuse from both his father and grandparents. Eventually, his mom returned only to find her husband in trouble with the law and separated from her and the family. Her efforts to make a better life for her family ended up costing her her family.
It’s difficult to judge people for trying to improve their families’ situation by seeking work elsewhere, especially when they feel life is just a struggle to survive day to day here. But, migration both within the country from the countryside to the city as well as to other countries is changing the entire society. The community spirit which once was the backbone of thriving supportive towns and neighborhoods has deteriorated as individuals set out on their own to seek better lives.
Here is some rough information that we know from a fellow missioner working with migration:
500 people per day (180,000 people per year) leave Bolivia for another country. There are 9-9.5 million Bolivians in the world. Of them, 30-35% lives outside of the country. (Having dual residency, they are sometimes counted in the Bolivian census as living in the country.) About one million are working in factories in Buenos Aires. Of the migrants that leave Bolivia, the poorest typically end up in Argentina. Brazil is rapidly becoming another popular destination since Spain recently started incarcerating illegal immigrants for 18 months.
About 611,000 Bolivians live in Spain and most of them are in Madrid. Around 500,000 Bolivians live in the U. S. and most of them are in Arlington, VA. The remainder of the migrants lives in Italy. Bolivian migrants from the middle class typically end up in Spain, the U. S., and Italy.
Most emigrants are women (57%). Of all emigrants, 39% of them are between the ages of 26 and 32. The main reason for leaving is to improve one's economic status, followed by supporting a family in the Bolivia, followed by survival.
I don’t see the scene played out in my office with the grandmother of the twins changing very much in the future. Until people can earn a decent living here in Bolivia, they will always seek out a job and a better life in another country.
Joe, (Becky, Josh and Celia)
December 18, 2008
Letter #29: Merry Christmas
Dear Friends and Family,
Joshua and Celia had been practicing all week long for the final day of school when they would each perform one of the many traditional dances of Bolivia. They had danced many times over the 2 years they had attended our community school, but, this day was special. It was the day of Celia’s graduation from kindergarten and the last time they would both be dancing at school. We have decided not to renew our contracts with Maryknoll after we complete our 4 years with them in May, 2009. Because school is out for the summer here until February, we have decided not to send the kids back to school for the remaining 3 months we will be here in 2009. Instead, we will prepare them at home for their transition back to school in the U.S.
The decision to leave Bolivia has been a very difficult one for us. Our experience in Bolivia has been life changing. We struggled with learning Spanish, wrestled with trying to enter Venezuela, settled in Bolivia, and eventually found meaningful and rewarding ways to contribute to our community here in Chilimarca. At the same time, our children have made several adjustments attending 5 different schools in 3 years, learning a new language on their own and making many good friends. But, we feel as if God is calling us to return to the U.S. to reunite with our families and our community in Seattle. We feel we have learned so many lessons here about humility, community, patience, cultural awareness, and trust that it can only serve us well as we return to our native country and continue our lives as missioners to those we encounter there. We will be relying heavily on your prayers and support during our remaining time here, but, especially as we return to the U.S. where the adjustment will be challenging. We intend to continue our ministries up to the time we leave in May. Becky and I will both be trying to document and pass on as much of our experiences as we can in order to create some type of sustainability to what we have been able to accomplish professionally here. We will also continue to send updates on a regular basis to let you know how we are progressing.
We both looked on as Josh danced with the rest of his class., He looked very handsome in his costume and he was very proud. As Becky and I ran around taking photos with all the other parents, we were no longer the strange new gringos in town that we had been 2 years earlier. Now, other parents looked on us as their neighbors and friends. Celia was in full cap and gown as she marched up to receive her diploma. She danced and sang and gave a speech in her flawless Spanish. I had tears in my eyes as I watched her hug all of her friends and realized that this was the beginning of the end of her experience here in Bolivia.
Again, this year as last, we wish to thank all of you who have supported us with your prayers, e-mails and donations. Our connection to our family and friends in the U.S. sustains us through many difficult times. We have been at able to use your donations to facilitate our ministries in many ways including the following:
-purchasing books to support a lending library (something uncommon in Bolivia).
-purchasing fluoride varnish for preventative dental care for children in the community.
-financing workshops to train psychologists, teachers, physicians, nurses, and community health workers.
-translating materials to be used in teaching Bolivian professionals.
-improving our community school with new supplies, equipment, and construction.
-opening two child psychology offices and furnishing them with all of the needed therapy supplies.
-taking a group of 20 children on an overnight (the first in their lives!).
-financing some medical care for patients who cannot afford it.
We believe that many of these materials and activities which you have helped finance will continue to help our community long after we leave.
We wish all of you a very happy and peaceful holiday season. May the realization that God’s historical physical presence on earth came in the form of a poor child born to a homeless family in a barn help us all realize where to look for God today.
Joe, (Becky, Josh, and Celia)
PS. If you are sending any cards or letters please use our U.S. address (and Becky’s parents will send them all together to us here in Bolivia):
1400 39th Ave E
Seattle, WA 98112
October 28, 2008
Letter #28: Economics and Politics
Dear Family and Friends,
One day last month I walked into the clinic and greeted our nurse Teo. She responded with a very concerned look on her face and expressed her sorrow over the suffering that the people of my home country were experiencing due to the latest financial crisis. I asked her how she knew about this and she told me that all of our Bolivian friends from work were hearing how the financial crisis in the US was causing so many Americans to suffer and go without their daily needs. I assured her that even though the people of the US are suffering in some way, the people of Bolivia who are concerned everyday about whether or not they will have enough food to feed their families are struggling a bit more. She seemed to be somewhat reassured, but, asked me to express her sympathy to my friends back home.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a manager of a moving company here who had lived and worked in the US as a laborer for 15 years before returning back to Bolivia. We were discussing the differences between life here in Bolivia and life in the US. We eventually got into a discussion about the recent economic crisis and he said, “The people of the US suffer because they had so much and now they have lost it. This causes an emotional suffering which can be overwhelming. The people of Bolivia suffer because they don’t have very much at all and are constantly striving to get what they need. This is a different kind of suffering.”
Right now, all of us here in Bolivia are hearing about the economic crisis in the US and how it will affect the entire world. Many Bolivians are acutely aware of the situation up north. I wonder how many Americans are aware of the economic plight of the people of Bolivia (present company excluded). However, at the same time, our neighbors living around us don’t seem to be affected by the stock market or the recent “bail-outs” in the US. They had been experiencing inflation before this crisis started and it hasn’t really changed. They have stopped buying rice and have changed to potatoes because the price of rice has risen. They rarely have meat unless it is a special occasion. Their incomes often fluctuate with how well they do each day selling their goods in the city market. The average Bolivian income is about $2-3 a day.
Also, all of us down here have been watching the US presidential election with great interest. Many Bolivians are excited about the prospect of Barak Obama becoming the new president. The idea that the people of the US would actually elect an African American president could change many Bolivians’ opinions about the US government which has been looked upon with suspicion and criticism lately. In the meantime, the Bolivian congress in negotiation with the president Evo Morales has just passed a revised constitution which will go to a national referendum in January, 2009. This occurred under the watchful eyes of over 500,000 indigenous Bolivians from the countryside who marched peacefully to the capital city of La Paz to show their support of the new constitution. This has calmed the violence and has brought new hope to the country which has been longing for a peaceful solution to the political stalemate. With this new constitution, the country can move forward united in making life better for each and every Bolivian.
So, both the US and Bolivia are going through economic and political changes which could change the history of their countries. We are watching both processes with great anticipation and hope. We welcome you to join in our prayers and dreams for both of our countries.
Joe (Becky, Josh, and Celia)
September 13, 2008
Letter #27- Violence and confusion reign
Dear Family and Friends,
I’m supposed to be on a date with my husband right now. Yet here I am, sitting at the computer trying to read anything I can find on the internet and on the blogs of my friends here in Bolivia to help me try to figure out what in God’s name is going on in this country. Frankly, I’m used to being clueless because nobody ever seems to know what’s really going on here, but this time, the violence has escalated and I’d personally like to understand why it’s happening and when and how it’s going to end.
Much of my news comes from talking to Bolivians on truffis (looks like a taxi but follows a bus line) and busses. Truffi drivers listen to the radio all day while they drive so they tend to be “in the know.” For the past week, all that people talk about is the violence, the conflicts in the Eastern part of the country, the blockades around the country, the incredible hunger for power and money by the wealthy landowners and political leaders in the Eastern part of the country, and the deep sadness that there is no end in sight as neither the government nor the opposition appears willing to negotiate. The issues seem to be around the new constitution the government is trying to ratify, the plan to share unused land with the poor, and the benefits of the sales of hydrocarbons that are situated in the East and which the wealthy of the East are not willing to share with the rest of the country. As the East began rising up this past week and the leaders of Santa Cruz sent out the youth to pillage their own city and cause damage of millions of dollars, the tensions rose and loss of life appeared inevitable. The president then kicked out the US ambassador to Bolivia due to the perception that the US ambassador was in cahoots with some of the opposition governors, and in retaliation the US kicked out the Bolivian ambassador to the US. Then Hugo Chavez of Venezuela gets into the mess by stating that he will both recall his ambassador from the States and kick out the US ambassador to Venezuela in solidarity with Bolivia (not that Bolivia needs his help, actually he just confuses issues and makes things worse for us here!). Adding to this, American Airlines has decided that the country to too unsafe to land in, so they have cancelled all flights into and out of the country until the situation is resolved.
On Thursday, I got into a truffi and, knowing that there had been violent clashes in previous days in the city of Santa Cruz, said to the driver, “I’ve been inside working all day and haven’t heard any news. What’s been going on today?” He replied that 9 people had been killed in a neighboring state in skirmishes between those living in the rural areas and a group working for the wealthy landowners of the region. That number has now risen to at least 15. The president has declared a state of emergency in that state and has sent in the army in an attempt to quell the violence. As I continued talking to the driver, I stated how strange it seemed that Cochabamba was so calm. He replied, “of course, that’s because Manfred’s not here.” Now, if you happened to have read Joe’s last letter a few weeks ago, he described the recall elections here that resulted in over a 2/3 majority in favor of the president, and booted out the governor of the state of Cochabamba. The governor, Manfred, had incited violence in the past and is at least partially responsible for the riots and deaths that occurred here in January of last year. As I have talked to people in the past two days, every single person is in agreement that without Manfred here, we will likely keep the peace in Cochabamba. Incredible and sad the power one man can wield!
So why am I am home tonight? Bolivia runs mostly on natural gas. We all cook with it and most cars have been retrofitted for it. In the past few weeks, gas has been low so we always worry that our tank of gas will run out and we won’t be able to buy more. For the vast majority of Bolivians who can’t afford two tanks of gas (we are able to afford a spare tank in case one runs out) they have to wait until more gas arrives in the city which can be days sometimes. That means days with no gas to cook food for their families. Last week, a gas line was blown up in a protest but people say that it was fixed yet now, we have no gas in Cochabamba. Yesterday, many gas stations were closed and the few that were open had lines of cars, blocks long, waiting for gas. The lines for cooking gas were equally as long. By yesterday afternoon, there were fewer cars on the roads, tons of people waiting for transport, and each truffi I got into only went for part of their route before kicking us out and telling us that they had to quit until more gas became available. I tried in vain to get into the center of town for a meeting yesterday afternoon. Today, we are stuck at home due to lack of transport. And since Monday’s a holiday, it’s unlikely we’ll see gas until at least Tuesday.
Please know that we are safe here in Cochabamba and we don’t expect any violence to occur in this area. Today for the first time, the president has been in negotiations with one of the opposition governors to try to resolve the current stalement. Yet, we remain worried about the situation in the East and continue to pray that a resolution can be found soon, that cooler heads will prevail, and that no more lives are lost. Please join us in our prayers.
Peace, love, and blessings,
Becky (Joe, Josh, and Celia)
If you are interested in learning more about the situation here in Bolivia, you can check out the websites of some of our friends who make it their jobs to try to understand what’s happening here:
Jim Shultz and the Democracy Center
Dan Moriarty (previous Maryknoll Lay Missioner, married to a Bolivian, from Seattle, returned to Bolivia just over a year ago, very politically savvy)
Kathy Lederberg and the Andean Information Network (click on the article titles to read the full articles)
August 16, 2008
Letter #26: Elections
Last weekend, our friends invited us to walk down the hill to the local public school to see them vote in the recall referendum for president Evo Morales as well as all the prefectors (governors) of the country. I jumped at the chance to get a glimpse of the political system of Bolivia at a time when history is being made. Although we have not written much about the political situation here, it is one that is constantly on our minds. Evo Morales is the first indigenous president of the Americas. Morales, who entered office in January 2006, just as we arrived here, wants to ratify a new constitution which will change the lives of all Bolivians with an emphasis on raising the majority poor indigenous population out of poverty and sharing the profits from the sale of natural resources with everyone. The opposition, which is mostly made up of the wealthy land owners and large businesses, wishes to keep things the way they are so that they can continue to benefit from any wealth of the country while the poor remain poor. I guess you can tell where my bias lies. Since the opposition prefectors have been leading campaigns to separate from the national government because they disagree with the changes in the new constitution, President Morales requested and received permission to put himself up for a recall in order to document his support nationally. This referendum which placed Morales as well as all the prefectors up for recall meant that these elected officials would have to leave office if they did not receive a vote of confidence and new elections would be held. It was fairly obvious to everyone that Morales was well positioned to win. But, for some of the prefectors, like our own Cochabamba prefector, Manfred Reyes Villa (one of the president’s major opponents), the outcome was much more in doubt. Manfred has a notorious reputation for corruption and association with past corrupt leaders of the country. If this sounds a bit complicated and you really are interested in understanding more, check out the Democracy Center website at: http://www.democracyctr.org/blog/.
The atmosphere in our neighborhood on the day of the vote was not tense at all. As a matter of fact, it was a bit festive. In Bolivia, all elections are held on Sunday so that as many people as possible can vote. All motor vehicles are prohibited except for official cars or emergencies so that people can walk to the polls safely and cast their ballots. As we made the 2 km walk down our hill, I passed several of my other neighbors and patients who greeted me warmly with smiles. Even though I could not vote myself, I felt a part of the action. When we arrived at the school, there was a huge crowd. Yet, there were several locations within the school to vote and no one waited more than 20 minutes to cast their ballots. I saw even more of my friends who greeted me in Spanish and Quechua as they sold food, drinks, and DVD’s to everyone who had gathered. It was a truly peaceful and enjoyable time. Everyone felt the obligation to vote and did it proudly, receiving their ballots at the tables, going inside a classroom to vote and getting their pinky fingers painted to mark them as having already voted. Our neighborhood group had planned a barbeque for the afternoon when we returned because, essentially, there is nothing else going on that day. Later that afternoon, I enjoyed the company of my neighbors as we ate, laughed, played and sang together.
I reflected on the US at this time and thought about all the election hype we were exposed to while home on vacation between Obama and McCain. I wondered why we have presidential elections on a workday and no one gets the day off to participate in such an important event in our lives. I thought about all the people in the US who don’t even vote. Are they apathetic or do they not have the time to make it to the poles? Everyone I know voted in the recall referendum that Sunday here in Bolivia. My neighbors were voting for the continuation of hope for change; for a new Bolivia where the rights of the indigenous are respected and everyone can live a better life. Everyone anxiously awaited the results to see if the president would be re-affirmed and if the prefector of Cochabamba would be kicked out of office. The election throughout the country was peaceful and without incident. The poor indigenous of the rural areas and cities turned out in great numbers and solidly affirmed their president by 65% of the vote and the citizens of Cochabamba voted out their prefector – Manfred Reyes by 60% of the vote. So, for now, the people have spoken and it will be very hard to deny their voices. Now, the hard part begins. Can the country move forward with the changes needed to improve the lives of millions of the poor indigenous of the country? Can the president move forward with diplomacy in order to avoid making other sectors of the population feel completely ignored and disenfranchised as the indigenous had been previously? We shall see. I am just honored to be a witness to a movement of poor and marginalized people finally getting to decide their own destiny.
Joe (Becky, Josh and Celia)
May 22, 2008
I could barely squeeze into the bus as I was making my way downtown early one Saturday morning at 6AM. I stood up in the aisle with my head bent in order to fit in under the low ceiling and looked surprisingly at the number of passengers riding so early on the bus to get to the central market. Just when I thought there was no way another person could squeeze in, the bus stopped to pick up an old Quechua woman along with her aguayo blanket filled with items to carry to the market to sell. The woman looked to be about 70 years old, but, could just as easily have been 60 with the worn features of someone who had worked hard all her life. Young people helped her carry her bag up onto the bus and made room for her. I’m sure many of them looked on her as they would their own grandmothers who were probably doing the same thing in some other location. Then, just a few blocks more, I saw the same scene repeated. Again and again, the bus stopped for these old women dressed in traditional outfits lugging their big bags along to reach the market early enough to seek out a good spot on the street.
I am continually impressed by the amazing strength and fortitude of the women of this country, especially those of the indigenous Aymara and Quechua groups. They begin working with their mothers in the fields at a very young age and never stop for their entire lives. They do most of the digging, carrying and manual labor for the family. They care for their babies by carrying them on their backs while working. They do all the cleaning and cooking in the home. They are quiet and reserved and never seem to complain. Many of them seem warn and beaten down, but, most of them look proud and strong. Where are the men as all of these amazing women are working 7 days a week just trying to make it from day to day? Many of them are working also, but, not quite as hard. Sometimes women have more opportunities for domestic labor than men. Men enjoy the privilege of being the leaders in the household which often means going out on weekends to the local “chicharia” (local bars serving traditional corn wine which is often spiked with alcohol). Unfortunately, this extends to much domestic violence when they return home drunk and demand their wives to obey them. This is one of the major problems in the community in which we live. Some of this domestic violence stems from the frustration of the lack of employment for the men coupled with the cultural beliefs that women should be submissive.
Women have a special place in the history of Bolivia also. Two days ago, we celebrated “Dia de la Madre” (Mother’s Day) which commemorates the event in 1812 when all the men from Cochabamba were off fighting the war of independence with Spain and the women were left to defend the city. They were successful in saving the city and making a name for women in the history books for eternity. The women of the country have also been responsible for moving forward many of the social causes of the poor and indigenous.
I know I have always been amazed with how much stronger and more capable women are all my life starting with my own mother and extending to my wife Becky and my daughter Cecelia. My respect for women has grown stronger and stronger since I have lived here in Bolivia. I am proud to work with an organization like MAP Bolivia which strives to protect women from abuse in the home and provides opportunities for them to become active community organizers. MAP has a policy that the coordinators of all of their programs are women in order to counter balance the prevailing trend in the community. As a result, many women have joined support groups and co-ops in order to lift themselves out of difficult situations in the home.
So, that is why when I am riding on the bus and see an old woman climb aboard, I happily reach down to help her up along with her heavy pack and give up my seat while remembering all the strong women in my life from my grandmother, my mom, my wife and my daughter.
Feliz Dia de la Madre
April 7, 2008
It started happening when we returned from our summer vacation (in January!) and landed at the Cochabamba airport and the feeling has just been increasing ever since. We rode back to our home outside of the city in a taxi watching all the women on the street dressed in traditional indigenous outfits and carrying their heavy loads on their backs. We drove over pot-holed roads, gravel roads, and finally, dirt roads to get to our house. We saw the adobe homes with cows and pigs outside next to huge mansions with 10 foot walls around them. We saw the litter all over the place and the children playing in the streets with worn out clothing and sandals on their feet. I turned to Becky and said, “You know, this doesn’t seem at all strange to me anymore. All of what I am seeing is ‘normal’ now. I finally feel as if I am home in Bolivia.” It’s not that I don’t long for the Starbucks coffee and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream now and then. It’s not that I don’t miss being around for the NFL and college basketball seasons. It’s not that I don’t miss being with my family and friends. It is just that I am used to life here now and feel as if I can manage things fairly well most of the time.
Two weeks ago, my niece Elizabeth came to visit us. We had a great time. First, she shared in the usual Holy Week and Easter festivities with us. Then, she just followed us around everywhere and experienced our daily lives without too many adjustments for her visit. She speaks Spanish well and is a school social worker back in the US. She fit in great. She went to school with the kids and observed their classes. She went to the clinic and special education school with me. She went to the center for sexually abused children with Becky. She even helped Becky give a workshop on child play therapy. She helped with the dishes, washing the clothes and taking care of the kids. It was great having her. Nothing seemed strange to her. If you asked her, she would probably say we seemed right at home here and the kids seemed to be fitting in well at school and with their friends. It’s nice to have an objective opinion now and then on how we are doing here with life as Bolivians.
This is a time filled with visitors. After my niece left us, 2 pediatric residents from University of Minnesota arrived to work with me for a month. I am excited to show them all there is to do around here in community health. They will probably rarely see patients in the clinic because they will be too busy out in the community performing check-ups, giving workshops, and traveling to rural areas where there are no doctors. This type of medicine has become “normal” to me now and I am excited to share it with young doctors in training.
Now, Becky’s sister-in-law Janet will is here with her two children Ethan and Elliott. Josh and Celia are so excited to see their cousins. It will be interesting to see what their reaction is to our lives here in Chilimarca. I think we will again try to go on with life as usual and give them a taste of what we do as a mission family here.
So, as we share our lives here with our friends and family visiting from the US, it doesn’t seem that strange anymore. We walk around the neighborhood and see so many familiar faces. Just about everyone knows us now because we are the only gringos around. Yet, I’m beginning to think that seeing us walk down the street is now becoming “normal” to them, too.
I hope you are all having a joyful Easter season. Thanks again for all your prayers and support.
Joe, (Becky, Josh, Celia)
Letter #23- Rituals
February 10, 2008
Dear Family and Friends,
Dinner is a special time for us. Each night as we gather together as a family, we light a candle, we share the “best and worst” parts of our days (and sometimes the funniest, strangest or scariest times as well), and recently, we have added something new to our dinner ritual. While in Peru, we spotted a beautifully hand-crafted bowl made of black stone with gems and designs carved into it by indigenous women of the region. We had been searching for a “prayer bowl” for our home and this was perfect. The bowl now sits on our kitchen table and we all write on pieces of paper the names of people or places for which we want to pray. During dinner, we open the bowl, each person blindly chooses a slip of paper and then we each say a prayer for the person or place that we picked. Celia always puts her name in the bowl so she gets lots of prayers, but these days the prayers that fill our prayer bowl are for the people of Kenya, the people of Bolivia affected by the recent flooding, friends and family members who have died as well as those left behind, and friends and family who are sick. It is a way to remember those who are in need or in crisis or grieving and it helps to keep us connected to the greater world. The kids love these nightly rituals as they seem to love all rituals.
Home leaving ritual
Whenever we leave a “home” (we have left many in the past 2 ½ years), our ritual is a procession from one room to another stopping in each one to sit in a circle on the ground, light a candle, and share our most memorable experiences from each room. It is a way to acknowledge the experiences we have had in the home and to put closure on the space as we move to the next home in our journey as missioners.
Mission sending ritual
Good-byes are always hard, and as missioners, we say more hellos and good-byes to important people in our lives than most people do. When we left our orientation at Maryknoll in New York after living, eating, praying, and learning with more than 20 other missioners for 4 months, we said many goodbyes. The long-standing ritual at Bethany House where we all had lived, was to gather outside on the porch to say good-bye to each missioner as he or she left, then ring a large bell as a sign that they were moving on and into the world of mission. Part of me grew to really dislike that bell because it meant another good-bye and more tears and bittersweet feelings. Yet at the same time, I loved the bell because I knew that we got the chance to say good-bye to every single person and every single person could say good-bye to us as we left.
Good-bye for now ritual
We just came back from an incredibly blissful trip to Argentina with my parents and sister. We were taken care of and spoiled for 10 days straight and it was beautifully re-energizing. Saying good-bye to my family is always painful and a tear-filled event. The night before the trip ended, my parents mentioned to Josh how much they had loved being with him and as the tears welled up in their eyes, Josh turned away and said, “Good-byes are always so hard, do we have to do this?” I thought about that the rest of the night, trying to figure out how to ease the pain of the good-byes, yet acknowledge that they are a part of life for us. The next day, we decided that before leaving the hotel to head to the airport, we would all gather around in a circle and share what had been the best parts of our vacation for each person. It was a simple ritual filled with tears, laughter, and thanksgiving. It was the perfect closure to our time together. When we said good-bye later at the airport, it was not so painful or scary for the kids. We had taken the time earlier to say what needed to be said and so the last good-bye felt much more calm and peaceful.
Bolivians, and likely all indigenous cultures, are masters at ritual. Although I know many churches are also good at ritual, for me, it often feels too staid and distant and not relevant to ordinary life. Bolivians entwine ritual in everyday life in a real, tangible, and beautiful way. When somebody dies, there is a funeral mass, a “nine day” mass, and a yearly mass for a number of years to remember the person who has passed away. When you move to a new home, the home is blessed with a set ritual that everyone knows and uses. On the first Friday of the month, the air is filled with the smell of blessing incense as it is customary to give the Pacha Mama (Earth Mother) thanks for all that one has and ask for further blessings on the family. I could go on and on about the blessings and rituals we have learned here from our Bolivian friends but the list would be just too extensive. The amazing thing is that no matter how many of these rituals we attend; it is a special feeling each and every time. Rituals are a way of recognizing an event, a person, or even a feeling. They give a very acceptable outlet for profound feelings, be they happy or sad. Rituals can give closure and help us to move onto the next step in life. They can mark any event that we believe needs to be acknowledged. We can make them up or practice century old rituals. They all seem to hold great meaning in the end.
As we move through Lent, we are adding other rituals to our home to help Josh and Celia learn more about and enter into this sacred time of preparation and to ground us in the reality of the Lenten period. Simple rituals such as having a weekly family meeting to talk about what we can each do to help others during Lent, and each night asking each other about “one thing I did for somebody today.” We will revisit their baptism stories and remind them of what their baptism means. And we pray that through each of these small rituals, we help us and our children grow closer to God and to others.
Peace be with all of you during this Lenten time and may we all continue to find small rituals to help us connect to each other and to those in our communities and in our world.
Love and blessings,
Becky (and Joe, Josh and Celia)
December 20, 2007
The neighborhood families gathered early in the morning in the concrete soccer court last Sunday to celebrate the coming of Christmas at MAP. This was not a worship service to welcome in the baby Jesus. This was a Christmas toy give-away by the employees of one of the largest banks in Cochabamba. The mothers gathered all of their kids to line up for hours to receive a small plastic ball or tiny stuffed animal. This would be the only gift for Christmas for most of these kids as their families are struggling to make it from day to day. In the meantime, Becky and I are shopping for our kids and buying several gifts for them to open on Christmas morning so that they don’t feel too far away from family and friends in the US. This Christmas we are reminded once again of how different we are from our neighbors living around us. While some of them live in small 2-3 room adobe homes and wonder if they will have enough money to support their children, we can afford to have so many of the comforts we were used to in the US. Although everyday life is not easy for us, it is not near as difficult as it is for our friends and neighbors around us.
Christmas in Chilimarca is generally a very quiet time of the year without all the lights and glitter seen in the downtown area of the city of Cochabamba. The traditions of Christmas here are much more centered on family time and taking a summer break from work. Most employers give Christmas baskets of necessities (cooking oil, canned food, cookies, milk, a blanket, etc.) to each employee as a sign of thanks. Many of the employees of MAP are very thankful for these baskets because it helps them to make Christmas just a bit more special for their families. We gratefully received our small basket knowing that the significance was not quite the same.
Christmas is a tough time for us because we are reminded even more so how much we are blessed with so much wealth, supportive family and friends. Yet, we see more and more people coming into the city from the countryside to beg in the streets because they don’t have enough to support their families. Do we give away presents to our neighbors in the mode of the bank employees giving away the small gifts? Do we give less to our own children to help them realize how fortunate we really are with so many things already? Do we try to just concentrate on the true meaning of Christmas by just celebrating its religious significance? These are tough questions as we prepare for the coming of Jesus once again in our lives as a child born to a poor family who could only afford to stay in a barn.
In the end, we decide that it is OK to have our little US Christmas for our family complete with caroling, presents, stockings, and spending time together as a family. It doesn’t mean that we have forgotten about all our neighbors who are living in a different world from us, it just means that when all the companies who are giving away gifts for Christmas leave the neighborhood to return to their offices, we will continue our mission work of social justice and service to strive for a better life for all Bolivian people.
We are especially mindful and thankful for the support we receive from family and friends this Christmas season. Your prayers, letters, and donations have made much of our work not only possible, but, more rewarding. Many of your donations have gone toward:
- purchasing fluoride varnish to use on the teeth of hundreds of children in the surrounding area.
-purchasing and copying much needed psychology books to teach the psychologists of the country more current methods of treatment for sexually abused children.
- purchasing medical equipment for the MAP clinic.
-conducting workshops on issues related to child therapy, parenting, and other health issues.
We see much more work ahead for us as we enter our third year here in Bolivia. We hope to participate more in the activities of our neighborhood school. We hope to spend more time out in the more rural communities to see what the majority of Bolivians are experiencing. We hope to be able to learn more about the daily political realities of what our Bolivian neighbors are experiencing as they struggle to rewrite history with a new form of government which recognizes the rights of indigenous people for the first time ever. We welcome you along for the continuation of this journey with us. Please keep up your support, prayers and communication. We need them desperately. We can’t thank you enough and we ask for God’s blessing on you and your families during this holy season.
Joe, (Becky, Josh and Celia)
October 2, 2007
Marches, Parades, Blockades
Dear Friends and Family,
It wasn’t long after we returned from our vacation in the US that the next march was scheduled for “Dia de la Patria” which marks Bolivian Independence Day. I went down with Josh and Celia to the plaza of our area in Tiquipaya early on a Saturday morning along with all the kids in the school from 4 years old to 11 years old. Everyone was decked out in their best clothes to march for Bolivia and their school. As it turned out like most of these marches and parades, we waited with the kids in the hot sun for hours before we ever started marching. The entire parade spanned about 10 blocks and it took us 4 hours to make it to the end. I was running to a nearby market to buy water and crackers for the kids so they could make it through the ordeal without passing out. But, for the average Bolivian, this is just another important aspect of their lives and culture.
Parades, marches, blockades, strikes, and demonstrations; these are normal parts of every Bolivian’s and, as a result, our lives. Parades for every type of occasion like “Day of the Flag”, “Day of the Sea”, “Mother’s Day”, “Father’s Day”, as well as innumerable religious feast days. Marches in support of several causes from prevention of abuse of children to ousting a current government official. When a group is angry about the way they have been treated by another group or the government, they simply call for a blockade of the streets or a work stoppage. Now, it doesn’t even faze us to drive down the street in a bus and see a huge truck or other bus straddled across the street blocking all traffic. Many times, we don’t even know the cause.
The current president – Evo Morales used these tactics to fight government injustices and gain popularity among the native peoples of the country. It seems to work because now he is president and his opposition is starting to engage in the same tactics. I believe this type of political action demonstrates several characteristics about Bolivia. One is that people have not felt that they have had a voice in the government of this country and, therefore, have given up on using the usual channels of elected representation to speak for them. Secondly, there is a tradition in this country of people taking to the streets to show their support of each other and whatever cause there may be. Community means a lot here and if your fellow community member needs your support, you come to her aid. There is also a certain feeling of excitement involved with a march, parade, or demonstration. Recently, when Celia and Becky were marching in opposition to sexual abuse of children, they both enjoyed the camaraderie which came from being with fellow supporters and chanting slogans as they marched. Unfortunately, in the past, many of these blockades and demonstrations have resulted in violence. But, for the most part, it is all very peaceful and provides a means of getting across a point and an outlet for the frustration people feel.
I don’t think we still have the energy, time, commitment, or whatever it takes in the US to engage in these activities much anymore. Growing up in DC in the late 60’s, I saw what demonstrations and marches could result in. Although I was young, I realized that these demonstrations were not always peaceful, but, they showed that people can have a direct voice in the injustices in their country and be heard. The anti-war marches, the civil rights marches, and the strikes for unjust work conditions used to be a fixture in the US. Are we are in a better place now because our voices are heard so well by our government that we don’t need to demonstrate or are we are just too busy or tired to put out the effort? Maybe some day, the people of Bolivia will not have to march, demonstrate, blockade or strike anymore because their government is truly looking out for their interests. But, even if this does happen, I believe they will keep on marching. In the meantime, Josh and Celia are learning all about what it means to take your cause to the streets.
Joe (Becky, Josh, and Celia)
August 20, 2007
Back “Home” to Bolivia
We had an absolutely fabulous vacation home to the States. We spent about 3 weeks on the East coast visiting friends and Joe’s family and then about 3 weeks on the West coast hanging out with my family and many of our friends from our parish and old neighborhood. We spent two weekends talking at churches and enjoyed seeing old friends and meeting new people interested in mission work. Josh and Celia thought the whole vacation was a bit like being in Disneyland as they got to play with friends or family everyday and swim and play to their hearts content. Joe and I were a bit worried about their transition back to Bolivia, especially after Josh asked, “Why do we HAVE to go back to Bolivia. Why can’t we just stay here with our friends?” Fortunately, the transition was much, much easier than we had ever thought it could be and they went back to school just days after returning to Bolivia. Although we had a wonderful vacation, we were also excited to come back to Bolivia, our current “home”, and see our friends and get back into mission work.
A question that surfaced over and over while we were home was, “What is your daily life like?” I’ll do my best to try to answer that question.
A brief overview of our daily schedule is as follows: feed kids breakfast, walk them 1.5 minutes to school, go to work (if we head into town, we grab a bus or other public transportation), come home for lunch and do chores or stay in town for lunch out, work at home or at work in the afternoons, pick up kids from school at about 4:00, play with kids, make dinner, get kids bathed and in bed, wash a thousand dishes, and finally, fall into bed.
Joe and both work in the mornings but we trade off who works in the afternoons so that the other one can pick up the kids from school. Most people head home from work for lunch so the whole city pretty much closes down from 12:30-2:30. Lunch is the main meal of the day for Bolivians. They usually have a piece of bread with tea or coffee for breakfast, a big lunch consisting of soup and then a plate with some sort of meat which is always accompanied with rice AND potatoes. Often tea is taken around 5:00pm with a peace of bread and then nothing for dinner. Our family, given that we’re still American, continue to have a rather hearty breakfast, a rushed lunch and a big dinner together (old habits are hard to break).
For our ministries, both Joe and I have chosen to mainly work for an American NGO called MAP international (Medical Assistance Program) but we also have other ministries with other groups. Joe sees patients in the clinic at MAP and he is teaching pediatrics to medical students and residents at a small rural hospital. Joe is also giving workshops on pediatric issues to a number of the other MAP programs. I am mainly working with one of the MAP programs called CUBE (Centro de una Brisa de Esperanza). It is a center for sexually abused children which employs lawyers, social workers, and psychologists and offers free wrap around services to families who have a child who has been a victim of sexual abuse. I am working with and supporting the psychologists at CUBE by doing supervision and giving workshops in all different areas of psychology. I am also working at the Ignatian Spirituality Center giving workshops for parents, professionals who care for children, and other interested people on a variety of topics ranging from parenting to children’s spirituality. Joe and I are working on a couple seminars together to present to the MAP staff. More recently I have begun to work with some of the staff and psychologists at a few of the orphanages and homes for children here in Cochabamba.
In keeping with a part of our mission which is to live as simple of a life as possible, in our house we have almost no appliances (no dishwasher, no washing machine, no microwave, no toaster oven), no car and no one who cleans or helps around the house. These choices can make for a lot of work. As I write this, Joe is outside washing our clothes by hand. Although we all try not to generate too much laundry, the reality is, there’s an endless supply, so Joe tries to do a few loads of wash a week during his lunch hour and then we usually try to catch up on the weekends. Not having a dishwasher around also makes for more time at the sink after every meal (yet, whenever visitors come to stay with us, they take pity on us and do more than their fair share of dishes…so please, come visit us whenever you’re in the neighborhoodJ). Living without a microwave or toaster is not so much of a problem. We’ve worked our way around those things. Cleaning the house can be a hassle because we are surrounded by dirt roads which leads to tons of dust, especially now during the dry winter months. But I guess after awhile, we just get used to having a dusty house even with an attempt at sweeping daily. Thankfully, I have wonderful Joe, who gets down on his hands and knees and washes the floors about once a week.
Buying food is certainly not as simple as it is in the States and it often takes a number of visits to different markets. We buy most of the basics from our neighborhood “tiendas” (small shops that have flour, sugar, bread, eggs, etc). Because loaves of bread are not common here, most people, including us, buy our bread fresh daily from a nearby tienda. I then try to limit the rest of my shopping to one day a week. Usually on Fridays, I take a bus to one of the few “super markets” to buy food foreign to Bolivia such as cereal, nonfat milk, tortillas, peanut butter, and the like. I put “super market” in quotes because in reality, it’s much, much smaller than almost any super market in the States, but it has more of a selection than any tienda could have. I also choose to buy my meat at the supermarket instead of an outside stand where all parts (heads, tongues, feet, hooves, etc.) of the animals (cows, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens) are on showcase and a woman sitting on a stool swats at the flies that are swarming the meat. After the supermarket, I head to a fruit and vegetable market where there are any number of women selling fruits and veggies. For each item I’d like to buy, a bargaining process takes place between me and the seller (unless I’m just too tired to bargain for each of my 10-15 items, in which case I just over payJ). Because of all of the contamination in the fruits and vegetables, before eating anything that can not be peeled, we have to wash it in a chemical solution and rinse it with purified water.
I must admit that it was wonderful to be in the States for a time and not have to worry about any of the above issues. With all of the conveniences of most homes in the States, we did a whole of just hanging out, recuperating, and re-energizing our selves to come back to Bolivia. Our lives here entail a lot more daily work, but we feel privileged to be back and we do our best to embrace each day for all that is brings.
Thank you as always for all of your support and prayers.
Peace and love,
Becky (Joe, Josh, and Celia)
May 20, 2007
Letter #19- School
Dear Friends and Family,
Being a parent is absolutely the greatest blessing God could ever give us, yet with this blessing comes an enormous responsibility. I have always felt the weight of being a mother, but here in Bolivia, that weight seems even greater to me. It feels like Joe and I are making significant choices in the lives of our children on a daily basis. One example of this is the constant decision making we need to engage in in order to keep Josh and Celia in their current school.
When we moved to our neighborhood in December, we made the very conscious decision to place Josh and Celia in the local school. We wanted to be involved in the community and for our children to go to school and play with kids from our neighborhood. We wanted Josh and Celia to interact with average Bolivian children; to learn that they are not so different, and that they can have friends who live in one room houses and have no running water in their homes. We wanted them to learn about the rich culture of Bolivia by truly living IT, not by being sequestered in an international school with the elite. We were fortunate to find a local school right behind our house which is part of the project with which we work. The school offers as “alternative” approach to education which emphasizes self-esteem and cooperation rather than just rote memory of details. Still, Josh and Celia are the only non-Bolivians to ever attend the school and the cultural differences are often challenging.
When school started in January, for the first three weeks there was almost no structure, so the kids were outside playing by themselves, unsupervised, for much of the day. The teachers were preparing for the year and therefore were not at all attentive to the kids. The play structure at school was quite unstable and we feared for every child that played on it. The school started construction on a new building the same day school started. The construction zone was completely open with all of the dangers a construction zone entails. And an ironically funny danger was the day that the whole school was outside cutting grass with scissors and scythes (Josh wildly swinging a scythe to cut grass- a very scary thought).
Those first few weeks were hard, very hard. The kids cried almost every night. They complained about the Bolivian food they had to eat, the teachers and children whom they didn’t know, and of course, that all day, every day, was completely in Spanish. Joe and I tried to attend to their worries, but after they went to bed, I cried. If I was in the States, I would reassure them that everything would be alright, but here…I wasn’t sure of that, in fact, I often doubted it. How could I possibly reassure them, much less continue to send them to school each day, when I didn’t even trust that all would be well. It was scary! The only thing I had to hold onto was faith. Faith that Joe and I had very strongly felt called to live in this neighborhood and send our children to this school, faith that we were doing the right thing, faith that my children would be safe and well cared for.
But where does faith end and practically begin? Short of pulling our kids from the school, how could we intervene in a culturally appropriate way? How could we get across our concerns (and there were many!) without sounding like the “gringos who always think they’re right and always have the answers?” Joe and I would talk about this every night. In fact, we still do, but now, it’s only almost every nightJ We continue to struggle with the questions and we rarely find easy answers. We always question our choice and for now, that’s the way it needs to be. The overarching question is often, “Are our children thriving or simply surviving?”
The first time we felt confident we had made the right choice was on Father’s Day. Each class had prepared a presentation for their fathers. Josh’s class chose to dance the “Tinku”. Indigenous dances are very important here, maybe comparable to ritual dances of Native Americans. Kids learn these dances at an early age. To see Josh practicing with great excitement and passion for days before the event and then to see him dressed up in an indigenous costume and proudly dancing the “Tinku” with his new friends, was awesome! He was doing IT, he was getting IT, he was part of IT, and he was loving IT.
Now there are little successes every week such as Josh playing marbles in the dirt with his new buddies and kids shouting Celia’s name every time she enters the play ground. Joe is now part of the parent advisory group and today Josh, Joe and I, all danced indigenous dances at a school celebration. It was an incredible feeling to know that our whole family is really a part of our community and it is through this school that we can be a part of IT. Although things are not perfect and we continue to ask ourselves the “thrive vs survive” question, for now, we continue to have faith that it will all work out and if not, then we have faith that God will let us know when it’s time to move on.
Peace, love and blessings,
Becky ( Joe, Josh, and Celia)
April 11, 2007
Last week, I returned from a wonderful trip to visit the Jesuit Missions in the eastern part of Bolivia outside of Santa Cruz. I had been away for about 5 days, leaving Becky behind with the kids. It was a wonderful gift which Becky gave me to be on my own and visiting one of the most impressive historical sites in Bolivia. Upon my return, Becky’s mom and Aunt Lynn had arrived from Seattle to visit us for Easter- another wonderful gift to all of us to have them here for a week to experience what life is like for us in Bolivia. They came just in time to experience one of the most fascinating events in Bolivia and most of Latin America – Semana Santa (Holy Week). On Good Friday, we all went to our small chapel here in our neighborhood for the Good Friday liturgy which included a reenactment of the Stations of the Cross outside of the chapel complete with one teenager playing Jesus and another playing Simon. Josh was fascinated the entire time as he watched this young man walk around the square in front of the chapel and act out Jesus’ last moments before he died. Becky’s mom and aunt watched closely as several people came up to kiss the wounds of Jesus as they were depicted on the large crucifix in the front of the chapel. Many older women threw flower pedals on the crucifix and later, on the head of the young teenager acting as Jesus, in adoration. It was an interesting spectacle and reminded me of experiences I have had in other countries during Holy Week. We did take a few photos and were stopped on our way home by a woman who said she was the mother of the boy acting as Simon and wanted copies of the pictures of her son. It was then that I realized that probably no one else at the service actually owned a camera.
Becky and I returned to the chapel on Easter Sunday with Celia for the Easter morning mass. It was a very simple mass with very little of the dramatics or enthusiasm which accompanied the Good Friday service. It reminded us that the people of Bolivia and most of Latin America are “crucifixion people” and not “resurrection people”. It seems as if all of the emphasis is on the suffering and death of Jesus with very little realization that Jesus has risen and death has been overcome. I believe this is mostly due to the fact that people here can relate to the suffering Jesus much more easily than the resurrected victorious Jesus. This is hard for Becky and me to accept because we always want to emphasize the resurrected Jesus who calls all of us to live a life of joy and hope. However, we must accept the traditions and sentiments of our neighbors. As we left the church, the 2 little girls who live next door to us followed us home. They were at mass alone that morning and told us that they could come over to our house to play if we asked their mother. We stopped at their tiny one room home to ask if Roxanna and Anna Maria could come over. Their mom, Alicia, smiled and agreed. We all joyfully walked the rest of the way down the path to our house.
The girls stayed all day and participated in all the Easter activities along with the other 40 people we had invited to our home that day. They were stars in the Easter egg hunt and ate more food than any of the other kids there. Finally, it was time for them to go home and as we walked down the path to their home carrying their Easter candy, Anna Maria said to me, “Now next Sunday we can meet you at mass again and come over to your house afterward just like today.” I smiled and said, “We really enjoyed having you over and we’ll see what we can do next weekend.”
The next day, I was at the small store, which Anna Maria and Roxanna’s parents run, to buy some bread. Alicia greeted me with a big smile and thanked me profusely for all we did for the girls on Easter. Ramiro, her husband, who lost both his legs in an accident, thanked me also and asked the girls to bring me some of the corn which they grew in their small garden in the back of their house. He gave me a bunch of the corn and reminded me that when someone here does a good deed for you, you always return the favor in some way. It was an amazing lesson for me in the indigenous concept of “ayni” which means one good deed deserves another. I walked home that night with my bread and corn thanking God that I had encountered the resurrected Jesus in the “ayni” of my neighbor. It turns out Easter is celebrated here in Bolivia after all; just a bit more subtly.
God Bless and Happy Easter,
Joe (Becky, Josh and Celia)
February 22, 2007
Letter #17 Community
Dear Family and Friends,
So, I made a mistake!
As Josh and Celia went to school for the first day last month, Becky and I were somewhat worried about the dangers which existed on the school grounds. The grass was up to my waist with all kinds of debris hidden inside, they were just beginning construction on an addition to the building, and the playground equipment was full of dangerous broken bolts and boards. We were afraid and didn’t understand why all the work to get the school ready was not completed during the month long summer vacation. What was also concerning was that the first day of school for the kids seemed to also be the first day of school for the teachers. So, while the teachers had meetings all day to make plans for the year, the kids just played out on the playground. Josh and Celia were mostly oblivious to this whole situation. Their biggest concern was being away from the two of us all day and eating Bolivian food for lunch. There were some rough days in the first week or two. As I looked at all the dangers that existed on the school grounds, I decided to try to “fix” something. Of course, I have absolutely no talent in the area of repairing or fixing things up, so, I decided to pay someone to use a weed-whacker to cut all the grass. I thought it was a good idea because as parents, we are supposed to participate in community work days and help out in the school. What I didn’t know was that the person I hired to cut the grass charged me about twice as much as he would have charged the school directly and he decided that after he finished, his prices for all of his work would increase. Now, Becky warned me about this bold move into a new territory of “helping” without permission of others and knowledge of what parent participation really meant, but, I was a bit stubborn and went ahead anyway. The administrator of MAP who runs the school graciously informed me that my help was appreciated, but, I should have asked her what would be the best way to go about helping before I paid someone twice the normal price to cut the grass. She offered to be my resource for advice about culturally appropriate help in the future and I was most appreciative.
Now, all of this is to introduce the method of “helping” that is prevalent here in Bolivia and is an expectation of all the parents of the kids at the school. Each parent is expected to help purchase vegetables, bake bread, or help cook once a month. Also, each parent is expected to participate in a “community work day” once a month. Last Sunday was my first community work day. I arrived at the school 30 minutes late at 8:30AM. Now, here in Bolivia, that means I was really about 30-60 minutes early. The others started showing up slowly and by the time everyone was busy working, there were about 50 parents helping out. I was assigned to building a rabbit hutch along with 4 other men who actually knew what they were doing. Others (both men and women) cut the grass with sickles, pulled weeds, cleaned windows, built benches with bricks, cleared pathways between buildings and blockaded some of the dangerous construction sites. I marveled as my rabbit hutch team looked around to see what used lumber, nails, and wire were laying around the area to use for construction. There was a bag of new nails available to use, but, the norm was to straighten out old nails with a hammer and reuse them. The lumber was sawed and used along with chicken wire to make a fence and door. Old stones and bricks were used to seal the bottom of the fence. In a matter of a few hours, our work was done and I had helped out as much as possible by trying to understand the minimal conversation being spoken and hand various materials to the others who were actually doing the work. By the time the entire group was finished, all the grass was completely cut, the windows were clean, there were new benches, the garden looked beautiful, and MY rabbit hutch was an award winner. I felt proud to be part of a team working together to make improve our community and provide a better environment for our kids to enjoy. I’m not sure what the others thought of the gringo looking busy but always taking pictures of everyone else working so hard.
We are learning that this is the way things are done in Bolivia. People of a community get together and work as a group to build a community center, a clinic, a play field, or just about anything which the community decides needs to be done. Individuals rarely can do this kind of work on their own because they don’t have enough money or the types of tools necessary, so interdependence is the norm. This is in contrast to my usual American way of trying to be independent and doing everything myself (or hiring someone else to do it). It is a lesson which may be one of the most valuable that we learn while living here.
In the meantime, the school is up and running very smoothly. The dangers of the school grounds are slowly being fixed with my help along with the help of many others. Josh and Celia are very happy and seem to not mind being the only ones in the school with blond hair and blue eyes. They are in school from 8:30AM to 4:30 PM which is a long day, but, we can’t get them to come home at the end of the day because they want to stay and play with their friends. We can’t tell you how pleased we are about this and how much more relaxed we feel about going about our work here without worrying about them during the day. We just experienced the long 4 day weekend of Carnival. Josh and Celia enjoyed throwing water balloons and playing with their Bolivian friends.
Joe (Becky, Josh and Celia)
January 25, 2007
Crisis in Cochabamba
Dear Friends and Family,
It started as a slow burn and erupted into violence. Early in the week, the right-leaning governor of the “state” of Cochabamba called for a referendum on an issue that had been solidly voted down only 6 months ago. For the left-leaning opposition, supported by the indigenous people on the rural areas of Cochabamba (usually referred to as the “campesinos and cocaleros”), this was the straw that broke the camels back and they called for his resignation. Of course the issue is much, much more complex than this once one delves into the history of this governor, his long-standing rivalry with the current president of Bolivia, and the history of the Bolivian people in general. But, in the end, the sides came together wielding sticks and baseball bats in a bloody battle in the city of Cochabamba two weeks ago. On one side were the poor indigenous people of the country who have been oppressed for centuries demanding the resignation of the governor; on the other were the wealthier middle class Bolivians who wanted to protect their way of life. It was a very difficult week not only for those who live here in Cochabamba, but for Bolivians all over the country. Two people were killed in the hand to hand violence and over 100 wounded. The pictures in the paper were ghastly and overwhelming.
Although we are safe in our new home, this situation has caused us to look deep within ourselves in order to answer the very prominent question, “As missioners, how do we respond?” We had another Maryknoll family (a couple with two children) visiting us that week during this crisis. They live in La Paz and were unable to get home due to the city wide strikes and blockades of all the roads leading into and out of the city. They were to stay with us for one night but the days passed and they ended up with us for 5 days. While the kids had a ball playing together and wished that the blockades would continue for another week, the adults struggled to understand what was happening and what to do in light of what we understood (or rather, what we didn’t understand).
In our house, there is no television or radio. Because of the strikes (including public transportation, our only means of mobility), we could not leave our home and nothing could get to our neighborhood, including a newspaper. Thank goodness for phones. We were in constant contact with other people in the city trying to learn what was going on. As we learned of the developments each day, our horror increased as we learned of the violence. We also began to learn of the complexity of the issue and that it wasn’t all black and white. Both sides went to the city center with clubs, prepared to hurt each other. So both sides are culpable. And yet, many of the campesinos were paid to be there or threatened that they would be fined if they weren’t there. So, although many on both sides were ready to fight, many did not want violence and were pulled into it unwillingly.
As Christians, and as missioners, we are called to be in solidarity with the poor, with the marginalized, and with the oppressed. We can not remain silent in the face of injustice. If we do not speak out, we are colluding with that injustice and supporting it. I am reminded of a famous quote by Elie Wiesel, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” So it is clear to me that we should do something in light of what has been happening here in Cochabamba, but what?
- I’ve been in several prayer groups in the past week and talked to numbers of people about how they were feeling during the violence. Every single person was struggling with this question of how to be in solidarity with the impoverished and oppressed, and none felt that they had a good answer. In the example that occurred 2 weeks ago, there were any number of options of action such as, a) go the city center and march with the campesinos, b) buy food and donate blankets for the campesinos who were camped outside in the rain for a week as part of their protest, c) sit at home, talk about the situation and think about what to do until its over. Unfortunately, I chose to do “c”. I’m actually not convinced that that was the wrong choice because for me, it felt too dangerous to go into the city. And yet, did I really do nothing? Did I just sit by and allow the oppressors to attack the oppressed? Yes. And so now what do I do?
In one conference that I attended awhile back on non-violent communication, we discussed the concept of “speaking your truth.” Meaning, to at least be able to speak my truth, in a confident yet non-offensive way, is often the most important thing I can do. Perhaps I could go down to the city now, and talk to people, and speak my truth about how this could have been dealt with in a non-violent way?
I remember after the tsunami in Indonesia I watched the images on TV and I was deeply saddened. Joe and I toyed with the idea of flying to Indonesia to provide medical and psychological support, but of course logic got in our way, and we didn’t go. We continued to be saddened by the reports of the deaths, suffering, orphans, and destruction, but in the end, we did nothing. My friend Vicki, on the other hand, did. Although she was very unsure of what she could do to help, but she felt she had to do something. In the end, she decided to organize a community wide rummage sale with all profits going to help the victims of the tsunami. It was an incredible event. Within a couple weeks she organized a ton of volunteers to help with the preparations, advertising, collection of items, set-up, selling, and clean up of the whole thing. I don’t remember exactly how much money she was able to send to the victims, but at the very least, when everybody else was beginning to forget about the victims, she had kept the issue in the minds of many, she had brought our community together around an important issue, and she had given each of us a way to feel as though we too were able to help out in some small way, those in need in Indonesia. For me, Vicki is a living example of how us ordinary humans, can do something in the face of destruction and despair.
How often have I sat and watched the horror of something happening and felt very deeply about the problem and yet done nothing? I know I can’t save the world, and yet, I need to do something, I can’t sit by and allow injustices to occur right under my nose without lifting a finger. But, again, I have no answers. I will continue to talk to people about what is the best way to be in solidarity and fight injustice. I will continue to pray about it. And I hope, hope, hope, that in the end, I will actually do something.
Much love and many blessings,
Becky (Joe, Celia, and Josh)
December 20, 2006
Letter #15: Christmas in Chilimarca
Dear Friends and Family,
We woke up our first morning here in our new house in Chilimarca to find cows grazing in the yard. Celia immediately ran outside to “play” with them (run around them and talk to them as only 4 year olds can doJ). We live on the same property as the director of MAP (the organization with which we work right now) and as he travels for months at a time, we “share” what is on the property. A young Bolivian couple – German and Dora live in his house while he is gone. So, we now have two dogs, a chicken, a rooster, an organic vegetable garden, and a great number of fruit trees in our yard. We feel very blessed to have found this place and we are very excited to settle in and allow it to become our home for the next few years.
We only had about 4 days to settle in before leaving for a week long Maryknoll Lay Missioner meeting in La Paz and returned back to our home on December 14. Although we all had a great time in La Paz, it was nice to get back to our new house and begin to get settled. The day we arrived back was the beginning of a two day evaluation for MAP. Although we wanted to attend the meetings, we did not have child care so we decided to split the time between the two of us. Joe took the 2 minute walk on the path that leads from our house to the MAP property (where there is the school, playground, library and another building which houses all of MAP’s programs). He quickly returned and told me that there were quite a number of kids in the meeting and on the playground and so I could bring the kids and join him. As I sat in the meeting, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the Bolivian culture and it’s acceptance of children. There were probably 70-80 people in the room listening to presentations with children of all ages walking in and out (and dogs; the ever present dogs, even in church they are free to enter at will). It was such a sense of freedom and wholeness to be able to work and care for my kids at the same time. For two days our kids played outside all day with the children of the other staff members. It was wonderful.
Which brings me to Josh and Celia and their transition to Chilimarca. I had been very worried about how they would handle everything new once again. Although Josh has been somewhat scared about starting a new school, they have made the transition remarkably well. Each day they make new friends. One day, Joe and Celia were walking by our neighbor’s home and stopped to watch while the whole family dug up potatoes in their garden. Celia was wearing last year’s blue velvet Christmas dress but jumped right into the garden and began digging up worms and other bugs with the two daughters of the family. Joe talked at length to the mother and grandmother about potatoes and how they grow and when to harvest them and such. It was this kind of experience that we had been hoping for. Meeting new neighbors and learning more about how the average Bolivian lives. We look forward to many more encounters such as this.
And now it’s the Holiday Season. The day we came back from La Paz, we asked German – our next door neighbor where we could buy a Christmas tree (I wasn’t even sure if they had Christmas trees in Bolivia!). He said, “wait one moment” and disappeared for a few minutes. Then he said, “come, come pick your tree”. Joe and I were a bit confused and figured that we had misunderstood him but he insisted, so we left our yard and went next door to another neighbor’s home who indeed has a small Christmas tree farm. We walked among the trees and picked one out. They took a machete and cut it down, carried it back to our house and put it in a bucket with dirt, and voila, we had our tree. The kids made some ornaments and we bought some lights and now we have our first Bolivian Christmas tree.
Our Christmas in Chilimarca will be a simple one and we will be missing you all. We will be thinking and praying for the people of Bolivia who are about to enter a new and exciting moment in their history- one which will hopefully bring justice and peace for those who have been oppressed for so many years. At the same time, we will be praying for all of you who will be celebrating the holidays with your families. We wish you peace and joy during this season and we hope we can continue to count on your support (prayers, donations, emails, phone calls) in the coming year. We are sorry that we were not able to send out a Christmas card by snail mail this year but we would love to receive your Christmas cards with any pictures you have of your families. You can send them either to our address here in Bolivia, or to my parents in Seattle (and they will forward them to us here). We would love to decorate our new home with pictures of all of you to remind us of your presence in our lives.
Feliz Navidad and God bless,
Becky (Joe, Josh and Celia) Sherman
Instituto de Idiomas
Phone (from US): 011-591-4-428-8167
Becky’s parent’s address:
1400 39TH Ave E.
Seattle, WA 98112
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
Letter #14 – The Dream
Dear Friends and Family,
After living in Uganda behind ten foot walls and armed guards, where we drove a distance to work, and where there were no community playspaces for children nearby, Joe and I dreamed of living in a very different type of community when we moved into mission with Maryknoll. We dreamed of a community in which we could work, live, and send our kids to school. We wanted a neighborhood where houses didn’t have walls and where the neighbors knew each other and cared and watched out for one another. We hoped to be able to walk our kids to school and to have school and neighborhood friends over to play. We desired a diverse school with “common” Bolivian kids, not just middle-class kids. We wished to find a place to work in our community so that we could work and live with our friends and neighbors.
The Apparent Reality
The most difficult part of trying to find our dream community, was trying to find an adequate school for the kids. Every public school we looked at was just not an option for our kids. In each school, there are over 35 children in each class for one teacher. The kids sit at desks all day and learn by rote memorization and drills. The teachers are generally harried and unhappy. We began to feel that we had two options, settle and send them back to a private middle-class school or send them to a public school where they were sure to be miserable.
Another impediment to finding the dream was that almost all houses around Cochambaba have high walls around them. This does not help to foster community. Joe and I looked at many, many neighborhoods looking for a way to make community within the neighborhood such as through work or church yet we were striking out.
The one easy part was that work was not going to be difficult for either of us to find. There were plenty of organizations for whom we could work. It was simply a matter of finding work near a school that we liked and where we could find a home.
Since being reassigned to Bolivia in mid-August, Joe and I have been out every single day looking for work, schools, and neighborhoods. We were beginning to believe that we needed to give up our dream, accept the reality of Bolivia, and start making choices on how to move forward. We were feeling very frustrated and sad but we also believed that if for some reason we weren’t meant to live our dream, so be it, we would move forward in a positive way in any case.
The Dream Realized (We hope)
Then one day in October, Joe went on his own to check out an NGO (non-governmental organization) called MAP International (Medical Assistance Program) located about 15 minutes out of town. He came home that afternoon and said, “Becky, there’s hope in Chilimarca.” He was having a difficult time hiding his excitement yet he was feeling like this could finally be it.
The next day Joe and I went back out to Chilimarca to visit MAP. Roxanna, one of the women who work at MAP, showed Joe and I around visiting a number of MAP’s programs. Each program amazed me. I felt like I was star struck. The programs are all incredibly progressive in how they work at educating and empowering Bolivians. Roxanna took us to different programs and gathered a number of the staff from each team to sit down and describe their programs. Every single person we met was warm, welcoming, and genuine. I loved each program, and each person! The programs include a health clinic, a health promoter program for the rural areas and another for the poor neighborhoods in the Chilimarca community, an education program about disabilities, two legal groups working on educating people (mostly women and children) about their legal rights and helping them when in need of legal assistance, a day program for sexually abused girls, AND...an alternative model school!
We asked Roxanna about the school and she said she’d be happy to show us around the school. We talked to each and every teacher and visited each classroom. Again, I was amazed as what I saw. The school is for the poorest children in the neighborhood. It begins at 6 months old and goes up to 4th grade. In the lower grades one of the main foci is on nutrition. The school is an all day program (unheard of in Bolivia, all schools are only half-day) because almost of the parents of these children work all-day. If the children were to go home after a half-day at school, many of them would be left alone in the house until a parent returned at night. Also, many of the families do not have enough food to feed the children so by keeping the kids in school all day, the MAP program can feed them 4-5 meals each day. The teachers told us about how they weigh the younger kids each Friday and Monday and how devastating it is when children lose significant weight over the weekend because there’s not enough food in the home to feed the whole family. The school is also alternative because there are only 20-25 students for each teacher (again, unheard of in Bolivia). The teaching philosophy is much more liberal and less dogmatic than in most schools. The teachers are warm and loving, not harsh disciplinarians. The school has a playground, an organic farm that the kids work in, and farm animals that the kids help care for.
After visiting the school and being completely overwhelmed by the wonder if it all, we met the administrator of the program. During our conversation I told her how incredible I found MAP to be and that it seemed to be everything we were dreaming about. She then told us about a house that might be available nearby. Joe and I were jumping out of our skins! In fact, the house belonged to the Director of the program and the Administrator has been renting it but was planning on moving soon. She readily agreed to show us the house. Do I even need to say it again…I was amazed. It is a small simple house with a beautiful rugged back yard perfect for kids. The front entrance to the house is a fence, not a wall. At this point, I could barely talk. All I kept thinking was, “Thank you God, thank you God, thank you God.” Incredible.
The last hitch was to meet with the Director who was out of the country for another couple of weeks. For those weeks, Joe and I continued to visit MAP and learn more about the programs. We tried to contain our excitement because if the director didn’t like us, or we didn’t like him, the whole deal would probably fall apart. We met the director, Jose Miguel, and I hate to say it, but again, it was amazing. He is a warm and loving Columbian man who has lived in Bolivia for over 20 years with his wife and 5 kids. He is a visionary who sees health as not just the absence of disease, but, as a comprehensive state of well-being. I will tell you more about him later in future emails but let me just say that we are VERY excited to be working with him and have the opportunity to learn from him.
We are headed out of town to go on vacation with my parents and sister at the end of this week. When we return, we will move in to our new house in Chilimarca, begin work with MAP, and prepare the kids for beginning their new school at MAP in January (the academic year is Jan-Dec.) We are very excited to have finally found our dream. Please pray for us that it is all that we have hoped forJ
Much love and many, many blessings,
Becky (Joe, Josh, and Celia)
September 4, 2006
Dear Friends and Family,
The three of us (Jason Obergfell, Becky and I) sat surrounded by all the members of the Andean Region of Maryknoll Lay Missioners during a welcoming ceremony where each member wrote down what gifts they wished to give each of us as we start our mission lives here in Bolivia. There were many gifts including “openness”, “patience”, “laughter”, and “relationships”. Very few had to do with success in our jobs here, but more so with living in community with the poor. All of them were very personal and heartfelt. We new members of the Andean Region were excited to get started with our journeys here and sought as much advice as possible. Our first meeting of the region included 11 kids (soon to be 12) and 12 adults who live either near Cochabamba or La Paz, Bolivia. One member who lives in nearby Peru was in the States doing some fundraising and giving educational talks. Becky and I will concentrate our ministry near Cochabamba – the same city where we have been living all along.
We moved out of our host family’s home and into our own house nearby last month. It was a great relief to be on our own for the first time here and the kids immediately started to relax. We have a nice three bedroom house with open space inside for the kids to play. The tough part is that we now have to cook for ourselves and clean our own clothes by hand. However, this is also an adventure which we are enjoying. We can only stay here for about 2 months while we look for a more permanent place to settle outside of the city in one of the surrounding barrios. We have decided that we would like to live in a smaller community with easy access by public transportation to the city of Cochabamba. Our search has taken us to places with names like: Tiquipaya, Sacaba, Quiyacollo, and Colcapirhua. We have found that there are many opportunities for us to work in both government and church affiliated hospitals, clinics, and children’s centers. Now, we realize the challenge will not be so much where to work as much as where to live. Schooling for Josh and Celia is a particular challenge. Local community schools are often overcrowded and chaotic. Some private schools are too exclusive and expensive. Looking for a smaller private school which is reasonably priced ($10-$50/month) and includes children from the community is our dream. So far, we have only found one or two outside of the city.
We have been blessed with many connections through both the Catholic Church as well as government organizations. There is no question of the need all over the city as many folks from rural areas and former miners move closer into the area looking for work. Our challenge in this area will be trying out various jobs and seeing which ones fit us well. We hope to have some decision made by October.
This time can be exciting and enjoyable, or overwhelming, depending on our attitude. We always seek the guidance of other missioners who have lived here for awhile, but, in the end, we are unique individuals with skills and needs different from others and we must remain open to where the spirit leads us.
Again, thank you for your prayers and support during this time of discernment. We will let you know how it all works out and hope you will all stay in touch. Our address will remain the same. We are open to receiving snail mail at any time (our kids love it) and e-mails are always welcomed.
Joe (Becky, Josh and Celia)
Instituto de Idiomas de Maryknoll
August 7, 2006
Letter # 12
Staying in Bolivia
While I was taking Celia to school one day last week, she asked me, “Daddy, is this my last day of school again?” She had had three last days already. I told her that I didn’t know because we have always tried to be as honest as possible with Josh and Celia. It was really wearing on all of us to continue to live in limbo, never knowing if we would end up in Venezuela or not. After Becky returned from Seattle, we felt as if we were a family again. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to celebrate. As it turned out, our visas for Venezuela still were not ready in time for us to make our flight on August 3. We were given the choice to continue waiting or to request reassignment to another region. After much prayer and discussion, we felt it was time to move on and get our mission lives started in another country. It was sad to give up our hopes and dreams of living in Venezuela, but, we realized that those hopes and dreams could be realized elsewhere. We felt we wanted to be able to tell our kids where we were living and stop canceling flights out of the country. Next, we had to find out which Maryknoll communities in Spanish speaking Latin America were willing to accept us in an expedient manner. Our community here in the Andean Region (Bolivia and Peru) made up their minds very quickly to welcome us to stay here. We waited a few days to find out what our other options were, but, it became evident that we felt most comfortable remaining here in Bolivia. We finally told Josh and Celia about our decision and Josh said, “I’m really happy”. Celia just wanted to know when she could have her next “treat”. (She pretty much lives in the moment).
We can’t tell you how difficult these last two months have been after completing language school. We have learned so much about ourselves, our children, our Maryknoll community, and our faith by facing and making difficult decisions every day. We feel emotionally exhausted. However, we feel excited about our future lives here in Bolivia. There is a great deal of need everywhere in the country for people with our skills and we are sure we can be of some help. We feel the country has a rich cultural tradition from which we can learn a tremendous amount. Bolivia has a new president who is the first indigenous president in the Americas and has the support of the majority of the people. The Maryknoll community of lay missioners, priests, and sisters is large and welcoming. The country is one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere; yet, hope abounds. We feel we can definitely find a home here.
So, from this point, even though our hope is to live in or near Cochabamba, we will still look at the other areas where lay missioners are currently working. Very soon, we will move into some type of temporary housing and leave the kids in the same school that they have been attending. We will then start looking for an area where we can live and work among the Bolivian people. We hope to look at a number of different ministry opportunities in clinics, parishes, and other social outreach centers. This all will probably take a few months before we finally settle down for good. But, in the meantime, Celia will not have another last day of school for awhile. We will keep you abreast of our progress and hope you will continue to pray for us as we go through this next transition in our lives as missioners.
Joe (and Becky)
July 27, 2006
Dear Friends and Family,
Remember the saying that goes something like, “In every cloud there’s a silver lining”? That’s what our life has felt like recently. We’ve had some very difficult times, but there seem to be hidden blessings in almost every one.
My uncle Steve died two weeks ago. He had been sick for a few years and his body was deteriorating while his heart and mind stayed very much alive and present to each moment. He died peacefully with his family by his side and for that we are all very thankful. Uncle Stevie was a unique man. Although he accomplished a lot in his life, he is remembered not for what he did, but for who he was. I can not think of a greater tribute to one’s life. He is remembered for his extraordinary smile, kindness, gentleness, friendliness, fun-lovingness, and overall “good guy”-ness. Even the staff who helped care for him for the last few years have been deeply affected by both his life and his death. People who met him after he was unable to talk, fell in love with him. He was a soul who didn’t need words to connect with people. My uncle’s death has had at least two hidden blessings for me. First, he has quickly become a role model for me of how to live one’s life. The most important thing in life is the relationships we make, not the things we do. I need to be reminded of this daily and remembering Uncle Stevie is my reminder. Secondly, Uncle Stevie’s passing and memorial service called me home to Seattle to be with my family of origin. I left Joe, Josh, and Celia in Bolivia for 10 days while I traveled to Seattle. My week in Seattle was an incredible blessing. I had the time and availability to do whatever was needed or wanted. I was able to spend a good deal of quality time with many of my family members and friends, something that does not happen often enough and is much more difficult to do with the kids around. I am very grateful for that rare and special time.
Since I left Bolivia almost two weeks ago now, Joe has been a single parent. Single parenting is difficult under any circumstances, but doing it in a developing country when you’re not living in your own home, don’t have your regular supportive community, and have no schedule to fall back on, is even more difficult. Joe is my star, my rock, the most fabulous and wonderful husband I could ever wish for. He has taken on his single parent role without complaint. In fact, he has found some hidden blessings. In the past, I have been the homeschooling parent, but in my absence, Joe decided to pick up the ball and run with it. He has reported that he can now understand “how homeschooling can be addictive”. He has had more alone time with Josh and Celia than ever before and though it’s not always easy, he has been able to experience them in new ways that have been wonderful and even potentially addictiveJ
On my way back to Bolivia on Tuesday, I flew from Seattle to Chicago and then it all went wrong. As I arrived in the Chicago airport and checked the departure screens, I found that my Chicago to Miami flight had been cancelled. I immediately called the “rebooking number” and was told that I would not be able to leave Chicago until Friday. I was devastated. I have never been away from Joe and the kids for this long and I was more than ready to get back to them. I miss my husband and children and I want to be with them. After getting over the shock that I would be stranded in Chicago for 3 nights, I called Terry, my sister-in-law, who lives just outside of Chicago with Frank, Joe’s brother, and their 5 kids. In the midst of my sadness, I found the hidden blessing. Once again I have uninterrupted time with family. I get to hang out with the Frank and Terry Sherman’s for 4 days and soak up the love and goodness that is here so that I can take it back to Bolivia with me and share it with Joe and the kids.
Then of course, there is the eternal question of our visas for Venezuela. At long last, we have an answer…sort of. On Tuesday, we were given the good news that our visas were approved in Caracas. Then we were given the news that our visa approval needed to get to New York, then to La Paz, Bolivia, then we can get them stamped into our passports. We don’t know how long each of these steps will take. At this moment, we understand that the notification has reached New York so we only have two more steps to go. Assuming that all goes according to plan, we should be able to make our August 3rd flights out of Bolivia. If things don’t go according to plan and our visas get held up along the way, we will not make our flight, which means we will not be able to leave Bolivia until the end of August or be re-assigned to a different country. At this point, we are remaining optimistic and planning for me to arrive in Bolivia on Saturday, we pack up our house on Sunday and maybe Monday, and then leave for La Paz on Monday or Tuesday to get our visas stamped and then fly to Venezuela on Thursday. Please, please pray that all of this happens without a hitch (yeah, right!). In the end, I must admit that there have been some hidden blessings in our extended waiting period here in Bolivia. None of them are earth shattering, but it’s the little things that have occurred that we can choose to see as blessings in order to help us get through each day of limbo.
We’re almost there….we think. We will write again as soon as we know for sure what our plans are and again when we get settled in our new home. As always, thank you for your thoughts, prayers, and every other kind of support you have given us.
Much love and many blessings,
Becky (Joe, Josh and Celia)
Sunday, July 2, 2006
Letter #10 – Waiting…..
Dear Friends and Family,
If I had written this letter on Monday I would have told you about our great trip to La Paz (the capital of Bolivia) and to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. During our whole mini-vacation, we spent a great deal of time with another Maryknoll family who lives up near La Paz in El Alto (where the altitude is over 4000 meters. I think that’s around 13,000 feet!). We went to visit Maggie and Tim and their two children, Danny and Mary, (who are each about a year older than Josh and Celia respectively) in their barrio called Amachuma. It was awe-inspiring. Maggie and Tim have chosen to live in almost complete union with their neighbors. The villagers are all very poor. They live without running water and only receive water as a community once every 4 days. They need to fill up all available containers for any water needed to do such things as wash dishes, wash clothes, wash themselves, etc. Maggie and Tim have an incredible composting toilet that Josh was thrilled to learn about (in truth, it is very cool, and doesn’t smell at all!). It was such an honor to be able to eat a meal at Maggie and Tim’s house and watch in amazement how they manage with no running water, a small two burner stove, and no heat in a place that gets below freezing nightly at this time of year.
I also would have told you that we were quite disappointed to have returned home without our visas for Venezuela in our passports. We have been in the visa process for over 1 year now. Due to some confusion and some mistakes, our visa application process has been prolonged. We had planned to have our visas by the time our language classes ended and to then move straight onto Venezuela. By mid June, we learned that our visas had not yet been approved but that we were very close, in fact we only needed one more signature in Caracas for our visas to be approved. We have been hoping daily that that signature would appear and that we would be able to go to the Venezuelan embassy in La Paz and have the visas stamped in our passports and off we go to Venezuela. Each day, this has not happened and we have grown more and more worried that maybe we won’t receive our visas at all.
If I had written this letter on Wednesday, I would have told you that I was seriously considering heading home to the States to wait out this whole visa thing. I was pretty much at the end of my rope with all of the waiting and not knowing what was going to happen to us. I was completely fed up with our living situation because despite living with an amazingly wonderful Bolivian family, I needed some control over my life, my family, my home, my food, anything at all, and I felt that I had none. As I talked to my mom on the phone, and I was sobbing and explaining all of my frustrations, I watched a woman with two young children in tow walk down the street overburdened by recycling which she had salvaged from the dumpsters. They were dressed in rags and I knew that the recycling was likely their only income which would have been meager. I then watched a young man with his small son walk over to the street dumpster to forage for food. In that short period of time, my perspective changed completely. I may have frustrations, but really, they are just nothing like the impossible realities of the majority of Bolivians. By the time I got off the phone with my mom, I had done a 180 degree turn and I felt blessed by all that we have. We are safe, we are healthy, we have a home and a Bolivian family who takes great care of us, and we have the love and support of people here and at home to help us get through this frustrating time.
Those are the stories I would have told you had I written this at a different time, but since I’m writing this letter today, I will tell you the current status of our continuing story of waiting. Yesterday we had a meeting with one of our Maryknoll leaders from New York who came to Cochabamba for her vacation (she’s Bolivian). In this meeting she explained that she had decided, in consultation with the rest of our Maryknoll leadership, that we will wait here in Bolivia until the end of July for our visas. If we do not receive our visas by July 20th, we will begin the conversation of what to do next. This means that we may discuss a different country placement for our mission. If we do not receive our visas by July 31st, we will very likely be reassigned to a different country.
So what will we do in the meantime? We are working closely with the Brown Family (who has been with us since New York and who plans to head to Venezuela as well) to figure out a schedule for the kids. We are in the middle of winter vacation in Bolivia so school will be out for two more weeks and we had said goodbye to the school in any case in preparation for leaving two weeks ago. In light of this, and given Laura Brown’s passion for home schooling, Josh has joined the two older Brown girls for home schooling three times a week while Celia gets to play with me or Joe. The alternate days, we take care of the Brown girls. As for Joe and I, I’m just not sure what we’ll do. This past week we’ve done a bit of Spanish studying, reading, and spent a lot of time with the kids. Emotionally, we’re all doing alright. I think we all have our ups and downs and we all have a bit of fear that we may not be able to go to Venezuela after all, but we’re not trying to remain hopeful.
We will write again as soon as we have any information on our visas or our next plans. Please pray for us that we may continue to be patient and live in the present moment so that we will not worry about our future. Joe and I both have faith that all of this is happening for a reason and that God is with us and our path will become clear when it is meant to be clear.
Much love and many blessings,
Becky (and Joe, Josh, and Celia)
May 9, 2006
Ciudad de Los Perros
Cochabamba has more dogs per person than any other city I have ever seen or heard of in my life. Almost every house has a tall wall around it and at least 2 dogs lurking behind it barking loudly to keep away strangers. In addition, there are packs of dogs wandering the streets constantly looking for food, companionship and an occasional human to bite. We’ve seen dogs before in many towns in Uganda and Kenya. But, the difference here is that most of the dogs behind the walls are pure bred. There is a big market near the stadium in town every Sunday where the sidewalk is filled with kiosks selling pet supplies and pure bred puppies. There is a huge crowd there every week. Cochabambinos are in love with their dogs. They even have their own holiday: “Dia de Los Perros” on the feast day on St Francis. So far, we have not fallen victim to any of these canines on the street and the dogs in our home (one boxer and 2 cocker spaniels) seem to get along with us very well after a few unfriendly encounters in the beginning. However, Jason, our good friend and fellow Maryknoller was bitten in a very personal spot by a tiny dog that lives next door to him (see movie: “Something About Mary”). He survived, but, has a few scars on his thigh as reminders of his encounter. It puzzles me as to why there is not a bigger effort to spay or neuter the dogs here, but, Cochabambinos want their dogs to have puppies so they can sell them or give them away. Therefore, there is never a moment, day or night, without the sounds of barking dogs. As a result of this phenomenon, we rarely see any cats. Fortunately, neither Celia nor Josh has requested one of these puppies and we are trying to hold off until we reach Venezuela. One very pleasant side effect of this phenomenon is that the boxer in our family just had puppies and Josh and Celia were able to watch her give birth. Talk about provocative questions! Celia wanted to know why Kiara had to have puppies. Answer: “because they were inside of her and had to come out”. That worked for awhile. Josh just sat back in wonder and awe. A good experience for the kids. I never got a chance to see a live birth until medical school. As usual, they are way ahead of me in life experiences.
Speaking of experiences, we had a great time with Becky’s parents last month when they came to visit us here in Cochabamba. They got a chance to see where we were living, our language institute and Josh and Celia’s school. I think they were relieved to see that we were doing so well down here. Our Bolivian family was very hospitable and made them feel right at home. After a few days in Cochabamba, we all traveled to Peru to visit Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu. We visited many sites of ancient Inca ruins and the kids had fun traveling on planes, trains, and buses. It was a once in a lifetime experience for all of us. We finished up our trip in Lima where we saw my nephew Jonathan and his wife Zoe and my other niece Monica. Josh and Celia loved seeing their cousins and had a very happy Easter with them. Becky’s parents said goodbye to us and left for the US the day before Easter. It was very sad to see them go, but, we will hopefully see them in about six months in Venezuela. Anyway, it was a good dose of family and home to hold us over for awhile.
We are now thinking more and more about our future lives in Venezuela. As we observe the rich indigenous culture here of the Aymara and Quechua peoples, we wonder about the Caribbean culture we will encounter in Venezuela when we move at the end of June. We both feel a bit of hesitation in getting too comfortable here because we know the next transition is right around the corner. We are now in fall with cooler drier weather and temperatures dipping from the 70’s during the day to the 50’s at night. When we move, we will leave the winter and enter a very hot summer in Venezuela. Many changes lie ahead. Despite all the uncertainties, we are confident that wonderful experiences lie ahead for us and the kids. Our time in Bolivia has been blessed in many ways and Josh and Celia are in love with our Bolivian family. Still, we are not yet in our own home with our own community. It is coming soon and we are praying that the transition goes as smoothly as possible.
We love hearing from you and we ask you to continue to keep us in your prayers. We also ask that you pray for the people of both Bolivia and Venezuela as they undergo dramatic changes in their governments which will have a major impact on the lives of so many.
Joe (and Becky)
March 9, 2006
“Globos” (water balloons), “espuma” (aerosol spray foam from a can), and “pistoles de agua” (water guns) dominate the city of Cochabamba as well as much of all Latin America for almost the entire month of February and into March and everyone walking the streets or driving with an open window is a target. This is the celebration of Carnaval which is a strange conglomeration of indigenous harvest festivals, Spanish colonial culture, and Christian influences. Carnaval commences with the celebration of “Dia de los Compadres” about 2 weeks before Ash Wednesday. This is a day when everyone honors the men of the community with fiestas and dancing. The globos and water continue to flow into the next week with the celebration of “Dia de las Comadres”, a similar but much larger celebration for the women. Then, the partying and craziness intensifies for the next week consisting of massive parades from every large city to every small campo. On the day before Ash Wednesday, most Bolivians celebrate the ceremony known as Ch’alla which comes from their native Quechua and Aymara ancestry. This is a blessing of all households, businesses and vehicles with smoke from burning symbols of the culture of the people (different crops, clothing, books, etc.). It is a ceremony of thanks to the “Pacha Mama” (mother earth) as well as appeasing many evil spirits, and preparation for Lent. However, unlike Mardi Gras, the partying and celebrations extend past Ash Wednesday and into the Lenten season. The traditional customs seem to trump the relatively new Catholic tradition.
Now, we are recovering and trying to get back into serious language study. The kids are continuing to do well and stay healthy. Their language skills are improving day by day. Last weekend, after church, we went to a café where Celia and Josh ordered milk shakes. When they were served to our table with only spoons, Becky and I both looked at the waiter and tried to ask for a straw. As we struggled, Celia spoke up and said, “bombilla, please”. I don’t think we were ready for her to start teaching us yet. They spend half the day in school listening to Spanish and I guess it’s starting to sink in. For us older folks, it’s a bit more difficult. I’ve kind of lowered my expectations from fluency in Spanish to just the ability to communicate using Spanish, English, as well as any body parts necessary.
Despite our lives being relatively simple here, life is not without its little frustrations. One of the most difficult things for me as well as many of the other language students is the feeling of being “useless”. Almost all of us come from helping professions (priests, sisters, social workers, missioners) and are here to improve our skills in those professions. However, we are put in the humbling position of a struggling student and asked to concentrate on our own learning rather than the well-being of others. I have found myself feeling as if I were back in medical school just itching to start caring for patients, but, being told I must first learn the skills necessary to do so. Some students have found outlets by working in local orphanages or helping out or at local churches. However, for Becky and me it is difficult to do any outside work and still keep up with the studies and our kids. Perhaps this is what we are called to at this time in our lives. Perhaps this feeling of weakness and dependency is preparing us to be better missioners in the future. It is still a struggle at times.
We have not heard much from Venezuela about our future there, but, despite US – Venezuelan political jousting, we still anticipate our plans to move there in July will not change. This week, all of the Lay Missioners who are headed to Venezuela had to travel down to the US DEA office here to get fingerprinted for our visa applications. We are excited about a visit from Becky’s parents in April. We will join them on a trip to Peru to visit my nephew and his wife living in Lima as well as the ancient city of Cusco and Machu Pichu. My neice, Monica will be visiting at the same time. We should all have a good time. In the meantime, we are enjoying the beautiful weather in anticipation of fall here. We love getting your messages and will try to answer everyone individually.
Joe (and Becky)
February 3, 2006
Josh and Celia
As we walk out of the gate of our house on Avenida Calampampa at 7:45AM every weekday morning and replace the padlock behind us, Josh, Celia and I (Joe) begin our 7 block journey to “Happy Kids” guadaria (pre-school and kindergarten). We look up and see the mountains surrounding us on all sides and the enormous statue of “Christo” overlooking the entire city. We walk hand in hand staying close to one another to avoid the frequent speeding taxis that honk as they rush by looking to see if the gringos need a ride. Usually it is a bit cool at this time in the morning and we have light jackets on. It may already be raining with our daily shower. We pass several homes behind walls with locked gates as we approach Avenida Simon Lopez where numerous little tiendas are opening for business. Josh begins his series of questions:
-Why do people litter so much here in Bolivia?
-Why are there so many dogs here in Bolivia?
-Why are those people asking us for money?
-Why do we have to walk so far to school?
I do the best I can to answer some, but, have lots of “I’m not sure responses also.
As we pass the large dumpsters on each corner and the smell overcomes us. We also see the amazing array of colors of the blossoms on the bushes and trees reminding us of our tropical climate. As Celia hugs my leg a bit more closely while we pass the numerous dogs wandering the streets, she takes a different approach from Josh. She doesn’t ask too many questions. She makes statements:
-Daddy, little doggies are nice and big doggies are mean.
-Daddy, I need to pick some flowers for mommy and Chi-Chi (our host mom)
-Daddy, I have lots of friends at school now.
-Daddy, I know how to count to 15 in Spanish now.
We walk through a small park and have a race to see who can get to the corner first. We finally arrive and the kids run into school and happily join Emily and Anna, their friends from another Maryknoll family here for language training. I kiss them goodbye and say I love them and will see them at lunchtime and make the short walk up the street to language class. I arrive for class a bit early and take some time for prayer and reflection. Becky leaves home earlier for the first class which starts at 8. Becky and I attend 4 classes in groups of 2 or 3 students and return to “Happy Kids” at 12:45 to pick up Josh and Celia for the much more difficult walk home in the middle of the day.
We are finding that one of our biggest challenges here in Cochabamba is trying to deal with daily life as parents of Josh and Celia. Meals with our host family are chaotic as we try to speak two languages while coaxing our children to eat food that is not too exotic or different from what they had in the states (chicken, French fries, bread, fruit, juice). We try to get Celia home from school before she falls asleep around 1PM and put her down for a nap around 2 after lunch which she does not always agree to. We struggle to find different activities for the afternoon which provide outlets for the kids and still can free us up for a little studying. All this time, I’ve been thinking that, at times, the kids make our experience here much more challenging than it would be without them. Then, after a morning walk to school or a stroll outside of church with Celia while mass is taking place inside and we are observing the fish pond outside, I realize that our children are the very reason why we are here. They give us insight into life which we are too busy or anxious to notice. They provide a form of prayer of which we are not capable. They exude a trust which I can only envy in my later years. The challenge becomes our mission. Their presence becomes the presence of God in our lives. For this I am thankful. As we say our thank you’s to God each night, Josh and Celia always have a surprise for us. They always noticed something we never did or a person we overlooked during the day. What would our lives be like here without them!
Language school has become a bit more challenging now with the pace picking up a bit. Becky is making great progress with her foundation of studying other languages. I have had to unlearn quite a bit of incorrect Spanish, but, am coming along slowly. Our host family is very patient with us at the table for meals especially when we struggle with the kids. The weather is very pleasant with high temperatures in the afternoon approaching the 80’s and much cooler in the evening. We get a small amount of rain each day and the view of the mountains is spectacular.
We’ll be watching the Seahawks in the Super bowl on Sunday with our Bolivian family (game time here at 7:30PM) and hope to be celebrating late into the night. Josh and Celia will start a new Montessori school next week which we are very excited about. Thank you all for your messages and support. We appreciate staying in touch with so many of you. We’ll try to be better with our response time the future.
January 18, 2006
Letter #6- Arrival in Cochabamba
Dear Family and Friends,
After 24 hours of traveling (including 4 airplanes and 5 cities), we arrived exhausted but excited in Cochabamba. Our excitement increased as we descended the stairs from the airplane onto the tarmac and began our short walk to the terminal and heard shouts from up above from Sue and Evan and their two girls (a Maryknoll family who have lived in Coch. for a year). It was wonderful to see some familiar faces. After gathering all 10 of our cargo bags (yes, they all arrived!) and figuring out how to ask the porter guys in Spanish for some help with the bags, we went out of the terminal and were met by a member of our host family, Carla. She had no idea that we would be moving onto Venezuela after this so she was a bit shocked to see all of our luggage and was very apologetic at not having brought a larger vehicle to transport everything. Thankfully, Sue and Evan accompanied us in a taxi as we followed Carla to our new home.
Carla (28 years old), and her sisters (Daniella, 23 and Claudia, 21) live with their parents, Chi Chi and Lionel. Behind their house is another smaller house in which we live. Our house has a sitting room, bathroom, dining space and small kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. I believe it’s actually bigger than our apartment in New York! Our host family is absolutely wonderful. They are incredibly generous and attentive. I actually have to argue in order to be allowed to help out in the kitchen and I have not been able to get near my own laundry. I certainly can’t complain but it was a sight to watch our clean laundry hanging on the clothes line outside for a few days in the rain as it rained and rained and rained (yes, we seemed to have brought the rain with us to Coch. from Seattle. They say they haven’t seen this much rain in years! And it’s supposed to be summer here!).
Josh and Celia are doing great. They seem to be adjusting very well. There are a few things that they still don’t quite understand but seem to be following the “rules” in any case. For example, since the sewer pipes in most of Latin America are not made for toilet paper, one must place used toilet paper in a little trash can beside the toilet. I am also having quite a difficult time remembering this concept and I’d say I goof up about 1 in 10 times but I haven’t broken any toilets yet (that I know of). Another rule the kids are trying to follow is to not drink from the faucet (they are not even allowed to brush their teeth in the water here). We need to drink only boiled or bottled water and brush teeth in the same. Celia has forgotten this a couple times but doesn’t seem to have suffered yet for her transgressions.
Lack of hot water has affected us all. We have a little attachment on the shower head that heats up water as it goes through the attachment but you can only turn on the water a trickle in order to heat it up. If there is any more pressure, you get only cold water. We’ve tried a few different set ups for the kids to bathe and have finally found a solution. Chi Chi (our host mother) bought a small red tub which we fill up with water from the shower then add 1-2 pots of boiled water to make the water warm enough for the kids. Once we worked out all of the kinks, now we’re all happy bathers (although I admit, I look forward to hot shower again someday).J
We found a great school for the kids. Sue and Evan (the Maryknoll family living here already) had done some research into school possibilities for us and for the Browns (the other Maryknoll family going to Venezuela with us). We arrived in Coch. on Tuesday, and on Thursday Sue and Evan took us on a tour of schools. We fell in love with a Montessori school which has a beautiful setting with a large courtyard with grass, trees and flowers for the playground and huge classrooms full of Montessori materials, and a very knowledgeable director. Unfortunately, schools don’t begin until February so we needed to find something for the kids for the intervening three weeks. We feel blessed to have found a different preschool/kindergarten kind of place (guadaria) where the kids are going to “camp” until school starts. It’s been amazing that they have gone to “camp” willingly this week, without tears, and have dealt very well with the fact that no one there speaks English. So, we saw all of the schools on Thursday and went back on Friday to enroll the kids. It’s so funny to think that in the States, we would have taken months to have looked at schools and talked to everyone we knew about different schools and then made a decision. But here, we did it all in 24 hours.
Each day Joe and I walk the kids to school (“camp”), then, walk to the language institute. Joe and I have class from 8:00am to 12:30 then we walk back to the school to pick up the kids and head home for lunch. We eat all of our lunches and dinners with our host family. In Bolivia, if possible, everyone comes home from work for lunch. Although Joe and I and the kids normally eat all of our dinners together as a family, nothing compares to eating meals together in Bolivia. Meals can take 1-2 hours. For Joe and I, this is wonderful. It’s great to hang out, all nine of us at the table, and talk to our family and work on our Spanish, but for the kids, well, let’s just say it’s a bit of a stretch for them. Even after just one week, they are both getting much better at eating and then sitting and hanging out at the table. Of course we don’t make them sit for the entire meal. They often sit for awhile then go back to our house and play. But it’s a wonderful skill for them to learn and it’s fun to see them already getting better at sitting and talking with everyone.
So, we have survived our first week here in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In fact, we’re doing much better than I could have ever hoped for. I have a sense that the reality of what we’re doing will hit us sometime and we’ll have a few difficult hours or days, but for now, we’re in the honeymoon period and doing very well. As always, thank you so much for all of your continued support through email, prayers, or any thing else. I absolutely believe that our travels and our adjustment here would not have gone so smoothly without all of you and your love. Thank you.
If you wish to us, it is best to use e-mail. You can mail a letter and it takes about 1 week to arrive here. Please do not send anything by mail over 2 kg because we will have to pay tax here. Also, if you do send a small package, please ask the post office to use a green stamp so we do not get taxed. We may have better phone access in the future. However, we can call the US from an internet café for about 12 cents a minute. Our address is:
Instituto De Idiomas
Much love and many blessings,
November 22, 2005
Letter #4 – Orientation
Dear Family and Friends,
How time flies! It’s hard to believe that we are almost at the end of our time here at Bethany in New York. We will be heading to Chicago this week for Thanksgiving and by the time we arrive back here we will have only two weeks left to wrap everything up and get ready for the next transition. We finally got the official go-ahead that we are indeed heading to Venezuela. We have bought our tickets to Bolivia for language school and then onto Venezuela. It’s fun to finally be able to begin dreaming about what the next few years will bring.
Before arriving here at Bethany, people asked us what orientation was all about. Joe and I did our best to answer this question with the little knowledge that we had at the time. Now that we’ve gone through most of orientation, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about a few of the essential parts of orientation for me.
The overarching factor that makes this program so special is the people. We have had many experts and incredible teachers come through here to talk with us (someone told me once that orientation at Maryknoll is like the Hall of Fame of Christian educators, meaning that all of the big names in theology, scripture, spirituality, etc., come through here to teach). However, the most important aspect has been the exposure to the other candidates in our orientation class, the Maryknoll Society (Fathers and Brothers) and Congregation (sisters). For example, when my parents and sister visited us last weekend, I was giving them a tour of the Society and we walked through the dining hall where all of the Fathers and Brothers were eating their lunch. When we left the dining hall, my dad mentioned that none of the guys had roman collars on. That is one of the many wonders of living near the Society; we get to spend time with these guys who are beautifully human, not just priests in collars. The Fathers and Brothers whom I have met are friendly, funny, caring, profoundly spiritual, and deeply devoted to their mission to serve the poor. It is through meeting people like the priests, brothers, sisters, and lay missioners of Maryknoll that I feel so blessed to be here and to become a part of this community.
Living here at Bethany, I often feel that I have “come home.” I feel as though I have found a Christian community in which I feel integrally connected, understood, and supported. In the past, I have often felt that my beliefs were too countercultural or too liberal or too feminist, but here, sometimes I frankly feel very much in the center of the spectrum. There are numbers of people whose beliefs are much farther to the left than mine and from whom I have learned so much. For example, whereas in my past I have felt that there are some people who agree with me that women should be ordained in the Catholic Church, here at Maryknoll, I have heard over and over again, from priests, sisters, brothers, and most of the lecturers who teach us, that of course women should be ordained and that it’s just a matter of time before the “hierarchy” sees this (‘time’ is a relative term. It may mean many decades, maybe more). These same people, most of whom have given their lives over to the Catholic Church, often rant against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the old white guys who run it. Although the Church is loved, its faults are obvious and disagreeing with the hierarchy is much like disagreeing with a parent. (Let me remind you here that the views expressed in this letter, and all our letters, are those of Becky and Joe Sherman only and NOT necessarily of MaryknollJ). Living in a culture such as the one here at Maryknoll, where I can openly disagree with the Church and candidly ask questions about church teachings and doctrine without being labeled negatively is incredibly liberating for me. To hear priests state, over and over again, that the bible was written by white men for white men, is a breath of fresh air. With this knowledge I can go about reading the bible from that historical perspective and then interpreting it based on that understanding. It is a wonderful feeling to not feel like a heretic for asking about the role of women in the bible or in the church. It is a foregone conclusion that women have been, and continue to be, excluded and often demeaned in the church. From that base I am able to then think about and talk about what that means for women today in the US, in Venezuela, and worldwide, and what can be done about it.
I realize I’ve just ranted a bit, please excuse me if I’ve offend anyone. I do not mean to offend, simply to speak my own truth and express what exists in my heart.
Let me get back to the point of this letter, describing a bit about orientation.
At the beginning of each day, we have prayer with our whole candidate group for a half an hour. It is an amazing way to start the day. Prayer is led by one or two of us and has been incredibly varied in its form. There is no set pattern. What strikes me each day is how meaningful the prayers are. Because we prepare them ourselves, they are directly related to our communal experiences and in our continued preparation to move abroad and into mission. Although we are all in need of different graces (faith, clarity, understanding, love, peace, etc), we are all on the same journey to become missioners and that pervades all that we do. When we sing songs of commitment to God, whereas in my past I have believed the words I have sung, now I’m actually living them. When we sing the song “We are called” (“to act with justice, we are called to love tenderly, we are called to serve one another; to walk humbly with God!”), I feel the words deeply and I pray as I sing that God will help me to live out these words as a missioner. I feel my faith come alive each morning as we pray together as a group. This is an essential piece of orientation which I will definitely miss when we leave Bethany.
After prayer each morning, we have class for the rest of the day. One class which we have had on a regular basis has been Scripture. Our scripture class has been taught by a Franciscan Friar who drives from Boston every other week to teach us. During each class, we read a few lines of scripture from the bible then discuss how we feel about it and how we understand it. Then our instructor gives us the historical context of the scripture which invariably leads to new and different insights for each of us and then we discuss it again. He has tried to teach us how to look at scripture from many different angles and how to access the words from different perspectives and within the historical context in which it was written. Often during class we would break up into small groups to discuss major themes from some of the scriptures such as suffering and role of suffering in the world, or Jesus’ continual lifting up of the poor and those who live on the margins and what that means to us as missioners. Here at Bethany, classes like scripture are not just scholarship; we are learning the scriptures together so that we can better discern how to live them out in our daily lives as witnesses to our faith as we move abroad. I will miss scripture classes.
Conversations like those we have had in scripture class or other classes, or at a meal, or in the hallway, have been another one of the essential pieces of our time here. The fact that we all have a common vision and common goals as missioners allows us to immediately delve deeply into issues and really get to the root of things. For example, can you think of a time when you have been with your best friend and had a profound conversation in which lots of light bulbs go off in your mind (or your heart) and then you leave the conversation feeling fuller and more alive for having had that conversation and learning from that person? For me, in my life in Seattle, the numbers of those conversations were few and far between, but here, they happen all the time. It has been an incredible blessing. I will certainly miss these conversations.
Although I have only written about a few of the topics covered in orientation I’ll just hope that at the very least, you now have a better understanding of the flavor of what we’ve been doing here for the last 3 months. All of our courses have been trying to prepare us for mission. We have had classes on conflict management, non-violent social action, popular education, racism, intimacy and sexuality, gender issues, emerging theologies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, cross cultural adaptation, trauma/violence/safety in mission, the role of the United States in the world, economics and social analysis, AIDS, ecology, and how to stay healthy while living in a developing countryJ.
By the end of each day I am exhausted. Our time here has been unforgettable, a time of much learning, both external learnings as well as internal or self learnings. I certainly feel better prepared to go on mission but no amount of preparation could possibly simulate the real thing. As we move into our last stages here, we will be thinking of our next stage of saying good-bye to everyone at Bethany, hello to everyone at home, and then good-bye to everyone at home. Thank you for your continued prayers and support.
Much love and many blessings,becky
October 25, 2005
Letter #3: Identity
“Once you get that stethoscope off of your neck, there’s a whole other person who emerges.”
This is the comment that one of our fellow candidates made this week after seeing Becky and I perform a skit about cross-cultural awareness. It seems as if my identity as a pediatrician and Becky’s identity as a child psychologist have been placed on the shelf for awhile as we both discover other aspects of who we are. In some ways, we have gone back in time to our college days; living in a dormitory, attending classes all day, dining in community. Once Josh and Celia got settled into school and daycare, we were finally able to concentrate on what was happening outside of our own family. The orientation program has been rich with discussions concerning scripture, theology, spirituality, and the Maryknoll experience. We are no longer doctors identified by our professions. We are not even just simply parents trying to negotiate family life in the midst of all these changes. We are part of a community searching for the modern day meaning of mission and how we fit into that reality. The best part of this experience has been the rich interactions with young single people searching for a direction in life, retired parents and grandparents finally getting a chance to do what they have always dreamed of doing, and other families who are searching for the best way to raise children in a modern world which seems to overlook the poor and marginalized. I haven’t missed medicine too much. I will pick it up again after orientation and language school when we arrive in Venezuela. In the meantime, I am enjoying my roles as student, teammate on the basketball court, member of an integration group discerning a direction for mission, and “missioner”.
What does it mean to be a missioner in the modern world? None of us here feel comfortable with the identity of the classic missionary going to strange lands to baptize new Christians. Perhaps the best definition which has been presented to us thus far is: one who goes to a different culture and accompanies others in the common search for the God who already exists among them. This new aspect of accompaniment seems like a better fit for me now. Becky and I fully intend to use our skills as clinicians as we enter life in Venezuela, but, perhaps our greatest gift will be to live among the poor and allow our children to play with their children as we all learn from each other. It’s humbling stuff. But, more long-lasting than the small amount I will be able to accomplish as a doctor. We have heard from several others who have gone before us about the struggles of life as a missioner as well as the joys. One disappointing theme which we’ve heard about consistently is the plight of the poor in Asia, Africa and Latin America and how irrelevant the Catholic Church has become recently. As Catholic missioners going to a predominantly Catholic country, we were hoping that the people would gain some hope through the church. Instead, we hear of how removed the church has become from the daily struggles of the people. We must put our faith in the small base communities which have such a rich history in Latin America when the institutional church seems to be uninvolved. After all, that is how the first Christians operated.
As far as our plans for the future, it is looking more and more like we will land in Venezuela as originally planned. There will be 8 adults and 5 kids joining an existing community there of only 2 lay missioners. One other couple who used to live in Venezuela will return from a 3 year assignment in Panama to help us get oriented to the country. This should help quite a bit. For those of you who follow the news from that part of the world, you may have noticed that President Hugo Chavez is not a favorite of the Bush administration (or Pat Robertson). So far, this has not produced any anti-American sentiment in the country and we have heard that the poor are better off than they have ever been under previous presidents. I don’t think Chavez is a saint, but, he also isn’t as evil as the US government makes him out to be. It will be interesting to experience the reality for ourselves. We will first, however, experience the reality of learning Spanish in Cochabamba, Bolivia where we will live from early January to June of 2006. At that time, we will live with a Bolivian family and the kids will be in a regular pre-school/kindergarten together while we are in 1:1 tutoring sessions. Josh and Celia will most likely be teaching us Spanish faster than our teachers at the institute.
That’s all for now. We certainly appreciate your continued interest and support during these formation times. We value your friendships and will definitely need your continued support and prayers throughout our time here, language training, and mission service. We hope everyone has a fun and festive Halloween.
September 20, 2005
Letter #2- Humble beginnings
Dear Friends and Family,
As Joe was writing his letter a couple weeks ago about his first impressions of our life here, I was also writing a letter. We decided to send his and wait a bit to send mine. They are about the same time period but from different perspectives. I hope you find the different views interestingJ
As I entered our apartment (our home for the next 4 months) for the first time, my heart sank. We had been traveling all day to get here and we were tired. A Maryknoll Lay Missioner picked us up at the airport and helped us to get all eight of our cargo bags plus stroller and car seats onto the jam packed bus to take us to the parking lot where he had parked the van to bring us here to Bethany House. We had a number of waiting times after the flight and at each juncture, the kids were hot, antsy, hungry and tired. Overall, they did great, but it was hard for them. Each time I felt tired, overwhelmed or too hot and sweaty, I just kept thinking that this is nothing- this is nothing compared to what we will experience when we’re overseas. So I kept up a good game face and kept reassuring the kids that we’d get food and water and then we’d be on our way to our new home. By the time we arrived at Bethany, I was feeling pretty emotionally drained. The past week had been full of packing up our house and saying our goodbyes to all that was safe and comfortable. After lugging all of our worldly possessions up to the third floor, I was ready for my new home. I wanted to sit down, take a breath, feel relieved, and be assured that we would feel comfortable in our new space. What I saw and felt upon opening the door and taking the 1 minute tour of the apartment was none of these things. All of a sudden the enormity of what we had done in leaving Seattle and committing to be missioners who live a simple life, came crashing down on me. My first glimpse was of a place with drab industrial brownish grey wall to wall carpet, white walls with nothing on them, a small plastic kitchen table with four chairs covered in vinyl, a small kitchen, a dreary bathroom, one small bedroom with a double bed for Joe and me, and another smaller bedroom with two single beds crammed into it. To top it off, the bathroom had only a shower so we would need to go down a hall into the shared bathrooms to give the kids a bath each night. I was feeling very humbled by our new home.
Since we were hungry, we went to the store to buy food. By this time it was about 7:00pm. We found the store easily, yet upon entering, my mind began spinning about how to budget our very small stipend to cover all of our food costs. Believe it or not, I have never worried too much about what food costs. We’ve needed to eat, we have had money, I bought the food, no worries. But now, everything was different. At the store I was researching each thing we were to buy and deciding not to buy things that seemed at all expensive. I bought the cheapest version of everything they had. Each time I did this, I lamented my new budget and grew sadder by the minute. The funny thing was that I had previously been excited about trying to live within a very small budget, I was excited for the challenge, but in that moment, reality hit and it was hard. In the paper goods aisle I was comparing prices of all of the different kinds of toilet paper and trying to decipher how much paper is in each size of roll (regular, large, double, super, etc) so that I could get the most for my money. It was then that Josh looked up at me and said, “Mommy, I miss my friends at home.” And I looked at him, and said something reassuring, but then turned away and with tears in my eyes, thought to myself, “I miss my friends too, I miss my life, I miss my home, I miss the comfort of buying whatever food I want.” I am humbled by the knowledge that the vast majority of people in our world have to budget for their food, and most of them still don’t have enough to feed, clothe and shelter their families.
When we got back to the apartment and began cooking our dinner, the most amazing thing happened. As we sat at our plastic table with vinyl chairs and prayed before dinner, Celia thanked God for our new apartment and our new home. She thanked God for the food on the table and also for the man who had picked us up at the airport. Wow. Then after dinner, the kids helped us unpack and we explored the whole of Bethany (a small dorm like house with single rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens, and a few apartments such as ours). As we played and went to bed that night, I realized that the kids accepted all of this new reality without question. Within 24 hours, our new apartment felt like home to all of us. Going down the hall for baths is a fun treat each night. We brought very few toys for the kids yet they have not asked about any of the toys left behind and have found many other things to occupy them. Our small kitchen is sufficient. The kids have made paintings and drawings to decorate the walls. They love their small room and sleeping within a couple feet of each other. And once again, I see the budget issue as a challenge rather than a cross to bear. We haven’t gotten it down yet, our stipend is small, but by the end of our time here in Ossining, we will live within our means. I am humbled by our children’s ability to be blissfully open to new experiences, accepting of our new space, and full of faith that all will be well no matter where we are.
Living here at Bethany is wonderful experience for many reasons, but most important is the people. There are 23 lay missioners in our orientation class. One of our activities during the first week of orientation was called “Lifelines”. It is a time for all of us to share with the rest of the group how we got to be the persons we are today. It’s a telling of one’s life, the ups and downs, the challenges and successes. No holds barred. Each and every person shared their struggles and what formed them to be who they are. It was an honor to learn about each person’s life and faith. These people are phenomenal; we have all been on different life journeys which have brought us here to this place at this time to give our lives over to serve overseas with Maryknoll. It was incredibly humbling to listen to each life and be reminded that I am not unique, I am just one person following my heart and my calling, but there are so many others who have a much deeper faith and clearer calling than I.
In Maryknoll, besides the Lay Missioners, there is also the Society (the Fathers and Brothers), and the Congregation (the Sisters). In our short time here, I have had the privilege of getting to know some of the Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters. What incredible people! Each of them has dedicated his or her life to serving the poor abroad. They often live in very difficult economic, social, and political situations. They have been killed, jailed and persecuted. All in the name of accompanying the poor. Their stories, their faith, their courage, and their compassion is awe inspiring. I am humbled to be in the presence of such people.
We are now into our third week of orientation and things are starting to settle a bit in our lives. After a brief rocky adjustment to school and taking the bus, Josh is doing very well and he is actually enjoying school now. Celia still has difficult transitions in the morning at daycare, but, we believe she will soon be running the place. Joe and I are learning a lot about what is means to be missioners with Maryknoll and some of the things we will need to prepare for our move to South America.
As we continue to live into our new reality here in Ossining, please pray for us. Pray that we will continue to be humbled by our experiences and that we will continue to grow in our faith. It is becoming ever more clear as we continue on this journey that we will need deep faith to meet the challenges that lay before us. If we are thrown for a loop by our more simple life here, we will truly be challenged as we move abroadJ It is wonderful to finally be on the road to our future. We have been planning this for a very long time now and it is great to finally get started.
Much love and many blessings,
September 5, 2005
Dear Friends and Family,
Sorry for the long delay in communicating with all of you. Hopefully, by now, you have looked at our website (www.familysherman.com) and realized that our family has joined the Maryknoll Lay Missioners and are now living in Ossining, NY for a 14 week orientation. We arrived 9 days ahead of time to get the kids settled and get Josh enrolled in school. Now that we’ve been here for a week, I want to take a breath and connect with everyone before our actual program begins tomorrow.
Our last month in Seattle was filled with frantic packing and numerous goodbyes. First, I stopped my jobs at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Tacoma Family September 5, 2005Medicine. Everyone was extremely supportive and wished me all the best as I headed off from Tacoma to land eventually in Venezuela. We then traveled to Cape May, NJ for the Sherman Family Reunion. Josh and Celia got to see all the Sherman cousins and our family got a chance to test the east coast humidity before moving to New York at the end of August. When we returned back to Seattle to pack up and leave, we experienced a very exhausting and emotional period. We managed to move the kids over to Becky’s parents and move everything out of the house except for some furniture that our friends who rented our house graciously agreed to keep for us. Becky did an amazing job of holding everything together while I was panicking the whole time. We had many goodbye events with small and large groups for which we were grateful. However, there were two events, I want to particularly highlight. We received a blessing from our home parish of St Therese which made us feel as if we were headed on this journey with the support of our entire parish. The kids felt very special and Becky and I felt affirmed. The other event was a wonderful picnic given in our honor arranged by Vicki and Michael Yousoofian and Sue Wilkes and Max Silverman. We were in tears from all the warm wishes and love we felt from our Seattle community. It sent us off with a strong sense of Seattle being our home-base while we live overseas.
We arrived at JFK airport with our 8 large bags and 2 tired kids. Joe R., a Maryknoll member, was there to greet us with a smile and take us to our new home at Bethany House in Ossining, NY. Bethany is an old large 4 story dorm-like building which used to be a convent. It is located in a beautiful area of Westchester County and is surrounded by beautiful grounds. We moved into our small 2 bedroom apartment on the top floor and immediately started to sweat. While Becky and I were trying to get used to our “down-sizing”, the kids were excited about living in this huge house even though our apartment is so small. They have a playroom in the basement with tons of books and 2 bigwheels, 2 bikes, and a playground in the back yard. They had the whole building to themselves until the other candidates arrived slowly over this Labor Day weekend. The entire experience was new and exciting for them. This has made our transition so much easier. We quickly started to make our new home more comfortable. After Celia ran through and bumped her head on several things, we followed her and removed them all. The kids’ bedroom ended up being 2 mattresses on the ground about 2 feet apart and no room for anything else. Our bedroom is a bit bigger with a double bed. We have a small living/dining area and kitchenette. We’ve now become very comfortable in our little home.
The first week has been spent getting Josh and Celia situated. Our first stop was the library where they both loved the large section for kids. Then, off to their new home-based daycare which is filled with Maryknoll members’ children and looks like a United Nations of kids. Josh and Celia have taken good care of each other and seem to be comfortable there. Celia said, “As long as I have my Josh, I won’t be shy and as long as Josh has his Celia, he won’t be shy”. Let’s hope that works out. We enrolled Josh in Park School which is a public school of just Kindergarteners and first graders. Josh went to the school bus orientation and took a test ride in the bus around the block and loved it. He has been amazing with all the changes. This will be his first time going on the school bus and he will be going and coming from his daycare which will be difficult for us. We will be in training sessions all day 5 days a week. Tomorrow is the first day of school and he is actually more excited than scared. I think I’m much more nervous than him.
In the meantime, the only other family in orientation with us (who are also going to Venezuela) has arrived and they have 3 girls – 8 years, 5 years, and 7 months old. Josh and Celia are getting along well with them which is a great relief. Also, the remaining 19 candidates have been slowly arriving and our kids have already bonded with them playing games in the hallways and climbing all over them. I think the kids got bored of us. Tomorrow, we begin our orientation to being missioners overseas. It includes several aspects of spirituality, community life, cultural awareness, and the history of our region. After our time here and Christmas in Seattle, we will be headed for Bolivia for 6 months of language school and finally land in Venezuela in June, 2006.
We’ll try to send out letters on a fairly regular basis and include them on the website. If you want to receive the letters directly by e-mail, please send back a very brief reply and we’ll add you to our e-mail list. If we don’t hear back, we will assume you can keep up with the website when you want too.
Thanks again for all the prayers and support. Our new mailing address here will be:
Becky, Joe, Josh and Celia Sherman
PO Box 307
Maryknoll, NY 10545
Josh and Celia love to get snail mail. They are old fashion.
Peace,Joe (and Becky) Sherman