• October 30, 2008

Testimony: Michael, future volonteer in Brazil

Letter from Michael B.
Sponsor letter #1
October 15, 2008

Change of Plans

On September 30 I left for Brazil. As luck would have it, I ran into yet another problem. Brazil is not one of the coun­tries to which Americans are exempt from needing a tourist visa to enter the country for 90 days. Heart’s Home has sent mis­sion­aries to other coun­tries before this way, but unfor­tu­nately that doesn’t work for Brazil. Therefore, I was left stuck at the Washington Dulles air­port. I’ll spare you the details of how, but I returned to Brooklyn, New York where I had my training with the mis­sion­aries of Heart’s Home USA. I’ve been here for two weeks now living out my mis­sion here. I’ve also obtained the visa for Brazil and I will be leaving at 9 am tomorrow morning (October 16). Life here with Heart’s Home is quite eventful. Eventful enough that I feel that I should write my first letter to my spon­sors about my mis­sion trip thus far. So I pre­sent to you my first letter.

It’s In Their Eyes

Why? Why am I here? Why did I join Heart’s Home? Why am I living this way? I ask myself this a lot. Many people asked me the same ques­tions before I left home. I don’t remember my answer. Probably the typ­ical “Heart’s Home tries to spread com­pas­sion.” But what does that mean? The answer has never really been that clear.

I’ve unex­pect­edly spent the past two weeks living with the Heart’s Home com­mu­nity in Brooklyn. Here I’ve tried to live like the other mis­sion­aries as much as pos­sible. I’ve immersed myself in their prayer life, in the com­mu­nity life, in the apos­to­lates, and even in the cooking and cleaning. (Albeit I’m prac­ti­cally use­less in the kitchen). In the apos­to­lates I go out to encounter Heart’s Home’s friends in the neigh­bor­hood. It was on the apos­to­lates that I dis­cov­ered some­thing new, some­thing great, some­thing utterly mag­nif­i­cent. Not the answer to “why?,” but where to find the answer to why. In the eyes of my friends, I find the answer to “why.”

Why, in itself, is not even the cor­rect ques­tion. A few years ago my bap­tismal priest, Fr. Mark Inglot, taught me that some­times the cor­rect ques­tions are just as impor­tant as the cor­rect answers. Without the cor­rect ques­tion, one cannot look for the cor­rect answer. I was looking for a single answer to why. An answer that was log­ical, simple, and uni­ver­sally appli­cable. I was thinking along the lines of “why am I here?” Well log­i­cally I’m here to com­plete my mis­sion with Heart’s Home. And, “what is Heart’s Home’s mis­sion,” you might ask. I can easily answer this ques­tion. Heart’s Home’s mis­sion is to love. Love whom? Ah! That’s it! No it’s not the cor­rect answer, but it’s the cor­rect ques­tion. The ques­tion that I should be asking myself isn’t “why am I here,” but rather “whom am I here to love?” If I can answer that then, I will simul­ta­ne­ously have come to a better under­standing of my mis­sion and be able to give a final answer to the “why” that has been echoing in my mind. Do you under­stand this logic? I didn’t at first. It was taught to me while I glared into the eyes of my friends here in Brooklyn.

I met my friends here in Brooklyn while on the apos­to­lates. From Tuesday until Sunday of every week the mis­sion­aries go on apos­to­lates in the neigh­bor­hood. These apos­to­lates can basi­cally be thought of as vis­i­ta­tions. In my way of thinking, there are two types of apos­to­lates; the apos­to­lates to the chil­dren and the apos­to­lates to the elderly. It was on the apos­to­lates that I looked into the eyes of the people who became the answer to my “whom.”

I looked into the eyes of the chil­dren and I loved them. Three times in the last two weeks, I was able to spend time with the chil­dren of the neigh­bor­hood. First, I went with my fellow mis­sionary, Floriane, to an after-school pro­gram. At first I was ner­vous as I haven’t spent much time around chil­dren. I entered into a room of orga­nized chaos. The chil­dren were divided into tables according to their age and grade, hence the orga­ni­za­tion. Floriane went one way and I went the other. I sat at a table with three boys. They were two second graders and a gifted boy who skipped to the third grade. The chil­dren were Christopher, Jose, and Wilson.

As I arrived at their table it was time to do home­work. We began with math. We could have fin­ished it quickly, but Edward had all the power of con­cen­tra­tion that one would expect from an eight year old. Christopher and Jose con­tin­u­osly joked with one another about “malachis” while Wilson boasted about being able to do mul­ti­pli­ca­tion. There was a great lack of focus at our table, but great fun also. I couldn’t help but laugh with them while lis­tening to all of their childish jokes. Eventually we fin­ished the math and moved on to spelling. At this point a girl from Christopher and Jose’s 2nd grade class, whose name I think was Tina, joined us. Once again hilarity ensued as we worked our way through the spelling assign­ment. We almost fin­ished it before we were cut off by story time.

All in all that day, we lis­tened to the story, drew a pic­ture, went around a circle saying some­thing nice about the person to our right, and said a few prayers. While going through the circle of com­pli­ments Caezar (see-zar instead of see-zer) cut in line to be to my right. When my turn came, I told him that he was “very ener­getic.” It was an imper­sonal com­pli­ment, but he was quite pleased nonethe­less. After the circle and the prayers it was time to go. I chatted with a few of the chil­dren as we made our way to their par­ents. Ah, what fun I had that day! Who could look into their eyes and not love them? If I didn’t know better, I would swear that the eyes of little chil­dren shimmer like stars.

On one of our apos­to­lates to the Mugavero nursing home, Adriana accom­pa­nied us. The Heart’s Home mis­sion­aries usu­ally go on visits in groups of two. I was with a mis­sionary named Laetitia and we were going to a nursing home to pray the rosary with some of the people living there. School was out on this day, so Adriana came with us. Adriana is twelve years old and in high school. I wasn’t sure how she would feel about going to a nursing home, since it’s not exactly the kind of place that teenagers go to for hanging out.

Before we could begin the rosary, we had to gather the people. We gen­er­ally hold the rosary on the 2nd floor in the dining room. Some of the people who come to pray with us live on the 4th floor, so it was nec­es­sary to go and help them down. Some of them are in wheelchairs and others are in strecher beds. Laetitia and Adriana went to retrieve our friends on the other floors. I was left with those who had already arrived. In order to pass the time while we waited for Laetitia and Adriana to return, I tried to sing a few hymns with the people. Let’s just say that it wasn’t the high­light of the day.

Anyhow, when they returned we began the rosary. The rosary prayer con­sists of prayers said over 5 decades of 10 beads each. Roughly 50 Hail Marys and a few other prayers all counted as one com­plete prayer. The person leading the prayer changes at each new decade. Laetitia led the first decade, one of the women in the home, named Ollie, led the second, I did the third, and Adriana vol­un­teered to do the fourth. She seemed per­haps a bit ner­vous, but she did quite well. After we fin­ished the rosary, we talked for a while with the people there and then finally returned them to where they were before­hand. Adriana was very atten­tive to the people and fully involved in all that we did. I was quite impressed by her enthu­siasm. She said that she enjoyed going on the apos­to­late. I jok­ingly sug­gested to her that now she should become a Heart’s Home mis­sionary. Who knows, maybe she will one day.

Last Sunday after church, Floriane and I went to the nearby park to play with a few chil­dren. Usually Slyvie is the one to hang out with the kids on Sundays, but since she wasn’t avail­able, the task fell unto Floriane. She asked me if I wanted to go also, and I agreed of course. The chil­dren were Nelson, Thomas, and his little sister Amarantha. Nelson is 13, Thomas 12, and little Amarantha is only 8. We played all sorts of games. We ran around and around playing a French ver­sion of Monkey in the Middle and we were soon tired after­wards. Therefore, we resorted to playing Dominos and Connect Four. I brought Connect 4 as a pre­sent for the chil­dren in Brazil. I like to think that I’m pretty good at it. My first oppo­nent was little Amarantha. I was con­tem­plating how exactly I could take it easy on her and still win since we were doing a sort of tour­na­ment. Before I knew what hit me, she had me trapped in a two-way check­mate. My pride as a Connect 4 player was shat­tered as I watched the last red piece slip from her little hand lining up four in a row. Connect 4. “I just lost to an eight year old!,” I shouted in dismay. It was quite funny to everyone besides me. : (

The eyes of the chil­dren reflect joy. I saw so much joy in the chil­dren joking around with their class­mates, I shared in Adriana’s joy of serving the elderly, and I felt great joy seeing Amarantha’s charming smile. I’m called to love the chil­dren. I’m called to love those who rejoice. This is prob­ably the easiest thing out of all that I have to do as a mis­sionary. It’s a piece of cake to love the smiling, happy chil­dren. Furthermore, they were all fairly well behaved. Thus, the faces of my friends now answer the ques­tion to “whom.” I’m here to love Christopher, Jose, Wilson, Tina, Adriana, Nelson, Thomas, and Amarantha. This is the answer that was revealed to me in the eyes of the chil­dren. Great. Problem solved then right? Not entirely. There are still the apos­to­lates to the elderly to con­sider.

I looked into the eyes of the elderly and I loved them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. This is a basic com­mand to those who seek to love. I’m not even sure how many times I vis­ited the nursing homes in the past two weeks. Most of my apos­to­lates were to the nursing homes. We often go either to the Bishop Francis Mugavero nursing home or the Greenpark nursing home. At the Mugavero home we some­times pray the rosary, some­times we hold Communion ser­vices, but mostly we just visit and talk with the people. This can be quite hard. It’s not because I find them boring or that I don’t care about what they have to say, but rather it’s because some of the people don’t hear well and others can’t speak well. Some can’t speak at all. Additionally, the nursing home is a place of great pain and lone­li­ness. There’s so much pain there both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally. To be per­fectly honest, every time before we go to the nursing homes I’m afraid. Before we leave I go into our chapel before the Blessed Sacrament and I say a quick prayer. I pray for a good apos­to­late. I pray for the grace to love as God desires me to love. There’s nothing spe­cial about me that makes vis­iting a nursing home easy. I pray for the grace and it’s always given to me to an aston­ishing degree. If I get scared or begin to doubt, I simply repeat to myself the words of my patron saint Joan of Arc, “I fear nothing for God is with me!” Each time I trust that I will feel His pres­ence just as strongly as the last time. And so I go to love and to be loved by the elderly.

When I talk to the people in the nursing homes, I stare into their eyes. Sometimes they have pos­i­tive things to say, and some­times they speak pes­simisti­cally. Just yes­terday a woman named Genevieve was telling me of her plans to work her way up to being able to get around without the use of a wheelchair or a walker. Alternatively, there was a woman at the Mugavero home who was causing trouble during one of our rosary prayers. She kept com­plaining and moving around. “I wish I were dead,” she blurted out. We tried to be nice to her, but that did little to affect her bitter dis­po­si­tion. She has a bitter look in her eyes too. Very much unlike Peter, who I met for the first time yes­terday. His eyes are kind and soothing. He liked to talk about the “Supreme Being” and his mother in Jamaica. His eyes lit up in a funny way when­ever he told a joke. I really liked talking to him. I also talked to Maria a few times in the past two weeks. Maria had to have her legs removed because of gan­grene, so she’s always lying in a strecher bed when­ever we see her. Most of the time she’s quite pos­i­tive, but she cried the other day. She told us a story of some guy who jumped out of a window and broke both of his legs. Out of nowhere she began to cry as she said that some­times she wants to jump out of a window. She wept as she told us of how her family doesn’t often visit her. She under­stands that they’re busy, but she was sad­dened that they don’t come to visit even when they have days off like on that par­tic­ular day. We tried to com­fort her as much as we could, but we’re really pow­er­less. There’s nothing that we can do to com­pletely save people from their sorrow. I feel this lim­i­ta­tion espe­cially strongly when people plead, “don’t leave me.” I wish that I could rid them of all of their suf­fer­ings, but I can’t. All I can do is look into their eyes and try to love them for as long as I’m with them. This is also the answer to the “whom.” I’m called to love those in mourning, those in pain, those without hope or joy. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to love Genevieve, Peter, Maria, Gwendolyn who cannot speak, and Charles who cannot walk.

The eyes of my friends staring back into mine have shown me why it is exactly that I’ve come here as a Heart’s Home mis­sionary. I came here for them. I came here to love them. It’s as simple as that. The problem with me asking myself “why” was that I was looking for a con­cept. Love doesn’t exist as a con­cept. Love only comes to life in the beloved. To have a true answer to why, I needed faces, names, and life sto­ries. It’s only in meeting my friends that my being a mis­sionary makes sense. Making the nec­es­sary sac­ri­fices and dealing with the hard­ships of mis­sionary life only becomes worth­while in the loving encounter with my friends here.

So now it comes to pass that I have a clear answer to why. I’m here to love. There’s great strength in that. The answer has come not a moment too soon because tomorrow I leave for Brazil. From what I’ve heard from all of the people who have been there, I think it’s going to be hard. Very hard. The chil­dren who once lived on the streets aren’t like Thomas, Nelson, and Amarantha. They’re not nec­es­sarily going to be well behaved and easy to love. This brings me to my next ques­tion: “what?” What am I going to do when the chil­dren don’t listen to me? What am I going to do when I’m tired of eating rice and beans and I just want a cheese­burger and french fries? What am I going to do when I can’t stand the lifestyle in Brazil any­more? Is “what?” even the cor­rect ques­tion? I don’t know. What do you think?

Michael B.

address in Brazil:
Fazenda do Natal - Ass. Ponto Coração

A.G. Correio/Simes Filho – CxP.28
43 700-000 Simoes Filho (Bahia)

Michael and Laetitia with Izra and her daughter Michael and Laetitia in the nursing home
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