Theresa Nguyen, Elizabeth Suarez, and Sister Bernadette Cassidy, FMA
with a Scottish bagpiper
Three months seems like a long time. That is what I, Elizabeth Suarez, told myself as I boarded my plane, a plane that would take me more than 5,300 miles across a continent and an ocean to the United Kingdom of all places. When I first told people I was going abroad to volunteer in Scotland they did a mental double take. When it comes to missionary work, Scotland is perhaps not the first place that comes to mind. I myself was not too sure what I would encounter, but the young people I met and worked with, the Salesian community I became a part of, taught me many things about the needs people have—not just material, but spiritual and emotional—those invisible needs that many times are overlooked. Three months, I came to discover, was not nearly enough time and yet I was transformed for the better in so many wonderful and unexpected ways during my time as a VIDES volunteer missioner in Glasgow, Scotland.
What exactly was I doing in Glasgow? You ask. I was part of a Youth Ministry Outreach Team for a project called UR Space that the Salesian Sisters recently started about three years ago. We went out to different high schools in the Glasgow area and created retreat experiences for young people helping them to explore and deepen their faith—something not easily accomplished in a time and place where so many young people are indifferent towards any sort of talk of faith and God and religion. We did our best to facilitate the transformation of otherwise ordinary places into sacred spaces of reflection, connection and growth.
The young people I encountered were just pure dead brilliant. They were full of so much energy, optimism, honesty, openness, goodness. They made me laugh; they inspired me; they challenged me. Every retreat we gave was full of moments in which the young people would surprise me in some way and leave me in awe of what they taught me without knowing it—about faith and life and everything in between. There was definitely a lot of good to be found in the young, but working with young people came with its share of challenges too. They did not always focus, they did not always listen, they did not always follow directions. Underlying the young people’s great life and energy was a deep and generally unmet hunger for God, purpose, and meaning. Sometimes I was left wondering if anything we said or did made a difference to some of them.
I do believe that ultimately the UR Space project is making a difference. I saw it in the faces of the young people we encountered, heard it in the comments their teachers would make to us. Maybe we only saw some of them just one day for the retreat itself, but one day can be enough to connect, to inspire, to challenge, to awaken, to begin a transformation by planting a seed that will bear fruit somewhere down the line. I suppose that is really what I was doing in Scotland; I was planting seeds. At the end of the day, it was not about me or the UR Space team; it was about the young people, about these amazing young people who have so much to give and to share with the world. As St. John Bosco used to say, “It is enough that you are young for me to love you very much.” Even if I only knew some of them for a day, they always found a way to claim a piece of my heart. For however long it may have been, the time spent with them was a blessing and I have nothing left but gratitude for all of it.
It is a funny thing about going on mission. I thought I would be giving so much, and don’t get me wrong, I did give of myself. But I also received more than I could have ever imagined. My heart has expanded in ways I didn’t know it could, to include places I didn’t think I’d ever visit and people I never knew I’d meet. There is so much goodness to be found at the heart of service, a feeling of being filled as I pour myself out for others. There is a part of me that wishes I could just keep doing this forever. Eventually, however, my time in Scotland came to an end. At least for now… and life goes on.
I knew I did not want to forget this experience though, or all the ways in which I had grown and changed because of it. Life, however, is not always conducive to reflection and remembrance. And that is what I wanted to do; I wanted to remember. I still want to remember—the people especially, the friendships and relationships (relationship is so very much at the heart of mission), but also the places, the experiences, the joys, the struggles—everything. So this weekend, I participated in the VIDES+US Re-entry. For the first time since returning from Scotland, I was able to step back, to reflect and remember. This weekend gave me the opportunity to recognize and process the gifts and challenges of my VIDES journey, to see the special place in my heart the UK, and Scotland in particular, now have.
Life did not slow down for me after returning from mission, and I came to the startling realization I hadn’t really taken the time to stop and appreciate my time in Scotland for all that it had been and taught me. This Re-entry has given me a sense of closure I didn’t realize I was missing and gave me a chance to come full-circle since that VIDES formation camp back in January (which seems like a lifetime ago). Participating in this Re-entry weekend has taught me that the ways we learn and grow from mission do not just take place while we are at our mission site. As we give ourselves the opportunity and the gift of unpacking those experiences, they continue to shape us long after we say farewell to a particular people and place, long after we board that plane home, a plane that takes us more than 5,300 miles across an ocean and a continent.
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