Conquering Hearts

IMG_0658.jpgTwo weeks ago I boarded the plane that would take me from Chicago, my hometown, to the VIDES formation camp in San Antonio. I was not sure what was waiting for me in the camp but what I did know was that my soul was eager to learn and to serve the Lord. My name is Belen Morales, I am 22 years old and I was born in Ecuador. When I arrived to San Antonio, the Sisters had prepared a warm welcome for us. The first week of formation we learned all about the Salesian Spirituality, St. John Bosco’s Preventive System, the Accompaniment Style of St. Mary Mazzarello, and the basis of Catholic Social Teaching among other very important topics for mission such as health precautions. During that week, I learned the importance of establishing confidence with the youth to lead them to find truth and become free from everything that may keep them apart from being themselves. Only after that they will be free to love. We also learned about the different levels of faith and reflected on ourselves to find our own level of faith.

At the Salesian house, the sisters are incredibly kind. While doing chores, I was able to listen to some of their stories and each one was admirable. The Sisters are true examples of persistency and conviction.

After an intense week of formation, we were ready to start our mission at the Undocumented Teen Shelter. This experience is by far one of the most beautiful and rewarding of my life. I was in a group with Katie and Beth. We prepared different activities such as skits, crafts, and games that went along with the story of Joseph in Genesis. On Monday I met a group of teenagers, ages 14 to 17. It was difficult at the beginning because the boys did not want to participate. However, all I had in mind was that I wanted to conquer those hearts.

Little by little the boys started to get to know us and they started to engage with the story of Joseph. We started to establish confidence with the boys. They started to trust us. One of them came up to me and said: “Miss, I am going to tell you my story.” He told me what he went through, and even though he has gone through many difficulties, he still had a smile on his face and the drive to be happy.

On Thursday we finished the lesson because the next day was Fun Friday where they play games and win prizes. The boys liked the end of the story of Joseph because he reunites with his family. I was able to see hope on the boys’ faces. I reminded them that God is our happiness and hope and that our goal must be to reach eternal happiness in Heaven. At the end of the lesson, we started to say goodbye since we weren’t sure if we would have the chance the next day. With watery eyes, I told them that they will always be in my heart, and they realized how much they meant to me, Katie and Beth.

When Friday came we fortunately had the chance to see them again. The boys surprised us with beautiful thank you cards made by them. Their supervisors told us that the previous day they had even asked for extra minutes before going to bed to finish the thank you cards because “they had to be perfect,” as one of the boys had said. There we realized that we also meant a lot to them. Some of the things they wrote on the letters were: “Thank you for the time you dedicated to us,” “Thank you for teaching us that God has a perfect plan for each of us,” and “God is Love.” That day we played, laughed and prayed with them. During final prayer, the boy that had told me his story said a beautiful prayer. I was able to tell the Holy Spirit was with him.

I learned much from these boys and I truly admire them for their strength and faith. One of the boys gave me one of his bracelets and another boy made a bracelet especially for me. Both bracelets have hearts on them, 27 in total, and to me these are the hearts of each of the boys which I will take with me wherever I go. I thank God for this amazing blessing, for VIDES, the sisters, the boys and for the wonderful women I met that I can now call my friends and that will be embarking on their missions soon. God indeed has a perfect plan for each of us. May God bless!

 

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“Soy peligroso”…that means friendly, right?

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My name is Gabrielle and I am from San Antonio, Texas.I applied to VIDES because I realized that being a good Catholic — a good Christian — doesn’t just mean going to church on Sundays. Acts of mercy and true service to my brothers and sisters is a requirement to be a follower of Christ and any career path I chose would have been incomplete without understanding how to sacrifice and give to others. Therefore, I entered the formation camp earlier this June and from the first week of formation through the service camp for the undocumented minors at the local shelter, I not only learned about the Salesian spirit taught by St. John Bosco and Sister Maria Dominica Mazzarello, but also was able to put it into practice at the camp.

The Salesian spirit of service and accompaniment as exemplified by St. John Bosco and Sister Mazzarello is one of love, mercy and the simple kindness of being truly present in the lives of the youth and the people around you. By establishing trust and confidence in those of whom you accompany on their journey to holiness and a closer relationship with God, you help them to accept the harsh truths of their lives, but more importantly the greater truth that Gods love and mercy is unyielding, unceasing and most supremely reserved for them. That as sons and daughters of God they have a right to his love and by trusting in him you can receive the graces necessary to survive and be joyful in times of happiness and difficulty. In training, we also learned that by focusing on the goodness in every child and every teen you give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion and recognize that despite their faults, they have the choice and ability to be better people and that it can only benefit them. It’s interesting though, because the most valuable Salesian teaching that I learned was that a truly humble and loving presence can be enough to make a difference, and it was this assertion that I had the most difficulty believing until we went to camp with the undocumented.

The shelter facility is for young people who have been separated from their families either before crossing the border or separated during their processing. Their ages range from 12-17 and all of them pretty much only speak Spanish. I do not speak Spanish. I can understand a fair amount, but cannot for the life of me speak. When we watched these 15-17 year olds lining up outside the house, with their excess of tattoos and clear teen attitude, I panicked. How can you just be present with teens? They need to talk and to have a relationship with people. There was nothing to be done, and it became clear that a few of the boys were going to make this week hard for me. It’s funny because God knew that perhaps a language barrier was exactly what the boys and I needed to learn how to focus on pure acts of kindness and the value of a smile and a laugh.

On the first day one of the boys approached me as a few others looked on, and said, “Soy peligroso.” All of my one year of Spanish classes flew out the window, and I couldn’t remember that “peligroso” means “dangerous”. Instead, I thought it was a synonym for friendly and when I replied with, “Amable?” and “Amigo?” he paused, incredulous and smiled as the others chuckled. His intimidation couldn’t work if I didn’t understand him, and he got a second chance to be who he truly was; a kind, sensitive and respectful son of God who has had to be tough and harsh to survive. We played basketball together every day that week, and I found that each day as I just laughed, played and made a fool of myself by attempting to speak Spanish, more and more of them were willing to put in such effort to talk to me and let me know their stories. They opened up and struggled to communicate with me by helping with my Spanish and acting out words to make their points clear. I was able to share my faith journey with one boy without speaking the same language, and that was only possible with the help of the Holy Spirit and the attitude of humility and love that I learned from St. John Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello.

Despite their heartbreaking experiences and pains, I saw hope and joy in these boys. Leaving was difficult, and saying goodbye–painful, but they brought so much light and hope into my life. I now have a bunch of crazy little brothers that I get to pray for every day. God is good.

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Using God’s Gifts

Hello readers! My name is Katie Webber. I am 25 years old and I am from Troy, Michigan and I am now part of the Salesian family.  I have felt the desire for mission since I was 8 years old and heard the call which, although starting out only as a small whisper, had grown louder as I grew older until it was too loud to shut out. I am now finishing my VIDES Missioner training and am so grateful to God for this opportunity.

When I first arrived at the Formation Camp several weeks ago I was not sure what to expect but the sisters welcomed me with open arms and in no time, along with our small group of seven missioners, I felt a sense of comfort, love, safety, and family with both one another and the sisters there. During my formation, I learned so much about the teachings of St. Don Bosco and the methods of St. Mary Domenica Mazzarello. I have learned that our actions really IMG_0730.JPGdo speak so much louder than our words and that our mere presence is enough to preach the gospel. I am so grateful to the sisters and my six companions who showed me how to apply these teachings that I learned through the way they treated me. I have learned that to truly be a missioner is not in what we say or where we go to serve, but in how we love since God himself is love.

After we spent a week in formation, we went to a center for undocumented youth. This experience was inspiring, eye-opening, and even life changing. The seven of us were broken into groups and put into different houses to lead our vacation bible school camp. At first I thought that we were going to have a young group of about 20 boys when in reality we had a group of about 30 boys, most of which were in their late teens. The first day at the camp was more difficult than I expected, especially since I speak VERY little Spanish. We had a hard time getting the boys involved, and since out of our group of three volunteers there was only one of us who spoke Spanish, we ourselves seemed to have a hard time being involved at first. But as the days went on the boys participated more and more and I remembered what we had learned in training: our presence, not our words, is what matters. I made an effort each day to try to connect with the boys just by being with them, by having them attempt to teach me Spanish (key word being attempt), by playing games and by being joyful while with them. Through these small things I tried to love them in order that they might find worth and see God in the very little I could do, and I prayed over and over that that would be enough.

By the end I was heartbroken to leave, and many of the boys wrote letters to the other volunteers in my group and myself in which many of them thanked God for us and our time there. They promised to pray for us, and the words “God is love” seemed to be repeated over and over again on their cards. It was hard to believe that these boys who just a few days before seemed so indifferent, where the same boys who in our last days would pray our closing prayers with so much respect and reverence.

While our service experience taught us many lessons about how to treat those we serve, it also seemed to teach us quite a lot about how to work with each other towards a common goal. There was a lot of teamwork needed while we were at the camp and I saw how the three of us in “house c” seemed to work better and better together as days went by, by using each other’s gifts when we had a lack of talent. We learned how to listen to each other more and at times put our own ideas aside for the sake of the others.

Looking back now that our formation is over, I am so grateful for how much I learned, both for mission and for life. I am grateful for the friendships I have made, and most of all I am thankful for all the faith and courage I have gained as I hear God say “come follow me and be not afraid!”.

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Spreading the Spirit

IMG_0707.JPGMy name is Diana Vargas, I’m 18 years old and I will be serving in Puerto Rico.  These past two weeks have been life changing.  I met a group of incredible women, who by the end of the formation became one big family.  God called each one of us to become missioners and help the ones in need.

The VIDES formation camp prepared us for this journey.  We learned something new every day, for example, on Catholic Social Teachings, how to deal with Cultural Stress, the importance of taking care of our health during the mission, but most importantly, to spread the Salesian Spirit of Don Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello as missioners.

We had the opportunity to visit a refugee camp of undocumented teenagers.  It was a great experience, for which I will always be thankful. I admire every single one of the young people that I encountered.  These girls and boys risked their lives coming to the US looking for opportunities, many forced by their own parents to escaping the poverty or gangs back home.  For many of them, especially the girls, it is hard to have people come and share words of encouragement because of what they’ve been through.  Some seemed to be angry/upset at God, but others wanted and needed to hear that God has a plan for them.

We shared the Genesis story of Joseph with them, how at the beginning he was sold by his brothers. Throughout the story he faced other hard situations which he often wondered why God allowed them to happened to him but Joseph continued to firmly trust in God. At the end of the story he was named governor of Egypt.  He then realized that everything was part of God’s plan, and if he had not been sold he would have never been able to use his God-given gifts to save the known world. The girls and boys were able to relate their lives and stories with Joseph’s story, you could see the faith and hope in their eyes.  We were able to accomplish our mission of bringing Jesus’ hope and love to the young people.

While I was there I saw some of these teenagers leave to be reunited with their families in different states. I was very happy, but I also saw some new ones coming in.  There was a boy who had to go to the hospital before getting settled in the house, he was very weak and dehydrated from all the walking. Seeing this was so heartbreaking!  Hundreds and hundreds of people try crossing the borders every day, many of them are kidnapped, sexually abused or die along the way. Less than 10% make it to the US.  I will pray every day for the young people I met and for the ones who are crossing at this moment and I ask you to please do the same.  I will continue to spread the Salesian Spirit wherever I go.

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Transforming the Heart

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Hi! My name is Beth Kraner. I am from The Colony, TX.  I have a Bachelor’s degree in Secondary English Education from Purdue University in Indiana and am a Texas certified teacher. I have been teaching for ten years and seven of those years in Catholic Education. I currently teach Content Mastery and Religion grades K-3 at St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Frisco, TX.

I learned so much for life and mission at the VIDES Formation camp! I learned that God often chooses those least likely, seemingly unimportant, weak, and uneducated to carry out his great plans like Mary the Mother of God, Juan Diego, the Apostles, St. John Bosco, and St. Mary Mazzarello. I learned that the people who we expect and need to understand us usually are the ones who do not, but nevertheless stand firm, remember that God is always with us, remain faithful to Him, and above all trust in Him. I learned what it means to accompany the young from Jesus, St. John Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello. First to establish confidence with them, lead them to the truth of who they are, and freedom from whatever is keeping them in bondage so that the can be free to love as God loves and become fully who God made them to be. Also accompanying with reason, religion, and loving-kindness. One thing among many I love about VIDES is that the purpose is not to be a Savior and change them, but to meet them where they are, bring Christ to them through loving words and gestures, and walk with them on their life journey. It is Jesus Christ alone that is the Savior and His love that transforms the heart of both the accompanied and the ones who accompany so that we can live a life of freedom, love, peace, and joy in Christ.

The service project was a great learning experience and eye-opener for me. We had the great opportunity to serve undocumented teenage boy and girl refugees from Latin America  in San Antonio. I had no idea of the horrific situations and poverty that these teenagers lived in. Many Americans have the perspective that they do not want people coming in to our country and they must be stopped. They dehumanize the refugees feeling anger towards them for coming to our country and have no compassion. What I learned is that these refugees are trying to leave their country so that they have the opportunity just to live and be free! They don’t want to live a life in great fear for their lives and in slavery. One boy had seen people killed in order to steal their organs and sell them for money and that is why he wanted to escape his country. These teenage refugees went through and saw unimaginable, horrendous things on their journey here such as sexual, physical violation and violence; death of loved ones, separation from family and friends. To them, the dangers and risks in traveling to the US were worth it to escape the awful situations they were living in. The fact that they survived the journey is a miracle in itself. Most do not survive. When the refugees cross the border, there family is separated. At the shelter, they house and take care of the teenage refugees until their family is located, then God-willing they are reunited. For some boys and girls they are the only living survivors.

One of the things that touched me the most is that the teenage boys I served continued to keep their faith in God and Mother Mary in spite of the horrible things they have gone through. Also despite their suffering, they still had joy. They still smiled, laughed, and brought me joy and laughter.  They were kind, caring, grateful, and respectful to the volunteers and to each other. Their strength, fortitude, and trust in God even in times of great suffering is a true inspiration to me. They helped me grow in compassion, love, and understanding.

I cannot thank VIDES enough for the incredible opportunity to learn and experience what it truly means to accompany, to love, and to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. It was truly life changing. I look forward to applying all I learned not only in mission, but in my daily life. I love the joyful, familial Salesian spirit and I am so blessed to be a
part of the Salesian family for life! God Bless all of you! Please keep me in your prayers!

 

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Rooted in love- Mary Margaret

The way in which I have defined myself for the past twenty-four years has been as ‘student’. Growing up in Dallas, I considered myself smart, always one of the top students in my class. This stayed true when I went to college in Oklahoma, and then when I went to get my master’s degree in International Affairs at Texas A&M University. When I decided to apply for VIDES, I thought that I would be fairly well qualified to do mission abroad. After all, I had traveled abroad for a few months at a time for school. I loved kids and I knew how to interact with them, even if I wasn’t a teacher. The Salesians were perfect!

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From Left: Mary Margaret with fellow missioner Gabby

What I learned during formation camp was that I have a lot to learn.

I am sure that some people reading this have heard of Don Bosco’s preventive system, but for those of you who have not, I’ll give a brief explanation. It is not complicated, which is probably why it works so well. It is using reason, religion, and loving kindness when you interact with kids. Simple, right? But I had never heard it laid out so clearly. As we learned about the preventive system, I thought back to all the teachers who had taught me as I grew, and I realized that the best teachers, the ones who I still love and think about, used those three things. Their way of accompanying us as students was rooted in their love of us and their ability to show us that love.

We were able to apply what we had learned when we did our service camp with undocumented immigrant teens. These kids are alone in the United States and are waiting with the hope that their families will be found and reunited with them. Most of them traveled alone to the US, going through extremely difficult situations to try and make it here. Some of them were angry – at life, at God – and while we were there to do a sort of Bible camp, I found that just showing them my love for them opened their hearts little by little. Loving kindness. When they knew I loved them, they were more open to listening to the Bible lessons and engaging with us, asking questions and considering our responses. Religion and reason. Don Bosco’s system was my way of connecting with my kids. Without it, I doubt they would have ever come to trust me at all.

I leave for Kenya soon, and after all my years of studying and traveling abroad, I now realize that this trip, this mission, is going to be different. I am not going to Kenya to study or teach or do projects, though I will likely be doing all of those things. I am going to Kenya to love and show God’s love. Reason, religion, and loving kindness. I’ll make sure to take them with me.

Saint John Bosco, pray for us!

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Feeling Transformed

Hello! My name is Catherine Phalen and I just completed the VIDES formation/service camp. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was a life changing experience. After two weeks of faith-based introspection along with the service component, I feel transformed. I am closer to God, more able to communicate and work with others and I feel more confident with myself.

Going into the camp, I was extremely insecure because I felt like compared to all the other amazing women I thumbnail_20160613_091410%5b1%5dwas with in San Antonio, I was less than them in so many ways. I felt less in touch with my own faith. I had less knowledge about Catholicism, the world, or even myself. I am just a college kid from Boston, with no real life experience besides summers waitressing in the Cape. I’ve never travelled anywhere, I don’t speak any other languages, and I hadn’t felt close to God in a really long time. Why would anyone be interested in my experiences? Why would anyone look to me for guidance?

As I practiced Sister Gloria’s style of teaching, leading us though the accompaniment of Saint Maria Mazzarello, I began to understand that it wasn’t experience or knowledge that was necessary to be a good Salesian missioner– it was love.

Especially towards the end of the service component, I opened myself up to God’s overwhelming love and in turn was able to love the boys with whom I was working with an open heart. Even though I only knew them for a week, by the end of my time in San Antonio, I truly loved those boys. I was able to do this because I had God working through me. This was the first time I had ever felt anything like that and I can’t wait to continue spread God’s love on my mission to England.
I am filled with love for Jesus, others and myself.

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Listening to the Call: Our 2016 Volunteers (1601 FSC)

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Another January brings another wonderful group of volunteers who have heard the call to service.  They come from different parts of the US and will go to far parts of the world to live the VIDES mission and accompany those they encounter.  It is our pleasure to introduce you to them and share their story.

Amanda Lozano (UN – Geneva)- The Missionary Family

I had just turned in all my papers to do missionary work in Geneva, Switzerland when I received the final dates for the Formation camp: December 29th-January 14th. Now 20160107_200042-001looking retrospectively as I near the end of formation, I can appreciate and understand the reason for the length of time required. Before my formation experience, however, I was mostly concerned with the fact that I wouldn’t be spending the New Year with my family. The day before the New Year we went out as a group to the River Walk in San Antonio, my hometown. Although I had been many times, it was the first time I’d be ringing in the New Year with a missionary group and two nuns, Sister Gloria and Sister Theresa. For the people who flock to downtown for the New Year celebration to get drunk on the River Walk, God might be the furthest thing from their minds. You can’t help but think of God, however, when you see nuns and missionaries walk by! After dinner I had suggested visiting San Fernando since I knew there was a laser show on the Cathedral façade. We walked to the Cathedral and discovered that the laser show only happens on the weekend and it was only Thursday. We decided to visit the Cathedral instead and found a group of people praying before the Blessed Sacrament. What a beautiful way to begin the New Year! After we prayed, we drove to Russ’ apartment to pray night prayer. Being able to partake in that moment definitely set the mood for the rest of the Formation camp! I realized I was surrounded by my missionary family. We each shared our hopes for 2016 and gave thanks for the year we had spent, despite the ups and downs the year may have brought. Over the next couple of days, we learned about St. Mary Mozzarello, the foundress of the Salesian sisters. We also learned about St. Don Bosco and the spirit espoused by the Salesians. We each shared a little bit about ourselves and the more we shared about our lives, the more we broke down barriers by sharing our vulnerabilities. Throughout our time at the convent, we did chores after meals and got to spend quality time with each other and the sisters. I especially enjoyed when we got to set up Sunday recreation with the sisters. Talk about true joy and hilarious interactions! The formation camp is an integral part of what makes VIDES special; It is a taste of what mission means before we are sent off to other missions. We were given the tools to know what to expect on mission (emotionally and physically) and Sister Gloria shared countless stories with us. Multiple speakers also visited and shared their own experiences with VIDES and their missions. Even armed with all of this knowledge we were given the most important rule: expect the unexpected and know that just because it wasn’t spoken about during formation camp doesn’t mean that it won’t happen to you! Your story might just be used as an example of what might happen on mission! I am so thankful for the opportunity to grow in faith with my fellow missionaries. Any questions we had were answered during the formation camp, from knowing what to do when a conflict arises to recognizing signs of fatigue and dehydration! I am very thankful for the thorough training VIDES missionaries receive.

Service

During the Formation camp, we also prepared for our mission at the immigration shelter for undocumented boys and girls. This aspect of camp was the most vital to our formation. We learned about the joy of the Salesian spirit during formation and then we got to immediately put it into practice! I recalled the spirit of Don Bosco because I knew that he helped street kids and juvenile delinquents. At the camp, I was informed that I would be with a group of young boys that were considered “troublemakers.” This couldn’t be further from the truth! The first game we played was a name game where each person had to say an object that began with the first letter of their name. I have found that knowing people and remembering names shows you really care so I always do my best to memorize names. It is such a small thing but it can mean the world to a person you meet! Every day Russ and I brought an activity to do and would read about Jesus and then answer questions on the reading; only a handful of the boys didn’t  participate. By the end of the week, all the boys were participating and trying to get the others to sit down and listen to us! We also played basketball, soccer, or frisbee with them outside and got to spend some quality time just enjoying ourselves and the outdoors. We hoped that during all of these moments they would be able to forget how far from home they were and all the difficulties they had been through. Spanish was the second language learned after a native language for some of the boys and only a couple of boys had difficulty reading and writing. Russ would go around helping the boys that couldn’t read and I would go around answering the questions the other boys had. On the Epiphany, January 6th, we spent the day celebrating ; we watched the Nativity play while eating rosca and drinking hot chocolate. I noticed one of the new boys, Edwin Antonio, crying and trying to hide his face. “Three kings day” is a very special day to Latin Americans and is celebrated more than Christmas day. I quietly asked if he was ok and he nodded his head. Later on he would tell me that he missed his family in El Salvador and that I reminded him of a Christian friend he had  back home. We played some frisbee together and by the end of the day he was smiling and singing his favorite Christian songs. It warms my heart to think about his transformation and the prayer he offered to Jesus. I have a small memory for each boy that I hold dearly in my heart; for Josue, Miguel, Roger, Odwin, Edwin, Elmer, Jose Manuel, Luis, Victor, Moises, Cesar, for all of the boys and for their families, I will treasure the week I spent with them and continue to pray for them. This mini-mission has helped renew my spirit and I am grateful for the blessings and information learned during this formation camp!

Christian Ruehling (Ethiopia)- Finding Courage

Many friends, colleagues and family members told me it took courage to leave my career to pursue my dream to volunteer abroad, and even more so when I told them I would be 20160105_185906serving in Africa. For me, it was not courage, but determination to fulfill this personal goal so that I would not have any regrets later in life. Courage, I thought would have to come once I am at the local mission site in Dilla, Ethiopia, far away from the personal and familial relationships that I rely on for strength and support. However, I feel more confident about the mission after having participated in the Formation and Service Camp led by VIDES Director Sister MaryGloria Mar and hosted by the Salesian Sisters in San Antonio, Texas. The Formation part of the camp introduced us to Life Accompaniment in the style of St. Mary Mary Mazzarello and to the Preventive System that was pioneered by Don Giovanni Bosco and practiced by the Salesians throughout the world. These educational methods will help prepare us for our missions when we serve the youth at our local sites. But the Formation camp also prepared us for community living with the Sisters such as sharing mealtimes together and doing chores after the meals as well as participating in daily Mass and morning / evening prayer. There was a certain amount of joy and admiration to be had when being in the presence of such holy Sisters who have dedicated their lives to service for others so it was a privilege to give back to them in little ways such as helping them with their walkers, cleaning the dishes, or even singing songs and playing games for them during recreation time!  However, our Formation would not be complete without the Service portion of the camp that took us out of the classroom and into reality.

The VIDES volunteers spent one week leading a bible camp with undocumented youth at a transition housing facility operated by the non-profit organization BCFS. For three hours every day, we talked to them about Jesus Christ, his arrival, crucifixion, and resurrection. We incorporated games, skits, and crafts to introduce them to the theme that Jesus Christ loves us above all else. It was during the time spent with these kids that I also saw courage.  They had courage to leave their families and home towns to take the journey to the United States, a journey fraught with many unknowns, questions, and unimaginable fear and hope that they would reach their destination safely.   It was then that I realized that no matter what we taught them, Jesus Christ was already in their hearts and had accompanied them on their journey. They also helped me believe in my own courage to fulfill my mission in Ethiopia.  So it was a privilege for us volunteers to share this one stop with them as they continue on their life journey while we depart on our own missions knowing that Jesus Christ will accompany us along the way.

Viva Jesus, Viva Maria! 

Elizabeth Suarez (Scotland) – A Matter of the Heart 

A few weeks ago, I boarded a plane from San Francisco to San Antonio for the VIDES 20160113_101637-001formation service camp. This idea of a “service camp” had me thinking about what I would be able to give to those whom I encountered, not just for the VIDES formation but also beyond in my mission site. I had no idea, however, how much I would learn and receive from those I have met here in San Antonio, from this inspiring group of volunteers, Salesian Sisters, and young people who have journeyed with me as I begin this VIDES journey.

In a couple of months, I will be going to Glasgow, Scotland. I still have no idea what to expect in this place I’ve never seen, working with people I’ve never met. But having gone through the VIDES formation makes me feel more prepared; this time of formation has equipped me with invaluable tools and experiences that will enable me to serve others with an open heart in the Salesian spirit of St. John Bosco and the accompaniment style St. Mary Mazzarello.

I haven’t just learned from the handouts, the documents, the life accompaniment manual that covered topics ranging from youth accompaniment, Catholic Social Teaching, Theology of the Body, Travel, Health, Emergency procedures, etc. Or from the films we saw, such as Freedom Writers, Entertaining Angels (the story of Dorothy Day), films about Don Bosco, Mary Mazzarello, Oscar Romero – although they were great films, inspiring and thought-provoking. I also learned so much from the other volunteers and the Salesian Sisters with whom I lived in community while here in San Antonio. I’ve come to realize that mission is about relationships – about the relationships we form with those we encounter; with those whose lives we touch and who touch our life as well; the relationship with ourselves (as strange as that might initially sound); and of course, our relationship with God. Relationship, accompaniment, Christ-centered service—I understand them a little better now thanks to the people who have taught me through their selfless, inspiring example.

As St. John Bosco understood so well, “Education is a matter of the heart.” What would all the things I learned in the VIDES formation be worth if I never put them into practice, if the information from my head never reached, touched, and transformed my heart? We had the opportunity to be educated from the heart last week at the Baptist Children and Family Services Center that houses undocumented youth. As I animated games, songs and other activities, tried to bring Bible stories to life through skits, I asked myself what sort of impact I could really make in the single week we would spend together.

I couldn’t give these young people much; I couldn’t fix their situation; perhaps I couldn’t fully understand the context from which they came or know where they would be going, but I could be present to them, I could let them know I cared about them, and more importantly that God cared about them and loved them. They gave me the gift of acceptance, of sharing with me a glimpse into their reality, their story, inspiring me with their ability to still laugh and be silly, showing me some things transcend culture and language. “Why do you do this?” one of the girls asked me. Why do I do this? Part of the answer lies in these parting words from another young person whom I encountered during this week of service: “Sometimes we get sad, being here. But you’ve brought us joy, you’ve helped this week go by so fast! Thank you for coming.” It’s not about fixing everything or about grand gestures or fully understanding; it’s about being present, about the goodness and joy we can bring to one another simply by being together. There is tremendous power in the gift of presence.

Lauren Schaller (Puerto Rico) – Rooted in Truth

For me, being a part of the Formation Camp was special in that it reconnected me to my personal faith and helped me realize some areas in my life that are missing something. I believe (and believed) that I am a good person, and I was raised Catholic, but for a few 20160110_132911-002years prior to this formation camp I was quite disconnected from God and my faith. In a positive light I began to see areas that I could simplify things by putting more trust in God and opening myself up to the idea that it is in doing good that we find peace within our relationships and within ourselves. So often I try to control situations, want a person or a situation to be just so. By letting go of that and being open to the root of the truths in other people or situations, we will make the most impact and find the most meaning.

The “Salesian Way” is ideals that I have always agreed with, but being here in a retreat-like setting, separated from the hustle and bustle of every-day life, I could reflect more deeply on what it truly means to accompany youth (or anyone)- establishing confidence, discovering truth, and growing in freedom to love as God calls us.  In between reading and studying the program curriculum we were given many examples based on the experiences of other volunteers and other missionaries, and watched movies that reflected these teachings and actions. This helped ingrain the ideas in my mind and make it all feel very real and relatable. It fostered an excitement inside of me, building confidence that yes, I do have the tools to make even a small difference and that I also will feel God’s love in the people I will serve!

I am not sure at what exact moment, but I had an “Aha!” moment the second or third day while listening to the other volunteers speak: perhaps, I was not as far away from God or my faith as I had thought over the course of the past few years. I had a few doubts and hesitations as to whether or not I was suited for a Catholic-based mission… but something inside just kept telling me to come to the Formation Camp and that things would make sense. I felt I finally understood that conversations with God are not always dramatic or even evident in the moment; perhaps every time I was thinking to myself about doing a mission that God was there too pointing me in the right direction and at the time I was just not giving him proper acknowledgement. In reflecting events that happened before committing to come here to San Antonio, I realized that even though I was not praying or asking God for a sign he had put certain people and circumstances in my life anyways that led me here. I think that now that I have realized this, I can find more small moments to speak with God and be more open to what he is asking of me. It is a beautiful and amazing feeling, and feels fitting that this is all occurring at the start of a New Year and during a Year of Mercy.

Being surrounded by sisters in a faith-based community I can feel the love and joy that comes from a life of serving others. Living more simply than I do at home feels good! Instead of worrying about plans or what to wear or social media or the pressures of modern society for the past two weeks, I have had the freedom to simply focus on my relationship with others, with myself, and with God. I have more energy, and feel more alive and motivated than I have in a while.

In particular, listening to Sr. Thuy speak about South Sudan really touched me. I was surprised at some of the challenges she faced; and even more than the challenges I was surprised and inspired by her passion and enthusiasm! She was speaking about such hopeless-seeming, frustrating situations with the people she served… extreme poverty, lack of resources, and ingrained aggression to name a few… but she did not sound the least bit discouraged. She talked about having to start over again and again and I thought about similar frustrations I had (on a smaller scale) at my current job, and how after just 1 year I have felt like quitting or giving up. She has been doing this for years. It felt like a very special kind of dedication and determination, and while I could only hope to have 1/5 of what she has it was very contagious! Her passion, enthusiasm, and faith are contagious.

The next step for me will be remembering what I have gained and applying it to my everyday life, and not completely losing sight of these gains between now and my mission in August. I know it will not be easy, but I am glad I now have a great support network with the sisters and other volunteers, as well as materials to read and reflect on in tough moments.

During our Service at the BCFS youth camp, I felt very inspired by the positivity and character of the youth we served.  I did not know their individual stories, but I could not stop thinking of the situations that might have driven them to leave their home country and the hardships and dangers they may have experienced on the way here. I thought of my attitude and what my life was like when I was 16 or 17; I was in awe of their bravery and strength, and the way they all still smiled and helped each other and were so eager to learn! I was not near as mature, nor did I have the eagerness to learn and succeed in the face of hardships like they did. The director of the camp and all of the staff were very nurturing and caring; I could see how the environment was really good for the boys. I will be praying that when they move on from the camp that they continue to find themselves in a positive, helpful, and caring environment so they can grow and learn.

It is crazy how I felt connected to them in just 5 days; I was very sad that our time had to end. I wanted to learn more about each of them and continue our activities. Not sure where they would be going next, I wanted to share with them how highly I thought of them. I was touched that they welcomed me with their smiles every day and still wanted to play games and participate in activities; they had the patience to interact with me even though I did not speak or understand Spanish well. I wanted to share with them that I admired their courage, and to keep these positive attitudes, open minds, and willingness to learn in all of their future endeavors! That even though it might not be easy assimilating into the USA to hold on to the values and characteristics they were showing me, and to know that God will always be with them.   I wrote them a short message in Spanish (expressing all of that) as part of our good-bye, and Christian followed up with a prayer to Mary for all of them to keep. There was one boy whom I had learned had been in that house the longest, had a bit of a hard time when he first arrived, and could not read or write (but I could tell had such a good heart and wanted to be loved and accepted); I had tried to connect with him by playing basketball and encouraging him to participate even if he seemed a bit antsy during some activities; he gave me his rosary when we were finished. I was very touched by this gesture. Having such a positive experience with those boys is reaffirming what I feel called to do and inspiring me to continue on this journey!

Sofia Piecuch (UN – Geneva) – Love for Love’s Sake

Sofia Piecuch is a senior at Saint Mary’s College studying Global Studies with concentrations in International Development and Anthropology. After attending the VIDES Formation and Service Camp (FSC), Sofia has decided to go as a volunteer 20160113_101514-001missioner to the Human Rights office of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Sofia’s mission will begin in September and end in December 2016.

Before the VIDES FSC Sofia had not been acquainted with the Salesian spirit and values; however she profoundly enjoyed learning about the lives of St. John Bosco and St. Maria Mazzarello. The Preventative System and the spirit of accompaniment were both methods that made a lot of sense to Sofia—especially as she has striven to find ways to incorporate faith and reason into her studies and future employment opportunities.

Leading the Bible Camp with the undocumented youth at the Baptist Children and Family Services (BCFS) was a wonderful opportunity to put in practice all the wisdom learned during formation. As a microcosm of the mission experiences she and her fellow VIDES volunteers would experience, the time at BCFS allowed Sofia to gain a better understanding of what it means to accompany others. The following words that are often attributed to Mother Theresa echoed in Sofia’s mind as she worked, “I can do no great things, only small things with great love.” With only five days and a total of 15 hours to spend with the teenagers, small things were really all that Sofia could aspire to do: bring joy and truth, plant seeds, and love the girls for love’s sake.

The girls living in this transition center were between the ages of 12 to 17 and Sofia couldn’t help but see her younger sisters (who are 14 and 18) in them. The amount of dangers that this group from South and Central America had faced coming to the U.S. as both unaccompanied minors and women is indescribable. Although their experiences forced them to grow up so quickly, they still held on to remnants of their childhood and, after overcoming initial shyness, they joined the volunteers in songs, games, crafts, skits and reflection. There is so much Sofia wanted to ask about, so much advice she wanted to give, but she came to the realization that this camp truly reflected a stark reality: humans are the holiest beings we can meet on earth (besides the blessed Sacrament) yet most human encounters are merely in passing. Therefore, mustn’t every human interaction be unique, loving, and valuable even if it is just for one second, five days, or fifty years? Rev. John Duffy wrote a poem called “The Annunciation,” in which Mary comes to the awareness that she is carrying the Son of God and therefore the realization that “nothing would again be casual and small.” Similarly, as Christ-bearers, every encounter is an opportunity to bring a testimony of confidence in the truth, devotion to religion and an expression of loving-kindness.

In the Bible, Jesus had the ability to see others and immediately love them. As she finishes her last semester of college and prepares for her subsequent mission in Geneva, Sofia is thankful that each day allows her to practice the unconditional love that Jesus exhibits. In these next few months, Sofia asks for prayers for a successful end to her academic career, for a rewarding mission experience and for fruitful discernment about continuing her missioner role in Rwanda following her time in Switzerland.

Dorottya Csere (San Antonio) – Spiritual Messages

Dóri is a VIDES volunteer from Hungary serving with the Salesian Sisters in San Antonio, TX.  From cooking, to sewing, to accompaniment, to grocery shopping, Dóri has done a bit of everything to help out the community she lives in.  She participated in the January FSC IMG_2364-001although she is well into her mission in Texas.  Regardless, the skills she learned during
the camp were skills that can be used beyond mission.  These values of accompaniment and love are at the very core of relationships and interaction with every human we encounter.  

Working with the undocumented minors was especially touching, especially with the immigration crisis in Hungary at the moment.  Before volunteering in Texas, Dóri spend bits of her free time giving food and water to those in the Budapest train station.  She did not need to understand where or why they were going, but just to serve them as Christ would, to meet them where they were in the present.  The girls she worked with during the Service Camp in Texas were touched by her gentle presence and was reflected in the way they received her.  The experience was unique and memorable, a truly spiritual movement.

 

 

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Beginning the Journey…

Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 2, I embark on a new mission that will take me to Dilla, Ethiopia, where I will be joining the Salesian sisters as a volunteer missioner through the VIDES program. My primary assignment will be to teach English at a technical college but I have been advised to “expect the unexpected” while on mission.  This is a new challenge for me since I have never stepped foot on the African continent.  In addition, my only experience in the classroom has been at work leading sessions on due diligence and anti-money laundering topics.  But I’m confident that somehow, these skills will transition well to my future classes.

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Christian and Sr. Vicki share a laugh together during the Formation / Service Camp

Never would I have thought that being a missioner was in store for me but God does work in mysterious ways. But I can say that my journey started when I consciously decided last year to be closer to my faith and underwent the process of getting my confirmation.  I selected St. Vincent de Paul, patron saint of charitable work, so it is fitting that I decided to undergo this mission to do charity work in Ethiopia, a country that also has a long history with Christianity. Incidentally, tomorrow is also the Feast Day of the Presentation of the Lord, and in some ways, I feel that I am also presenting myself to the people of Ethiopia to do God’s work there.
I could not have embarked on this tremendous adventure though without the support of my close friends, family and colleagues. There will be challenging obstacles along the way but I hope to also find many of God’s graces on this journey.   This mission has finally begun and I can’t wait to share as much of this experience as I can with all of you!

– Christian Ruehling

Follow Christian and his blog here.

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A Respite and Reunion

Dear Friends and Family,

The past couple of days have been cold down here at a bone-freezing temperature of 60° F. Though I’m pretty close to the equator, Santa Rosa is somewhat high in altitude and thus experiences more of a seasonal pattern that lets say, San Pedro. I realize 60 isn’t cold at all, but with constant cloud coverage and an almost constant light rain, I find myself wearing my groundhog sweater from this past year.

Much has passed since I last wrote. The school’s two graduations have passed without too much excitement, the sisters have received their letters of obedience that tell them where they’ll be serving in 2016, and all the internas have gone home. It does get a little lonely without their inquisitive, intelligent, fun minds and right now there’s only myself and three other sisters at the house. Life is therefore a little less exciting than normal, though I’ve been kept busy up until a few days ago. When I wasn’t taking photos for the graduation events last week, most of my time was spent organizing a room full of old sewing machines fixing up the broken machines (solely by moving parts around, nothing fancy) and destroying those beyond repair, foraging the wood to be used in the kitchen to power our ovens. The work is somewhat physically demanding, but once again, I do think its fun to destroy old things with an axe.

Because of the constant drizzle, I’m not doing much gardening, as it’s too much of a hassle with all the mud, and with no students to tutor nor internas to keep in line, I am doing other things to help the sisters: helping Sor Esmeralda pass her university English test, moving furniture for cleaning, working on school advertisement, etc..

It saddens me to know that three of our sisters are being placed elsewhere in the province. Their vow of obedience necessitates that they are placed wherever the superior demands, but I can’t imagine a merrier gathering of people than our group of sisters these past few months. I fear the situation next year will lack the chemistry and whimsicality we had in 2015, though perhaps I’m only saying so because I have no idea who will be coming here to take their places.

The graduations themselves went well. Because the school is broken up into two sections, one being the “basic cycle” and the other being bachillerato, we have two of them. The first took place on Thanksgiving, which isn’t celebrated here and was less of a deal, being the graduation from 9th grade. The second and real “high school” graduation was on Saturday, for which I went to a nearby barber and cut off most of my hair. Nobody recognized me as I stood in the salon with practically no hair dressed up all nice. I heard many whispers as I walked by, pretending to not hear their compliments.

After the first graduation the sisters, professors and I went out to eat a lovely meal at Santa Rosa’s best restaurant where I ate so much delicious food that I had to siesta the rest of the day. That night Mary Joy (the UD alumn who was volunteer at this house before I was) went with me to have a gringo-esque Thanksgiving pizza dinner that ended up being quite pleasant. It was nice to speak English conversationally with a friend and receive counsel someone who has gone through the volunteer experience. On Saturday night my immaturity shone through when we went to an event hosted by an English language school whose dueño is a friend of MJ’s. We were invited to this event, but we didn’t know it would be a karaoke lead by the students. I could hardly maintain composure song after song. But, I am glad we went because I made some friends around my age.

After mass yesterday, celebrated by the bishop, the remaining sisters and I went with some friends out to eat in a jolly gathering. One of them told me of a coffee place in town where they sell a very expensive cup of coffee that comes from coffee beans defecated by a monkey. Naturally I was determined, so today, Mary Joy, an alumn from the school and I went to this place where I paid the equivalent of $12 for the best cup of coffee I’d ever had. Turns out it’s not a monkey that digests and excretes the coffee beans, but some sort of Indonesian cat species. Now I have a fun story to tell when I get back home. The rest of the day has been quite lazy, hence my writing to y’all. With all the graduation craziness over, we are all sort of taking things easily while preparing for next year.

Oh, before I forget

Sor Consuelo, our director, told me she wants to start an afternoon escuelita where students from both within and without the institute can come and learn English. This means that naturally I will be teaching next year, a prospect that makes me a little nervous. She wants me to be in teach a computer class? I’m not quite sure I’m qualified, as I can’t get Windows 10 to work properly, but I digress. This means that my responsibilities will change once again, as soon as I’ve adapted and got comfortable. But I accept the challenge with joy and a little fear, as I think I’m a bad teacher. But we will see, and if anything, I’ll get practice, which can only be a good thing. Wanting the escuelita to be an actual business, Sor Consuelo also asked me to advertise to my American friends because SHE WANTS MORE VOLUNTEERS TO TEACH ENGLISH.

If you are currently unemployed, on the job search, or have a non-fulfilling boring job that can be left behind, if you want to experience more of the world, serve Christ through his Church, withdraw from the droll American life of haste and high blood pressure, and be happy, then please consider! The sisters will provide room and board in exchange for your service, and you can spend time here with me! I am here through VIDES, a Salesian organization, and while I recommend the program because of its formation and structure, Sor told me it is not necessary to go through anyone – you can just show up and we’ll take you in (if you get through her and me). Furthermore, you do not have to be here for a long time like me if you only want to volunteer a short while. Please respond to this email if you are even slightly interested or have any questions. One may even discover that Santa Rosa is a town where even the highest expectations are exceeded/surpassed/shattered etc. No previous volunteer experience is required, though it is helpful to be Catholic as you’d be living in a house full of religious sisters. Sex don’t matter either. Also, if you know a friend who may be interested, be a good bloke (don’t be lazy!) and give them my email!

Anywho, I once again hope this letter finds everyone well. I have found eggnog in town, thank the Lord (worth sharing). I’m trying to take this Advent season a bit more seriously than usual. The bishop yesterday said that as Christians, we should be living our lives as if in a perpetual advent, constantly awaiting the second coming, but the Church gives us this time period in particular to tell us to wake up and to be vigilant. I hope as Christmas approaches and school lets out and everyone is hectically running around shopping as if the world’s gonna end that you all relax a bit, reflect on the mystery of the incarnation and what it means, and spend Advent in a more calm, contemplative manner, not getting tied up in the superfluous haste that normally accompanies this time period in the States. I’m really starting to get excited about coming home in a few days and seeing most of you.

Cheers,

Alec

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