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 looking 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.
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 serving 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 formation 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 years 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 missioner 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 although 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.