Dare to change! That’s one of the taglines of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. At Standup Sisters 2017, Rhonda Miska recalls how her Jesuit Volunteer Corps experience in Nicaragua changed her. Rhonda is a novice with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. That’s something like a sister-in-training. Here's Rhonda...
Growing up in south central Wisconsin, Fridays in Lent always meant the same thing. A dinner of boxed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with fishsticks and then going to St. Bernards for the Stations of the cross where with song and silence in scripture we would remember the passion, the suffering of Jesus. So fast forward 10 years and 2000 miles. And it's good Friday, the last Friday of Lent. And again I find myself a church with song and silence in scripture to remember the passion of Jesus. But this is a very different experience. I am in San José de Cusmapa where I'm living as a Jesuit Volunteer and the church experience has moved from the four walls of the building out into the street where we are processing. It is a funeral procession in this wonderful Latin American incarnational way.
They have taken the corpus, or the body of Jesus, from the crucifix, placed it in a coffin, and at the front of the procession there are men carrying this coffin and on either side men with candles. And we're all there, abuelitos and abuelitas, grandmothers and grandfathers, young people from the high school youth group, kids from primary school; even the occasional dog and chicken who has joined in the action. And we are processing down the street. And we are singing as we go and the words we sing in Spanish: If my sin is great your mercy is greater.
San José de Cusmapa is about a mile above sea level on the Honduran border and my neighbors there primarily made their living growing corn and growing coffee and during coffee harvest season I remember often seeing coffee berries drying on the street in the sun on the few paved roads. Although most of the roads were dirt which meant they turned into mud in the rainy season and turned into dust in the dry season. And like many of my neighbors as I was in this procession on Good Friday I was wearing chinelas, which are rubber flip flops basically. If you think of what you would wear if you were going to go take a shower in a public swimming pool or something like that. It's that sort of thing. Not really a lot of arch support. No grip on the bottom, but they were pretty common. It's what a lot of people wore and I have strong memories of going out and visiting rural communities and I would have good solid hiking boots on, I'd be wearing a sun hat, I'd have sunblock, I'd be carrying a bottle of water in my backpack, and then up from behind me would breeze past a woman, much older than me; in some cases carrying a load of firewood on her head or carrying a child in her arms wearing these chinelas, these sort of cheap rubber sandals, and it was one of many humbling experiences where I realized that I was not as fully adapted to life in rural Nicaragua the way that my neighbors were and many of the skills that a Nicaraguan girl would have acquired by the age of 10, like making corn tortillas over a woodstove or speaking fluent Spanish or washing clothes in the back yard at a pila, which is sort of this concrete washboard thing, were skills I really struggled to acquire. So I was walking down the street in this procession with my neighbors wearing my rubber chinelas and we turned a corner as we were singing and precessing together in the dark and we were going down a fairly steep incline and I hit some gravel and all of a sudden I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and I felt my two feet go out from underneath me and gravity start to take hold. Before I could say anything, before I could do anything; immediately I felt hands on my shoulders, on my back, on my elbows, on my arms, and naturally, organically, the people around me reached out and caught me and grabbed me and lifted me back to my two feet. And like a wave in the ocean we just continued moving forward and singing in the procession and I was amazed and taken aback to have been caught by my neighbors.
Ever since then this has been my image of church.
The people of God together on a journey, el puedo de dios caminando juntos en el camino, and often the road is dark and there's not a lot of light. Often we can't necessarily see the road in front of us and we might literally or figuratively step on each other's feet, but we move forward with our eyes on Christ. And sometimes I'm the strong one and I can see that someone walking beside me is struggling and I will reach out an arm to offer them support and sometimes, as it was that day in Cusmapa, I'm the one that struggles and loses my footing and others reach out and offer support and bring me back to my feet so that I can continue walking forward. Fast forward another 10 years and another 2000 miles and I'm back in my native Midwest working in Dubuque, Iowa living in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin as part of the legal immigration services at Catholic Charities where I'm working with Central Americans yet again. But this time they're the ones who have crossed the border and not me. I work with primarily Guatemalan children in legal proceedings who have fled violence and poverty in their home countries and are seeking to reunite with families here. And this was a few months ago during the season of Advent. Those days leading up to Christmas when we look ahead to the birth of Jesus and have these beautiful names that we pray with about about Jesus who was the one to have to come and be born. And after finishing up a session, just a few days before Christmas, the lawyer I work with and I walked this young woman, Guatemalan woman, to the door and shook her hand and said Thank you. And then with a maturity and a wisdom beyond her 16 years she turned to me and to the lawyer and she said to us dios ustad con ustedes, God is with you. And of course this is one of the names that we pray with as we await the coming of Christ at Christmas. And so in that moment I realized, as I realized so often when I lived in Nicaragua, how it is in the crossing of borders and in the encounter with those who are different from us that so often we catch a glimpse of God's face and realize how connected we are as brothers and sisters in one human family.