Shoulder to shoulder

If you look at the above picture and notice the face of a young woman in a blue T-shirt, you'll see that it's me having the time of my life during a white-water rafting excursion.

Based on that face, you would never guess that before the excursion I was wishing I had gone to see a priest for my Last Rites. I'm not afraid of too many things in this world, but drowning has always been a type of untimely death I never want to experience.

That day, I was certain I would come face to face with both my greatest fear and my own mortality. Fortunately, I'm here to say that I ended up only having to face one of those!

The white-water rafting trip was part of a week-long camp for high-school girls called "Camp Lajas" after Our Lady of Las Lajas whose miraculous image in Colombia has been sanctioned by the Church for decades. During the week of Camp Lajas, participants have the opportunity to go rock climbing, kayaking, hiking and white-water rafting. I got to accompany the group as a religious presence, helping lead prayer and contributing in other areas where I was needed. This camp, as you might have guessed, is how I ended up on a life-threatening escapade.

When we arrived at the location for our rafting trip, I was a nervous wreck. I had a pounding headache and wished we had somehow gotten lost so we wouldn't have to go. Of course, wouldn't it be just my luck that I was assigned to a raft full of teenagers and only a single person who had ever been rafting before (who also happened to be younger than me).

Our guides, who would be in kayaks alongside us in the river, were quickly giving instructions as we put on all our gear. Before I could change my mind, we were carrying our raft down to the water's edge. As soon as we hit our first rapid, I became instantly high on adrenaline. I couldn't imagine why I had been so afraid before!

The trip all together was about 7 miles downriver. When we hit the 3.5-mile mark, everybody brought their rafts in for a lunch break. Up to that point, every other raft except ours had lost a person at some point. We were so proud of ourselves, and not so humbly decided we were the best team. We were working so well together, we said, that none of us had fallen out.

When lunch was over we happily walked down to our rafts as the instructors explained what would be coming up ahead. They told us about this thing called a "hydraulic" that swirled powerfully in the water, flipping any raft that came at it sideways or too slowly. We watched for it intently as we continued our trip.

Swirling powerfully just as it was described, we found ourselves headed straight for the hydraulic. We remembered the instructors' warnings, but there was nothing we could do. We were sandwiched between two other rafts, moving slowly and moving sideways. We braced ourselves and the entire raft flipped, sending us all into the river.

Later, when discussing the trip, the group in our raft still proudly declared we were the best team (despite the fact that there was no actual competition). Since no other raft had lost all its members at once, we proudly noted: "Either we were all in the raft together, or we were all in the water together. No one was ever left alone."

One of the girls admitted that she was much less terrified due to the fact that she saw others in the water with her. Thinking about that statement, we realized it had been a comfort to each of us as well.

As I prepare for Camp Lajas again this summer, I continue to think about how important it is to have people by your side. Of course, there are times we need people to lend us a hand -- like the ones who pulled us out of the water -- but we were all more at ease because we were not splashing about in the water alone. 

When it comes to lending a hand, it means you have to look down on someone. It's almost like having to say, "You're beneath me, but don't worry, I'll help you up." When you lend a shoulder, you can be next to a person. You can instead say, "I'm right here with you. You are not alone in this." It reminds me of places I've visited, like Haiti or local soup kitchens. While my lifestyle may be different than the people there, there's no need for me to see them or their situations as less than.

I used to think I had so much to offer people, but now I know that the most important thing I can offer is mutuality. I can do so by looking for the good in a person despite their difficult circumstances. I can offer mutuality by sitting and eating with people when I go to places like soup kitchens and struggling countries. I can offer it by smiling and making conversation, even if it means I have to learn a foreign language. I've done it by teaching dance to people who would never have the opportunity otherwise because in that way I can offer enriching experiences rather than secondhand items given out as "freebees."

It was hard to learn all this, to know that I had come to see myself as a savior rather than someone who's been saved. It's worth it, though.

Facing my fear of drowning has become one of those life-altering moments for me. I'm starting to see that "Do not be afraid" does not mean, "Avoid all people, situations and things you're afraid of or don't understand." Instead, it means to go all in, with your whole self, and stand (or swim) shoulder to shoulder with your brothers and sisters in Christ, especially the ones who sometimes feel like they're drowning.

About Sister Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay, CSSF

Sister Desiré Anne-Marie Findlay is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Felix (Felician Sisters). Before entering her religious community, Sister Desiré graduated from the University of New Mexico with a Bachelor's degree in secondary education. Upon making her first vows with the Felician Sisters, she taught for four years at an all-girl's high school in Southern California. Currently living in Pennsylvania, Sister Desiré volunteers at an after-school program when she is not traveling for her work with Catholic youth and young adults. Sister Desiré has also ministered in Haiti, and will be publishing a book in the spring of 2018 with a group of religious sisters from the organization known as Giving Voice.