written by: Katie Warner ’13, John Carroll University
NOTE: Katie originally shared the follow at during John Carroll University’s Ignatian Heritage Week at an event featuring various forms of Ignatian prayer and reflection.
Before our flight took off we were given the routine instruction to turn off our cell phones, for me it marked the beginning of a week of detachment from technology, my daily routine and life as I formerly knew it. As I prepared to power down my phone I received one last text message. It was from my friend Patrick, a role model to me in my years at Carroll, he had been on several immersion experiences before and I anticipated his wisdom, I could use anything at that moment. He said quite simply “You’re going to be great, use all of your senses to experience and process every moment… try to talk to people no matter how hard or awkward it is so you can build those connections… be yourself.”
As I mentally prepared for the experience in Ecuador I was about to encounter I took these words to heart and clung to them. His advice surprised me, “try to talk to people,” that seemed obvious, of course I’m going to talk to them. I know now what he meant and how integral this simple piece of advice would be for me. During those 12 days in Ecuador we focused on the mission of our partner organization, Rostro de Cristo or Face of Christ, they encouraged being rather than doing. Being with the people there, learning their struggles, listening to them; it was about a ministry of presence, of accompaniment.
This could be a struggle at times due to the language barrier, my Spanish was limited after all, but towards the end of the trip I discovered how rewarding it was to make the effort. To be present to the people we met and to listen. Because what they had to say, what they shared, I carry with me even today. A father of three and wonderful husband, Oscar, challenged me in conversation to take the most of the opportunities I have in life and use them for the greater glory of God and to do everything, whether it’s a job or a career or a hobby, through God, allow Him to be a part of that. I will never forget that advice.
Esther, a lovable and vivacious woman who suffers from Hansen’s disease (or leprosy), inspired me through her story of her struggles with her disease, how she was labeled an untouchable by society, left to suffer alone. But here she was ready to pour her love onto us, to hug and embrace us and show us God’s loving and saving touch. I will never forget her story and witness to an unshakeable faith.
Ivan, an adorable 5 year old little boy I spent an entire afternoon playing with, who despite my limited vocabulary and misconjugated verbs, managed to reach me on a level of friendship I have never experienced so quickly. He used his imagination to make up games we could play and taught me the directions through enthusiastic hand gestures. I will never forget the love and attention that he so deserved in life and that he displayed to me in ways I didn’t even realize I craved. He stole my heart in the matter of hours and when I looked at his face I truly saw the Rostro de Cristo, the face of Christ.
These conversations are so vividly engrained in my memory and now in my life. It wasn’t until days and weeks after our return that I realized how integral they were to my experience. Their faces still flash before my eyes every now and then, a reminder of God’s love and the lessons I learned, the growth that I experienced, and the momentum to keep searching for that growth.
It was this desire of a deeper furthering of my faith in solidarity with those who truly live on the margins of society that I signed up for another immersion experience, this time to Guatemala. While a piece of my heart was in Ecuador I knew that I desired to broaden my horizons and create new relationships with new people that I could hopefully learn and grow with. I felt a tugging in my soul to pursue this.
My experience in Guatemala was radically different. We stayed in a little town called San Juan and every day there was full of new things, people, relationships, and lessons on life and love. Love surrounded me in this new place. It was a different type of love than what I was accustomed to, it was a selfless love. The people that we worked with and served demonstrated an outpouring of this selfless love and desire to serve us. They went out of their way to get to know us and make us feel welcome.
While my interactions, conversations and the relationships I made in Guatemala stand out and leave an indelible print on my heart, I discovered a different form of conversation there as well.
I discovered how to further my conversations with God. Often times when I pray to God or am trying to listen, I use imagery in my prayer. For awhile now one of my favorite images has been one in which I close my eyes and Jesus sits next to me on a dock overlooking the ocean, he paints a beautiful sunset for me and we watch as all of my troubles, concerns, and petitions are set in the sky blending with the reds and oranges of the sunset. In this prayer form I find comfort, I am simply in conversation with God, just as I would talk to my best friend. I feel God’s presence and I find consolation.
In San Juan, Guatemala there is a very special place to me. Down the road from the place we stayed is a dock, simple in nature but significant at the same time. It overlooks the water surrounded by the mountains. This is my dock. At night I would walk down there to journal surrounded by the water, the mountains and the millions of stars that dot the night sky I found such clarity in my prayer and conversation with God. I told Him about what I experienced that day, the people I met, the impressions they left, how I felt about everything I was experiencing, even the little moments that stood out. And I did my best to listen too, to sit in the silence and experience the presence of God.
One night as the waves were crashing in, the wind whipped my hair, the stars shined brighter than usual and I was praying, simply desiring to feel God’s love. I wrote in my journal “this water knows me” it was not the calm seas but the crashing waves that spoke to my soul, I have a restlessness within me that fuels my desire to serve others, it awakes my soul and moves me to action. In that moment I felt in solidarity with the people of San Juan, with their struggles, their small triumphs, the simplicity in which they existed and the selfless love which they exuded. I felt God’s presence so clearly as the spray from the waves hit my face.
In conversation I find answers and even better questions, I can be affirmed in my beliefs or challenged. However it is those conversations throughout my immersion experiences that stand out the most and that have formed and shaped my life. Both Ecuador and Guatemala were radically different experiences for me, yet they share one thing in common. They have disrupted my worldview and stretched my horizons. My perception of the world, of what’s important in life has been broadened and for that I am so grateful. All it took was to truly immerse myself in those experiences, “to use all my senses to experience and process every moment, and to talk to people and build connections.”