Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"How beautiful are the feet of missioners on the mountains"

“Que hermosos los pies de los misioneros en las montaňas”

When we graduated from our five-month course at the Maryknoll Language Institute, we students were asked to create our own liturgy and put together a talent show. I had signed up for the liturgy committee, so that was my focus. Our motto this year was “How beautiful the feet of the missionaries on the mountains,” taken from Isaiah 52:7:

“Cuán hermosos son sobre los montes los pies del que trae buenas nuevas, anuncia la paz, teniendo una buena noticia, que anuncia salvación, que dice a Sión: ‘Tu Dios es Rey!’”

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, announcing peace, bringing good news, who announce salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God is King!”

It had not been easy to write the liturgy because the customary symbol for graduation was the camino, the road that the missioners take as they travel to serve God’s people. The professors at Maryknoll were ready to plug in the same graduation slogan, but our class wanted to take advantage of the symbolic terrain of the mountains that surrounded us in Cochabamba, as well as the mountains that would challenge us in other areas of Latin America, and Bolivia in particular. For Joel and me, this would be the Andes at our mission site at Carmen Pampa, and the nearest city of size, the plateau of La Paz, the highest capital city in the world. As a rule, the mountains beckoned to us in all their beauty, but the high altitude challenged our bodies’ ability to adapt to the higher altitudes. We needed stronger lungs and more red blood corpuscles to survive at those heights. Climbing mountains, one must plant one’s feet firmly as one ascends.

The liturgy, once begun, took on a life of its own, becoming the work of many hands. The sisters from Japan and Korea created mountains from choice fabric draped artistically on the walls of the grand sala, transforming the plain white walls into an evocative mountain landscape. My conversation partner of five months, Minh, had cut letters from magazines to articulate the slogan alongside the mountain mural. The letters from the multi-colored magazine print flashed their luminous message as the students processed into the graduation, one by one leaving their backpacks, or mochilas at the base of the mountains depicted on the sala wall. Our Franciscan missioner Clare, leading the ceremony, spoke briefly of the choices that each missioner/ brother / sister / priest had to make when figuratively packing his or her backpack to come on mission, what to leave behind, and what to bring.

The professors had selected one hymn that fit the students’ theme:

El Señor eligió a sus discipulos
Los mandó de dos en dos.
(The Lord selected his disciples and sent them out two by two)

Es hermoso ver bajar de la montaña
Los pies del Mensajero de la paz
(How beautiful to see at the foot of the mountains the feet of the messengers of peace)

How appropriate this theme was for us: primarily, it is the poor who live on the mountains, in El Alto, where two Methodist students would be going; in the yungas, where Joel and I would be going; and even the hills that extended beyond the South Zone of Cochabamba, the poverty-stricken section of Cochabamba, where two of our Franciscans would be serving. What good news would we bring, except that God’s kingdom is coming, that we have come to promote peace and justice, and that we would come as those who serve the people? In all respects, our climb on the mountains would be strenuous.

Our Franciscan missioner Nora headed up the talent show. In addition to helping to write the script for the skit, performing in many dances, she was the M.C., entertaining the audience between the acts with the patter of jokes in Spanish, dressed in whatever costume she happened to be wearing at the time, so omnipresent she seemed to be. We heard Tony, our Irish Christian brother, present a program on the Irish potato famine, and then sing an Irish ballad commemorating it. Becky, returning from her mission in El Alto, sang a beautiful solo, accompanied by Jose Luis, whose guitar and voice accompanied her melody. One Brazilian priest and two Asian sisters sang in turn in their own languages different verses of a haunting song. In addition to skits, student dancing, and one student’s (Carl’s) trumpet solos, we watched as the Maryknoll priests, staff, and professors performed one Bolivian dance in full costume for us. Finally, we watched a professional dance troupe, and then listened to Jose Luis’s own band whose repertoire exceeded our expectations.

The festivities went on until the late afternoon. We had more grilled meat, potatoes, rice, and fresh vegetables than we could eat, along with desserts and cold drinks. As we sat on the edge of what usually was the volleyball court, under to ample white tent, we watched Bolivian dancing and listened to the music of the band. Then the mood changed as members of the audience began to dance. Gradually, as the dancing continued, I myself gradually began to wind down. I had not slept much the night before, having written my farewell speech, the despedida, that all of us were required to give, in the wee hours of the morning. I watched as the students, one by one, told their professors and friends goodbye, walking away from the world that that had enfolded us so completely since January when we had first stepped out of the airplane in our new country, experiencing our first challenge of altitude sickness from the new heights (12,000 feet above sea level) to which our calling had led us. We had acclimated to the challenge of altitude; now we would strive to acclimate ourselves to the life of mission to which we were called.

I am including here pictures of the mountains that I have seen since coming to my mission site in Carmen Pampa, the Unidad Académica Campesina (UAC-Carmen Pampa), part of the Catholic University of Bolivia, where Joel and I will be helping to teach English, work in campus ministry, and do any other work that is assigned to us. We live on the upper campus, called the Leahy campus, where the students majoring in agronomy, education, and pre-university (those courses taken before the students begin their majors) live. The lower campus, a mile and a half down the mountainside, houses those students whose majors are veterinary science, eco-tourism, and nursing. On the lower campus is the volunteer house, which is the community living space for volunteers, most of whom come from the United States. Sara Mechtenberg, communications liason, lives there as well, and Hugh Smeltekop, Vice-Director General, lives in an apartment nearby. Sister Jean, a member of the order of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, lives in the Convent next door to the volunteer house. Joel and I will occasionally walk down to eat a meal, or just visit.

Coroico, the town nearest to us, where we buy our food and staples. It is a popular tourist town for hiking and gaining access to "the road of death," "the most dangerous road in the world," where many bicyclists test their mettle against a perilous road along the edge of the mountains.

Here are two views of the lower campus, Campus Manning, as Joel and I walk down the road to visit the lower campus. In the second picture, note the tree in the foreground, which is an ambibo. It is filled with ants that live within it and "protect" the tree. One dare not bother this tree! In the picture, one can see the church tower and surrounding buildings.

When Joel and I took a mini-bus to La Paz, we got a chance to snap this shot of the canopy of clouds that obscured the very deep mountain valleys. Our mini bus stopped because a crew was repairing a rock slide on the side of the mountain.

For perspective purposes, here I am on the side of the road in front of the morning fog or rain clouds that had settled over the bottom of the mountain valley.

Here is a view from one of the upper roads around La Plaz as we wound up the Altiplano.

Not a mountain view, but a view of the congregation during Mass at the church, Christo Rey, Christ the King. As we walked up the aisle for Communion, the choir sang "EL SEÑOR ELIGIÓ," with the words, "How beautiful to see at the foot of the mountains the feet of the messengers of peace."

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