I am living in the South Zone of Cochabamba, Bolivia, near the Alalay Lagoon, and this Friday after attending the veneration of the Cross at the Mass of our local church, I walked up the hill in our neighborhood with other members of my church, in the procession that enacted the stations of the Cross. In this picture you can see one of the electrical towers on the hill above me as they appear from my back yard.
When I left Cochabamba last June, I felt that as a visitor to the city, I had seen all that the city had to offer. I knew by heart the main avenues and plazas, had discovered my favorite restaurants, and had visited the main attractions. As an outsider or tourist, I knew the city. But upon our return, we have become residents of the city. We live in a neighborhood in the South Zone, reputedly the poorest part of town, but somehow our neighborhood has its own beauty, well-tended parks and new covered canchas where the children can play soccer, basketball, or volleyball, or the families can gather for socializing. The existence of so many canchas demonstrates Bolivia’s acknowledgement that sun here is dangerous for all during the daytime. A new high school named October 24 (the date of President Evo Morales’ birthday) is just up the street from our small house, and just around the corner is the Cochabamba home of Evo himself.
It is a new Cochabamba for us. Our current home was the former home of the Maryknoll missioners, Evan and Susan Cuthbert, and their daughters Mary and Rose, who have returned to Boston after six years of service. We knew them as we know most of the Maryknoll missioners—they came to events at the Maryknoll Language Institute, and Evan planned the Maryknoll students’ trip to Chapari, a major coca-growing region in Bolivia (along with the Nor Jungas, where we lived before moving here) and the jungle region of Bolivia, as the Chapari River is a tributary of the Amazon.
The home and yard are models of ecological sustainability, with a thriving vegetable garden, covered by netting to offset the Bolivian sun, an ample compost pit, rain barrels, and a grassy yard with lantana, large geraniums, bougainvilleas, a lilac bush, herbs (sage, basil, anise, and rosemary), and a grapevine growing on the lattice over the patio. We also enjoy the pacai tree, which provides shade and pacai for those who enjoy this kind of fruit. On the Dia de los Niños (Children’s Day), the owners of our house came with their children and nephew to harvest the picai. We were honored to be a part of their celebration and know that the picai would be enjoyed by others. Here is one shot of our yard.
We have added rose bushes, impatiens, vincas, and daisies. Unlike Nora’s rose bushes, our roses have not been besieged by aphids, but by the strong cutter ants, who had stolen our rose petals to decorate their own homes. Somehow, with a little incentive to go elsewhere—yes, we did sprinkle some offsetting granules of, yes, ant poison around our rose bushes—the colony moved to the other side of our yard where they live in harmony with us and the rose bushes.
Truly, we had moved into a place where we could enjoy the beauty of Cochabamba, the city of eternal spring, and live in a Bolivian neighborhood with people from all economical and educational levels.
a flowering aloe plant in our yard
Around that corner is the neighborhood Catholic Church, run by the La Salette missionaries from La Salette, France. Padres Juan Francisco and David are the accessible priests there, along with Brother Adrien. Three orders of sisters serve this parish—sisters of St. Joseph, sisters of Santisimo, and the Maryknolls. Joel and I are teaching English classes to the St. Joseph and Santisimo sisters, who live close to the central church. I work in the tutoring center every morning from ten until twelve with one of the Maryknoll sisters, Maggie (originally from Tanzania). Maggie and her fellow sister, Lil (originally from Louisville, Kentucky), along with my language school partner, Minh, live in what was once the priests’ house next to the chapel, Exultación, which is one of the two satellite chapels of the La Salette parish. It was with the people of this parish that I climbed to the top of the hill that arches over my own backyard, when I walked the via cruces (stations of the cross) with my fellow parishioners on Friday afternoon, after the 3:00 veneration of the Cross service.
We are regulars at the tiendas on our street—where we buy milk, bread, eggs, butter, and cokes, a popular drink here in Bolivia. We buy meat from a woman who sells chicken and beef until noon, or we can buy pork chops or chicken from Sofia, the large vendor about three blocks away. If we walk just a few blocks, past the new high school, cancha, and park, we can select our fruits and vegetables from an array of fresh produce. This tienda is on one of the main avenues of our neighborhood (the avenue is not paved, but the dusty roads made of stones serve the buses and taxis well). On the next corner is the hardware store, which has supplied us with shovels, light bulbs (florescent ones, of course), and the hose and piping we have needed to connect the water from our underground water tank to the tank above our house. Joel has made friends with the family who runs the hardware store.
I am immersed in the social life of my neighborhood. Working with the children in the tutoring center, teaching (along with Joel) the two orders of sisters who are obligated to learn English, as well as attending early weekday Masses at the parish church and having breakfast with the sisters and priests afterwards on Wednesdays, I know that I have meaningful work to perform even if there is a blockade or transportation strike. But I still have work to do outside the neighborhood.
I work with the internados (inmates) at the prison El Abra, which means “the clearing,” on Thursday and Friday afternoons. Joel and I teach English classes for two hours each day, using the library as our media room and the church as our classroom. The library was created when Father Mike Johnson, now the pastor at St. Camillus Church in Silver Springs, Maryland, was there in 2000-2006.We have eighteen students, although on a typical day, ten will show up for class. We attended Easter Mass at the prison.
I also work in the theology library at the pastoral juvenil, the college campus ministry office in Cochabamba, very close to San Simon, a large university in Bolivia. The students at the juvenile have welcomed me into their community. To show them my gratitude for all their conversation and for sharing in their worship services (always original, reverent, and relevant), I brought them two apple pies last week. We polished these off with dispatch, and I hope to bring fudge pies the next time. (Pie crusts cook well at a higher altitude, or at least that is my theory.)
These students are not necessarily preparing to be sisters, nuns, or priests. They are studying in many different disciplines: orthodontics, medicine, communication, and engineering, for example. But they are serious about serving Christ in their careers, and have dedicated themselves to lives of service. In this sense, and in many other ways, they remind me of the EVM students (exploration of vocational ministry) when I was an intern chaplain at Furman University, who, like the students in Cochabamba, see their lives as mission, regardless of which career they choose to enter. They are the Church.
Likewise, all the missioners, priests, brothers, and sisters who surround Joel and me in our life here in Cochabamba, in our neighborhood, in the rural areas, and in the city, have provided a sense that God’s kingdom is growing incrementally. As one of the padres here has told me, the goal of the missionaries in Latin America is to understand the needs and wants of the people here, and address those needs as well as we can, and to understand that it is only in the moment, with the person in front of us, that we see Christ. This reminds me of the perspective of Mother Teresa, whose vision was always directed to the individual in front of her, but it also reminds me of the famous prayer of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, martyred in 1980:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom lies beyond us.
No statement says all that can be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
That is what we are about:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will lead to further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is the beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for
God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are the workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.