A few weeks ago, I returned from co-leading a mission trip to Puerto Rico. Alongside me were two other missionaries, a former missionary, twelve college students, and two religious brothers of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. I wish I could share every moment and memory with you all, scene by scene, word for word. The best I can offer is a glimpse into what was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
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In mid-December, I arrived back to my parent’s house, still trying to processes a dizzingly chaotic, fantastic, phenomenal semester in Mankato in mid-December. I had a seemingly gigantic amount of time on my hands with no students (a whole week!), in which I planned on catching up on all things administration I hadn’t had the opportunity to back on campus. Beyond that, I had this itch to serve. It was Christmas season, I had a pocket of free time, and I wanted to give.
I kept looking for opportunities, searching for soup kitchen flyers asking for help, thinking of how quickly I could crochet blankets for a homeless shelter… I mean, I was motivated. Constantly, I asked God to present me with an opportunity to serve His people, to be able to give of myself. I practically was dreaming of food shelves. I was in this mad rush, forgetting the very reason why I felt rushed- I was preparing to leave on a mission trip.
One of my faults is that I have a tendency to place God in this nice and neat box. I like to hang out in that box a lot. After all, I know how everything is laid out. I know what service looks like in that box (giving food to the hungry, clothes to the cold). So in my quest for service opportunities, I continued to pray, trying to make reality mimic this comfortable box. It did not.
It wouldn’t be until a few days into the mission trip that God’s goodness overtook my little cube and crushed the walls of my pride.
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I started my journey to Puerto Rico by first leaving Minnesota in a blizzard. Praise Jesus that my parents offered to drive me to the airport the Saturday after Christmas because I would have probably crashed, several times, just trying to get onto the highway. After a rather harried, white-knuckle ride to Humphrey terminal, I was reunited with four lovely and sleep-deprived student-athlete ladies from Mankato: Tabitha, Lexi, Jordan, and Mandi. We had been working together for the past few months, fundraising, praying, and other miscellaneous preparations, for this mission trip. Now it was finally here.
Before leaving for Puerto Rico, our entire mission crew met in Nashville. Within a few minutes of meeting each other, we knew we had a good group. From a football player from Florida to volleyball players from Nebraska to all of us Minnesotans, to the religious brothers from New York, we could already tell it was going to be a great trip. That evening, we went over a few safety precautions and gave some talks to prepare the student’s hearts for mission. We began by thinking over what fears and worries we had of the trip. I was afraid of two things, which really shows how simple my mind is: being tired, and being hungry- two things that unfortunately most of the world suffers through daily. When it came time to think of what we would like to learn or receive from this trip, I wanted to have the strength to serve and be a tool of God’s love even when I was uncomfortable.
We stayed the night in Nashville, and when I say night, I mean we went to bed around ten and woke up at 2:30am ready to catch our flight. Obviously, God was giving me my opportunity to be charitable-while-tired very early into this trip. I was too excited to be tired, anyways!
After a long day of travel, including a two-hour delay, hilarious conversations spurred on by the extreme lack of sleep, and flying through the middle of a storm seriously thinking I was about to experience another plane crash, we made it to Puerto Rico in the late afternoon. If you have never had the joy of walking out into a sunny, warm, humid place after living the past month in a snowy tundra, let me just say it is pure bliss.
The first sign that our time in Puerto Rico would be a whole new level of vibrant was the transportation that came to pick us up: a hot pink school bus. We loaded up our bags and prepared for the three-hour trip to Mayaguez, where we would be serving for the week. With open windows and open hearts, we journeyed across Puerto Rico.
Everything in the cities was colorful and crumbling- a symbol of joy in the midst of poverty. Each turn was more beautiful than the last. A deep blue river wound through what looked like giant cattails at least ten feet tall. My heart was moved in awe of God as I looked out upon the palm trees and seemingly endless fertile hills
We suddenly were stopped in traffic. As we slowly inched forward, we saw the cause of the commotion: Jeeps decked out in flashing lights, noise makers, colorful fabrics, and people dressed in matching outfits were pushing their way through the streets. Our bus driver told us it was a parade for the Christmas season. Puerto Ricans celebrate, and I mean CELEBRATE, all through the Epiphany.
It was a Sunday night, and yet the Puerto Ricans seemed to pay no heed to the coming workday. Waving our arms out the windows, we cheered on the paraders and occasionally gasped at the families that would walk literally in the middle of the busy streets. It was an effortlessly free culture.
Around eight at night we arrived at our destination. A large white building welcomed us as we settled in. We would be staying in a retreat center for the week. I loved its simplicity, so vastly different than some of the other ornate retreat centers I have stayed in previously. Two twin beds were in each room, with a shower, toilet, and sink. In the basement was a large room, which had been transformed into a chapel, and on the main floor, was a gathering space where we would eat our meals (which were traditional Puerto Rican fare including rice and beans, pork, flan, plantains- delicious!).
We hadn’t gone to mass yet that day, so thankfully Padre Orlando presided at mass for us. The mass was an interesting mix of Spanish and English (and Spanish chants that we would sing randomly for the duration of the trip). It was Padre Orlando’s parish, St. Therese of the Little Flower, which we would be serving. He was jolly, excitable, and loved to cause trouble- something I could appreciate. After mass we went to bed, exhausted but ready to rise before 7am.
Each morning began with a holy hour. Spending time in prayer has been crucial to living as a missionary, and I was so thankful we had the opportunity to pray before starting the day. The brothers provided a reflection on that day’s gospel, which was such a gift and very thought-provoking.
After holy hour, we split up- the boys to the baseball field, and the girls to the gym. Near the fields and gym were rows and rows of low-income apartments with bright shirts hanging on the clotheslines outside. We later learned that about 50% of the city of Mayaguez lives in government housing, and 20 to 30 percent of that population lives below the poverty line. Horses roamed the grounds, munching on the grass of the outfield. The sun was blazing hot, which I tried to soak in as much as possible.
We had girls ranging from grade school to high school, all joining in on the fun. Some preferred to sit back and watch, while most joined in on the drills and games. The lack of air conditioning in the gym coupled with the temps soaring near ninety made for a sticky day, but no one seemed to mind.
Within minutes, though, we noticed the language barrier. The girls spoke very little English, and while most of us had taken several years of Spanish, the Puerto Rican accent was thick and difficult to understand. They cut off many of the ends of words, so ‘tres’ becomes ‘tre,’ and when it’s a string of words like that, it definitely presents a challenge. Our language difficulties were first evidenced in trying to understand what their names were. Names, that once we saw spelled out were clear, but the Puerto Rican accent was too thick to decipher. For example, the name ‘Genesis’ was pronounced ‘Hen-e-see.’ Slowly but surely, we mastered their names. (Or so we thought. There were identical twins, which went by the nicknames Gordy and Chiquita, who had a habit of pretending to be the other. By the end of the week, though, we had it straightened out!). I’m still convinced that God gave us the grace of language though, because I definitely was able to remember far more Spanish than I would have though possible. Of course, we all had our mistakes. Instead of telling a girl I liked her headband, I said “I want your headband.” She looked at me with this confused expression and walked away, and by the time I realized why it was too late.
Nevertheless, we all loved getting to know each other. During drills, we’d joke around and cheer each other on. A beautiful aspect of the Puerto Rican culture we observed was the way they were all so supportive of one another. The kids we were serving lived in broken homes with little money, and yet they possessed infinite joy and love. The old always were willing to lend a hand to the young. They are very warm. One of our missionaries wanted to give them a high five (‘cinco’ in Spanish), and the recipient responded with, “We don’t high five. We hug.”
As the days went on, however, our own Spanish skills got better, and our relationships with the girls grew stronger. We ran different drills with the girls, incorporating faith into the skills. One day we talked about the virtue of humility, the importance of giving God all our glory, trusting that God, like our coaches, knows better and desires the best for us. Through our broken Spanish, and an occasional translator, we were able to get the message across to the girls. We prayed in Spanish and English, we shared our testimonies and the ways God had worked in our lives, we shared the Gospel message with them. The girls looked up to us so much, it was the perfect environment to share love of Christ.
So, back to where I started this post. On the last day of 2014, Br. Mark Mary challenged us to realize that the first duty of missionaries is to provoke questions, not give answers. Why is this person joyful? Why do they smile when they see me? Who is God, and what does that make me? I reflected upon another conversation I had had with Br. Mark Mark, where he told me about a girl in New York City who worked alongside them in prison ministry. She taught Zumba to the prisoners, using her unique talents to serve.
Now, I’m a Varsity Catholic missionary. It is literally MY JOB to evangelize through sports, and help student athletes to see the authentic connection between their sport and a relationship with Christ. But let me tell you, I realized up until that moment I only thought I understood what it meant to blend sport and faith.
I had begged God for an opportunity to serve the poor. There are many ways we can do that, whether it’s providing money, food, housing, clothing… It is our duty to provide to the poor using the resources we have. Before I left for this trip, I was looking for opportunities to provide these necessities. But no matter how essential these things are to life, they are nothing compared to the bread of life that is Christ Jesus. That morning, the full reality that it is the way I share my resources that truly matters. I’ve always known, as James states in the bible, that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). It is lovingly demanded of me to serve my brothers and sisters in Christ. But on that day, I deeply understood the importance of faith that St. Paul repeatedly emphasizes in Romans. I do works because of my faith, and the faith, if I truly possess it, will call me to serve. “And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them (Romans 12:6).” These are all things I knew, but now I saw how they truly interplayed.
My gift so freely given was my athleticism and time as a collegiate athlete. To use this, properly ordered, means that in every place and in every time, this gift points to, and glorifies, God. I also must lead others to him through this gift, because it is by His grace that I have received it.
Food, clothing, and sports are just things of the world, even though one is obviously more important than the other (so if I have the resources to provide food to the homeless, I must). But what I had, right there in Puerto Rico, were the resources and gift of sport. It wasn’t about the sport, it wasn’t about the game, it wasn’t about the drills. Volleyball served to unite us. This was really about the attitude and love we brought. As an athlete, it’s easy to get my mind fixed on a goal, like, “I will help these girls to be better players.” While this is certainly an admirable goal, I saw my larger goal- to live as a witness of Jesus Christ and His love. I had a mental shift, from focusing my attention on cultivating their volleyball skills to inviting them in a deeper relationship with Jesus.
From that point onward, it wasn’t about the perfect hit. It was about growing in perfect charity. My heart oozed out with love for these girls. I wanted each and every one of them to know they were infinitely loved. I gave hugs, and often. I talked with them about their lives, their families, their crushes. We bonded over a shared love of Taylor Swift, belting out ‘Blank Space’ at the top of our lungs as we shuffled along the nets for blocking drills. We had a question and answer session with them where they asked us about our faith, our ‘novios,’ and the sports we played, and we asked questions right back. They invited us into the heart of their community.
When I think of Puerto Rico, the word that comes to mind for most of us who went on the trip is family. Every day was like getting one giant hug from every single Puerto Rican on the island. During our lunch break, community members would jump right in for pick-up games of baseball, for guitar sing-alongs, and card games. We went to a Christmas concert put on by members of the Puerto Rican community in the Cathedral. New Year’s Eve was spent at one of Padre Orlando’s parishoner’s home, counting down to midnight with a bunch of Puerto Rican’s our age (They taught us a salsa, we taught them to line dance). Our trip to the ocean was extra fun as some of our friends that we met on New Year’s Eve joined in. We attended another Christmas-season celebration at the church on our last night, spending hours with our boisterous Puerto Rican family singing, dancing, beating drums, eating until we thought our stomachs would explode, and laughing with men and women of all ages.
And then, at 1:30 am on our last night, we heard banging drums, a voice singing into a megaphone, and many others joining in. A whole crowd of the girls and boys who attended the camps, their parents, and other community members showed up at our retreat home. Apparently, this was a Puerto Rican tradition to wake friends in the middle of the night, especially the night friends are departing. Most of us were fast asleep, and I’m sure you can imagine the confusing and hilarious events that shortly followed (including one of our ladies thinking we were leaving for the bus and she was late, another wandering the halls yelling ‘They’re here!’ deliriously, and Mandi shaking me awake yelling, “If you don’t get up they’re going to come to you!”) It was as if we were being attacked, but attacked with love. We wandered outside onto the patio, where our new friends were gathered. Tearful goodbyes followed, more gifts were exchanged, and hundreds of hugs were given.
The next day, our group boarded our flight back to America, terribly sad to be leaving a land and people we quickly fell in love with, but happy to have something so beautiful to miss.
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God poured out his graces on that trip. My spiritual director told me, “God gives us the energy to do the things He calls us to, but not for the things he isn’t calling us to.” As I mentioned earlier, I was afraid to be uncomfortable. Turns out, I was uncomfortable most of the trip. I was tired, hot, sore, and I sprained my thumb the first day. None of that mattered. My King gave me all the energy I needed and more. It was pure dependence upon Him who gives me strength.
This post highlights only a drop in the bucket of the experiences I desire to share. Maybe, someday, I will be able to write more on this fantastic journey God blessed me with. What I really wanted to pass on, though, was the importance of using the gifts God has given us to serve others, even if they seem silly or insignificant. Can you make hilarious balloon animals? Volunteer at a Children’s Hospital. Do you love riding horses? Teach free lessons to kids with disabilities. Is your tater tot hot dish just the best? Make meals for those who are going through tough times. The point is, we all have gifts. It’s time to use them to serve God.
How humbling it was to be placed in an environment where I had no control to learn the deepest lessons, especially things I thought I already knew. God gives gifts. The ball is in my court. How will I use them? In what ways can I serve him, ‘out of the box’?
PS: It was incredibly touching to witness the spiritual growth in the student athletes who came with us, as well. Between holy hours and daily mass, we were surrounded with Christ’s love. It’s pretty hard to not fall in love with Him when you’re so close to Him and His people! I was especially moved witnessing the joy of the four ladies from Mankato I was serving alongside. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who supported and prayed for this mission trip. I know I can speak for all of us when I say we are eternally grateful.
“Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?”
Archbishop Fulton Sheen
In His Love,