My story of saying "yes" to God's invitation to missionary life at the Finca begins somewhere in my early elementary school days. I should probably thank my mother for supplying my voracious reading appetite with a steady stream of historical fiction and lives of the saints. I enjoyed the lives of the rich, famous, successful, or ingenious, but I found myself far more compelled by the stories of lives lived on the margins: the accounts of coal mining families, immigrant communities, early feminists, slaves, and intrepid saints. My literary formation complemented and deepened my Catholic school education. I have been, in turns, daunted and inspired by the likes of Katherine Drexel, Frances Cabrini, John Bosco, and Jean Baptiste De La Salle, men and women who left home, family, and expectations behind to follow a call to love God's children, particularly those who were born without the advantages that many take for granted. All this reading was an early education of the mind that laid a groundwork for the education of heart I was to receive later.
I had no substantial experience serving the underserved until college, when I began tutoring at an after-school program in the projects in Steubenville. I instantly fell head over heels for the kids, all of whom were burdened with significant challenges. I realized at eighteen something that hasn't changed over the past seven years: God has made me to be a teacher to these kids. Their needs and weaknesses are worn on their sleeves because they do not know how to hide them, but that makes their victories and joys just as obvious, shared, and important. Working at the MLK tutoring center, I found "the kind of suffering that brings you joy" which is the best definition of vocation I have heard so far. (I am a melancholic, so that negative spin works really well for me). Working with at-risk kids is the type of challenge that brings my mind, heart, and soul to life. These kids and their experiences provide a fire that, I hope, tests me like gold and melts my heart so God can make it a new creation. It was this love for challenge, the underprivileged, and my appreciation of Hispanic culture that prompted me in college to apply for a spring break mission in Honduras. That week still remains the happiest week of my life. I saw first-hand the lack of educational opportunities available to rural Hondurans, but I I also gained deep appreciation for their culture, incredible hospitality, and stunning countryside. The gently rounded mountaintops, fluorescent flowers, and crystal waterfalls are a feast for the senses! During my trip, we visited the Finca. I felt a true sense of joy and peace throughout the property and I saw first hand that this was actually a home in the best sense of the world. We had a prayer service with the children one night. In broken Spanish, I prayed over some of the orphans. Even then, I started to consider coming to the Finca one day.
By my junior year, I had basically abandoned any ideas of going home after graduating and getting a normal teaching job in my neighborhood. Pope Francis had recently become pope, and I felt like every comment he made about the Christian imperative to serve the needy was aimed straight at my heart. It was actually more of a sense of justice than compassion that compelled me. I had been raised in a completely loving family and had every opportunity I could've wanted handed to me. To my way of thinking, it was only right for me to give back. I wasn't ready to commit to 2.5 years abroad at that time, and I was itching to get into an inner-city classroom, so I put La Finca on the back burner. Instead, I spent two years in a Catholic masters in Education/service teaching program where we lived in intentional community, a lighter version of what the missionaries share in Honduras. I taught, and still do teach, at a low income Catholic school in Memphis, Tennessee. De La Salle Elementary has formed and shaped my heart in ways I could never have predicted. Our diverse student body includes several Honduran students and many other refugee and immigrant students. Witnessing the challenges they face and the progress they can make when people are willing to give them a just, loving, and quality education has made me an even more passionate advocate for excellent education for all children, but with partiality towards the poor. DLS has also increased my love for working with diverse populations, teaching English, and forming real community with families. The need is so great that you ALWAYS know you are making a difference, even if it is small. (Side plug: if you live near a city, volunteer at a local school. They ALWAYS need help. Tutor, coach, run a club. It is worth it.)
During this past year, the desire to go "all in" in my work has surfaced again and again in my thoughts and prayers. I knew that it was time to make a decision. After lots of prayer, advice, and discernment, I decided to commit to La Finca. I will no longer be just a teacher. I will belong to the same family as my students. I will be able to live in solidarity with them, sharing their joys and sorrows on an even deeper level than I am able to now. Up until now, my focus has been on service. I feel Christ inviting me to a different plane. One of my personal heroes, Fr. Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Ministries, summed up this sense far more eloquently than I ever could. He calls it “Kinship– not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.” That, I suppose, is what I hope to experience and bring to La Finca- an experience of kinship with the children, their house parents, the sisters, my fellow missionaries, the community there, and my incredible support team back home. Pray for me to hold fast to this calling!