As a candidate on Overseas-Training Program (OTP), the pandemic has given me a chance to re-think about how I could be a presence of God´s love in these trying times. One such challenge arose when the government of Bolivia announced that the school year would end 8 months earlier and that all students would continue to be advanced to their next academic grade. These decisions had great impact on the locals, especially those in the rural areas. Parents in these areas found it hard to support their children in their learning because they neither had the academic ability nor the time. The inequality in terms of access to proper education become evident when schools in the city began implementing online classes which was neither available nor affordable for those in the rural areas.
At Centro Nueva Vera Cruz, the team of local educators together with Father Paul Sykora M.M., felt the need to address this social injustice by reopening our support school to help the students in the Southern Zone be more prepared for the new academic year. It wasn´t an easy decision since the covid-19 infection rates in the city area was still increasing. However, with much planning, we decided to take some managed risks to offer tutoring programs.
Collaborating with the community, we implemented new biosecurity measures; having disinfection processes on entry, and screening and turning away children who were unwell. In the classroom, we also maintained social distancing. All the children were very cooperative because they truly valued this opportunity to learn. The level of motivation they showed was encouraging for all of us, yet, I had other challenges ahead.
As a beginner in Spanish, it was a humbling experience trying to help them with different subjects. Even though I am a trained educator, I had to relearn how to teach in this context, trying to translate all the content knowledge into Spanish. Also, I had to be unashamed to ask for help from fellow educators and even the children. I felt in solidarity with the children because truly, I was learning more than I was teaching.
Matthew at work teaching his students
The work was intense because we had 3 months to complete 8 months of schoolwork. To cope with the diversity of children, we had to be creative – differentiate tasks to maintain engagement, organize dynamic ability-based groupings and even use peer-tutoring. In the process, we saw more children trying to help each other. They learned patience when they saw us occupied, more importantly, they learnt to manage their own behaviors to prevent disruptions.
We grew as a community, exchanging our cultures and even my faith journey that brought me here to them. Our friendship expanded to outside our classroom. Some started participating in our Sunday Mass. I thanked God when I saw them growing to be active members of our community of faith. Their participation inspired me to start an Advent Reflection program.
The program was ecumenical. We had 14 participants, singing local hymns and learning about the Nativity story together. We also each made a nativity creche and for some, this would be the first in their family. I was very touched that 6 children from the upper hillside joined us. They walked 50 minutes to get to our center! At the end of every session, they would ask me for the leftover snacks to bring home. Knowing their circumstances, I was always ready to offer something for their trip home. Their presence made my own reflections on the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem more substantial. They thought they came to make a creche for their family, but they came and brought Jesus to the other children, to Father Sykora, and certainly to me, a missioner-in-training trying to discern my call.
A crèche created by the children
Many of us live a life more privileged than we know. Yes, some of us have experienced hardships, discrimination or even didn´t get to buy the newest gadget that all our friends have. Yet, there are whole new realities out here, out in the peripheries, where Jesus is calling us to. The mission here isn´t about building beautiful churches or proselytizing. It is a calling to a deep encounter with self and others, so that we can better understand the presence of God that has been here, way before any missioners stepped foot on this land. Pope Francis speaks of Mission as stepping out of our comfort zone to bring about and have encounters with God. I took a risk four and a half years ago to step out of my comfort zones to participate in Maryknoll missions. Six months ago, together with the team at Centro Nueva Vera Cruz, we took a risk to attend to the needs of the local community. We have certainly gained more than we have given. Through the risks we took together, God´s love and presence permeated our daily experiences. I feel confident to say that we, the community of Nueva Vera Cruz, are all better people because of the risks we shared. The question is, will you be willing to take some risks in your own life to join us in this mission to enrich your faith life through participation in a new one?
Fr. Paul Sykora, Matthew and the students