In the late summer of 2012, recent college graduate Bridget Decker traveled to Guyana, South America as a lay missionary. Her trip from South Dakota to Charity, Guyana proved an occasion for deep learning and profound transformation. Below Bridget relays in her own words the experience from beginning to end.
“Lo que Dios quiera. Cuando Dios quiera. Como Dios quiera.”– St. María Maravillas de Jesus
Mother Joy wrote this quote on a napkin during my first week in Guyana. What God wants. When God wants. How God wants. Do you believe I will leave you empty-handed?
Fear. Fear propelled, more like pushed me to South America. I wanted to conquer my fear—fear of loneliness, of discomfort, of stepping out, of doing something contrary to character. Adventure. Risk-taking. Not my character. I felt accomplished and triumphant when I took one flight to DC; this South American excursion was in a whole new international ballpark. I wanted to take an abandoned leap…so—I leapt. During the drive to the airport I pretended to be fine- discovered my acting was not fine-cried-pulled myself together-strapped on my backpack-and stepped forward- alone. I hate being alone. My fear was leading me to unfamiliar territory, territory completely out of my comfort zone. I had no idea what I was doing. You are not alone. I am with you always.
I flew into Georgetown (240,000), Guyana’s capital, on August 14th. I spent a restless night flying over the Atlantic; planes are not the most comfortable mode of transportation for giants. In the early morning, I looked upon an expanse of green, clusters of trees and fields of agriculture, rice and sugarcane, shades upon shades of green. Structures lined the coast and the rivers, but past a few rows of buildings, the interior appeared untouched. I was seeing the National Geographic videos I watched during Middle School Science play through my oval window. I had made it to the jungle. What was I doing here? How did I get here? Quick, pinch yourself. Yep, you’re here. Take it in. Breathe deep. Look around.
I quickly passed through customs and retrieved my baggage. I kept a questioning eye on every person within reach and clutched my belongings. My mother’s warnings and the exaggerated precautions I received before departure unnecessarily increased my distrust of “them.” “They,” were simply waiting for a cab or a family member, simply waiting like myself—waiting with a looser grip. I needed to loosen my grip. No watch. In the States I constantly checked the dials on my wrist to adhere to the crazy schedule I set for myself. Lost. Funny, God. Even my control of time was slipping through my fingers.
Mother Joy arrived and relieved my unfounded anxiety. I had met the twenty-four-year-old sister three years ago at a summer camp. 24. I stood on this new continent because of her persistent invitation. Her maternal care and charity escorted me throughout my stay. After a short reunion, we traveled for seven hours by taxi, boat, bus, and canoe. Exhausted, I tried to continue conversation while taking in the surroundings that rapidly passed by. This place was unreal. Roads: narrow. Cars: FAST. Houses: bright, pastel, elevated, dilapidated. Paprika: Crazy man yelling; Me: Afraid; Mother Joy-confident, fearless. Stumbling with my bag; stumbling into the boat; waiting………….. for passengers. Rivers: Beautiful, spacious, calming. What was I doing here? Ground: sand, creamy, soft. Bus. Convent: welcoming sisters with limeade. Hello: brief. Goodbye: briefer. Boat round two: ocean, tree canopy, BEAUTIFUL! You really love me.
Eventually we reached Santa Rosa, an Amerindian village, one of the first Catholic missions in the country. Here I received my first dose of simplicity and joyful poverty. I was stripped of comforts, simple comforts. Keep me from fleeing from difficulties-from running from you. Bridget, I am not leaving. ‘Bare’ and ‘necessity’ describe the possessions and furnishings of this tiny outcropping of homes. The water supply depends solely on the rain; generators provide electricity, which made its debut in 2004; families of eight to ten individuals live in wooden huts with thatched roofing and limited space. Inside…(Anyone home?)
Several American volunteers, sisters, seminarians, and priests had been ministering in the community before my arrival, teaching catechesis and making home visits throughout the surrounding area, encouraging those away from the Church to return and administering the Sacraments when possible. I arrived with one day of Mission remaining.
During the time to visit, my group stumbled upon a destitute couple living far off the main trail. The blind man and his blind wife survived by the generosity of others and their own persistent faith. They made proclamations of gratitude as they touched our limbs, referring to our traveling party as “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” and praising God for our visitation. My own initial complaints of discomfort evaporated as I witnessed the beauty of these two souls. How can I long for comfort when so many here live with nothing, never to know comfort? Lord Jesus, I have been given a life of luxury-yet I am less. Their reward will be great. I can see. I have a bed. I have a healthy body covered in clothes. I have food that satisfies. I have teeth to brush and to smile. I feel the gentle breeze. I have the ability to move, to explore, and to see beauty. I am loved, undeservedly. ALL is a gift.
After my short stay in Santa Rose, our entire party boarded speedboats, the main mode of transportation, to return to Charity. Guyana is “the land of many rivers.” These rivers crisscross the landscape. On this particular ride, trees line the shores and extend over the water, providing a network of limbs for monkeys, sloths, and birds. New wildlife. Wildlife: crocodiles inhabit the irrigation trenches; horses, sheep, and goats block the roads; softball size bullfrogs wait on the porch in the evenings. Excuse me, please for a pass; mosquitoes leave blotches and attempt to invade my net, my cocoon of safety. These critters and their bizarre locations reminded me that I was far from South Dakota.
And it was these little things, like mosquitoes, that tested my attempts to grow in virtue. Itching became the cross I was reluctant to carry. Oh Father, I desire courageous boldness and I am afraid of a cockroach..pathetic.
“Lay all of your cares on Him and he will take care of you.” A sign perched above the toilet in the convent. Oh how I delighted in His gifts. On my fourth day, we spent a free day at a lake with the visiting American sisters before we continued our travels back to Georgetown. I thanked God for Cheetos, ice cream and 7Up, reminders of home, and food I felt safe to eat. Eventually I came to my senses, devouring the Guyanese cuisine. More plantains please. Mango anyone? Okra, check. Oddly enough, my enjoyment of Peanut Butter escalated to an unprecedented height, finishing a jar within a week. Thank you, Peter Pan. I thanked God for toilet paper, running water, light; for friendship and the rest I found in His love.
Again in the capital city we spent a few days playing tourist before we had the opportunity to go on silent retreat for five days. The city of Georgetown is littered with garbage, careening buses, and people—many aimless people. My face was locked in a grimace as I surveyed the crowds. I see and I do not understand. A fellow American and I discussed the hopelessness that weighed upon the city, a heaviness that drained my spirit, body, and psyche. In my frustration, I probed Mother Joy, seeking a solution, desiring an outlet of escape. Her solution did not involve getting the Guyanese people “out”, but helping them find Christ there, helping them find joy and hope amidst the despair. Help me to “skin my teeth—to smile” Now that I have returned I observe the same “Georgetown weight” here. I realize the weight does not pertain to a particular city, but a condition of humanity; the weight of hate, the weight of doubt, the weight of sin—a weight that can only be alleviated by Christ. Please live in me, shine through me.
I returned to Charity after my silent retreat believing my goals for my adventure had been met —three weeks still remained. “I am not finished with you yet,” was the Lord’s response to my attempts at checking-out early. “Querida Bridiga, Bievenida a mi vidaI” My Dear Bridget, welcome to my life.” In my final three weeks I lived the daily life of the sisters—a life I realized rarely went as planned with many unpredictable curveballs. “Just now,” could mean two hours and seldom occurred immediately. Meals lasted as long as the conversations ran and conversations ran. I loved the laughter, stories, and philosophical conversations that occurred around the table. Days were simple. Tasks were few. Teaching Catechism on Saturdays. Market in the morning, English lessons with the sister (G-L-O-R-I-A GLORIA Van Morrison style and practical words like ‘Tinkerbell’), cooking in the afternoon, siesta, eat, and bedtime. I loved my new “normal.” I was allowed to simply “be,” a position difficult for this taskmaster to practice. Receive, receive, simply receive. Although the labors and errands fluctuated, prayer and the Sacraments steadied life. Everyday we celebrated Mass, spent time before the Eucharist, recited the Rosary, and prayed the Divine Office. Time was saturated in conversation with and about Christ. The absence of noise allowed even more time to reflect and converse with Christ. The time of prayer allowed me to examine my life, my relationships with others, and most importantly my relationship with the Him.
In the evenings, I accompanied Mother Joy to visit Theresa. Theresa was living in a public restroom before the parish built her a room to call home. Each day, the sisters supply Theresa with food. In the darkness, I walked behind Mother, again afraid. Often during our visits, I remained in the shadows, afraid to step into the light. I encountered suffering in Guyana like never before—in the sick, in the poor, in the outcast. I am afraid to touch the filth, the disease, and the grime. How weak I am. So often I tried to cover myself there, protect myself from entering the filth, until I realized that was precisely where Christ was. You took on our filth. My filth. Why do you love me so tenderly? I wanted to be like Mother Theresa. I wanted to reach in, unflinchingly. However, for me, reaching in was simply holding the hand of a sick man. Do not be surprised by your weakness. Take faith in your weakness because it allows me to demonstrate the extent of my love.
I spent 40 days in Guyana. The time Christ spent in the desert; his time of preparation. I do not know what God was preparing me for, but I am so thankful for the time he invited me to spend away with Him. Fear pushed me to South America. Towards the end of my stay, Mother Joy asked me, “Now what is there to fear?” I do not fear traveling abroad, navigating foreign airports, beetles, or stepping out alone. I fear that I won’t give Him everything. Please pray I do. One of my companions down south said, “True courage is letting love win.” You made me brave. You made me free. You gave me everything I needed and you walked with me the entire way.