So, here I sit, at just a little over 10,500 feet. Bolivia is home now, and a missionary is what they call me. It’s been a long journey, and the last two years have been the most revealing. I came to Bolivia as a Vincentian priest with twenty-five years of experience in the United States and some brief experiences on the continent of Africa. As a member of the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians), I carry the desire of St. Vincent de Paul, “To follow Christ, evangelizing the poor.” Christ is effecting the transformation with His good news. I follow.
To be a missionary means to enter the world of the “other.” It seems that Christ went to Bolivia. I followed. He taught me that you can’t leave behind who you are, but you have to “bracket” it as best as you can. “He emptied himself . . . being born in human likeness.”
St. Vincent said, “Christ came first to do, and then to teach.” I thought I’d try that. I’ve worked along side the Catholic Christians here, a people of a proud and ancient culture with a history of perseverance under oppression, living their chosen (not imposed) faith for the last 500 years. I work with them, helping build or rebuild their chapels, aiding their young dreams of a better future as best I can. I’m slowly learning their language and culture, and have noticed the small changes in my own spirit as their agrarian rhythm slowly effects my body as well. I eat less, talk less, consume less, discard less. Working and listening.
One of the things with which the people have struggled here is a life that makes it difficult to envision the future. That’s something I’ve just recently been able to offer. As the people come to trust that I’m here for more than just a short visit, we begin to plan together for distant tomorrows. We identify young people with the ability to advance their education and training, We identify projects that will produce badly needed commercial income. Slowly, and together, we’re organizing for the long haul. And not just on the level of human development – together, we’re reorganizing the way we “do” church, and the way we communicate the Gospel. For as long as the people can remember (and they can remember longer than we can), the gospel was delivered as a series of “facts” to be learned – an antiquated model of catechesis that the church rejected in the Second Vatican Council. Not that the facts and doctrines of our church are unimportant; they’re just not a liberating starting point. Educators will recognize the Paolo Freire critique of this model of education: “Open your mouths, tilt back your heads, and we’ll fill you full of what you need to know.” Just another form of oppression that maintains a heavy paternalistic relationship. We’re learning together (the local lay leaders and myself) – unlearning old ways and practicing new ones that invite the people to arrive with their own experience at the point of encounter with Christ and his Gospel. Organizing and re-organizing for the long haul.
We reflect a lot . . . on our experience, on the Gospel, on our practice and our actions; on the choices we make; on the people we include and exclude; on the influences of our particular cultures and of the ever-present post-modern world. (Don’t worry: we NEVER say “post-modern”!). One of our most recent reflections has led us to believe that to reach our 53 communities – some at great distances – with this new message of freedom and inclusion will take years – and probably decades. That could be disheartening, but, instead, it’s become another source of reflection. Who are we as missionaries? As Bishop Untener of happy memory once reflected, “We are prophets of a future not our own.” We are followers of the Christ, who has preceded us into the future where faith is freely embraced and cultures are valued for the Gospel that can be encountered within. What does it mean to be sent by Christ, to follow Christ, and to encounter Christ who is, at this very moment, evangelizing the poor? Reflection on that on that question/reality appears before us . . . again and again.
Personally – both individually and a communally – our daily realities and encounters are reshaping us and our local church. Every visit to a small community in often frigid and high places named Wayrapata and Calacala and Warachani brings new learning about each other, our spiritual journeys, our cultures. We’re learning to value one another and the treasure of our own histories and traditions. We’re arriving at a healthy criticism of some of the oppressions of the past that we all carry. Daily eXperience is our classroom, our point of mutual transformation. Christ our teacher. Each of us is gently entering the world of the other.
Working, Organizing for the long haul, constant Reflection, and openness to daily eXperience is the process of becoming a missionary. And “becoming” is the operative word. But the process WORX, here in Bolivia or anywhere else. Follow Christ. He’s very busy, evangelizing the poor . . . and you and me.
Fr. Aidan R. Rooney, C.M. is working, organizing, reflecting and experiencing living in Mocomoco, Bolivia. His blog may be read at http://vocesvicentinas.org/ and phlog listened to at http://www.ipadio.com/phlogs/AidanRooney/