Here is my final reflection on relationships in my life covering the past 5 years since I graduated from Gonzaga, sorry for the delay if you were actually waiting for part 3. Hopefully you have enjoyed my reflections thus far and that I’m not boring you all! If you have read my previous 2 posts on relationships you can find part 1 here and part 2 “The Gonzaga Years” here.
If there is one thing I have learned about relationships over the past 5 years of my life it is the importance of being present. By being present in our relationships we show that we are invested in the relationship and it is not simply an acquaintance that is here today and gone tomorrow, although these types of relationships have a place in our lives as well. Simply showing someone that we care about them allows the opportunity for love and trust between two people to develop and grow deeper and more meaningful, even if we don’t say a word.
Up in the rolling hills of northern Nicaragua lies the small village of San Jose de Cusmapa, an oasis in the sky. Anybody that knows me knows just how important this place is to me, and while only living there for a year and a half this place has become like home to me. The first time I found myself in the back of a pickup truck scaling the unpaved road up to Cusmapa in July 2004 I had the sense that this was a special place, but at the time I had no idea just how special it really is.
Instantaneously the warm-hearted people of Cusmapa opened themselves to me and I to them. During my initial short stay I grew to love these people I hardly knew, yet there was a deeper, unexplainable connection between us. I was destined to return. As the high school choir headed to Denver in October later that year I had to go back and see them, and when my good friend Brian (who had been living in Nicaragua for the past 4 1/2 years and started the music program in Cusmapa as a Jesuit volunteer) invited our friend Ed and I to return to Cusmapa that December to help in his transition as he said goodbye to these amazing people who had welcomed and accepted him as their brother, I gladly accepted. It was during this trip that the idea first came to me to actually come down there and live myself, and this thought excited me. For whatever reason I was being called back to Cusmapa, back to these people, and with college graduation only a few months away it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
In July 2005 I packed my bags and embarked on a journey that led me to become a Nica, and my life has never been the same. Over the next year and a half I taught English and music to children and youth in Cusmapa, and day by day grew closer to them. During the first six months my Spanish struggled like you wouldn’t believe, and I said many things that made the locals laugh. I didn’t take offense though, and they were quick to correct me and help me to better my Spanish language skills.
One characteristic that these Cusmapeños taught me was how to show and express love to others. I couldn’t walk down the street with someone yelling “Adios, Patricio”, and doing it with a big smile across their face. Families would gladly invite me into their homes to share a meal, and it was during these moments that we learned more about each other. They were usually only able to offer a meal of cheese, tortillas, and gallo pinto (beans and rice), but the fact that they were so willing to offer me a meal out of the little they had without asking for anything in return amazed me. Some of these people could barely feed their families, and yet they wanted to share with me like I was one of their own. On numerous occasions over the time I lived there I would invite groups of students over to my house and we would cook up a good meal of Sloppy Joe’s, fries, and Coca-Cola – something most of them rarely had the opportunity to eat. We would laugh together and it was through all these experiences that they came to accept me as one of their own, a Nica. A part of me will now always be Nica.
In the 3-plus years it has been since I lived in Cusmapa I have had the opportunity to return 3 times as well as see the high school choir, Fabrettino, when they traveled to Washington D.C. to perform at the International Children’s Festival. When I left I knew these people would be a part of my life until the day I died, and that I had to continue to be present to them in any way I could. The first time I surprised them over the week of Thanksgiving. I arrived in Cusmapa one evening just as the sun had gone down, and Fabrettino was just beginning practice. As I walked into the room where I had led so many practices for this choir, even I wasn’t quite ready for their reaction. A few of the girls screamed, and many of them looked as if they had seen a ghost. They had no idea I was coming! Once they realized I wasn’t a ghost and this wasn’t a dream, many of them ran over to welcome me with hugs and my heart filled with joy. Each time I have returned I have received a similar welcome (although they knew in advance that I was coming so I didn’t scare them again), and always receive comments that they are happy that I haven’t forgotten about them. There is no way that I could forget about them, and I do my best to remind them of this.
Shortly following my time living in Nicaragua and a short stint in Denver, I headed to the west coast and sunny San Diego to become the Coordinator of Youth Ministry at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in San Marcos, CA (north county San Diego). This would be the first time I was working directly in youth ministry in the Catholic Church, and this endeavor would soon prove to be one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences of my life.
My first encounter with the youth of St. Mark’s was a weekend at the Steubenville San Diego conference that roughly 35 attended. Never having met them before I had no idea what to expect from them, nor did they have any idea what to expect from me. My goal by the end of the weekend was to learn all of their names and to be able to recognize each of them and call them by their names. I had learned how important it is for someone to be recognized as an individual, especially teenagers, and I wanted to make sure to show them the respect they deserved. By the end of the weekend I succeeded in achieving my goal, and I could tell this was going to be a fun experience.
Inheriting a Confirmation program of over 400 high school students was going to be a daunting task, and I was ready to take it on. With so many of the teenagers not really interested in their faith or anything that had to do with church, I knew that the most important thing that I could do was develop relationships with them. While teaching them the faith was important, they would never learn anything if I didn’t show them that I loved them and accepted them right where they were at. No matter where they had been, what they may have done, or what they would do, I was called to love them and accept them no matter what. That is how Christ has taught me to love, to love the sinner and not the sin. We are all sinners, we all screw up, but it isn’t my job to judge others and condemn them when they fall, but instead help pick them back up and make sure they know I love them all the same. Agape, unconditional, love.
During the two years I spent with them I did my best to be present to them, to make myself available to them, and to love them with this agape love. While youth group and Confirmation classes were great, my favorite moments came through the road trips going bowling, ice skating, and heading out to Knott’s Berry Farm or Six Flags, community service events, or simply having the teens come hang out in my office after school. In these times we were able to laugh, hang out, and have fun together, which led to them being more comfortable with me and opening up to me when they were having problems. Sharing this fellowship them and being present was at the core of my ministry, and the more comfortable they were with me the more interested they were in learning about their faith and taking an active part in it. Now I can’t take the credit for that, because it was God moving through us that made this happen.
Last year when I decided to leave St. Mark’s, it was a very tough decision. I knew I would miss these people a lot, but had no idea I would miss them quite as much as I have. I promised my students that I would return for their Confirmation, and last week I was able to fulfill this promise. Many of them didn’t believe I would come back or ever return, including one girl that I have kept in contact with. She didn’t believe I would come back because most people that have left her in her life and moved away haven’t returned. She probably wasn’t the only one who thought this way. I don’t want to be just another one who forgets about them and doesn’t return. I want to continue to be present because that is the only way relationships can endure over time and not fade away, and I will begin by doing that by watching my former students graduate from high school next month.
Relationships are what give our lives meaning because we all desire to share our lives with others. Without them we are left feeling alone and unfulfilled. God made us to be in relationship with Him and others because he knew we couldn’t live without them. While I am not perfect and still learning a lot about relationships, I do my best to be present and love everyone with this agape love.
UNTIL NEXT TIME…