Tuesday, December 1, 2015

La Cara de Cristo (The Face of Christ)

by Sister Jean Rhoads, D.C.

A Vincentian priest once encouraged us Daughters of Charity not only to see the face of Christ in those who are poor, but to etch "the image of Jesus Christ onto her heart, her mind, and onto the retina of her eyes in order to recognize Him later in her work" (Father Javier Alvarez, CM, Echoes of the Company, January–February 2006, p. 47). Powerful advice!

Huts in San Lorenzo
During a recent 10-day visit to our Sisters' ministries in Bolivia, my eyes overflowed with images of Jesus—in those receiving compassion, respect and care and also in the numerous Daughters whose zeal and creative energy were contagious. I'd like to share a few of those beautiful faces of Christ with you.

I traveled to Bolivia in November with three other Daughters of Charity and two lay staff for a special meeting of the Stewardship Assistance Fund Board that helps support the Sisters' ministries in Bolivia. Since this was my first visit to a developing country, I desired to experience the trip as a pilgrimage to become immersed into the culture and lives of the people.

Asunta and Maria
I met señoras Asunta and Maria in San Lorenzo, a small village amid isolated forests in the Beni, one of nine states in Bolivia. These women weave beautiful, colorful cloth each day on a handmade loom in the 100+ degree heat. They live in a wooden hut where one could see the sky between sections of their small home because the roof only covers part of it. A few chickens wander around the barren yard and a few dry plants make up their "garden." No real furniture, no conveniences, no relief from the midday sun. However, the face of Christ came alive to me in their toothless smiles and genuine embraces of gratitude for our presence. And then they offered us a fresh yucca and squash, two large vegetables from their meager garden. How much Asunta and Maria reminded me of the Gospel story of the widow's mite: "Truly I tell you, this poor woman has put in more than all of them...for she, out of her poverty, has put in all she had to live on" (Luke 21:3-4).

Sister Victoria (left) and Sister Jean
I met Sister Victoria, D.C., in Trinidad, where she serves impoverished elderly men and women who otherwise would have no home. At Hogar de Ancianos, residents sleep in dormitory-style rooms where each bed is covered with a protective mosquito net. Even greater "protection" is shown in the genuine companionship of one another as well as the love and compassion of the Daughters. Here residents truly are family. I recognized Christ as the men and women frequently helped each other walk in the sun-infused outdoor walkways and knocked fresh mangos out of the trees to share with one another.

Two elderly helping one another
I also saw the face of Christ in Sister Victoria, who radiated an inner simplicity and joy in Hogar de Ancianos. In her earlier life, Sister Victoria had served as a cleaning woman when she sensed a call from God to become a Daughter. While my limited Spanish and her limited English made conversation challenging, Sister Victoria "spoke" more through her gentle manner with the elderly, her generous behind the scenes handling of any tasks, and her forever gracious smile. Our world is a more beautiful place because of Sister Victoria!

Elderly men's dormitory, Hogar de Ancianos
I met Frank and Sister Maria Angeles, D.C., while visiting Cochabamba's state prison. This was by far the most difficult, haunting experience of the pilgrimage in Bolivia. San Antonio Prison is built of concrete for 80 men that actually "houses" more than 400. The conditions were the most deplorable I have ever seen: minimal ventilation/light, very narrow hallways, a second story built of flimsy plywood where each cell could be accessed only by ladders, sleeping spaces on the floor where seven people inhabit a room the size of a closet, etc.

Frank related the good self-policing process within the prison as well as the various trades each "intern" (aka prisoner) learns: metal work, shoe repair, carpentry, sewing, etc. Frank himself is a trained carpenter and helps interns make gorgeous hand-carved bed frames as a source of income to cover costs for food and rent in the prison. Only 21 percent of the men's court cases ever come before a judge, so the majority of interns serve very long sentences in this firetrap of a building.

Handmade bed frames from "interns" at prison
It took several minutes for me to realize Frank actually was one of the interns who had already served two years for committing a serious crime while on drugs. Yet, I could perceive Christ within Frank because of his accountability for past actions, his positive response to circumstances and his daily efforts to share his talents with others.

Sister Maria Angeles in front of prison
Four years ago, Sister Marie Angeles was asked by the Archbishop of Cochabamba to serve as pastoral care director of all six prisons there. "I was in prison and you came to visit me" is the gospel call she lives every day (Matthew 25:36). Sister Maria Angeles radiates the face of Christ through her hope-filled care for the interns as well as her insight, constant energy, humor and love. She gave me even more reasons to feel grateful to be a member of our community of Daughters of Charity!

The purpose of my trip to Bolivia was to enhance understanding of the Daughters of Charity ministries our board assists through financial management. The Lord's purpose seemed to be different—that is, to guide me on a pilgrimage where I could find Him dwelling in a forest, home and prison, and, most especially, in the faces of many beautiful people! The experiences were too numerous to count and, at times, too deep to put into words. Hopefully, as they were etched into my heart, mind and eyes, I have grown closer to the One who calls me His Daughter. And so I humbly say: ¡Muchas gracias! ¡Dé gloria a Dios!

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