The associates were again invited this year to participate in the mission trip organized by St. George College, the Holy Cross high school located in Santiago. To us, people from the United States, the idea of going door to door talking about God is something extremely foreign, especially outside of the Evangelical/Mormon circuit. But here in Chile, it is commonplace and welcomed. To begin with, the vast majority of Chileans are Catholic (it's something crazy like 85% or more). When you go on mission, it is not your goal to convert anyone. It is more about spending time with people and learning about their lives, their struggles, and their joys. St. George missions in three-year segments. Last year, I accompanied the group to Osorno (a rural area 12 hours south of Santiago) for their third and final year there. This year, after 24 hours in bus and 2 ferry rides, my group landed in Alqui, a small town located on the island of Tranqui, off the coast of another bigger island Chiloe, off the coast of the mainland of Chile. At some points, I literally was stopped in my tracks at the sight of the scenery. The rich greenness of the trees and shrubbery, with the deep blue sea as a backdrop and the snow-capped volcanoes in the distance; at some points it was just too much to take in.
There are 24 families that live in Alqui, and I was able to get to know a good number of them during our 10-day stay. Every morning we would wake up early, have prayer, eat breakfast, and set out to visit houses. Everyone was aware that we had arrived; you can imagine how quickly news travels in an isolated town of 100 people. In the average day, each group of two to three would visit one to two houses. Most often we would spend a few hours talking about their families, their work, their life over 'mate,' the traditional tea of southern Chile. It is served in a wooden or ceramic squatty cup and sipped through a metal straw. The host puts the loose tea leaves in the cup, adds water, drinks it (usually 3 to 4 big sips), fills it up again and starts it on its way around the circle. After each person finishes, he/she hands the cup back to the host, it is refilled and handed on to the next person. Because it is cold in Chiloe year-round (we were there in summer and I still wore thermals and a wool sweater everyday), the mate and conversation are always shared around the wood-burning stove. There is no electricity, very little indoor plumbing on the island, and not a single store.
Despite the differences in development, the people of Alqui live relatively well. Most of the men of the town work in the salmon industry, while the women spend their days tending to the crops and to the animals and collecting seaweed on the shores to sell to local buyers (to be later made into hair and skin products). Everyone lives off the land. During my time there, I think I ate the best I have in South America. Fresh lettuce, potatoes, carrots from the garden. Lamb, chicken, pork, salmon, seaweed, ducks eggs, all raised, caught, or collected within yards of the homes. There is no refrigeration, so whatever was put on my plate was for certain walking or swimming around only hours earlier.
For me, this time around, mission was an intense personal experience. It was like I had finally found what I had been searching for all year. Since moving to South America, my spiritual life has been thrown through the wringer. There has been a lot of doubting, questioning, and feeling lost. Alqui seemed to make it all make sense again. It was moving for me to go into an unknown community without family, friends, or acquaintances (or without the label of being a Holy Cross Associate) and to be fully accepted, without hesitation, and to feel at home. "Donde hay amor y caridad, donde hay la paz, Dios ahi esta." "Where there is love and goodwill, Where there is peace, God is there." Everyday as I sang those words in mass and as I looked around at the people who had welcomed me into their houses, fed me, and shared with me a small part of their world, I came to understand more clearly what God was trying to tell me. Where there is love and goodwill. Love was all around me. Where there is peace. What could be more peaceful than a town surrounded by rocky pacific beaches and quiet pastures and woods? God is there.
While the St. George students spent their afternoons and evenings working with children and teenagers, I visited the women in the community for more mate and chats. I've learned a lot about myself this year in Chile, but missions seemed to synthesize it all together. I don't think I'll ever be able to stop doing the type of work I do here. I love to learn about people. I love to travel and to get to know other customs and ways of living. The women of Alqui really showed me that I'm finally able to open up, to feel comfortable in another language, and to form relationships easily. We'll have to wait and see where this experience is leading me.