Not What but Why and HowBy Fr. Lucian Clark, C.P.
“What do your Passionist Volunteers do?” This is the question asked of me so often in the four years since our first Volunteers began their service abroad. It is the answer to the “What?” question that interests inquirers. They want to hear the concrete descriptions, to admire the challenges and delight in the anecdotes of our young Volunteers. Maybe this is why some of you are reading this article!
I am very proud of WHAT our generous Volunteers have been doing both in Jamaica and in Honduras. Nonetheless, to each questioner, I first reply in terms of what we consider our most important service: “Accompaniment.” This service of accompaniment answers the questions “HOW?” and “WHY?” rather than “WHAT?”
There are three ways in which accompaniment, the how and the why, uniquely forms and sustains our Passionist Volunteers in the what: a sense of powerlessness, the focus on maintaining priorities, and in upholding creative Gospel stewardship.
A Sense of Powerlessness
Our Volunteers take their lead from Jesus who entered into mission first by “emptying himself of being like God to take on the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:7) In Honduras, we live in Talanga, a town of thirty thousand, where people have their own idioms of language and abbreviated speech. The culture is not only Latino and Central American, but also “small town.” When the Volunteers take two steps out the door, they are in the middle of activity: children tugging, neighbors calling out in the “shorthand” language of the area, horses galloping by. It’s all quaint, at first. But before long, an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness sets in.
“I felt helpless, a recent college grad, confident of my skills and ability to take care of myself, dropped into a completely new world. I was once again a little kid, needing my hand held in everything because of my lack of Spanish skills. I was scared to walk to the corner store to buy milk, able to ask questions but not understand the answers. There were so many needs here in which my experience and education seem to be useless and without credibility anymore!”
Accompaniment tells the Passionist Volunteer: “Watch and listen closely as you meet with these people.” Through watching and listening, specific service emerges. Unfortunately, this process can leave North Americans with the feeling of not “doing” anything, of being ineffectual, useless. We see ourselves beginning where Jesus began. We empty ourselves of our acquired skills in order that we might always remember that we hold our treasures in earthen vessels so that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. (2 Cor 4:7).
Focus: Maintaining Priorities
The focus on accompaniment helps to maintain priorities, not only as the Volunteers discern what service they will offer, but also as they seek to persevere in that activity. As our particular tasks emerged in Talanga, they came forth essentially from our relationships and the trust they engendered. We decided to concentrate our energy in three local villages. The first objective was to make acquaintance and hopefully friendships with people in the area.
Regular visits continued for weeks. Visits involved meetings with the people for discussion of the local situation. This led to suggestions and requests for what was needed. Each visit involved stopping at individual homes to become more personally acquainted and conntected.
When the Volunteers finally began regular sessions with the children, for instances, to plan a Christmas pageant, or when they initiated a latrine building project, they were not only responding to a need, but were responding to people with whom they had established relationships. The relationships initiated the projects, sustain them in production and survive long after the project concludes. When I asked one of the local parishioners what effect the Volunteers were having on the town,her quick response delighted me. For her it was “motivation”, “animation” for the children.
Last year, the Volunteers brought about a great accomplishment, the replacement of a washed out bridge leading in and out of a village. No, the Volunteers did not rebuild it, but something much better. They facilitated the dialogue between the local community council and the Talanga Mayor’s office to bring about the replacement. The facilitation was made possible thanks to the relationships the Passionist Volunteers enjoyed with both Talanga officials and the local community. Those relationships had grown and been sustained through accompaniment.
Jesus offers this parable encouraging creativity in Gospel service. “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings forth from his storeroom both the new and the old.’ (Matt 13:52). St. Paul of the Cross also calls for creativity in his Rule of life. After giving Passionist missionaries some practical guidelines for communicating their message, he concludes: “Circumstances will open numerous other ways of promoting so great a work. For the love of God is very ingenious and is proved not so much by the words, as by the deeds and example of the lovers!”
Creative stewardship focuses on the WHAT of service, though it always considers this service within the context of accompaniment. Watching our Volunteers develop strategies for responding to needs is also one of the most satisfying features of my role as director of the Volunteers.
I was truly impressed last year at their remarkable creativity aimed at continuing education among the children of the local villages. By continuing education, I mean moving beyond sixth grade! Our Volunteers took note that the sixth grade was the end of education for these children and began exploring what could be done. They came up with a scholarship program! Truly an outstanding plan, but it was in the fine details that ingenious love was in full bloom.
In addition to tuition, the scholarship plan provided books, clothes, lunch money and even a bicycle. The administration of the scholarship program was entrusted to the Finance Committee of the Talanga parish. Our friend, Dilma Godoy, Delegate of the Word in the church community, commented to me most poignantly, “Now there is hope. We have never had a professional person come from this village.”
What a ray of hope! Our Volunteers had not walked into Terrero Colorado, immediately suggesting a scholarship program to send promising students to study in Talanga. No, the plan grew out of relationships, and the relationships grew out of accompaniment.
“What do Passionist Volunteers do? I suppose specific activities will always appeal to the imagination, but relationships sustain the activity and enable it to thrive. It is relationships that forever change the Volunteer. The relationships, which the Passionist Volunteers enjoyed with the people of Talanga and the local villages, will outlast the service projects provided. Though heaven and earth shall pass away, it will be our relationship with Christ that will survive throughout all time and eternity.