Learning to Be There

Krista (new)By Krista Chinchilla.

We gathered around the CASA de la Mateada staff members and I felt dumbfounded as we went through our weekly avisos (check-ins): NPR reports to keep us updated on the news, the schedule for the upcoming week, and food and transportation stipends. “It’s already March?!” I found myself thinking. Time is flying and Argentina has been an incredible teacher. There is so much I’ve already experienced, but there are a few things that really stand out to me when I think about what I yearn to implement into my daily life.

I had always seen service as ‘helping’ another. Now, I can see the type of hierarchy that goes into this mentality; it denotes a kind of superiority and inferiority between me and another person. Accompaniment is one of the pillars of the CASA program, which I hoped would go right along with transforming my definition of (and, more importantly, how I acted out) ‘service.’ I liked the idea of accompanying another more than the ‘helping’ perspective on service, but there was still something that didn’t fully click. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint it, so I ignored it and hoped my time in Argentina would clear things up for me. After all, we’re here to simply be there with people, which didn’t really make much sense to me. What does “being there with others” even mean? It seemed so…useless. But here’s where some really great people come into the picture.

Soon after the end of our orientation, we were introduced to most of the women who work in a jardín (kindergarten) in Nuestro Hogar III, a small city in Córdoba. This jardín is one of our praxis sites; it is a space that also functions as a type of community center for various activities for those who live in Nuestro Hogar III. The women eagerly greeted each member of our cohort with besos (kisses on the cheek). While we are a smaller cohort, we were still about nine people walking into their daily lives. “Tienen hambre? Ya desayunaron?” “Are you hungry? Have you have breakfast yet?” they asked as they prepared mate and sliced some bread. We spent the day charlando (talking) and, yes, simply being there. Without fail, whenever we return, we’re greeted the same way: with eager eyes, excited words, welcoming faces and sometimes some dancing.

We visited the Condor National Park in Córdoba for one of our paseos (excursions). After we were finished eating lunch and had gone Condor watching, we were treated with a talk from an amazing man. He had learned that Condors in Córdoba were going extinct about thirty years ago–there were only nine of them left. He believes that all of God’s creatures have a right to live, so naturally, he fought their extinction. “It’s crazy, but I believe that I’m a tool created to keep these creatures alive.” His eyes shone and got glossy with tears as he told his story, his solitary struggle in fighting to keep Condors in Córdoba. He told us inspiring stories about fictional Condors (who taught us that “we shouldn’t wait until tomorrow to ‘fly’”) and a Being who always reached out to him when he was about ready to give up (“I can’t even open an email, so how did the emperor of Japan find out about and support my project?!”). He was passionate about what he did and he did not try to hide it. Because of his dedication, because he allowed himself to be a tool, over 300 Condors now fly over Córdoba’s sky. His achievements and humility were written all over his face: an open picture book for us to enjoy.

Ay, ves? Dios siempre nos manda un ángel cuando necesitamos ayuda!”the sacristan from Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Valle (a nearby parish)ecstatically told Hermana Adriana (“See! God always sends an angel to help us when we need it!”). Hermana Adriana and I exchanged stories about how we got to Córdoba as I climbed on a tall, rickety ladder and taped letters welcoming and thanking pastors on a pillar. Right before mass started, Hermana Osana greeted us, much like the women of Nuestro Hogar III and the man who saved the condors had done. God’s unconditional love, undying grace, unimaginable acceptance, and overwhelming forgiveness manifested in Hermana Osana’s eyes as she approached us, beholding us for all we were. She hugged me and poured all the love in the world into my eyes. Unfortunately, my words do this interaction and the unforgettable look in her eyes zero justice.

A soft and steady “awwh!” swept through our CASA de la Mateada community and LMU Ignacio Companions trip delegation as a member of La Luciérnaga’s phone was passed along, showing his five-month-old baby boy. “What do you dream about?” the founder of La Luciérnaga asked him. “Yo quiero comprar una casa para mi familia, y quiero asegurarme que mi hijo no esté en le calle cuando tenga diez años.” He dreams about buying a home for his family and making sure his son doesn’t have to be on a street at ten years old. La Luciérnaga is an organization that supports men on the streets by providing them with education and a job. Different ages require different jobs, but the men working at La Luciérnaga create and sell magazines in Córdoba. Their sales provide their meals, their job provides hope. We spent the morning sharing mate, drinking delicious coffee, and eating criollitos and medialunas (pastries) while enjoying each other’s company. Yet again, we experienced a group of selfless people eagerly welcoming us, giving us the chance to be a part of their reality: past, present, and future. They told us of their hardships, their hard work, their fears, and their goals.

These experiences have impacted me in ways I don’t yet fully understand. But I’ve somewhat pieced it together (here’s where it hopefully comes together for you, too). The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Michelle, one of our Community Coordinators, asked us to reflect during a Spirituality Night: “What gets you up every morning? What symbol do you try to wear on your forehead?” My first thoughts were my faith and my family. Then these stories came rushing into my mind like a leaf speeding through the flooded streets in front of our home after an afternoon of pouring rain. I haven’t known these people for more than a month and a half, yet they all were so willing to fully share who they were, to be there with me. They probably don’t know it, but they have taught me what it really means to share myself. My hope is that when it comes time for me to leave Argentina, I do so with the desire to constantly remind myself to be as welcoming, loving, accepting, and vulnerable as they have been. How? I’m not too sure yet. I could intentionally devote my ‘precious’ time to someone else, realizing the moments spent with another should be more precious than my time. I could modestly share my passions. I could fully behold those I encounter. I could welcome others into my life, humbly expressing a love no words could ever properly describe. Regardless of how I end up doing so, I have come to see that what truly matters is that I pass that indescribable love on to others, just as the women of Nuestro Hogar III, the man who saved the Condors, Hermanas Adriana and Osana, and the men at La Luciérnaga have done for me.

It’s March, and Argentina has been an incredible teacher. I definitely haven’t fully processed most of what I’ve experienced here, but I do know one thing: it’s amazing how powerful it can be simply to acknowledge the worth of another human being, to see that person as your equal. If you allow others to be a part of your reality, you become a part of theirs and you experience the powerful feeling of unity. What’s even more amazing is all the love, joy, passion, and grace you can pass along every day through the expression on your face, through the unforgettable look in your eyes, if you only allow yourself to simply be there.

Krista is a sophomore Theological Studies-Psychology double major from Loyola Marymount University. 

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