By Claire Stewart, Maryknoll Lay Missioners
The following reflection is a notable entry to our annual Volunteer Story & Photo Contest. Each year, we ask our member programs to submit stories and photos of their daily life to celebrate the experiences of faith-based service.
I wrote a letter to myself almost four years ago after I finished my year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Houston, TX at my Disorientation Retreat. I reread this letter from time to time to help remind me why I next journeyed to Brazil with Maryknoll Lay Missioners 3.5 years ago. In this letter I can see phrases indicating my passion and inspiration to work with marginalized populations:
“Believe and work for a just world. There is good in everyone. Life may not be how you want it to be, but everything can be changed.”
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” Through my ministry of facilitating art activities with children from low income families through Maryknoll Lay Missioners, I believe this to be true. The children I work with form a constellation that mirrors the face of God each day in the obstacles they must overcome at home, in school, and within Brazilian society. I have worked with children who have been sexually, physically, and emotionally abused so much so they take their anger out on other children I work with. There are days when I am separating fights more than teaching art, and on these days I feel powerless. I question the work I am doing and the impact it is having on these children’s lives.
I have worked with children with learning disabilities and autism, and on the days they paint the walls, I feel the most unqualified. In truth, I am unqualified, but if I was not in the three different organizations where I teach art, no one else would be. No one else would be able to see the amazing artists within each of these children. Some days are harder than others, yet there are moments where the things these children have taught me are so profound, I am brought to tears. The work I do is hard, but I am lucky. Each day, I get to witness the stars in the daylight.
The week before last, at one of the NGOs(non-governmental organizations) I work with, the children made eggs of gratitude for Easter. They painted two eggs holders cut from a recycled egg carton to form an egg when put together. Then they wrote notes to someone they were grateful for and had to explain why. It did not go as smoothly as this because before hand I had explain what gratitude was to children ages 3 to 9. I think they got the general idea from my rough Portuguese.
If anything, it was an exercise to help them learn and practice expressing gratitude to others, I imagined many of the eggs would get lost in the bottoms of their backpacks or used as soccer balls. However, I was surprised last week when of the children, Alice, told me she gave her egg to her mom. Many of the parents of these children work strenuous jobs for up to twelve to fourteen hours a day and live in a situation of occupation (inhabiting abandoned buildings) in the city center. She said her mother unfolded folded the note and when she began to read it, she began to cry.
The art program I run directly impacts the children I work with; however, my hope is that it indirectly impacts both the educators and caretakers who witness the expression of these children through their art. I have many stories I can share like this one that keep me here in mission. I became a missioner for the authentic encounter and to be able to accompany those within the margins, to see the stars that are hidden by the pollution of unjust and broken social structures.
At the end of my JVC letter, I had written:
“If life was easy for everyone, you would not be doing this. Someone is always suffering. You are not God. Do what you can to alleviate the weight and remember to share the burden with God when it seems impossible.”
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