Geneva, Switzerland — Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fourth round of bloggers: Christian E. Ruehling was a volunteer missioner for VIDES+USA who served five months with the Salesian Sisters in Dilla, Ethiopia, before serving in Geneva, and Maria Beben was a staff writer for Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, D.C. Both of their years of service ended in December 2016.
Time flies. At least, that is what most people would say. But for me, it did not.
My year of service was slow, but I am OK with that. The year never seemed to end, but I appreciated that I had more time to enjoy the year and to do the work that I set out to accomplish.
The first half of the year certainly felt slower in Ethiopia, which had more to do with the fact that I was not living in a society connected to 24-hour news cycles, instant access to communications, deadline-driven environments, and so forth. I learned to enjoy time at a slower rate than usual, which allowed me to reflect on the community I was living in.
My favorite memory of Ethiopia was the smiles of the children, adolescents and young adults whom I taught and worked with in Dilla. Their smiles and infectious laughs reminded me that we can be happy regardless of how much or how little we have.
I also learned that being a teacher is no easy job, and I congratulate all the teachers who are able to go day in and day out to work with many children and help them develop into our future generation. You cannot imagine how many times I was in front of the classroom, thinking, "How am I going to get through this class?" But I managed to get their attention, get through the class and have fun, as well.
Often, I would think about my old teachers, and I finally understand how they must have felt since I was now standing in their shoes. So while it was a challenging role, I enjoyed using my mind in a different, creative way and channeling my energy to doing something more creative and hopefully rewarding for my students.
My visit to Rome over the summer to attend the VIDES conference was special because not only was it my first time in the city, but it also connected me with many other VIDES volunteers of different cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities. We all had one thing in common, and that was our desire to help children and adolescents through the Salesian family spirit.
Going to Rome after my sojourn in Ethiopia was also a good segue for the second part of my journey in Geneva. In the "city of peace," I admired how others dedicated their lives to promoting human rights, but I was also dismayed that in this day and age, humanity has not yet reached a point of maturity in which we can respect the rights of others to live peacefully without the feeling of being threatened or insecure.
I am also grateful that I was exposed to the theme of unaccompanied migrant children, which somehow wove itself through my year of service. It started in San Antonio, where we spent time with adolescents who crossed the border from Mexico and other Central American countries.
In Rome, my VIDES colleague and I co-presented on this topic at VIDES' XI international conference. The presentation focused on children migrating from Central America and what programs VIDES and the Salesian sisters were doing to ensure that they receive proper treatment: health, education, and security.
Finally, in Geneva, I delivered an oral statement on this topic at one of the U.N. Human Rights Council sessions. I also wrote a report on the global issue of unaccompanied migrant children for our human rights office because Salesian sisters work with these children and adolescents on a regular basis in their missions across Africa, India, Latin America and Southeast Asia.
These children are a vulnerable segment of our society that need help from our communities to feel safe and integrated. Our actions toward them make an indelible mark at their age and could set a positive or negative course for the rest of their lives.
When I sought out this journey, I am glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to see what life was like outside of my own Western world. It made me appreciate that life is so much different in other countries than what I was used to. It was also amazing to see the good that is being done by others, whether they are missionaries, teachers, volunteers, or NGO workers for the betterment of the communities that they work in.
There is much going on out there, and people need help. And not just the monetary kind, but also old-fashioned human interaction: a hand to lift, a mind to grow, a body to heal and a spirit to nourish.
More importantly, I am glad I made this experience through VIDES and that I was exposed to the world of the Salesian sisters. Every community that I passed through received me with warmth, care, spiritual healing and a good plate of food.
But more importantly, I learned a lot from the sisters who have dedicated their lives to helping children who are poor, marginalized, lacking in a proper education and do a lot to break the vicious cycle of poverty they live in. Every sister I met had an interesting story to tell about the lives they touched and the challenges they faced, but they all carried the spiritual adversity to continue on their mission, no matter the odds. I only wish that my heart had been touched by the Salesian spirit at an earlier age, but at least I am satisfied with the experience and knowledge that this journey brought me and with which I can carry forth in the years ahead.
[Christian E. Ruehling was a volunteer missioner for VIDES+USA from January 2016 to December 2016.]