It was the rainy season in Ecuador, and that meant heat, bugs, and lots of standing water. The dirt roads in our little town flooded to varying degrees from about January to April. Sometimes, cane houses fell down as the ground softened.
On this particular day in rainy season, a community mate and I were hopping along a street-turned-river on the way to visit with one of our neighbors. I can still transport myself to the scene easily. The late-morning sun was blinding overhead, beating down through the heavy, sticky air. Carolyn and I talked as we went and occasionally stopped to maneuver around or over puddles.
Our neighbor, Lucy, had a corner house, and today, it was surrounded by a moat. She waved to us from the open front door, her big smile radiant and inviting. Then, she jerked her chin toward the back of her house, indicating that it would be easier for us to go to the rear entrance than traverse the gaping water deposits by the front gate.
We made a wide circle, heading toward the back door, zig-zagging and attempting to step on rocks or dry patches of land. Then, it happened.
When I least expected it, my foot slid off of a rock and plunged into the muddy mess of a street. It even made a sound, maybe like a "schloop." I felt my sandal getting sucked off of my foot. I looked up at Carolyn, and we laughed hysterically. My face turned red. She took my hand so I could extract my foot.
It was disgusting, dripping with smelly mud. Lucy was waiting at the back gate when I hobbled up on one foot. She smiled and shook her head maternally, and then she led me to her cement steps.
"Wait there," she said, and went to fill a bucket with water from the barrel in her kitchen.
As usual, Lucy's house was filled with kids from the neighborhood. Her home was open to everyone, it seemed, and was a place for gathering. Ladies stopped by to chat; kids spent the afternoon there doing homework or playing.
One of the little girls, Michelle, was nine at the time and lived across the street. She was a helper, and she rushed to take the bucket from Lucy as soon as it was filled.
"Graaacias, mija," said Lucy, and Michelle wobbled toward me with the heavy bucket.
She set it down on the step. I attempted to clean off my foot, holding myself up with one hand on the door frame and scooping water out of the bucket with the other one. The stance was awkward and not working, and I must have looked goofy.
Michelle, without a word, came over and dipped her hands into the bucket. She poured water out of her cupped hands onto my foot, and I thanked her as I began to wipe the mud off. But she didn't stop there. Before I knew it, she was no longer just pouring a stream of water, but running her hands over my grimy foot, too.
"Michelle!" I protested, like Peter first did to Jesus at the Last Supper.
She looked up at me and said, shrugging her shoulders, "¿Qué?
And she washed my feet.
I felt initial discomfort with her act of kindness, but she obviously didn't. Something inside told me just to let it happen. My resistance melted into awe. I was on holy ground, and I was looking at Jesus.
Michelle's generous act, done so organically and matter-of-factly, captures in a snapshot the spirit I witnessed overwhelmingly in the Ecuadorian people. Politically, socially, and economically, the country is often a mess. The poverty and destitution are appalling. Our neighbors suffered through things daily that no human being should have to experience.
And yet, like the widow with the offering of coins in Scripture, Ecuadorians give out of whatever they have. In their culture, generosity seems to be an instinct, to such a degree that it often made me squirm. The program I volunteered with is aptly called Rostro de Cristo, or "Face of Christ." If Christ is radical love, I saw Christ's face everywhere.
I was heartbroken when I heard about the massive earthquake in Ecuador on Saturday night. I first found out when I noticed on Facebook that many of my Ecuadorian friends were marking themselves safe in the "Earthquake in Ecuador." I began Googling to learn more, and what I found was catastrophic.
Over the next day, I learned that the areas where I had lived were not drastically affected. The current Rostro de Cristo volunteers are safe. Our neighbors, to my knowledge, are safe and still with homes. They felt the earthquake, to be sure, but the destruction was much worse on the northern coast. As I write this, the death toll has soared to over 500. The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has acknowledged that the physical destruction will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild. In a country like Ecuador, a disaster like an earthquake is detrimental.
Even in this dark moment, the Ecuadorian spirit of love and generosity has not failed to shine. Almost as quickly as I saw reports about the earthquake, I saw Ecuadorians organizing to help each other out. The little church in Durán where we worshipped each Sunday advertised on Facebook that they are collecting canned goods, water, hygiene items, medical supplies, blankets, mosquito nets, and more to send north. One of the messages reads, "A call to the whole community: Our brothers and sisters need our solidarity! We are one Ecuador, and we can help! Bring whatever you can!"
I can see it already — the generous people from those little houses on those dirt roads coming forth, arms full of goodness to share with their fellow citizens in need, giving more than seems logical out of the almost nothing that they have.
I'm not sure if it would be fair to call that a resurrection in the face of so much horror and tragedy, but it is certainly a glimpse of life and light, like spring flowers popping up in a desolate place. Many former Rostro de Cristo volunteers, churches, and individuals are donating to Catholic Relief Services to add to that light. If there is a country that can get through this, it is Ecuador.
My heart grieves for the Ecuadorian people. I pray for them at this time, and I pray for the grace to live all that they taught me.
Jesus said to his disciples after washing their feet, "I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do."
Michelle and countless other Ecuadorian friends gave me a model to follow. To honor them, I hope I can continue to grow out of my selfish ways toward a love that is more radical and more generous. We can be echoes of Ecuador. As they did for me and are now doing for each other, may we also do.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]
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