Friday, July 25, 2014

Cutting Down Barriers and Stereotypes

Lay missioner Valerie Ellis talks about an experience she had connecting with a woman in a Bolivian prison. 

When I heard that women in jail in Cochabamba earn credits by cutting hair in their peluqueria (hair salon), I knew I had to go. Not only do they have the opportunity to get out of jail sooner, but they also learn a new skill along the way.

I was able to spend several hours there one day with Hady, a fellow FMS missioner. As I was being treated to a shampoo, head massage, and conditioning treatment, I chatted with my hairdresser. I learned that she had three children. She was a beautiful, vibrant twenty-six year old, and was excited because the day before she celebrated her four year old’s birthday with her family. She expressed sadness that she was not able to live with all of her sons, and explained that her family members chip in to care for her other children in her place.



She approached life with a vigor that I am not sure I would share if I were in her situation. She expressed surprise that Hady and I were older than her and did not have children. It seemed that we shared opposite sentiments of remorse, as I was equally surprised to find out her youngest child was four years old, when she was so young and was facing such difficult challenges.

In the middle of my appointment, while the conditioning treatment was setting in, she asked permission to leave for a moment. She shared later that she had gone next door to attend a prayer service where she was baptized!

It was very touching that I was able to share in her experience, but what affected me most was her offer to allow me to watch her youngest son, to take him to the park or wherever I would like, having just met me.

Now, don’t get the idea that it was because we had an amazing bond based on my ability to chat. My Spanish was incredibly poor that day, and I was barely able to answer her questions and communicate my hair request. It made me sad to learn that she would leave her son with me anytime, on the off chance I was a good person.

You might be thinking, “This would only happen in another country.” Please don’t. The same thing happened to me on a much grander scale in the U.S. In Tampa, a co-worker whom I had just met asked me to drive her child cross-country, when she found out I was passing through her state on the way home to Wichita. I spent three days with a 12 year-old I met on the first day of our journey, and at the time I was younger than my new hairdresser friend.

What can I learn about the following Franciscan themes from these experiences, both in my old and new homes?

  • Poverty makes us take risks that we normally wouldn’t take.
  • What kind of simple faith and peace must these mothers have had to leave their most prized possessions, their children, in my care?
  • • What amazing opportunities I had to step out in faith and provide care for creation in unexpected ways.
  • Finally, and most important for me, is social justice. If justice was a reality in the jail system in Bolivia, a young mother would not be put in a position to reach out to the first kind face that came her way. Imagine this scenario: most of the women (and men) in the jail system are there for crimes that they did not commit. The biggest travesty? They sit in jail for years awaiting a trial, before they are even found innocent or guilty.



Valerie Ellis has been in the mission field with Franciscan Mission Service since January 2014. She is originally from outside of Wichita, Kan., and prior to seeking mission life lived in Tampa, Fla. Valerie has travelled internationally for work and pleasure, and designed and taught a class at Hillsborough Community College called “Avoiding Violence: Be a Part of the Solution.” 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Learning from Weeds

Lay missioner Annemarie Barrett completes our series, "Mother Earth Teaches: Digging Deeper into Faith, Community and Justice.


At the end of the day, I am learning that Mother Earth is our greatest teacher.

When we look close at the garden, it is all there.

“Greatest teacher” of what? What is “all there”?

In reconnecting with the Earth and the communities that work her land, I have been reminded of the significant challenges that lay before us.

 I have known for a long time now how grave the situation is that our planet is in. But I have only recently started to share work with communities that have been and will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

And yet, for as apocalyptic as the future does look, learning from the wisdom of Mother Earth has deeply renewed my faith in the potential we have to respond to these crises.

When facing these seemingly insurmountable challenges, her wisdom grounds me and offers me a new perspective.

Learning from the task of weeding in the garden offers some great examples.
The community of Santa Rosa with the Santa Vera Cruz parish community accepting the invitation to host next year's workshop on sustainable agriculture as a part of the Plataforma Regional de Suelos

Since joining the Plataforma Regional de Protección de Suelos, a regional organization of NGOs that practice sustainable agriculture here in Bolivia, our Pastoral de la Madre Tierra has attended various workshops they offer.

And in these workshops we have learned to study Mother Nature in order to transform the challenges we experience in our work.

In the garden, we constantly deal with weeds.

Instead of spraying the weeds with chemicals we are learning about companion planting. We are learning which seeds to plant together so that they mutually benefit one another, a practice that can significantly reduce weeds as well as pests.
Lettuce combined with fava beans in the parish garden
In these workshops we have learned that the values at the root of companion planting are collaboration and coexistence, not competition.

When growing plants are faced with weeds that threaten their growth and even their existence, they can move towards collaboration, to learn how to live together instead of compete.

These lessons are learned from the relationships that naturally occur in our environment. If we look at any ecosystem, we see the ways the different species coexist and even collaborate.

Great production of lettuce harvested from 
the combination with fava beans.
When confronting harsh realities like that of climate change, what would it look like to take a step towards humility as a human race? Instead of relying on competition to save us, could we take time to learn from the wisdom Mother Earth? Could we invest in collaboration and commit to coexistence?

And in these workshops we have also learned that not all weeds are bad, not all need to be removed. Instead of fearing weeds, we are learning to work with them. We let them grow and stay around the seeds we have planted until they enter into competition, because we trust that those weeds, when small, can also maintain the life in the soil.

And many times while weeding I have found myself meditating on the process of weeding as a spiritual practice.

What are the weeds, or weaknesses, or shadow sides in me that keep me from God and others? How can I coexist with those weeds instead of denying they exist, so that I might grow?

In reconnecting with the Earth, I am learning to focus less on scarcity and more on the abundance of wisdom we have available to us through our relationship with the Earth.

At a workshop about familial sustainable agriculture in Acasio, Norte Potosí with the Plataforma Regional de Suelos
In the midst of great challenges of an ever industrializing, globalizing and isolating society, returning to the wisdom in our natural interconnectedness, I am learning that our connection to the Earth it is not only essential to our physical survival but also a deep source of spiritual revival.



Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Annemarie graduated from Loyola University in Chicago in 2012 with a degree in Communication Studies. Possessing a strong interest in social justice issues and some experience with international travel, she has been serving in Bolivia since January 2013. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Getting Over 'Otherness'

Program associate John Quense tells how he ended up teaching yoga every Wednesday at Miriam's Studio, an art therapy program in Washington, DC. 

I find that God often draws me to Himself using very personal and uncomfortable methods. This particular encounter began in my bed (pretty comfortable) while I read about the conversion of St. Francis. While many of us may know the story of St. Francis and his encounter with the leper, have we really allowed God to draw us to Himself in a similar way? Do we really “know” what it is like to embrace the people that cause our very stomachs to turn at their mere sight or smell?

St. Francis and the Leper. By Eugenio Hansen, OFS. Creative Commons.

Reading this story, I certainly felt a tug on my heart to experience this sweet joy Francis describes from following Christ’s call to embrace that which he abhorred. I am learning that I need to be a little more cautious with my prayers because the God I am only beginning to encounter does not wait long nor miss the mark when I open up even a little.

The following morning I was offered the chance to go to a food kitchen for the homeless with a co-worker. Although I was a little nervous on the way over, it was not until I walked through the door that the “otherness” of the people smacked me in the face. The young woman I came with was full of smiles and must have talked to ten people before she turned to me and asked why I was just standing there. In my head I had not even picked myself up off the floor, let alone was comfortable enough to talk to any of “them.”

In the world I was accustomed to, people had all their teeth, smelled clean but more importantly they allowed you your personal space and, never asked you for anything. I am not sure what was worse: them, or myself judging myself for feeling such a strong repulsion. How could I call myself a Catholic, a Christian, or even a good person and feel such discomfort at the obvious sufferings of other humans?

God truly works in amazing ways, and I think that is more apparent when we see how he takes even the little we offer and turns it into something beautiful. I was there because I wanted to help. Despite my aversion to those around me, I started walking around the room and tried to have some conversations.

After utterly failing, I made my way to the corner of the room where I saw something familiar: yoga mats being laid out. Now this was something I could do. I asked if I could participate, and while doing deep breathing exercises next to three homeless men and women, our oneness hit me.

 I was overwhelmed with the revelation that had I not had the family and friends I had in my life, it would have been me here being served meals, suffering from chronic mental illness, paranoid, homeless and experiencing my only break from that traumatic life during that hour of simple stretches or when drinking.

 These were truly my brothers and sisters.

And yet again Christ hit His mark.

Originally from New Jersey, John Quense graduated from Rutgers University in 2011, where he double-majored in Spanish and political science. He also brings previous experience as a long-term Catholic volunteer, spending three months in Costa Rica in high school and six months in Mexico during college. Currently he serves as the program associate in our Nonprofit Leadership Program. 

During their 13 months in the Nonprofit Leadership Program, associates learn about St. Francis and volunteer one afternoon a week with marginalized populations in Washington, D.C

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Franciscan Saint of the Day: St. Bonaventure, the "Seraphic Doctor"

Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Bonaventure, the first and greatest of the Franciscan Doctors of the Church.


Saint Bonaventure was born in 1221 and joined the Franciscans in 1243, where he quickly established himself as one of the brightest minds in the Order. Having been sent to study at the University of Paris, he was appointed Master (equivalent to today’s doctorate) in 1257, alongside his friend St. Thomas Aquinas.

And if keeping up academically with the Angelic Doctor wasn’t enough, he was soon after elected Minister General of the Franciscan Order, all before he was 37. He was also selected by Pope Clement IV for the post of Archbishop of York, but in keeping with his Franciscan humility, he steadfastly refused this honor and the pope yielded. Gregory X would eventually make him a cardinal.

St. Bonaventure, by Francisco de Zurbarán
In his writings, St. Bonaventure emphasized the importance of mystical union with God, a union exemplified for St. Bonaventure by St. Francis. His was certainly a mind of the highest order, but to him, intellectual inquiry, while entirely good and valid, is of inferior interest when compared with the living power of the affections or the heart. Hence his famous phrase: “If you learn everything except Christ, you learn nothing. If you learn nothing except Christ, you learn everything.”

St. Bonaventure, besides being renowned for his intellectual prowess, was also a wonderful example of the Franciscan values of peace and reconciliation. He became Minister General at a time following St. Francis’ death when the Order was on the verge of schism over the issue of how strictly to enforce their founder’s vow of poverty. Displaying both a steady hand and a gentle touch, he was able to carve a moderate path that ultimately reconciled the two parties and kept the Order intact. It is no exaggeration to say that without St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan family of which Franciscan Mission Service is proud to call itself part would most likely not exist.

St. Bonaventure receives the envoys of the Byzantine Emperor
at the Second Council of Lyon.
St. Bonaventure died in 1274 while serving as one of the leaders of the Second Council of Lyon, where he continued his work as peacemaker, seeking a way to reunite the recently divided Western and Eastern Churches. In doing so, he challenged the vested political and ecclesiastical interests that would have rather kept the Great Schism open. He died under mysterious circumstances, possibly having been poisoned for his efforts. He was canonized in 1484, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1587.

St. Bonaventure, mystical teacher and reconciler of peoples, pray for us and in particular for our missioners, that we may be bridges of peace and lights of Christ’s love to all we meet!

(Text adapted from The Catholic Encyclopedia, pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Mother Earth Teaches: The Sacred Nature of Seeds

Lay missioner Annemarie Barrett continues our series, "Mother Earth Teaches: Digging Deeper into Faith, Community and Justice.

“In the Andean cosmovision, we recognize that we are part of our environment. We are not superior to the Earth, nor owners of her, but we coexist in harmony with her, in relationship with the Pachamama, and not in fear of her.
This relationship, meaning to say, our interconnection and interdependence with the Pachamama, brings us into spiritual connection with her.The source of this spirituality is the seed, la illa, which is the source and origin of all living beings. The seed is the source of life. The seed is both mother and child.”
-Excerpt from “La Semilla, Fuente de Vida,” a document made by the Pastoral de la Madre Tierra, Parroquia Santa Vera Cruz

Check out the complete (Spanish) document here and here
English translation to come.

Our work in the parish garden of Santa Vera Cruz might be different than what you would expect.

Yes, we try to farm organically. And yes, we are committed to developing sustainable local food production.

But no, these ways of producing food organically are not new ideas, and Western environmental movements have not introduced them.

The garden team's offering at the feet of the cross during the largest parish festival of the year. 
The offering included the best vegetables produced in the garden.

In fact, these are ancient principles native to the Andes that have been buried under centuries of colonization; a colonization, which continues today through the domination of multinational corporations like Monsanto who works to homogenize seeds worldwide, effectively criminalizing the preservation of locally produced seeds.

Our work in the parish garden is to reclaim those ancient principles and practices in collaboration with local communities who have, thankfully, preserved some of their original wisdom. Located in the southern zone of Cochabamba, the parish of Santa Vera Cruz primarily serves a population that has migrated from the campo to the city.
Radish seeds,
ready to harvest in Santa Rosa

The parish has a history of fostering the coexistence of both Andean and Catholic spirituality. And it recently named our garden team the “Pastoral de la Madre Tierra,” or the “Mother Earth Pastoral Team.”

Naming our work in the garden as pastoral is a huge accomplishment for us. Because it recognizes what we already knew, that shared work in a garden is a spiritual experience.

In the parish garden, we talk while we weed, we laugh while we plant and we share silence as we water. We share our lives together in these gardens, our history, our present, our joys and suffering.

And in sharing with these people in the garden, we are invited into their traditions and available to their wisdom.

Potato seeds, saved in the parish garden
In sharing together, we learn from one other’s spirituality.

In learning about the Andean cosmovision, I have come to know the mountains as family, the sun and moon as brother and sister (sounds like our brother Francis, doesn’t it?).

I have been invited to transform my way of relating to animals, with mutuality instead of superiority. I have been challenged to know that the natural order of our environment is not human centric, but holistic, wholly interdependent.

And I have been taught to know seeds as both mother and child, the source of all life, sacred.

Carrot seeds,
 ready to harvest in Santa Rosa
Can you just take a moment to let that sink in?

If those tiny little seeds that we plant in the ground are as sacred as the seeds we plant in the womb, what are we doing treating them with chemicals, homogenizing them, and commoditizing them?

Rooted in the sacred nature of seeds, our work in the parish garden strives to decolonize our very selves, our way of relating to the Earth and one another.

We are learning to save seeds like my Bolivian boss’ grandmother did, honoring her wisdom, instead of buying them exclusively from an unreliable market.

We are learning to value seed diversity as essential to our survival, rejecting genetically modified seeds and the use of pesticides sold to us by agricultural industry concerned more with profits than sustainability.

Killkiña seeds, a Bolivian herb, 
saved in the parish garden
We are waking up to the fact that the defense of that seed diversity is a social justice issue, critical to our faith as Christians who are committed to protecting life and caring for creation.

And we are opening ourselves up to new learning everyday, collaborating with local communities to unlearn our harmful ways of working the land in order to relearn what we have deeply always known, that we belong to the Earth.

For more information about the importance of defending our seeds, I recommend this fantastic article from the ViaCampesina.

Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Annemarie graduated from Loyola University in Chicago in 2012 with a degree in Communication Studies. Possessing a strong interest in social justice issues and some experience with international travel, she has been serving in Bolivia since January 2013. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Bridge-Building in Bolivia

Lay missioner Hady Mendez answers one of the questions mostly frequently asked of a missioner: "What do you do in Bolivia?" 

I build bridges. No, not the kind people walk on or cars drive across. I build other types of bridges. Another way to describe what I do is “bring people together”. It’s not actually one of my ministries, per say, but it’s what I like doing best and what comes naturally to me.

I actually have three distinct ministries. But somehow they are all related. And each day, my worlds seem to collide more and more.

Hady with the graduates of the Manos Con Libertad life skills pilot program
Each week day morning I head to Manos Con Libertad. It’s a ministry for women and children. Many of the women that are part of Manos were previously incarcerated. Some have been out of jail for over 10 years. Others just got out of prison last week.

Some of the other women at Manos are what I would describe as “women in need”. Some have economic needs. Others are in need of assistance with family situations. Still others are looking for support as they take on new challenges or make changes in their lives. I would sum up the work I do at Manos as “empowering women” so they can have a better chance at succeeding in life and helping their children to do the same.

On Thursday afternoons, I go to the jail with my Manos co-workers. Part of our ministry is to work with the women in jail by teaching them useful skills, reading the Bible with them, and simply being their friend. Even though I’m usually exhausted when Thursday afternoon rolls around, I enjoy it. I have really started to develop friendships with the women in prison. We talk about their families, their life outside of jail, their favorite food, their feelings, and more. One of the women has allowed me to see the inside of her prison cell. Others have shared what landed them in jail. And still others have cried with me because they are so frustrated with their situation.

One small group of women asked me to teach them English so I meet them for lunch and English lessons every other Monday. On alternating Friday afternoons, I join another missioner and hang out at the prison salon where women are learning to do hair. Occasionally they will practice on me, but mostly we just catch up: talk, laugh, and share stories.

Purses by AHA Bolivia
On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, I go to my third ministry site, AHA Bolivia. AHA Bolivia is an ethical manufacturing company based out of Cochabamba. They employ more than 200 knitters to manufacture knitwear and recycled plastic bags. My job involves a little bit of everything, but mostly working closely with the owner of the company, Anna. She’s a California girl, graduate of Princeton, and has been living and working in Cochabamba for the last 20 years.

Recently, Anna told me she needed some additional machine knitters and wondered if any of the knitters in the jail could do it. Sure enough, I was able to connect Anna with the woman in charge of the knitters in the prison. Even better, those knitters are now helping to fill orders for Anna’s company. How freaking exciting is that?
Hady in a poncho knit
by one of the women in prison

We didn’t stop there. Anna’s company runs an online tutoring program for the children of the artisans/knitters. Anna wanted to grow the program. Know how we can get more kids involved in the program? Fast forward to today, the children of the ex-prisoners who work at Manos have been attending the online tutoring classes for the last few weeks. The better news? They love it!

“I can’t believe we’ve done so much together in such little time,” Anna said the other afternoon as we were going through the calendar for the summer interns. Because just last week, two of the HS interns went to jail with me to teach the women in English. And this coming week, three of the college interns at AHA will be eating lunch with me at the Manos restaurant and then going to jail with me to work on art project with the prisoners. Worlds colliding. I love it.

And it doesn’t end there. I’ve already asked other folks I’ve met here to join in on the fun. To Allison, known for her salsa dancing and art skills, I’ve asked to come give dance and art lessons to the women at Manos. To Karen, a former missioner and mother of three amazing children, I’ve asked to share her experience as a Christian mother and wife.

I feel we all have different gifts from God and mine happens to be building bridges. I don't over-think it when an idea to connect people pops into my head. God plants the ideas/connections and I follow through. It's a gift and I feel blessed to have it help me while I'm on mission.

The party never ends. Nor does the seemingly endless opportunities to serve and bring people together. I’m enjoying my work immensely and appreciate all the love and encouragement my supporters provide to keep me motivated, positive, and focused.

Go build some of your own bridges today! PAZ Y BIEN FROM COCHABAMBA.


A self-described “Hija de Brooklyn y Puerto Rico,” Hady Mendez is the youngest of four daughters raised by Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, NY.  A proud Jasper, Hady graduated from Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, before starting a corporate career in technology that lasted for more than 20 years. Hady has a true passion for world travel and social justice and has recently begun her first year serving and living with the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Please consider supporting her time on mission by making a donation. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Bringing Beauty to the World

Lay missioner Mary Mortenson reflects on her time with an artist cooperative in Cochabamba, Bolivia. 

Last year, when I was still stateside, I was exploring and working with clay almost everyday. I rented studio space from the University in Eau Claire and spent 20 to 30 hours there a week. A big part of my identity was that I was creating something that was of ME. My OWN artistic expression. That was a lot of pressure.

Mary Mortenson working in Wisconsin
I struggled to find the balance of learning and growing from the work of those that I admired and yet finding my own voice. Sorry if that's too much artist lingo.

The big question that was asked of me, was “What are you trying to tell the world through your work?” Once again: A lot of pressure.

I found myself, at times, paralyzed. No creative juices flowing.

Previous to that question, though, I had been able to work and create freely; loving the discipline of it...the work, the time, the care. All of it.

I had been free to explore, risk, and try, try again.

Mary's ceramic work
Before making our decision to come to Bolivia for a couple of years, I left the studio and clay with a little bit of lingering self-doubt. Hoping that I could offer something new through my work.

Since being down here in Bolivia, I have had the privilege to work with a artistic cooperative just outside of Cochabamba. They are a collective of people that have come together with a common interest in shared work and making things with their hands. Any income they make is shared equally between its members.



I was invited to work with them initially because they were hoping to start working with clay. They make mosaics out of pre-made ceramic tiles and were hoping that they could start making their own so they could get a larger variety of shapes, colors, and designs. After looking at the numbers, though, it was clear that they didn't currently have the money for some of the expenses (such as a kiln, clay, and glazes). So I just became an extra set of hands in the process of making mosaics.

Mary and Doña Elena working on mosaics

Doña Clemestine working on mosaic
It has really challenged my previous ideas of art only being an individual expression. I love that I am only ONE step in the process of taking product from start to finished work. So many hands and eyes are involved with each one, and I have had to learn to surrender my desire to have "control" over the outcome and allow it to change and evolve as each person offers themselves to each creation.

I find myself so light-hearted in the workshop - full of wonder and excitement as I see all that can come from many hands and hearts at work.

I look forward to taking what I have learned here at co-op art, into my creative expressions in the future. What a weight off my shoulders.

My question is no longer, “What are you trying to tell the world through your work?” but instead “How can I be ONE part of contributing more beauty in the world?”

And that doesn't scare me because I know I will have so many great partners along the way.

Mary Mortenson is a Minnesotan farm girl who grew up picking strawberries. In college she studied sociology with a minor in outdoor leadership. She has a heart for lonely and isolated people, and enjoys the way food cooked in love brings people together. She and her husband Nate have been in Bolivia with Franciscan Mission Service since January 2014. 

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