“Hola, ¿Cómo te llamas?” I asked nervously, hesitating.
“Antonia,” she replied after a moment, keeping her eyes fixed on the dusty courtyard.
“Mucho gusto,” I ventured, uncertain if my memory of middle school Spanish class served me right. The corners of her mouth tilted slightly upward toward the bright Mexican sun, and – though I couldn’t be sure – it seemed like she heard me.
It was the seventh day of my two week FOCUS Mission trip to Mexico City. We visited a home for abandoned and disabled women that had been the center of our service during that first week. Unfortunately, it felt like less a home and more like a prison. The women sat outside all day, many of them covered in flies and their own filth. Since the home was government run, we weren’t supposed to try to clean anything or move anything – all we could do was talk to the women, listen to their stories, wheel them in their wheel chairs if they asked for it, and occasionally paint their nails or play a game.
Unfortunately, I did not speak Spanish.
It made my first few days very difficult. Here were these women – so in need of love – and I could offer them nothing, not even a conversation. I felt weak and powerless every day, and that day with Antonia was no exception. The language barrier felt like a 30 foot wall between us, and I felt worthless in my ability to make a difference in her life.
Because, you see, that’s the whole reason I went to Mexico City in the first place – to make a difference, to serve people! But deep in my heart, what I really wanted to serve was my own pride and vanity. I asked Jesus to show me that I could make an impact on the poverty I was experiencing – to show me that I was still important to this trip even though I couldn’t speak Spanish. But, that’s not quite what happened.
Instead, Jesus showed me my own poverty.
The first taste of this poverty came early on in the trip, on the way home. We were on an impossibly crowded bus when out of nowhere – my knees went faint, my vision started to go dark, and I knew I needed to vomit.
Oh no, no. Not here. Really, Jesus?
Here I was, on mission, ready to serve, and instead my fellow missionaries had to search frantically to find me a barf bag and fan me to keep me from passing out.
My poverty was evident again during the “knee crawl” – a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe made by crawling on our knees toward the tilma of St. Juan Diego, which bears Our Lady’s image. I was so pumped for the knee crawl. I was ready to show off how much I loved Mary by crawling the fastest and never showing even the slightest grimace of pain.
I was in the very back of our little procession – exhausted after about 30 seconds of crawling. I had to keep stopping for rests, and some of the group actually doubled back and did the crawl again so that I wasn’t crawling by myself. I was so embarrassed and ashamed of my weakness.
Worst of all, I was reminded daily of how poor I was when it came to serving the women. How could I love when I couldn’t even speak?
I considered all this as I sat in awkward silence with Antonia. Finally looking over at her, I saw that some drool was dripping uncontrollably from her mouth. But, she didn’t make a move to wipe the spit from her face. She just sat there. So, I took the tissue that she held in her hand and reached to wipe her chin clean.
In that moment, I realized how selfish my motives for mission had been.
A leader of a FOCUS Mission trip once reminded me, “We will be judged by how we treat the poor.” And here I was, treating these women as a means for my own emotional gain. I wasn’t serving out of love – I was serving to make myself feel important.
Serving the poor, FOCUS taught me, is not about getting results. Jesus didn’t bring me to Mexico so that I could change the world – He brought me there so that He could change me.
By confronting my own poverty, I came to realize that the language barrier between Antonia and me had nothing to do with Spanish – it was about the language of love – that is, the language of Jesus.
Through this FOCUS mission trip, Jesus brought me to enter into the suffering of His heart at the moment when His arms were pinned to the cross. Unable to speak to me or embrace me, His heart burned with sadness. Even now, He desires to lavish mercy on a generation that has made themselves deaf to His voice, and ignorant to the language He speaks.
Through the people of Mexico, I became a witness to the gaping wound between the mouth of Jesus and the ears of humanity.
In response to that wound, I needed to put away my desire to change people. I needed to crucify my pride beside Jesus, and focus my energy on teaching the language of love to everyone I encountered.
The Gospel always changes people, but sometimes, trying to teach the Gospel to a person who has never felt love is like speaking Spanish to a girl who only had a few lessons in middle school.
I don’t speak Spanish, but I have heard Love call my name. Now it’s my goal to be Love’s translator, bringing His light to the darkest places. I can’t solve poverty, but I can introduce Jesus into that poverty. The rest I must leave up to Him.
But it all starts with “Hola.”