|An excerpt from One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, by Ashley Mae Hoiland. Avaliable here.|
Once, as my companion and I walked home for lunch in the border town of northern Uruguay, we came down a street we did not know and found a large man stirring something in an even larger pot. Curious, we stopped to ask him what he was doing, and he explained that each day one person took the pot and cooked for all the families in the neighborhood. They pooled together what rations they received from the government and ate together every night.
From the hill, we walked to the church that stood near the edge and watched Magdalena’s baptism. She crocheted for a living and only allowed us to come over when her husband was at work. And Paula, who had a hair studio in her home, wore bright red lipstick and sang so loudly, wearing her high heels and displaying her cleavage without noticing that no one else wore miniskirts to church.
I saw poverty in the city of Riviera that was beyond my scope of understanding. The smell of mildew and old cooking oil, the crisp color of mud floors and worn cardboard boxes and dirty barking dogs, the teen girls that came to the fence every morning asking to use my hair straightener before they went to school, the time a woman fed us moldy squashes for lunch and we all knew it and ate anyway.
I explained once to a concerned boy we were teaching that no, the body of Jesus would not in fact be under the white sheet that covered the sacrament table. In the church, the piano I played was so out of tune I often could not tell if the hymn I was playing was the song the congregation was singing.
Maybe the thing I remember best, though, is that distinct feeling I got every time we approached a new door or person on the street, the way, despite experiencing so little quantifiable missionary success to speak of, I felt sure that we were about to meet the golden contact, the one or ones I’d been sent on my mission to find, the person or family that had been praying us to them.
Some afternoons we worked on the rural outskirts of town and were often welcomed into houses by old and lonely people. With absolute impatience, we often found ourselves trapped in sparse living rooms or on the edges of rickety beds just listening while they, propped up by flat pillows, talked without any desire for another half to take part in the conversation. Honestly, hours I spent listening without getting a word in. I often could not follow their line of thought because it zigzagged so rapidly and nonsensically across the decades of their life. Spanish, still a new language, felt jumbled and clumsy because they almost never had a full set of teeth to work with.
We once left a home with a woman who spoke at us for hours without our even mentioning our purpose as missionaries. When we finally left, I, in frustration and anger, complained to my companion about what we were even doing out here in this uncared-for bit of desolation at the edge of a poor town listening to people talk nonsense for hours when we had the words that could save them.
“No,” my companion, a native to the country, said, “We are not here to save them. We are only here to minister to them.”
When I boarded a plane a year later to go home, I had not saved anyone. The thousands of lives I brushed up against left a mark on me, and I left a mark on some of them. My companion was right. We did not save. Through the grace of God we ministered with the kind of charity that grows between strangers, and more often than not, we were the ones ministered to.