Thursday, April 26, 2012

Great Kids: Finding Love and Faith in El Salvador

Ellie and Abby are typical American kids. They do typical American things, like play sports, participate in school plays, play the flute, study hard, and hang out with their friends and family. They're also excited about being Catholic kids, and got a chance this past Holy Week to act in imitation of Christ on a very special mission trip planned by their father, Joe. While most kids are enjoying Easter break by sleeping in, visiting family, going to Florida, or hanging around the house doing chores (!), Abby, Ellie, her dad, and a family friend named Doris went to El Salvador to visit an impoverished village, Doris's home.  What they found there surprised them, touched them, strengthened their faith in God, and motivated them to live out their Catholic faith generously.

When they first arrived after a long flight for their weeklong mission experience, Ellie, 12, admits she was a bit unsure when she stepped foot into the poor village.

"I was surprised," she admitted. "I sat in a hammock and I thought it would be horrible. I saw cockroaches. There were dogs roaming the streets." She said the houses were made of cinderblock and metal and were all really close together.  At 6:00 in the morning, people would honk horns selling bread and milk.  Three hours earlier, roosters crowed, waking them all up and making it hard to sleep.

One of the roosters that interrupted everyone's sleep
One of the houses in the village

Her sister Abby, 13, was also skeptical when she saw the house they were all to stay in for the week.

"It was completely different compared to our world. I had a picture in my mind of how the house would be like, but my mouth dropped open, literally. It's not what I had expected. It was small, there were mosquitoes everywhere, and the bathroom and the sink were outside. It was really hard to process. I thought, How am I going to stay here for a whole week?

Abby said she wanted to go back home, saying the whole area was a little hard to bear at first. Then she got to thinking.  "They had all the necessities for us," she said. "The house was crowded, but they were willing to share their food and drinks, all the necessities we needed. They were really nice."

Ellie changed her mind, too. "I thought, I should be happy here because I am so blessed. There were so many nice people that I was happy to be around them."

She said she started to get an open mind about the food and the culture in the El Salvadoran village.  "It's a wonderful country," she said, remembering the willingness of the people to share their tortillas, beans, noodles, rice and cheese.

It was hard for the girls to speak the limited Spanish they knew, but even with the language barrier, they were able to make friends with the people they were helping. They quickly became friends with a fun-loving boy named Oscar, with whom they found a common love for soccer.  Outside on the warm, dusty roads, the kids would all gather together to have fun. Abby and Ellie were delighted when Oscar, 13, climbed up an avocado tree to get them avocados.

"We had fun wherever we went," said Abby, who enjoyed seeing a volcano and going to the beach. "The people were all very friendly and very inclusive. Oscar would let me kick the ball and he'd kick the ball back. I felt included in the things we did."

As part of their mission trip, the girls brought donations of money and boxes of toys, clothes, and shoes for the residents, many of whom have nothing.

"These kids don't have any shoes, sometimes they don't have stuffed animals," said Ellie, who befriended a 14-year-old girl named Veronica and thrilled her with one.  "She had never had a stuffed animal. She was so happy."

Ellie (in yellow), Abby, and their dad Joe donated much-needed items to the children of the parish.

Ellie told a story of giving a chocolate bunny to a young boy who had never seen one before. "He was jumping up and down for this chocolate bunny. He was just so happy."

Abby felt thankful for her many blessings as they handed out the baby clothes and toys to the children.  "These kids were jumping up and down," she said. "They were so excited. Even toys like a ball, they're just happy to have one," she said. "I was able to hand out the toys. I was very involved in the community and the church and it was a really good experience."

Throughout the week, the girls made friends and helped out where they could. They shared their culture and their language while they learned about one so different from their own.  They enjoyed seeing lots of processions in the street during Holy Week which included saying the rosary, floats with saints on them, music, and the Blessed Sacrament. The Easter Vigil was completely in Spanish, and while it was challenging for them, they knew the "Our Father" and some of the songs. The girls even sang a solo at Mass— the song "Digo Si Senor," which they had learned in Spanish class at Catholic school back home.

During Holy Week, the village in El Salvador had processions that included the Blessed Sacrament.

When the busy week drew to a close and it was time to leave, the girls grew sad.

"I would definitely go back," said Ellie. "I want to live there.  I feel like everyone was so friendly. The houses may be small, but it's really inspirational to see these people. They have a hard life but they are so happy.  And they are not spoiled at all. They live day by day."

Abby also said she'd like to go back to El Salvador someday.

"Giving money to the church showed me how much they needed help.  I really liked helping them. Giving a toy to another kid who doesn't know you or speak your language made me feel special to share. They just brightened up my day," she said.

As they all gathered in the street to say goodbye, it was bittersweet. An 8-year-old girl named Daisy especially made an impression on Abby.

"Daisy was the cutest little girl I've ever seen, " she remembered.  "She came to say goodbye and gave me a hug and I felt so happy and warm inside. It was probably one of the best moments I've ever had. Just seeing her come to me and actually caring made me so warm inside.  I gave her my purple bracelet as a reminder of me, because she was wearing purple.  I won't forget her.  The fact that she came over is what counts."

I think Abby and Ellie certainly are great kids, living out their faith, leaving the comforts of home to embrace a culture so different from our own, to help those less fortunate.  They are living out the Gospel message...and in the words of Abby, that IS what counts.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stand Strong!

Not too long ago, we had our new pastor over for dinner. The whole family was looking forward to this because Father is outgoing, friendly, funny, and can even be, to my sons' delight, completely goofy. Thus, he has made quite an impression on them ever since he arrived at our parish last summer.

In typical Martha fashion, I wanted everything to be perfect, and drove my family crazy a few days before his visit.  Father does not know this.

My youngest son Paul was especially looking forward to Father coming over. He told all his friends at school. It was like a rock star was coming to our house.

"Why's a priest coming to your house?" some kids asked.

"For dinner!" Paul exclaimed, as if it should have been obvious. "And we're having stuffed shells!"

Stuffed shells, his favorite. There could be nothing better.

When Father arrived, we all sat down in the family room. As Father sat down on the recliner, I fretted that I had vacuumed up every single kitty hair on the upholstery, seeing as he was wearing all black. (You should have seen me with that vacuum attachment earlier in the day. A real Martha.)

I offered Father something to drink, and began the litany of what we had available: iced tea, wine, lemonade, beer, Coke...

"And milk!" Paul offered from where he had plopped himself on the carpet.

"Oh," I laughed, "Yes, but I'm not sure Father—"

"But we do have milk," Paul said earnestly, trying to be a good host. He was adamant that Father know that he could have a tall glass of cold milk, if he so chose. Who wouldn't? After all, it's Paul's drink of choice no matter where we go.  "White milk, please," he will request in restaurants, peoples' homes, everywhere.

I found this beverage offer to Father completely sweet and kind-hearted, and I couldn't resist a glance at Father to see what his reaction was. Bemused, he nodded and smiled in appreciation of Paul's offer.

"Well, thank you Paul," he said ever so kindly, "but actually I could go for a little glass of wine."

Paul shrugged his shoulders. He'd tried. To each his own.  If it had been up to him, he would've had the milk, no question.

It made me think of the innocence of children, and how precious it is.

And how sad it is when it is lost.

In today's culture, it happens earlier and earlier, and as a children's writer, it really hits home for me as I try to counteract the filth and trash that is fed to our young ones. At times it seems like an uphill battle.

Today I signed books at a men's conference for our archdiocese. The speakers were amazing, the Mass beautiful. But I found a common theme as these dads and grandfathers came to my table.  A dad came up to me and I could see the anguish on his face as looked at my books. He told me about his young daughters, and how he was trying to keep their reading wholesome.  He confessed that he finds it difficult to keep his girls that way, especially with the offerings of bad books and movies, and immodest clothing in stores.

"My daughter brought home a book from the library, and the cover looked perfectly decent," he said. "You never would have known from the book jacket that the stuff inside was trash."

I nodded knowingly.  Publishers are clever that way.  Sneaky too. Others, well, they're just out in the open; there's a scantily clad girl on the cover, or a creepy vampire with a bloody mouth. Pretty obvious.

"I tell them no and oh how they complain," the man went on. "Sometimes I have to be the bad guy," he said sadly.

I looked into his eyes and was suddenly filled with immense compassion for this man.  He is a dad. He loves his little girls. He wants to do right by them.

"Don't ever stop," I said to him.  "Stand strong."

He nodded. "I can't be their friend, I've got to be their father."

"You're doing the right thing," I told him. "They need you to keep it up."

 He held up the books I'd signed and smiled.  "Thanks for writing these."

We have to help each other be strong, though.  It's too hard to go at it alone. We have to support each other, encouraging that we are doing the right thing by parenting our children. Our children have enough friends. They need parents, parents who teach them right from wrong, so they can maintain their innocence as long as possible. We all know that innocence goes away with age. It's part of nature, part of being an adult. But childhood is so fleeting. Children have the rest of their lives to be adults. Our children are losing their childhood innocence, and it's terrifying to see.

Stand strong, like this dad is.

Stand strong! The precious souls God loves so much are at stake!

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Come Inside"

"From time to time friends outside the [Roman Catholic] Church consult me. They are attracted by certain features, repelled or puzzled by others. To them I can only say, from my own experience: 'Come inside. You cannot know what the Church is like from outside. However learned you are in theology, nothing you know amounts to anything in comparison with the knowledge of the simplest actual member of the Communion of Saints.' "

- Evelyn Waugh, Engish novelist after his conversion to Catholicism from Anglicanism

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