Diocesan Young Adult Ministry Coordinator Brenda Noriega provides a travel log and reflection on her seven-day trip to Liberia as part of a Catholic Relief Services’ Multicultural Immersion Delegation.
“What a twisted Church we have.”
These were the first words, accompanied by tears, that came out of my mouth during our evening reflection after my first day in Liberia.
I had come straight from Rome, where I had the honor of representing our Diocese and the U.S. in an international youth forum. There, I had been amazed by the beautiful, big churches that keep the treasures of our faith and the relics of our greatest Saints.
Now, 24 hours later, I was in West Africa, witnessing poverty and a lack of “basic” resources and infrastructure on a level I had never seen before. I was so angry at God and in my prayer all I could ask was, why? Why would He allow such a pain in His people? How is it possible to have marvelous buildings but a wounded Church? And, no, a Masters’ Degree in Pastoral Ministries does not help when you are confronted with such realities. The mind and the heart don’t always get along. At the end of my first day in Liberia, all I wanted to do was to flip tables and cry alone in my room yelling at God about a reality He already knows.
I woke up the second day afraid to go out of my hotel room. I did not know if I was going to be able to hold my feelings in and avoid a meltdown in public. I convinced myself that my faith was strong enough to trust in God. Little did I know that on our way to visit the Star of the Sea Catholic Clinic, located in West Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Monrovia, my heart would be broken in many little pieces when I saw children looking for food in the trash and thousands of people walking in a neighborhood without restrooms (except for communal ones they have to pay for).
The second shock was when I walked in the halls of a clinic with facilities that lack the right surgical tools and medicines to treat pregnant teenage mothers with HIV, malaria, and other diseases. The first thing that crossed my mind was ‘how can I help?’ ‘how much money do we need to raise?’ ‘how many sales do we need to plan?’ ‘We need to FIX this.’ God did not wait long to give me my first lesson when the director of the clinic said at the end of our tour, “Thank you for coming. It is true that we need financial help, but it is the moral support that keeps us going.”
How silly of us Americans that we always want to “fix things.” We want others to be happy at our own standards and under what we know as “comfort and happiness.” The Clinic Director’s words struck me like a lightening bolt in the middle of the storm, helping me to see the lighthouse. God was asking me to just be present and stop reacting with prepackaged answers and programs in my mind. That’s when I started paying attention to the smiles.
Everywhere we went, we found people, especially children, ready to offer us the “little” they had and the “much” we needed. People welcomed us with smiles and stories of resilience and hope. They told us about their struggles, but they would not focus on them. On the contrary, they would tell us how Catholic Relief Services (CRS), among other Catholic organizations, helped them either to rebuild their homes after a fire, build hospital rooms, buy medical equipment, fund entrepreneurship programs, and most importantly “believe in them, when nobody else did.” Every day at every site we visited, we found people who appreciate every meal they eat and every person they encounter, for they do not take anything for granted.
One of the places that filled me with hope was the HIV Catholic Center. This center serves dozens of HIV positive brothers and sisters. At the center they receive counseling, food, and education as well as funding to open a small business. The participants are put in teams of six and they all contribute in the success of one person’s business. That is the spirit of real collaboration. They told us how their families rejected them when they told them they were HIV positive. Some of them mentioned they are currently homeless and struggle to attend the meetings at the center due to the lack of transportation and financial resources.
Sarah, the director and social worker at the center, mentioned that different organizations have tried to open support centers, but they always fade away. This Catholic Center has remained open for 15 years. Sarah said the longevity is due to a focus on empowerment of the person and acceptance and recognition of their human dignity as children of God. They do not just give out money, because once grants are gone, people are gone. However, when they find a community, people continue coming for the support they find in each other.
What a big lesson this is when we think of our programs and who we are as Catholics. In Liberia, we learned to love and give of who we are and not of what we have. Our brothers and sisters were so happy to see us not afraid to hug them and share a meal with them. There was this beautiful woman, Florence, who held my hand and was showing me off with everybody telling them proudly “Look, this is my new friend, Brenda.”
She was happy just because I was there holding her hand. She knew I had nothing to offer but a smile. Once again, God was asking me to be present, fully alive and present because that is how He gives Himself to us.
It is true that Liberia is a country that has gone through traumatic events. Liberians were in civil war for about 20 years and then, only 11 years later, they were impacted by the deadly Ebola virus. In the last 35 years, they have lost hundreds of thousands of their beloved people. They continue recuperating from tragic experiences, but the effects of the war and Ebola are still prevalent.
“Properties can be rebuilt (after war) but it takes generations, to rebuild humanity,” stated Most Rev. Anthony Fallah Borwah, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Liberia, during our first day in Liberia.
Unemployment is high and that is a reason young people do not want to study and prefer to opt for crime or drugs. Lack of education among young people is a crisis since 75% of the population is under the age of 35.
“We are deeply wounded… and that’s affecting our young people,” Bishop Borwah told us.
As I heard this, I could not help but to think about how sheltered and privileged we, young people, are in the United States. We have resources and opportunities and yet we do not always take advantage of them. What would young people in Liberia do with what we, many times, do not appreciate?
Many times, I have heard young people say that our Catholic faith is a faith of words and not actions. That is not what I witnessed in Liberia. Everyday I woke up feeling prouder to be Catholic and having the opportunity to wear the CRS shirt as part of the Multicultural Immersion Delegation. Yes, our Church might seem a contradiction at times when we see big buildings and treasures yet talk of helping the poor and hungry of the world. We stop to take pictures of cathedrals and art pieces, but we do not stop to look in the eyes of all those we encounter, especially the most vulnerable.
We might get angry at God and question him for the struggles we face or witness. But one thing I learned is that God walks with his people and it is through His grace that wounded people come together, receive hope, and look up to heaven holding on to His promises. It is by the grace of God that people receive joy during their challenges. We can clothe them but only God can touch their souls.
The Church is not twisted, the teachings are clear. It is our actions as Christians that can be twisted and incoherent. It is up to us, the faithful, to build the Church and to act, to bring hope. It is not about the ‘what’ but the ‘who.’
Bishop Borwah told us that during Liberia’s civil war, “CRS helped to restore hope. When people questioned their faith and God’s existence, CRS was there.” I have never felt prouder of being Catholic, but I also have never been more challenged to live up to my Christian values, starting with being present and giving of myself. A popular modern song goes, “I found love in a hopeless place” but I would say that I found love in a wounded place. No place is hopeless when we Christians bring God and act according to the Gospel. Liberia is a wounded place indeed, but not hopeless. We have goods, but they have hope. We have food, but they have joy. We have jobs, but they have a community. They know they belong to each other.