This is the sixth week of a Lenten series. This week we focus on suffering.
By: Bridget Wilson, Guest Contributor
After graduating from college in May 2013, I spent five months volunteering for Franciscan Works: Liberia Mission, in West Africa. Right now, I imagine that when many of you think of West Africa, you think about Ebola and the devastating impact it had on Liberia’s population… by the grace of God I was back home in the United States several months before the epidemic. The Ebola crisis managed to take the spotlight away from a crisis equally devastating: the Liberian Civil War, which began in 1989 and ended in 2003. Because I was there 10 years after the war, many of the children and adults I encountered were born and raised during wartime. The Liberia Mission was founded in 2003 and became a home to many children displaced by the war.
Before traveling to Liberia, I spent months practically obsessed with watching promotional videos from the Mission, trying to get to know the children and wondering if I would meet any of the beautiful faces I saw on my screen. I arrived on a late July evening, after a particularly stressful, exhausting series of flights and layovers. At the time, I was convinced that not getting waffles during my long layover in Belgium was the worst kind of suffering. When I arrived in Liberia, I was met by dozens of happy, smiling children and even some of the familiar faces I saw in the videos! I remember thinking to myself that this was such a wonderful experience, that I would easily fit in; And that I would be able to give all I had to the Mission every single day. Then the mosquitos bit my knees and the junk food cravings hit. I didn’t always enjoy my work and sometimes I didn’t have enough work to do. (I admit there were plenty of times I didn’t look hard enough for work.) Looking back, I spent far too much time wallowing in my own miniscule little sufferings and I forgot about the people I was there to serve. I glazed over the plight of others and thought only of me.
Bridget with three children at the mission in Liberia
One evening I was tasked, along with some mission employees, to gather up the children and go over paperwork. We were required to fill out government documents, which would allocate where the children that were living in the dorms would go if the Mission were to shut down. Because of the war, many children did not have parents, but many of them were able to provide the information and telephone numbers of older siblings, aunts, uncles, etc. That evening I was working with one boy – about 11 or 12 years old – and asked him who we should list as his contact. He stayed quiet. I asked if he had an older sibling, any relatives, if he knew any phone numbers off the top of his head. He responded by putting his head on the table. This boy, who usually had a mischievous grin and a charming personality, was emotionally shutting down. Frustrated, I went and mentioned this to another Mission employee, and was told, “He doesn’t have anyone in the world.”
Children at the mission in Liberia
Wow. It had hit me. This young boy was born in a time of war. He lost both his parents, his family and friends. He had an extraordinarily hard life. Sound familiar? Pope Saint John Paul II also experienced circumstances fraught with intense suffering. Where many of us struggle to find meaning in our suffering, his was not in vain:
“We could say that suffering . . . is present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s “I” on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love that stirs in his heart and action.” – Pope Saint John Paul II
In my experience, I needed to give up “I” on behalf of the children around me. I’m not going to say that it suddenly become easier to suffer, but I found my “mission.” Suffering is an inevitable facet of the human experience and one from which true beauty arises. We can use our trials and sufferings to show true compassion, that is, to suffer with one another. Because of this, my little friend, though “alone in the world”, is no longer alone in his suffering. And, when we allow our sufferings to unite us to one another and ultimately to the Passion of Our Lord, we experience the resurrection in Him.