Volunteer Bridget Wilson reflects on her experience at Liberia Mission and how it forever changed her perspective on suffering
After graduating college in 2013, I spent five months volunteering for Franciscan Works + Liberia Mission in West Africa. Right now, I imagine many of you are thinking about Ebola and the devastating impact it had on Liberia’s population. By the grace of God I was home 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. Since I was there 10 years after the war, many of the children and adults I encountered were born and raised in the midst of it all. The Liberia Mission was founded in 2003, and became a home to many children displaced by the war.
Before heading to Liberia, I spent months practically obsessed with watching promotion videos from the mission, trying to get to know the children, 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. I was convinced that not procuring waffles during my long layover in Belgium was the worst kind of suffering. I was met by dozens of happy, smiling children, and even some of the familiar faces I had seen on my computer! I remember thinking to myself that this was such a wonderful experience, that I would easily fit in, I would be able to give all I had to the mission every single day. Well, then the mosquitos bit my knees. The junk food cravings hit. I didn’t always enjoy my work. Sometimes I didn’t have enough work to do (I admit there were plenty of times I didn’t look hard enough for work), or I was begrudgingly working all alone. I spent far too much time wallowing in my own minuscule little sufferings, I forgot about the people I was there to serve. I glazed over the plight of others and thought only of me, only of “I”.
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 spell out where the children 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. I was working with one boy, about 11 or 12, and asked him who he knew of that we would contact. He stayed quiet. I asked if he had an older sibling, any relatives, if he knew any phone numbers at the top of his head. He responded by putting his head on the table. This happy little boy, who usually had a mischievous grin and a charming personality, had shut down. Frustrated, I went and mentioned this to a mission employee, and was told, “He doesn’t have anyone in the world.”
Wow. It had hit me.
Born in a time of war. Lost both his parents. Lost his family and friends. He had a remarkably hard life. Sound familiar? It’s almost exactly what St. Pope John Paul II was born into. Intense suffering. Suffering any one of us would struggle to see a way out of. It should then be of no surprise that JP II has some profound things to say on suffering:
“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 actions.”
I think this quote is incredibly fitting to my situation. I needed to give up “I” on behalf of the children around me. I’m not going to say it had suddenly become easier, but I had found my “mission.” My little friend, though “alone in the world,” is no longer alone in his suffering. I try to offer up any of my own sufferings… big or small… for him and all the children I met on my mission. And maybe through this, we can all become saints. I am aware, just like Pope John Paul II, that suffering is instrumental in obtaining sainthood. That little boy struggling to fill out paperwork could become a saint like JP II. And, hey, maybe one day, he’ll even become pope… they already seem to have a lot in common.
Liberia Mission has grown tremendously in size over the last year, as it has opened its doors to children victimized by Ebola and AIDS. If you are interested in sponsoring a child, donating or learning more about Franciscan Works + Liberia Mission, please go to www.franciscanworks.org.