What is VLM?

The Vincentian Lay Missionaries is an organization founded in 2005 by the Daughters of Charity. Our mission is to enmesh lay young adults in the ministry and service of St. Vincent de Paul by partnering with the global Vincentian Family - the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. Vincentians believe in creating lasting systemic change, living in solidarity with the people they serve, and promoting peace and dignity for all peoples.

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Welcome to my blog! My explanation for writing this starts with my very first post: The Journey Begins, Part 1.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

To Be Continued

For any of my followers who would like to read more of my ramblings, I've started a new blog: http://godandmykitchen.blogspot.com/. Now that I'm busy chasing around a toddler, I don't think I'll be returning to Kenya any time soon, but I'd love to have you along for the ride. :)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Camp, Take 1.

It was Monday morning, and the combination of nerves and excitement from the four of us was palpable. We had no idea how the day would pan out, and, like the punctual Westerners that we all were, we were prepared and set up at 8:45am for our 9am camp start. We were expecting 75 children, ages 5-10.

There had been children waiting outside the gate since we first went outside at 7am, so I had thought our 9am start would go smoothly. What the translators at the gate told me - what set the tone for my whole first day - was that all of these children outside weren't even the children from the list. [Side note: the camp rosters had been created from going into the communities and enrolling the poorest and most malnourished children. Not exactly people I would want to kick out of camp for being late.] Being completely new to the situation, and aware that we needed to operate on "Africa time," I decided that first day not to replace the roster with the  children at the gate, and allow the enrolled children to trickle in as they came. We had about 25 little ones by 9:30, and were close to 60 by the end of our first morning, out of the 75 on our roster. Needless to say, while the first day's activities were very successful and the children had a ball - the scene outside the gate was heart wrenching. I will never forget that first day of the first camp. We tried slightly different strategies each week, and I don't think we ever got it quite right - every new project takes some growing pains - but that day broke my heart. If there had been enough space to take them all, I gladly would have.

Jenny, one of my fellow coordinators, led a beautiful reflection for us at the end of our experience - and I found myself coming back to this first day. I would like to leave you with the first part of what I wrote that night.

I remember when the children all stood standing at the gate.
I remember when I realized we didn't have enough room to let them all come inside.
I remember when they kept their faces pressed against the keyhole.
I remember when they learned my name, and called to me from outside to let them in.
I remember when I left the camp and talked with them, and the smiles it put on their faces.

I remember my heart breaking at the gate.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Gospel Comes Alive

While each individual mass I attended has lost its distinction in my memory, I will never forget what it felt like to attend mass in Kitale.

The Church we worshiped with in Kitale was right down the hill, about a 5-10 minute walk from the Daughters' compound. It's an outstation of a larger parish in Kitale - and as such, I can't imagine how large the parish must be! There is a large stone building that has been under construction for the last 5 years, and when it's finished it will be a beautiful church. The Daughters are hopeful that in the future it will become its own parish, and they will get a Vincentian priest to serve there - making the parish, and the neighborhood by extension, alive in the Vincentian charism.

But, the beautiful stone and brick building is still just a shell, and much work remains to be done. In the meantime, the Church (and I use capital C here intentionally, because I am not referring to a building, but to the body of Christ) gathers in a wooden shack, with mud floors and a tin sheeting roof. It's a very large shack, the largest I've ever seen - and it was filled to overflowing, standing room only, every single mass.

As a musician and a lover of church music, the first thing that I noticed about mass was the choir. No microphones, no pomp and circumstance, and virtually no instruments - the choir simply sat on the benches in the midst of the congregation. They had a few handheld percussion instruments mixed among them, and one set of congas. With "5 loaves and 2 fish," they used their voices to create some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard. I don't know the words to describe the experience of the music, other than awe-inspiring.

And, with music like that, who could help but dance for the Lord? There was a team of liturgical dancers, that I even joined (albeit, not well!) for our last mass in Kitale. I'd never seen liturgical dance used in such a way that it really brought alive the transitions of the mass. The liturgical dancers led the procession into the church, and danced among the congregation throughout the gathering song, until they surrounded the altar. Then, after the opening rite, there was a song to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word, and the liturgical dancers again danced to celebrate the Word. After the homily, there would be a liturgical dance procession to bring the gifts to the altar. It really enlivened my understanding of each part of the mass, by seeing them celebrated in such a way.

Bringing gifts to the altar. I will never think of the Gospel passage of the woman who gives her two coins because it was all she had the same way again. Again with song, rather than a collection basket, they have a procession to bring their gifts to the altar. Men, women, children, some on crutches, many without shoes, and most in the same "Sunday best" each week - nearly the entire congregation processed to the front, most covering their hand as they dropped their offering into the basket. I can't recall this story without it bringing tears to my eyes, because that level of faith, that level of trust in the Providence of the Lord, is too amazing for words.

Our first Sunday and our last Sunday, the 4 of us were brought up to the front to say hellos and goodbyes. As the leader, I was the designated spokesperson for the group - and I've never had such a large audience! The enthusiasm in the room was tangible, and their overwhelming gratitude, their smiles, laughter and cheers, were so undeserved.

Sure, the mass was long - usually 2-2.5 hours - and sure, we never understood any of it because it was all in Kiswahili, and sure, when you've got hundreds of bodies crammed into a shack where there's not enough room to sit, it gets hot and uncomfortable - but their faith didn't have a language barrier, their music swept you away, and their love was like a cool breeze for the soul.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Habari? (How are You?)

I do miss the choruses of everyone saying hello, whether it was the children screaming "how are you? how are you? how are you?" in English from the side of the road, or the chorus of "jambo"s as we walked down the street.

It's really hard to believe I've been back for two and a half weeks already. As you've probably guessed from my absence, life has been... a little busy. It's also been difficult to know where to start - so today I decided to start from the beginning.

I left San Francisco that Wednesday in a blur, steeling myself for the 10 hour solo flight until I met up with the rest of the volunteers in Amsterdam. We all managed to make our connections (barely for some) and before I knew it, all 12 of us (11 volunteers plus the wonderfully helpful Sister Catherine Madigan) were on our final flight to Nairobi. We arrived in Nairobi around 8:30pm on Thursday, most of us completely exhausted from the inability to sleep on a plane. The Daughters were waiting to greet us with open arms, and soon we were being whisked away - the Kioo group stayed the night at the Nairobi house, while the rest of us got started on our journey by staying the night in Thigio about an hour drive West.

Departure time was 7am - and we stepped out the front door to see the matatu that would be taking us to Kitale. Matatus are essentially passenger vans, and are one of the most common forms of transport from one city to another. I remember leaving from Thigio, sitting in this rickety van, thinking that the gravel road was going to be a looooong 8 hour drive. Thankfully, the gravel was only for the first hour or so, until we hit the paved "highway" that goes through the Great Rift Valley. I say "highway" because it was so full of potholes and grooves, that sometimes we actually drove in the ditch because it was safer!

The drive through southwestern Kenya was stunning, in every sense of the word. I was overwhelmed by the astounding beauty everywhere I looked - cliffs, mountains, lush foliage, wild zebras running amongst a herd of cattle - it was some of the most beautiful landscape I've ever seen. But, I was also stunned by the poverty. Tiny shack villages that have spurred up on the side of the highway, just a series of shacks one right next to the other, with women sitting along the roadside selling food or wares. A small solitary child tending a herd of goats, seemingly miles from civilization. Crumbling stone buildings, I can only imagine to be remnants of an era when wealthy British colonists populated the area.

We arrived in Kitale around 3pm, and the Daughters fed us a very hearty, and very long anticipated, lunch. We said our goodbyes to the Chepynal group, who then headed another 3.5 hours further, up a completely different kind of "road"... but I didn't experience that until week 2, so I'll save that story.

We did our best to get our bearings, even though we were all very tired and jetlagged. That first night was a blur, and we all went to bed shortly after supper.

When we awoke the next morning, we got our first proper taste of Kitale. Most of us went to mass with the Sisters that morning, in Kiswahili of course, and then afterwards came back and had what would become our staple breakfast for the next month - toast and peanut butter. Then it was off to my first big project as coordinator - going to the market to stock the volunteer house with food. That morning was an experience I'll never forget!

The market was a fascinating place. In some sense, it was a typical open air farmers market, with tons of individual shops. Many sold similar foods, such as avocados, tomatoes, and corn. Mangoes and bananas were also very easy to find. There were plenty of things I'd never seen before, and Sister Josephine (a native Kenyan, and our translator/guide for the day) did her best to try to figure out what my curiosities might be called in English. The market was similar to what I would have expected - shack-like structures, muddy, buggy, full of children running around without shoes. What I wasn't expecting was the supermarket maybe a 5 minute drive away. Kitale is a very large city, and it has several streets of modernity, including supermarkets, clothing stores, phone shops, and the like. I learned how to order meat in kilograms at the butcher, and that milk and yogurt cartons look almost identical. I also learned that green beans do not exist. It was a fascinating  and exhausting morning, and by lunch time we were all thankful to be going back "home."

We got back just in time, because about half way through lunch, the rains started. That first day was thankfully the only day it rained so hard, because all of the buildings we would be using for camp filled with water during the flash flood that afternoon. Being from Oregon, I thought I knew rain... but I've never seen rain like that, where you look outside the window and it looks like someone is just pouring water out of a large bucket. The rest of the day was caught up in the aftermath of the flood - thankfully it just made a mess, and didn't cause any major structural damages!

The next morning was our first full experience of a Kenyan Sunday Mass - and that's enough for a post all by itself :)