General Cepeda Encounter
There are some places to which I never would have imagined myself traveling, and much less going on mission. Mexico is one of those places. Anyone acquainted with current worldwide news and seeking to journey to other countries would exercise caution before traveling and investigate the safety level of the destination. According to the data of the US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, there are plenty of other places to go safer than Mexico (check out this neat map to see the travel advisories). When the Lord opened the door for me to be His missionary for a weeklong trip to General Cepeda in Coahuila, MX, as a supplemental part of my Family Missions Company internship, I trusted that it was His will, said yes, and signed up.
I felt prepared by FMC for the travel and the mission work awaiting me. My confidence was bolstered by being on the same flight as the Keeton family, one of the families coming to General Cepeda as well. In the orientation video we were asked to watch before the trip, we were encouraged to let go of our expectations and embrace the reality that mission work is both being Christ to others and encountering Him in those around you. That was why we were going. The desire to respond more fully and radically to our call as Christians to be missionary disciples of Christ was why God had called each missionary to be there that week. On our first day together, I was blessed to hear each visiting and long-term missionary claim their identity as a missionary disciple, and to be able to say with them, “Hi, my name is Vicente García and I am a Catholic missionary. And if I were a kitchen tool I would be a ladle because I like to stir up a lot of goodness.”
We always began the day growing more united as a community through the following: singing praise and worship, thanking God for His gifts and blessings, reading scripture out loud and sharing any inspirations from the Holy Spirit, petitioning the Lord, receiving updates for the day, praying over one another as needed, and then sharing a delicious breakfast prepared by the Mexican FMC missionaries. The almost-twenty of us visitors were mixed into different groups each day and led by different long-term missionaries for our designated assignments. In the mornings, some groups would be doing some serious churchyard repurposing, while others would be visiting and praying with the poor in the neighborhood who are friends with the full-timers.
One of my first missionary endeavors was to work as a team to help repurpose the churchyard to provide a recreational space for the local church community. The project involved strenuous manual labor to cut down two tall pine trees and a big gnarly bush, but it also involved some spiritual strain. I began to realize I hadn’t tempered one of my expectations before coming, namely, that of being able to speak with the locals and translate aplenty. As a Puerto Rican raised in a bilingual household, the Spanish language and Hispanic/Latino culture have always been a part of who I am. For much of my life I have found myself setting aside that part of me as something that has no place in the dominantly English-speaking communities where I have grown up. Instead I have tended to reserve that part of me for my relationship with my family and relatives. Coming to General Cepeda, I had a perfect opportunity to let that part of me manifest itself, and yet my first task was to patiently and creatively uproot a twisted, stubborn bush.
In hindsight I see God’s providence for me in that encounter with myself, how He sees me, and what He desires for me. The bush is an excellent metaphor for life, since its gnarly nature reflects life’s complexity. Further, this bush was so entangled in itself that some of the primary roots were rotten, as if they had been choked over time. It makes me think of weeds choking the wheat in the parable of the sower and the seeds (Matthew 13), which is a parable about the difficulties we have in accepting the eternal life, goodness, and happiness our loving Father wants to share with us. Often I have felt as if the good seeds God has planted in me over time have all grown so close together that they were forced to battle for growing space, leaving a mess of victors and losers, joys and disappointments. I’m weak and messy inside, much like that bush, and throughout this past Lenten season the Lord has been showing me His plan for that: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In little ways our Father has been patient and generous with me, showing me How much he loves me even in my helplessness, and drawing me closer to Him through His Son.
In the afternoons after a scrumptious lunch we generally had free time to rest, explore, spend time with the Lord in prayer, or help with door-ministry. Sometimes when I hoped to sneak in a nap, someone in need of food, medicine, or prayers would be welcomed into our Casa de Misiones by one of the FMC missionaries and usually some of the visiting missionaries. Their humility in prioritizing the needs of the poor people who came regularly was amazing to witness and be a part of. It made me ask, “How can I rest when Jesus is at my doorstep?” Equally amazing was the humility of the poor who came to our house in their needs, or of those who were simply open to chatting and praying with us missionaries when we would use our break time to visit them in their homes. One particularly moving encounter took place when God unexpectedly led me and small group of missionaries to visit people other than we had hoped, but failed, to find.
The row houses in General Cepeda are simple, yet brilliantly flash their rainbow variety of colors. They help bring levity to the surrounding desert lacking in verdure. As the small group I was in roamed the streets in the afternoon sun searching for a certain Matilda, another woman popped her head out of a neighboring teal abode. We started talking to her and found out Matilda was away for the week, but María de Jesús invited us inside her place. Shortly after getting to know her better (speaking Spanish of course) and praying with her and for her, an ancient man visible outside the window carefully pushed his walker toward the teal house and sat down on a decorative log by the door. María de Jesús introduced us to Cipriano, the ninety-something man who was taken in from an early age by the family across the street. They had hired him as their farm-hand and he apparently did that for the rest of his life. I was somewhat disturbed by how disproportionately large his hands were in relation to his body, as well as his unkempt, thick, inch-long fingernails.
He was deaf, so we couldn’t converse with him directly, but we decided to go buy him some nail clippers and scissors and cut his nails. Upon our return we found Cipriano inside the teal house busily picking pecan shells. This was the kind of work that must have made his hands so strong and worn over time. Yet it never occurred to him to cut his nails, or for someone to do it for him. The nail of his right thumb was rounded and as thick as a dog’s claw, so much so that when we tried to cut it we couldn’t because the gap of the nail clippers was not wide enough. To me, this was but a small taste of the poverty these people suffer and endure. I know so little about Cipriano, yet his evident simplicity and diligent sacrificing challenged me to see Christ in Him. “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). And even further, am I willing to love others as Christ did, to the point of my deformity?
As evenings approached we would all hop in the FMC mission vehicles and drive out to small outlying towns called ranchos to invite the people to gather at the chapel for prayer and, if we had the visiting priest with us, confession and Mass. We would ring a bell when ready, and so we began: singing praise and worship, sharing our testimonies of God’s work in our lives, praying with the people and for their needs, and providing some material necessities for them (and maybe some goodies for the children). I was excited to be there, especially since this was my time to use my Spanish. But I had to catch myself from falling into the temptation of letting using it be an end, instead of simply a means for God to bless others with my testimony and those of the other missionaries limited in their Spanish-speaking abilities. First and foremost, we were there to witness to Jesus and form real relationships with those people as Christ did on His mission. I’m confident that the Holy Spirit worked through us to touch the people who came to the chapel and their families.
My testimony of God’s work in my life is like the Virgin Mary’s fiat. She continually sought the Lord and said “yes” to Him, bearing the cross of small, daily yesses. I haven’t had a big conversion moment like St. Paul where he got knocked to the ground by Jesus’s light. Instead, God has given me the gift of bearing the cross of continually choosing Him. No matter the type of conversion, it’s real, it’s hard, and we need God’s help. He always chooses us, His little children, and loves us into existence every moment of our lives. If He stopped loving us for even one moment, we would cease to exist. Take a breath. You read that right! (And bonus points if you please tell me which saint/person said that because I can’t remember). This reality calls for gratefulness and humility.
Before lights out we would all enjoy a good, communal teeth-brushing in the “pila”, a washing basin in the middle of the mission house courtyard. On our first night Mr. Saul Keeton joked that seeing us all perform the intimate act of brushing our teeth made him feel like he knew us so much better now. The others didn’t find that as funny as he and I did; we heard awkward crickets.
Throughout the week I experienced silence of mind and heart, and simplicity, which fostered blessed encounters. I encountered Christ in our merry band of missionaries as we got to know one another. I encountered Him in the poor we prayed with, and in myself, my own poverty. It was a privilege and blessing to become friends with the people of General Cepeda, and with the visiting and full-time missionaries. I left a piece of my heart there, and am taking with me a list on my phone with almost eighty names of the people I encountered that week to better remember them (my memory isn’t so great) and keep them all in my prayers.
He is risen, alleluia! God has blessed us with eternal life with Him through His Son! Never forget what He has done for us, “but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Be strong in the Lord and stand firm, resisting the evil one and his snares (cf. Ephesians 6:10-13). I pray He blesses you and your families this Easter season. Please pray for me in my discernment of missionary life. And feel free to check out my blog.