Last week was my first week back in South America in about eight months. I spent it doing missionary work with a group from the US, Peru as well as Ecuador high in the Ecuadorian Andes. It was one of those types of experiences that makes you reflect on your life and think about the things that matter most to you, and what you want to be. We spent the majority of our time near a small city known as Guaranda near Ecuador’s largest volcano, Chimborazo. Our group was composed of around 50 people, who made up of of students, priests, doctors, nurses, interpreters, a nun, and others who simply wished to do a part in making a difference in the lives of others. After being picked up by a bus in Quito and spending the night near the capital we traveled for many hours until we reached a retreat center resting perfectly on the side of a mountain overlooking a green valley stretching for miles across the mountains. It was the type of place that you would envision if you were to think of a 17th century Spanish hacienda, with cows, horses and a pig eating just outside the towering white walls of the building.
We spent our week visiting several communities that were high in the mountains. This is my first time that I have done missionary work in the mountains, and it was an incredible experience spending time with the people who have made it their home. The first language of many of the people is Quichua, a language that is has been spoken long before Spanish was introduced into Ecuador. Everyone on the team had a job to do depending on what they were good at. As for me, I took on the roll of a language interpreter for the medical staff. Although I am by no means an expert in medical interpretation, overall it went very well. I kept a notebook by my side so that every time a word or phrase came up that I didn’t know I would either ask one of the other interpreters if they knew it, or I would ask the patient to describe it to me so that I could write it down and would be able to recognize it in the future. Many of the adults were suffering from arthritis at a very young age (early 50s). Another common issue was stomach pain and headaches, which could have been caused by quite a variety of reasons- however parasites in the stomach/intestines was one of the major contributors. A lot of the water that is drank is not filtered nor is anything added to the water to assist in purification. We had a large supply of medication that we were able to give to the patients so that they could be effectively treated and kill any parasites that may be living in their system. Many of the people that we worked with were very, very poor. Some came from other villages and had to walk great lengths just so that they would be able to receive help at our clinic. The first few days seemed to be a bit scattered, but before long we were able to get in the flow of things. The patients would be administered the anti parasitic medication if they were able to take it, and then they would either see the dentist, optometrist, or go to one of several groups of chairs that were set up as a triage station- where the nurses and interpreters would work with the patients to try and evaluate what it is that they were dealing with. If it was something serious, one of the doctors would come and examine the patient to try and figure out what the problem was.
Those who didn’t work in the clinic were out playing with the children, speaking with the elders, playing music, singing songs, and doing everything that they could to try and be a light for the people. Although a large part of the trip was focused on helping out with medical issues, we also worked with the people to help teach them about Christ. There were those who taught some of the children how to say the rosary, or taught them songs to sing. We held mass every day for the people, many of which were only able to attend once or twice a year. It was a lot of fun working with the staff as well as the students. For some this was their first year, others have been doing it for more than ten.
After a full week of working in the clinic, working with children, traveling to different villages on narrow dirt roads twisting around the mountains and doing everything that we could to help the people- it was time to leave. I’ve heard in the past that when doing missionary work, what the people do for you is actually more than what you are doing for them. Most of the people are simply grateful to receive help, or just to have someone there for them in their time of need. I think that many people often forget about others on their own road to success or personal gain, and fail to recognize how badly some people need help and if anything, simply inspiration. You don’t have to travel across the world and reach out to communities to change lives. Sometimes all that you need do is take time to help another, and show them the love that exists in the world.