OTP experience in Thailand has deep impact on Truong Le SVD

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Seminarian Truong Le will return to Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union this fall to complete his final year of studies before ordination to the priesthood in the spring. As part of his formation as a Divine Word Missionary, Truong fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP), or Overseas Training Program (OTP) as it is known in other parts of the world, in Thailand. CTP typically consists of two to three years of living and doing missionary work in a culture other than one’s own. In this article, which was orginally published on the Society of the Divine Word-Australia Province website, Truong reflects upon that experience.

By Truong Le SVD

Mission and culture are essential characteristics of an SVD, and with the two years Cross-Cultural Training Program, I was given a taste in different ministerial settings: teaching English at the local high school, working with Vietnamese migrant workers, visiting the poor, engaging in parish ministries, and helping HIV/AIDS patients, in particular, teenagers living with HIV at The Mother of Perpetual Help Foundation in Nongbualamphu, Thailand.

A sense of naïveté is inevitably attached to the intention of working with orphans, particularly those who are even more vulnerable, being HIV positive and/or living with disabilities. When seeing the children playing with each other at our center, I couldn’t help but ask what they have done to deserve this. They are branded and labelled since birth, and they have had to OTP experience_classroomcarry the burden that comes with the illness without fully realizing why.

Sympathetically, I pondered what I can do to help. My pondering was more in terms of how much can I compensate for what they have suffered–these unwarranted sufferings from the illness, witnessing the death of their parents and growing up without them, being unwanted by relatives, being rejected by society, and, most devastating of all, the feeling of being not good enough for others.

During the last few months of my CTP, I was assigned full time to Ban Mae Marie, which is a subsidiary of the SVD Foundation, caring for abandoned teenagers. The makeup of this place is quite diverse as we recently accepted elderly patients from the hospice due to an overflow.

Perhaps the best description of my work is a mix between a bus driver and a guidance counselor. I work primarily with the teenagers—driving them to school, to the hospital, and basically everywhere else needed. I began somewhat of a counseling session with them to touch base on their well-being and how they feel about living here. The idea behind this program is to build trusting relationship with the children.

This experience has stretched my understanding of love; that love is being generous in spite of trouble and ungratefulness.

Gradually, I became more involved with the daily lives of the teenagers. The basic necessities of food, shelter, and safety are provided for by the foundation. On my part, I tried to do as much as I could for the children.

On a weekly basis, I would take the children for ice cream or to see a movie. During the school breaks, we would go on vacation. Nevertheless, what I was called to do, as I came to realize, was not just give them their needs and wants but rather have the willingness to share my life with them. I had to consider and become attune to the needs of each individual, considering his or her physical and emotional needs, health issues and disabilities. The difficulty, or challenge, was having to open up and enter into the messiness of the whole ordeal, knowing full well of my own limitations and inexperience. What I can give them is, ultimately, myself.

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Disciplining a child is not an easy task, just ask any parent. Now, imagine a 28-year-old, ill-equipped religious missionary with no parenting experience having to care for an HIV-positive child with mental disabilities prone to epileptic seizures and frequent emotional outburst.

Working with this 16-year-old boy was uniquely challenging. At first, I was alarmed when he had a seizure because I was the only adult around. I did not know what to do.

Things became easier as I became more educated about the matter and learned to just let him be. Periodically, he would throw a tantrum, being unable to control his emotions. The staff would then call me to intervene, and my interpretation of intervening was, again, let him be.

I did not respond to any of his emotional uproars and sought to speak with him when he had settled down. To me, he’s quite an intelligent young man. He just needs someone to be patient and explain to him what is acceptable and what is not. Some have told me that he could not benefit from counseling due to his mental state, but I believe that we can help him to understand and practice healthy behavior to cope with strong emotions.

I would not be as naïve to say that caring for this sweet little boy with a tragic history is smooth, easy, and personally gratifying. With every situation or circumstance that came forth, I had to find a moment of calmness from which I can see that things will be fine despite the chaos and hesitancy. Things will always be out of our control, but how we deal with that is up to us. In my case, I pray, hoping that God will pave a way for us to get out of the mess. In looking back, we would always be more grateful for each other for being present for one another during tough times.OTP experience_gift box

Working with teenagers is not without all the dramas of adolescence–love, relationship, and the insistent need for personal freedom. Trivial or not, these are things that give them stress. If I don’t get into the messiness of their lives, they’ll give me stress later. So, I talked with them about everything–things that are happening in their lives.

Most importantly, I have to be interested. The children responded well as I talked with them about decision making. I helped them to consider the consequences of their actions or decisions and urged them to choose a fruitful path. This method works to a degree, but in the end, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is in letting go. They will have to make their own decisions no matter how insistent you are on the “right” path.

This experience has stretched my understanding of love; that love is being generous in spite of trouble and ungratefulness. But isn’t this something that we all can relate to? Aren’t we all running away from something that is persistently waiting for us with love and tenderness?

The Word became flesh and hung upon the cross to say the same words that ache in my heart that night out searching for the child, that is, “come home.” That moment, as I reflect back, clarified for me Jesus’ mission—that is, hearing God’s aching heart calling each one of us to return from our wayward path.

I, too, have left and fallen into my own pit of destruction and sinfulness. Yet, in these very moments, I hear clearly Jesus’ voice calling me home to where I am loved and cared for. Jesus assures all of us of God’s love that through him we hear the silent whisper from God, “you are my beloved [child], with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). God continues to wait eagerly and persistently for us no matter how far we manage to get away because in God’s eyes we are good and we are loved. This is the place to return to wherever we are in our lives, wherever we are in our restless journeys.

 

 

Hope and misery in Muisne, Part 3

Frater Benjamin Le SVD returns home this week after two years in Ecuador, satisfying the Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) portion of his formation. A photographer by profession, Ben captured the life of the people. Today, we present the final of his latest three-part series.

By Ben Le SVD

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It is lunch time, and this little girl is getting her donated food. Like her family, she is homeless and lives in a tent close to our SVD chapel.

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The plastic sheets over the tents are used for protection from rain, which can sometimes be relentless.

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Volunteers cooked for the people.

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The most affected people are the children, but thanks be to God, nothing dampens their spirits, not even an earthquake; they play, sing, run, and sometimes they cry.

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People are starting to rebuild.

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There once were houses on this pier.

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The people make due with what they have.

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These children are deaf.  They make motions at the windows to see if we would give them cookies.  Unfortunately, I did not have any.

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These sisters coordinate relief effort for the camp around the SVD chapel. During their free time, they make rosaries to give away. Here, they are teaching a visiting priest how to make one.

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A water truck came, and everyone is happy. The water is donated by the town of Guayaquil.

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Messages of hope for the people in the camp.

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Life continues.

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Hope and misery in Muisne, Part 2

Frater Benjamin Le SVD’s three-part photo essay, taken during the last few weeks of his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Ecuador, began yesterday and continues today.

By Ben Le SVD

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Most people do not have cars so to transport produce, they use animals.

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The chapel of the community, Sal Si Puedes, literally mean “leave if you can.” This building has been condemned as structurally unsafe for use.

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The community of Sal Si Puedes celebrates Mass in a small classroom uphill from the chapel.

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The Sal Si Puedes community is one of the few active communities in Muisne. The people are very active in their faith; everyone attends and participate in functions of the church.

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These women invited me to eat at their “restaurant.” There is only one table with two chairs and a roof. The open kitchen has two burners from a tank of gas and card board to cover the burners from the wind, but the fish, Corviche, that they made is heavenly and delicious.

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Chamanga is one of the worst hit areas of the earthquake. More than 70 percent of the houses there were destroyed. It shows as we approach the town…

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…and yet hope lives on. See how the people are working together to care for each other and rebuild. The third and final installment of Ben’s photo essay will appear on Monday.

Hope and misery in Muisne, Part 1

Frater Benjamin Le SVD soon will wrap up his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Ecuador. As part of their education and preparation for ministry, Divine Word Missionaries in the formation process live in a culture other than their own for one to three years. Ben will return from Ecuador next week. In the fall, he will begin his final year of studies at Catholic Theological Union. These photos are Part 1 of a three-part photo essay.

By Ben Le SVD

I wanted to share a few more pictures I took of Muisne and the surrounding communities before I return to the United States next week. I’m not sure if you have heard, but after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, there were hundreds of aftershocks. Two earthquakes of magnitude 6.7 and 7.2 caused many more houses to fall and instilled more fear in the people. Fortunately, there were no deaths from those two quakes. Most of the people are living in tents, including those with houses that are structurally safe to live in because they fear more earthquakes.

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To get to the island of Muisne or to leave for surrounding communities, we use these lanchas, or ferries.

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Although this is not a very good picture, it shows the work of missionaries in Ecuador. Here, we are returning from the island of Portete after celebrating Mass there. When we left the island, it was complete darkness and we could not see much. If I was rowing the canoe, I think we would have gone straight out into the ocean! Without the light from the car to the left of the picture, all we can see is a lamp post on the island.

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Many residents are still living in tents. Immediately following the earthquake, they put up makeshift tents that were much smaller. When it rains, all the belongings of the people were soaked. Without warm clothing, the elderly just shivers and the children cry.

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A humble Mass kit is used whenever we go to the campo to celebrate Mass.

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The people cannot afford to buy flowers, so they cut the beautiful wildflowers to decorate their chapel.

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Yes, in the midst of suffering and fear, there are baptisms and hope.

Ben’s photo essay will continue with Part 2 on Saturday.

 

Defeating death is a matter of faith

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By Novice Jorge Zetino

“Your dad just suffered an accident, is in a coma and at risk of dying” were the words that radically changed the course of my life. Such words are like an echo that even 14 years after the accident still rumble in my ears. I have always heard of how painful it is to lose someone you love to death, but I had never experienced the agony of knowing that in any moment that person can die.

How can a 14-year-old boy comprehend that his father might not live, and if he does, he may not be “normal” again? Certainly, there are no words that can give consolation to a child living with that agony. The only thing that child can do to help his dad is to pray. And that is what I did.

I recall my grandmother saying, “Just have faith in God and ask Him to protect your dad” to which I asked, “Grandma, but how can God protect my father when he is not with him right now?” Then, she softly spoke into my ear and whispered, “Miracles do happen. You just need to believe.” I hardly remember praying before the accident and, even worst, of asking God for a miracle because deep inside of me, I did not believe in miracles.

I remember that on that cold and rainy night in October, I did what I hardly thought of doing before: praying. I knelt beside my bed. Pressing my eyelids shut as hard as I could, trying to not let any more tears come from my eyes, I started to pray.

But there was something different about this prayer than those prayers that I had said in the past. This time I did not only pray, I started a conversation with God, a God that I hardly knew before. My heart was broken in pieces. The tears could not stop showing what I was feeling inside; I was experiencing an emotion that I never felt before.

In the meantime, while praying, I kept reminding myself to pray with faith, believing that God eventually would respond to my supplication and that my dad would be able to defeat death. I have always heard that the best way to pray to God is to pray with the heart, to really mean what you are praying, and to believe and have faith in what you pray.

It took me a long time to experience that myself while I was saying “The Lord’s Prayer” over and over. Every time was different because my faith increased with each prayer, believing that God would help my father defeat death. It was then I realized that I was not only praying with my mind but also with my heart. I might have lost track of time while I was praying because I can’t recall how long I knelt. When I got up, my knees were red and in pain but not as much pain that my heart felt.

My father’s health condition was so severe that even the doctors thought that he could not survive. There seemed to be no hope. My hero now was connected to computers with cables attached all over his body and a trachea inserted into his throat. He only had himself and God; nobody else could help him to fight against Lady Death.

Days went by without news of progress. The doctors tried to push my mother to sign the order to disconnect my dad from artificial life support. My mother refused to sign such an order because she felt strongly that if Dad passed away, it was going to be God’s will and not her ending his life. It was then that I realized that my mother also had faith, just like I had it.

Two months passed and my father was still in a coma, trying to defeat Lady Death. One day, all of the sudden, he woke up from that long sleep. The only thing I remember is seeing the doctors and nurses running down the hall towards my dad’s room. They had bewildered looks on their faces. They could not believe that my father had come out of the coma. They could not believe that his fight with Lady Death was over.

He had defeated her. I am sure that the doctors did their part, providing the assistance and care that my father needed, but I am certain that what helped him most to fight death was the love and faith that many of us, including me, had in God. I realized that God had answered my prayer. From that moment on, I started to pray not only with my mind but also with my heart.

Since then, every time I pick up the phone to call my dad to wish him a Happy Father’s Day, I am grateful not only for the second chance that God has given my father and our family but also for the opportunity to continue to witness God’s healing and miraculous hand in the person of my father.

Surveying the devastation in Ecuador

By Ben Le SVD
Quito, Ecuador

On April 19, 2016, I went with the Father Provincial Navil D’Silva SVD to the town of Muisne to talk with the people and document the destruction there. With the April 16th earthquake so recent, there have been a lot of donations to help the people here. But, as with past disasters, most help comes only once and dries up quickly. That is when we Divine Word Missionaries step in and continue assisting people.

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We have two parishes in the Province of Esmeraldas: one in the city of Esmeraldas and the other in Muisne. We were spared in Esmeraldas with very little damage, just a lot of shaken nerves. Muisne, on the other hand, is one of the worst hit areas with more than 50 percent of the houses severely damaged or fallen altogether. What is miraculous about this is that there were no deaths on the whole island. Muisne is also one of the poorest areas of Ecuador. Unfortunately, throughout the earthquake zone more than 480 people have died (and counting) and several thousands are hurt. News reports have been showing funeral after funeral with family members weeping and wailing from each loss.

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To get to Muisne, we have to take a ferry across a channel of water. The worst hit areas of Muisne are along the waterfront as seen in the picture above.

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People here have a great devotion to the little child Jesus, Divino Niño. Here, a statue of Jesus stands inside the little shrine amidst the falling buildings.

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Only one-third of this house is still standing after the earthquake.

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Owners of these fallen houses returned to salvage whatever they can. Most homeowners have been robbed or do not have anything salvageable.

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The floor collapsed under this house. The lady on the right is cleaning some tool parts while the men inside try to lower a refrigerator down into the mud and up to the sidewalk.

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This lady thanks God for keeping her and her family safe. She is standing next to her house. The house is structurally unsafe so will likely be knocked down. Like her, most people in Muisne do not have the money to rebuild their houses. Many do not even have money to buy food if help does not come. The story is the same for many residents; they are hoping that someone will come to help them. We walked past a family with three children sitting in front of their house. They asked us if we can give them some water since they hadn’t had water for more than two days. They literally have nothing inside their house. They lit up when they saw us; they needed someone to listen to their needs and worries.

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This large statue of Jesus (left) used to stand in the center of the city, overlooking our Divine Word parish. The Divine Word parish is not too badly damaged, thanks be to God! Like the people of Muisne, this Jesus is broken and shattered.

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A makeshift shelter is made in one of our chapel where 400 families stayed inside and around the chapel grounds. Donations are received here, and food and water are provided free of charge to the many earthquake victims who come.

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People wait for food. A police unit supports us and keeps order, especially when donations arrive. We have to coordinate everything very carefully to avoid fights and looting. Two Divine Word priests and a candidate, who coordinates this makeshift shelter, have been sleeping in a small car for the past three days so they are close to the people. When the meals are ready, they made sure everyone eats first before they begin eating. I have to confess that I ate before them.

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These innocent children are oblivious to the difficulties facing their parents. They play, laugh and run around carefree, as they should be. We are working hard to help them with their education and maybe break the cycle of poverty and violence that surrounds them. Their families have no place to return to. Reconstruction will be the priority for many of them. We will help as much as we can.

Frater Benjamín Le SVD professed vows with the Society of the Divine Word in 2012. Before becoming a Divine Word Missionary, he worked as a professional photographer. Currently, he is fulfilling his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Ecuador. When he returns to Chicago, he will continue his formation and complete his academic studies at Catholic Theological Union. If you would like to support the efforts of Divine Word Missionaries who are helping to restore hope in Ecuador, please visit www.svdmissions.org.

 

Do you want to be well?

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By Jorge Zetino

There is an ancient pool located in the Muslim Quarter inside the Old City of Jerusalem that once was thought lost, buried by the remains of the many civilizations that once occupied the area, or just thought to be allegorical. However, archaeologists excavating the area discovered this Jewish ritual bath as the place of one of Jesus’ most famous miracles – the healing of the crippled man at the Bethesda Pool (John 5:2-9).

This pool fits the descriptions given by John the evangelist in the fifth chapter of his Gospel. It was one of my favorite sites during my visit to the Holy Land last May—a physical confirmation of one of my favorite Gospel stories.

In this Gospel story, Jesus encounters a man who had been ill for almost 38 years (longer that I’ve been alive!). Such an encounter took place at a pool near the Sheep Gate in the North East wall of the temple area. This must had been a crowded area for at the gate the animals were brought in to be sacrificed.

At the time of Jesus, this pool was one of the many Jewish ritual baths that could be found all over the city, especially in the vicinity of the temple area. At this pool, people with physical disabilities–invalids, blind, lepers and crippled—gathered. In other words, this pool was the meeting spot for all those who were outcast by the society of the time. These people would have come to pool to bathe and seek healing.

According to John, Jesus seems to be aware that this man had been ill for a long time. Nonetheless, he goes ahead and asks the crippled man a question: “Do you want to be well?” This question made me think, “Duh, why would he even ask that?” Of course anyone who has been ill for many years wants to be healed. I’m sure my blind grandfather, now deceased, and my father, who suffers paralysis on the left side of his body, would agree with me. This question seems stupid. I was becoming infuriated.

However, this man’s heartbreaking response to Jesus’ question moved me deeply. He responded, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” For me, the story of this man is reflected in the lives of those whom I love the most. His story hits close to home.

In the story of this ill man, I hear the voices of the marginalized and outcast of our time: the poor, the immigrant, the refugees, the indigenous, the women, gays and lesbians, and anyone from a cultural ethnic minority who is being victimized by hateful rhetoric being promoted by some of our politicians nowadays.

I also hear the voices of those who hope to attain physical healing such as my father who hopes to one day be free from his paralysis, and our infirm SVDs living at the residence who tirelessly pray with the hope of being healed of their own illnesses.

In the Gospel story, the man’s response to Jesus’ question also echoes a tremendous sense of loneliness. It is here where those of us who enjoy physical health can perhaps try to relate to him. This man appears to have no one in his life. No family, friends or a religious community to care for him. He is alone! This man has suffered for 38 years. Perhaps he has spent most of those years trying to get into that pool with the hope of being made well. He, like many of the people I know, wants to be healed but wonders how he could ever do it without anyone there to help him.

This “may explain why Jesus is drawn to him,” writes Rev. James Martin SJ in his book “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” (HarperCollins, 2016). Jesus’ own disciples might have pointed out the man as the one “who had been suffering the longest.” This explains why Jesus was aware of his illness although this could have been self-evident by looking at the ill man at first sight. Perhaps Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well” wasn’t that stupid after all.

Jesus was meeting this man where he was, both physically and spiritually. Even in his solitude. In “The Gospel of John: Volume 1 (Westminster John Knox, 1955),” William Barclay writes, “He has no one to help him in, and Jesus was always a friend of the friendless, and the helper of the person who has no earthly help.” I wonder if just when this friendless man had lost his hope and was giving up the idea of ever being healed, Jesus entered into the scene. Perhaps it was during his deepest moment of desolation and solitude when he received the greatest consolation of all: Jesus.

By asking the man “Do you want to be made well,” Jesus also may be asking him another question, “Have you given up hope?” He might be asking if he still has faith. Perhaps as we go forth in the season of Easter, it might be helpful to ask ourselves these same questions: Have we given up hope? Have we given up faith? Maybe, just maybe, such a question is as relevant to us now as it was to the ill man then. Some of us may not have a physical paralysis like the ill man; however, it might be the case that instead of a physical affliction, we may be experiencing a spiritual paralysis that needs to be healed.

Perhaps today is a good time to ask ourselves what kind of spiritual paralysis (if any) we have. Perhaps we have it and are unaware of it. Perhaps we refuse to recognize our spiritual vulnerability. Perhaps we need to ask Jesus to help us recognize the paralysis of our own spiritual life. Perhaps asking ourselves questions such as, “Have we given up hope?” or “Do we still have faith?” would be a good starting point. The good news is that buried down in the deepest despair lies hope.

Maybe, just maybe, we too need to drag ourselves to the pool of Bethesda like this man did. For me, this ancient pool represents a symbol of hope. “For many years,” writes Father Martin, “that place [the pool] was thought to be lost, then just a myth. For years it was covered by dirt and trash. Perhaps it existed once, people taught, but no more. But it was always there, waiting to be uncovered, waiting to be restored, and waiting to be seen again. It took work, but it was found.”

This is how I am starting to believe how God comes to meet us where we are–asking if we still want healing, if we still have faith, if we still have hope. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus asks the man (and us too), “Do you really want to made well?”

Jorge Zetino is a novice in the Divine Word Novitiate Program in North America. Originally from Guatemala, he grew up in Michigan and earned a bachelor’s degree from Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, in 2015.