Offering inclusion, one haircut at a time

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By Akizou Gerard Kamina SVD

“The poor have a privileged place in the Gospel. In a world deeply scarred by injustice and inhuman living conditions, our faith calls us to recognize the presence of Christ in the poor and the oppressed.” (C. 112)

Upon my arrival in Brazil, I discovered that the pastoral guidelines of the Divine Word Missionaries are based on this constitution of our religious order. Current political and economic situations are deeply affecting Brazilians of low and middle classes. Such was the context in which I found myself.

Though I focused on language learning during my first months in Brazil, I decided to also do pastoral work at Nossa Senhora da Aparecida (Our Lady of Aparecida) parish in São Paulo.

Akizou Kamina_haircut_cookingMy first pastoral experience was with our homeless brothers and sisters. Every Thursday, my fellow volunteers and I served meals to them. Before each meal, we prayed together to show solidarity in struggles and to rely on God’s assistance. Through prayer, we all asked God to provide for our future ministry and mission.

I admire the women who cook for those in need. They are devoted and committed. I also admire the recipients, the people who are homeless. I admire their ability to show up with high spirits. We share an hour of happy time. The goal is not so much to cook for those without homes but to build a community with them.

We eat the same meal. We engage in discussion. They share their difficulties and joys with us. We feel that they are part of our lives, and we are part of their lives. We celebrate together. For instance, I celebrated my birthday with them. We shared Christmas with each other. We are one family under God.

The shelter serves about 60 people of various ages, including children. I was stunned the first time I met four homeless children. It was a challenging experience for me because it was the first time in my entire life that I had seen children who were homeless. After this encounter, I always made sure to take good care of these children. In addition to offering meals to them, we now offer haircuts to those who want them. Our services to these homeless people are ways to make them feel dignified and included in society.

This experience has allowed me to reflect on a question that was asked of Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29) By serving and being with my homeless brothers and sisters, I came to realize that every human being—without distinction of color, race and social class—is a reflection of God’s love; therefore, each person should be loved unconditionally.

Such a life-changing experience wouldn’t have been possible without the initial formation that I received in Chicago. The formation process helps us as seminarians to be Christ-like for the People of God, those to whom we are being sent. This is an opportunity for me to thank all those who have been contributing to my formation as a Christian and as a religious missionary. Consequently, we are called as Divine Word Missionaries to make the goodness and kindness of God visible through our lives and service to the world.

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Last summer, seminarian Akizou Gerard Kamina SVD began his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Brazil. Born and raised in Togo, West Africa, Akizou professed vows with the Society of the Divine Word in 2015. Next year, he will return to Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to complete his seminary studies.

 

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An Emmaus journey in Niebla

Marlon Vargas_photo for Emmaus Journey_ April 2018_sizedBy Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

As part of the Society of the Divine Word’s formation process, missionaries in vows participate in the congregation’s Cross-Cultural Training Program, also known as CTP. Seminarian Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD is completing his CTP in Spain. Shortly after Easter, he completed an assignment at Santa Maria de la Granada parish in Niebla, a town with a population of about 4,000 in Southern Spain.

At the end of Easter Sunday Mass, the presider invited the congregation to sit for a moment. I nervously approached the lectern. I felt every heartbeat in my chest. I was about to bid farewell to the community of Niebla.

As I began to speak, a sudden silence filled the church, and I noticed the eyes of friends fill with tears. I had lived in the village for only six months. It was a short stay, but I’ve learned a lot. Life in this town is simple and quiet, a departure for me. Having grown up and studied in large cities, I am accustomed to places where people are especially busy with their own affairs. As I leave Niebla, I want to share lessons that the Nieblans taught me. I carry them in my heart.

Spend time and share presence with others through a family meal.
I can’t remember exactly how many generous invitations I received, but the Nieblans showed me why the region was named Spain’s Gastronomic Capital of 2017. They served local delicacies—white prawns, coquina clams, monkfish, sea bass and cuttlefish; strawberries, raspberries, oranges and asparagus, taken from fertile soil of the area; and jamon, Iberian ham, from the mountainous regions of the province. They whet the appetite with white wines, quality liqueurs, grape juice, vinegars and olive oils. I admire their spontaneity and appreciate the honor of spending time with their families. They let me know that they care about me and value my presence in their community.

Greet each other and share smile with each other.
“¡Hola!, ¿Que tal?, ¿Como va?, Hasta luego!” Members of Las Raíces, an organization of retired people, were good companions. They made a point to ask how I was doing and if I was enjoying life in the village. As someone who lived most of his life in a big city, greeting other people, especially strangers, is not a common practice. This simple gesture made me feel connected and valued by others. It reminded me that we are one loving and thoughtful community.

Fulfill one’s duty and responsibility in the family and the community.
Workers in Niebla are dedicated. In a small village like Niebla, it is possible to get to know the people working at the market, grocery store, municipal hall, restaurants and hardware store. In the community, each person fulfills their duty as a service to the community and the family. Each person’s vocation serves as a humble contribution to make our world a better place.

Tell and retell life stories and community narratives.
Niebla is a village filled with stories. Every place within village—Castillo de Niebla, Casa de la Cultura, Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Granada, and Rio Tinto–has a tale. Through these stories, I learned about the food, history, culture and faith of the people. The homes are filled with family photos. With those pictures, Nieblans narrate their stories with passion, enthusiasm and pride. As I listened, I felt the value and importance of the story to the person telling it. I sensed how the story transformed their lives. Our life experiences are a wise teacher.

Keep the cultural heritage and religious traditions dynamically alive.
As a municipality located in Andalusia, Niebla has a unique cultural heritage and religious tradition. During Holy Week, members of three Las Hermandades, or brotherhoods, lead community celebrations. The members of Hermandad de Virgen del Pino, Hermandad del Rocío, and Hermandad de Jesus Nazareno practice and pass on ways of the Catholic Church.  Fiestas and other events, organized by the Ayuntamiento de Niebla each month, leave a memorable impression: La Feria Medieval in November, Los Campanilleros in December, La Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos in January and Semana Santa in April. Communal activities, such as musical concerts and community picnics known as Toston, bring the people together and pass along traditions from one generation to the next.

Spread the joy, love and hope in the community.
The laypeople in Niebla played an important role in their parish. I learned much from the various lay groups. Members of Lectura Creyent deepen their faith by studying the Scriptures each week. Cáritas assists the less fortunate by providing for their basic needs. Volunteers in Catequistas educate the children in the village and prepare them for receiving the Sacraments. The Pastoral de Salud visit the sick and elders in their homes once a month. The Fieles de la Santa Eucaristía attends daily Mass. These groups have fewer numbers than in years past, but they are dedicated in spreading the joy, love, and hope of the Risen Christ.

My experience in Niebla was an Emmaus journey. My new friends reminded me how Christians keep faith in the Risen Lord, even amidst scarcity and adversity.

The end and beginning of the grace-filled journey

Part 5_Photo 5_Camino de Santiago passport_sized for blogThe Camino de Santiago Experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 5 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD hiked El Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain while fulfilling his Cross-Cultural Training Program. His affinity for Saint James the Apostle led him to undertake the arduous venture. As he reaches his destination, he finds that the end is another beginning.

One of the many highlights of the pilgrimage was our last stop before reaching the cathedral: Monte de Gozo (Mount of Joy). Located on the top of a hill, Monte de Gozo offers great views of the city and the tower of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The scenery gave us a glimpse of what lay ahead and motivated us to finish our journey. As the end of our journey came into view, we began to share our joy, gratitude and hope with one another. Indeed, happiness is real when shared.

Undeniably, the most unforgettable moment during the Camino pilgrimage was our arrival at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I felt my heart rejoice in the Lord whom I believe accompanied me through the journey.

A special Bible passage came to mind, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) I remembered and felt the words of Saint Paul who Part 5_Photo 7_Marlon in front of trail map_sizedmay have known Saint James. Upon our arrival, my companions and I were not able to contain our inner joy. Our eyes were filled with tears as we embraced one another in appreciation.

Other pilgrims who arrived after us shouted, chanted and danced out of happiness and gratitude. We could not believe that we had arrived. Unfortunately, we were unable to attend the Pilgrims’ Mass because when we arrived the cathedral was at maximum capacity. So we waited in the winding line outside where other pilgrims talked and took pictures.

After Mass, we entered the cathedral. I felt its sacred ambiance. I venerated Saint James’s tomb, located under the altar, and presented my physical and spiritual tiredness in front of the grave. I prayed that the Lord might accept all the hardships and sacrifices endured during the pilgrimage and that they may give greater glory to God.

I then went above the altar to embrace the statue of Saint James as a symbolic gesture of my petition to God—that through the intercession of Saint James, God will embrace my family, relatives, friends, loved ones and everyone for whom I promised to pray. May God take away their sufferings and bless them with joy, love, peace and hope.

Part 5_Photo 2_Group photo in front of Santiago Cathedral_sizedI was struck by the on-going construction inside and outside the cathedral—like a metaphor or invitation for all the pilgrims on the Camino. Like the cathedral under construction, each pilgrim is called to conversion.

Each person has his or her imperfections, weaknesses, and rough edges. But when feelings of brokenness are acknowledged humbly and accepted wholeheartedly, they can be stepping stones toward life-giving gifts to others. Pilgrims are not called to go to church; we are called to become the living Church of Christ.

With my credential, a Camino passport full of different stamps from places that I passed, I got my Compostela. It is the certification, or diploma, that serves as proof that I completed the Camino de Santiago. For me, the Compostela is not simply about my arrival at the end of the Camino de Santiago. It is a remembrance of the grace-filled spiritual journey that urges me to begin a new life-long pilgrimage.

In the cathedral’s Chapel of Saint Mark, I found a pilgrim reflection guide. It offered meaningful insights and questions that helped me contemplate my experience. I read words touched me deeply: “To arrive in Santiago is not the end of our Camino. In a way, it is a place of departure. On the Camino de Santiago, as well as in life, the goals impel us to new horizons.”

Enlightened by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, I believe that my arrival at the Cathedral of Saint James urges me to do something more in my life journey. I accept the invitation that I read in the pilgrim reflection guide:

“To arrive…To arrive is not to finish the path you began. To arrive is to want to carry on from the path you have walked. To arrive is to glimpse a future horizon which was nourished in the meetings and challenges along the way. To arrive is to announce that a new way of looking is present in daily life. To arrive is to perceive that everything remains the same, but you are not as you were at the beginning. To arrive is to have the wisdom to start walking again to the place this same path guides you.”

My whole Camino experience has deepened and strengthened my prayer to God. To paraphrase the words of Saint Arnold Janssen: Lord God, grant me the grace to have an open heart, to always discern anew Your divine will, and to be available, flexible, and ready to venture into new situations. Forever and ever, amen!

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Part 5_Photo 8_Marlon returning home

 

‘Buen Camino!’A greeting of connection and friendship

Part 4_Photo 5_Pilgrims selfie_not flipped_sized for blogThe Camino de Santiago Experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 4 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD gets closer to the end of his pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago. The routes of El Camino de Santiago are many with the longest one stretching 780 km (500 miles) from France to Western Spain. As Marlon continues his voyage, he ponders the connections he has made along the way of the pilgrimage and life.

Considering the madness in our world, it is not surprising that many pilgrims take part in the Camino, seeking spiritual enlightenment. The firsthand testimonies that I heard from fellow pilgrims, as well as the stories that I read on blogs about the Camino experience, made me believe more deeply that the pilgrim’s desire to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.

To attain such an experience, one has to slow down and be patient. The Camino de Santiago is not a speed race that forces one to walk rapidly. It is not a long-distance tournament that makes one greater than the person who took longer to walk the path. While pace and rhythm are two important aspects of the Camino pilgrimage, what matters most is reaching the destination with memorable and meaningful encounters with others along the path.

The Camino gave me time to detach and disconnect from the busyness of the world. I intentionally avoided getting information about the things happening in the world and contacted only a few individuals while on the journey. It was a struggle not to look at social media during the journey.

There were many times when I was tempted to post photos of the beautiful scenery. However, I wanted to give myself the opportunity to look internally and be with God. Ironically, the more I detached and disconnected myself from people, the more I felt their closeness and connection.

My family, close friends, Divine Word community, mentors and other significant people filled my mind and heart. I spent time remembering and understanding the meaning and purpose of their presence in my life. Through God’s grace, I once again reassessed the level and quality of my relationships with the people in my life and how I meaningfully partake in growing, maturing, deepening my relationships and understanding my communion with significant people in my life.

Along the Camino journey, pilgrims greeted one another with the phrase “buen camino,” which literally means “good path.” It’s generally understood as “good luck and happy traveling.” Camino pilgrims come from different places, backgrounds, ethnicities, languages and cultures. The exchange of the greeting buen camino is a concrete act of recognizing and sharing presence with fellow pilgrims.

It may be taken as a simple gesture of greeting another person, but it also could lead to a new and deep connection. It’s the first step toward friendship where two or more people open themselves and become their best selves.

The greeting, when extended from the heart, could be followed by one’s sharing of identity, relationship, purpose and meaning in life. My interactions and conversations with fellow pilgrims have reminded me that each of us has crossroads in our lives. Sometimes, we share the same journey. Sometimes, we journey alone. There are times when we voyage as strangers with other strangers. The one thing we all have in common is our longing to make our journey a meaningful one.

Saint Arnold Janssen wrote, “Happy the person whose eyes of the spirit God opened so that he/she recognizes: ‘I have a Master above me. I have to serve Him and I will serve Him,’ and then arranges his/her life accordingly.” We are invited to open our eyes to the presence of others and their needs. Let it be a source of joy in our mission. Buen camino!

A journey through nature

Part 3_Photo 5_field in gold_sized for blogThe Camino de Santiago Experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 3 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

The journey continues as Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD walks El Camino de Santiago and absorbs the beauty of God’s creation. During the summertime, as many as 1,500 pilgrims reach the cathedral per day. In this third installment, Marlon ponders the impact of the journey.

Being an early riser gave me an advantage when I traveled as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. I am one who habitually wakes up early in the day and feels energetic.

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On the pilgrimage, many seekers woke up early to begin walking before sunrise. On several consecutive mornings, our group began walking in the darkness of the cold morning. In predawn, we could not see our surrounding. I followed our lead, who carried a flashlight as a guide. I was scared walking alone in the dark.

I maintained a close proximity to my companion so I would not get lost in the middle of the forest. At one point, I did not notice that my group was far ahead of me. I missed the sign and lost the right path. I’m grateful to my fellow pilgrim who came back to find me. I did not want to be alone in darkness.

What I enjoyed most about beginning our walk early in the morning was the chance to witness the amusing first light in the sky before sunrise. I fell in love with the marvelous scenery as the sunlight gradually filled the sky. The horizon dramatically unfolded its beauty before my eyes.

It seemed like the fields, mountain, trees and animals rejoiced with the pilgrims. What a wonderful mystery nature is! The dynamics of nature teach us to journey out of darkness towards the light.

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Some pilgrims came to the Camino with a weak faith. They were longing for God’s companionship and seeking direction in their faith life. One afternoon while attending Mass in a parish church, I was moved by a woman who began weeping upon hearing the Scripture reading. The tears that flowed down the woman’s face the moment she heard the Word of God reminded me how the sacred Scriptures serve as a guiding light and the comforting presence of God during dark moments.

During the Camino, pilgrims give themselves a chance to acknowledge and allow God to be more closely present to them. As Saint Arnold Janssen said, we know that we cannot solve all problems with the strength we now possess, but we hope that the dear God will grant us all that is necessary. For we know God is there, and we always know where we can find God, where God allows Himself to be found and is waiting for us.

The backpack

Part 2_Photo 3_Bunch of backpacks_sized for blog bannerThe Camino de Santiago Experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 2 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD, who is completing his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain, continues his series on El Camino de Santiago. He walked the pilgrims’ route with a group from parishes that he served in Madrid. In Part II, he muses on the baggage that we all carry.

The Camino may not be easy and fun for those who hate walking long distances while carrying a heavy backpack. I can imagine the suffering of those who are impatient when dealing with unexpected and inconvenient situations. These matters are not a bother, though, for pilgrims who long for a Camino experience that is one-of-a-kind, special and indelible on one’s heart.

A meaningful Camino is attainable when a pilgrim pays attention to his or her surroundings, such as signs, people, feelings, thoughts, desires, intuitions, desires and encounters along the way.

My backpack made all the difference in my Camino experience. I was grateful that a friend lent his durable backpack to me. I intentionally brought only basic and essential items: a fleece jacket, hat, toiletries, towel, raincoat, flashlight, sleeping bag, a pair of dry-fit shirts, shorts, socks and undergarments. I did not want my back and shoulders to suffer from the heavy load.

Other pilgrims possessed a variety of backpacks. They carried backpacks that varied in color, size, shapes and brands. Seeing the pilgrims walking in front me with their different and colorful backpack was like watching butterflies. Some backpacks were filled with only important content to help them survive the journey.

Pilgrims often consider their backpacks their best companion because it is with them most of the time. There were, however, some pilgrims who suffered and complained about their bags. There were those who did not properly pack. Along the way, I saw personal items, such as shoes, shirts and sleeping bags, lying on the side of the road.

To me, the backpacks depicted the burdens of life. They represented health issues, family problems, financial responsibilities, relationship conflicts, job concerns, identity crises, and the list goes on. Each of us has concerns, burdens and challenges in our daily lives. Like the pilgrims’ backpacks, we carry the burdens of life on our shoulders. Most of us have experienced that point where we feel that the burden is too cumbersome and we can no longer bear it.

There were some groups that traveled without a backpack. They hired a carrier service to transfer their backpack to the next destination and freed themselves from the burden of carrying a heavy backpack during the walk. Some might say that the ability to carry a loaded backpack on our shoulders shapes and molds a person into a true pilgrim. Others might say that each of us must learn to understand our own limitations.

We need someone, such as our family, relatives and friends, not necessarily to carry our burdens but to assist us. Above all, we must humble ourselves to embrace the truth that we need God in our lives. Let us live out the words of Saint Arnold Janssen, “To humble yourself truly and deeply before God and others is the best way to receive the divine light and help for the future.”

The quest and the questions

Part 1_Photo 3_Are you a seeker sign_sized for blog bannerThe Camino de Santiago experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 1 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD, who is completing his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain, is an enthusiast of sacred and religious places. When he heard that the remains Saint James the Apostle are believed to be kept in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, he jumped at the chance to partake in El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), a pilgrimage to the site. He shares his journey in this five-part series. We invite you to begin the journey.

El Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s oldest pilgrimage routes, a journey across Northern Spain toward the Cathedral of Santiago in Galicia, where pilgrims can view and venerate the apostle’s tomb.

Like many pilgrims, I entered into the Camino in hopes that the walk would deepen my spiritual growth and transform my life. Along the way, I also met cyclists and hikers who were simply seeking an adventure.

Some individuals journeyed alone while others preferred to journey with a group. I walked with a youth group called Verbo Joven from one of our Divine Word parishes. The group consisted of 26 individuals—18 teenagers, four parents, two priests and two seminarians. While we hiked as one community with a shared goal, each of us had a different and significant reason for partaking in the Camino de Santiago.

The week before I left for the Camino, a confrere visited me in Madrid. As we caught up on each other’s lives, he repeated the following phrase several times: “My brother, do not lose Him.”

His message baffled me as I prepared to leave for the trip. As I pondered his words, more questions began to emerge in my mind:

My God, am I losing You in my life?”

“Am I walking away from You?”

“Am I happy with the level and quality of my relationship with You, my Lord?”

At that point, I could not answer those questions with any certainty. I happened to begin the Camino on the second anniversary of a special occasion in my life—my profession of vows as a Divine Word Missionary.

I looked back and reflected on the many things that have transpired during the past few years. The Camino signs along the path, showing the distance to Santiago, reminded me of the many crossroads in my vocation journey.

Thinking about my life in Spain—learning another foreign language, adapting to the lifestyle and culture, and understanding the faith life of the people—has helped me become more conscious of my discernment of the religious missionary life and whether it is truly the life that I want to live.

Questions are a natural part of life. During the Camino pilgrimage, each time I saw a sign indicating the distance to the destination, I asked, “How many kilometers left?” I kept asking the same question again and again. I realized that every time I asked the question, I received a different answer. Whenever I saw the sign with the distance, I knew that I was getting closer to my destination.

In Christian life, we also have lots of questions particularly about the quality of our lives and how we see God’s role and involvement in our lives. Sadly, many of us who have confusing and troubling questions might become weak in our faith in God.

The Camino gave me precious time for meditation. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What must we do? I thought of so many life questions that lead me closer to God. When we are overwhelmed with life’s questions, let us be still. God is there waiting for us to be open to His great revelation.

Saint Arnold Janssen said, through meditation, our inner life will be made perfect. This is very hard work and is a task for our whole life. Therefore, let us strive after it unflinchingly through cooperation with divine grace to reach perfection.