Last Wednesday afternoon I sat in a restaurant at the airport in Belize City. A fan in front of me wafted warm air, while a speaker projected a scratchy queue of 80’s music – most notably “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – and Latin hits over me and my pesto “chicken burger.” A kind Belizean waitress took care of me as I waited for Mr. Gian to arrive so that we could find our Benqueño taxi driver and take to the road.
Mr. Gian, watching from the back seat of the taxi as I spun from side to side, alternately grinning and tearing up, expressed the tentative whisper of my heart, saying, “Welcome home, Ms. Monica. Welcome home.”
Welcome home. I left Belize on June 11, 2014. I thought then that I would return two months later. I didn’t know that lack of health would dictate otherwise until four days before my plane was scheduled to leave. Leaving my belongings, my unfinished tasks, and my students and community in Belize with a peculiar mixture of relief and intense guilt, I turned to face an unexpected life in the U.S. I regained my health, but by then I had begun to get reestablished, as one must in this country. Over the next few months I got a job, leased a house, bought a car, and eventually even found a new community. But all year I planned to return to Belize for my students’ graduation this summer. I anticipated the trip even more eagerly after my friends, Victor and Brynne, asked me to be their second daughter’s godmother. And so, last Wednesday, I boarded a plane to Belize.
Sitting on the plane, writing notes to accompany the gifts for my students and goddaughter, I began to think about each person. In what particular way was I proud of this person? In what particular way should I encourage him for the future? Had it really been a year since I had known each student’s strengths and weaknesses on a personal level? And how would I fulfill my duties as a godmother? What part in this child’s life would I have?
From the church in Benque, my student, Shamir, drove me to Brynne and Victor’s neighborhood, and I was shown to my temporary abode in Victor’s parents’ house, as Victor was in the very act of tiling their own floors. I had never met Victor’s parents, but they welcomed me graciously. “Es mi amiga, Monica.” “Ahh! Mucho gusto!” I met my sweet dumpling of a goddaughter, Stella. The sun set, cool breezes blew, and the peaceful evening sounds of Benque settled over us. We talked as I cuddled my goddaughter, and tried to convince her older sister that I wasn’t even likely to eat her for dinner, much less hang her from the rafters by her toes.
I witnessed with pride the next day as the five students who had persevered through the past two years graduated, and were duly feted. (They had a mariachi band from Mexico for the entertainment before the ceremony! I’m not kidding, take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5FNBTcQUy4 ). I caught up with students, priests, dean, old friends, and made new friends. Fr. John invited us up to the new campus to exclaim over the progress on the new building – the building! And I had been present for the groundbreaking! I was only these students’ teacher for half of their junior college experience, and yet… “Miss, you are my teacher. You will always be my teacher. I will always remember you.”
Stella was baptized in the midst of the newly ordained Fr. Beau’s first official Mass in Benque. I held my sleeping ahijada as Father spoke of the wonder of baptism in both Spanish and English, as the choir sang the Spanish songs I know and love, as he anointed her, and finally as he poured the water over her head and spoke the words that brought her into new, eternal life in the Body of Christ. His joy radiated through the whole church, mirrored in the joy of my friends, of the other priests, of the people filling the church, of the music itself. I choked as I tried to sing along: “Gloria a Dios, Gloria a Dios, Gloria, Gloria a Dios!” After Mass, we congregated in the parish hall to celebrate Fr. Beau’s ordination with the whole community. People lined up to receive his special blessing. They brought out instruments and sang. They passed food, they sang Happy Birthday to one of the religious sisters, they congratulated my friends on the baptism of their new daughter, they greeted me as a long-lost friend: “Miss, I was trying and trying to see, ‘Who is that madrina?’ Then you turned around and I saw it was you!”
Later, students escorted me to a graduation party. They told me of their hopes for the future, their candid opinion of their culture, they asked about the other American teachers, they laughed with my attempts to learn Spanish over the past year. They drove me to the Church so that I could attend Mass. The dean and other friends walked me back to Brynne and Victor’s after Mass, stopping for a visit in the park over sweet Central American cokes.
Before, after, during, all day long, I basked in the time with my friends, with their children, with their family. Victor’s parents and sisters welcomed me without fanfare into their life, and we shared babies and sat in the shade as the sun beat down on Benque. Life in Benque is different. The priorities are different, the pace is different. I have been struggling terribly to express this ever since I returned, and I am struggling to write about it now, as I listen to mariachi music and try to analyze the impressions left on my heart. Describable or not, I love it.
These people are important. I form relationships slowly and they affect me deeply – perhaps too deeply. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of people whose lives affect mine, whose lives I am committed to affecting, the responsibility I bear for the effect I have on them. But the fact is, this is love. This is human existence. This is Christianity. This is the Catholic Church. We were not made for ourselves. We were not even made for this temporary earth. We were made to know, love, and serve God Himself, and in Him, to love His people. But the other fact is, we need not do this alone. God watches over the relationships we entrust to him, and he brings fruit from them.
A year doesn’t seem long, but in my year in Belize, I was transplanted from my home and my culture into a community where I had not a single human tie. And yet, which of the ties I gained would I sacrifice for a single moment of the time it takes to keep up with them, or relief from the attendant pain of being involved in their lives? “You will always be my teacher.” “Providence has made for us to cross our way in this life.” “Padrinos…Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” “Gloria a Dios!” Without this year, I would not have a goddaughter. I would not have these, some of the best friends I have ever known. I would not call such a community home.
How can I stay away from this home? I don’t know. I don’t know if I can stay away forever. I don’t know what God wants from me, or why he brought me back at this time. But even from afar, to love truly and be loved in return is good. To will the good of the beloved, to work for the good of the beloved – I only wish I had been more faithful in this endeavor while I had the chance. If this is the fruit of my half-hearted labor, how much more beautiful would the fruit of total self-gift be? My heart is broken, but I think God made it to be broken, expanded, and spread where He wills. Perhaps he will give me another heart to replace the one I left in Belize. Would that He would break it as well.
“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel, 36:26)
And truly, this is my call no matter where I am, the call of every man, of every Christian. I am no less called to radical love here than I was in Belize, and neither is anyone else.
Tony the Taxi Driver (along with his wife and daughter) picked me up on Sunday morning. I kissed the babies and hugged my friends, shouted at my student’s gate so that I could give her a dish and say goodbye; and then I was on the road back to Belize City, soaking up every palm tree, laughing at the checkpoints where the guards rifled through my belongings for “contraband from Guatemala,” grinning at the inevitable Cyndi Lauper on the radio, wishing a fond farewell to every familiar landmark along the Western Highway. Garbutt’s gas station. The beautiful fields between Benque and Cayo. And finally, as we neared the end of the trip, a sign I had never noticed, which proclaimed in proud letters: “Have a God Bless Day.”
You too, my beautiful, beloved Belize. Have a God Bless Day. Have a God Bless Existence. May God bless you now and always.
Indeed, may you all “Have a God Bless Day.”