Saint Bernard's Church

To the Parishioners & Friends of Saint Bernard's:


Please enjoy the sermon below...


We had a parishioner as the Guest Preacher last Sunday, Cindy McWilliams, who is recently back from her medical mission trip to Guatemala.


If you would like to comment upon the sermon below, or would like to start a private dialogue with Cindy, please click here.


February 23, 2014

Sermon for Epiphany 7

Saint Bernard's Church, Bernardsville, NJ


"Reflections on a Mission"

          It was gracious of Skip to invite me to the pulpit, but since that invitation I have wondered what I should say?  Where do I begin?  Sandy said, "share what you know".   I know my 4 trips to Guatemala started with a prayer.  For 3 years I ended each night with "God, please show me how to use the talents you have given me to help others".   One day a call came from my mother asking me to go with her on a Faith In Practice Medical Mission trip to Guatemala.  The only job they had not filled was that of photojournalist, without a medical background, that was the only job for which I was remotely qualified, having been an English major and an avid amateur photographer since I was a teen.   That was 3 years, four notebooks, dozens of pens and hundreds of photographs ago.
          I know my job is to record the stories of the hard working, noble, devout people of Guatemala who expect nothing and appreciate everything.   As I have explained, there is no affordable healthcare for the over 51% of that country's population living in abject poverty.   Poverty there means a family of six earning less than 2 dollars a day.   There are no safety nets like welfare, food stamps, Medicaid.
          I know before embarking on this trip, it is necessary for team members to line up childcare, coverage at work, ask neighbors to bring in mail and feed the cat.  We pack one carry-on bag, deciding what we will need and what can be left behind.   We are excited; nervous to travel far from family and friends we love, to a strange land to meet people who need our help.   We set our alarms, awaken before the sun and fly from all parts to come together for this life-changing mission.
          It dawned on me that our patients must do the same thing.  They too must rely on friends and family to look after things while they are gone.  Some will be leaving their mountain villages for the very first time.  They will say good-bye to loved ones; there will be smiles and tears as they set out on foot or board a bus that will take them many bumpy hours from home, arriving in the city that will be as foreign to them as it is to us.   They are also excited, nervous, many frightened, but they are taking this chance hoping their prayers will be answered. 
          I know it is God who is the Master Weaver of this trip-pulling each of us from our homes, what and whom we know as a weaver chooses the right thread to complete his art.   I know through His weaving, I have become a different person I am my best self in Guatemala.   I learn from the medical team and especially from the patients I meet.   


          The very first patient I met this year was a tiny, elderly woman, dressed in her best and brightest traditional huipal and skirt.  I approached Paula, and with the help of a local translator, introduced myself and asked if she would like to share her story.  Paula smiled graciously and nodded yes.  We asked how long had her journey been...and she smiled and nodded yes.  A woman seated next to Paula informed us that Paula spoke no Spanish.  Her village is so remote; they speak only the traditional Mayan language there.               Luckily, this woman spoke Spanish and the Mayan language.  After translating my English questions to Spanish, then Spanish to Mayan, Paula would answer and the process would reverse.  We learned that four years ago, Paula's left eyelid would no longer open.  Where she lives is rocky and one must have two good eyes to get around safely.  

          I saw Paula just after her corrective surgery; she was resting in bed with a cloth over both eyes.  There was no one to translate, so I simply called her name, she smiled immediately, greeted me, and I held her hand.  We were both strangers there, but recognized each other as friends.  Eventually, Paula was allowed to lift the cloth from her eyes, she squinted, and smiled broadly.  I later learned from her friend that Paula was so happy with her surgery, that she sees well now, and is glad to see colors again.


Like Paula, I now see clearly.  I see the injustices, I see the pain, and I see how lucky I am to have been born in America.  I see that mothers and fathers love their children as much in Guatemala as we do at home.  I see we are all God's children and I can see what God has planned for me.


          I wandered one day into the Auditory Clinic-one almost needs a map to find it!  The Clinic, only two years old is tucked away, down the hall, around the corner, across the courtyard, up and up the ramp, and around the bend.  These humble two rooms, which together cannot be more than 10' x 15', have plywood floors, plain white walls a desk, two chairs, and a trunk of supplies...a humble setting for the miracles that take place there. 

          Inside I met 8-year-old Adeline.  This bright-eyed, but shy girl had just been fitted with a solar powered hearing aid.  At the home where she lives, with 100 other children who are being raised by two nuns, Adeline uses no words, but has her own signs for basic needs like hunger and thirst.  There is no medical history, so no way to determine how long Adeline has been without sound.  It was not clear a hearing aid would work, but it was worth the try!

          Adeline was seated and facing Nancy, the Audiologist, and Jessica, one of the only speech therapists in all of Guatemala.  With a fun, friendly, expressive face and hand gestures Nancy explained how to turn on the hearing aid.  Adeline was fixated, doing her best to follow everything she was asked to do.  With the aid now turned on, Nancy asked some basic questions in Spanish like, "What is your name?  How old are you?" but Adeline didn't answer...she just smiled with eyebrows raised leaning forward in her chair.  Nancy reached out and turned up the hearing aid.  Jessica held up a book of animals.  She pointed to the gorilla and said, "Oooh Oooh Ooooh". ...Adeline smiled, then repeated "Ooooh Ooooh Oooh!".  The room erupted with laughter and tears to know the hearing aid worked!

          This may have been the first time Adeline had heard anything...including her own voice.  She smiled from ear to ear as the rest of us reached for a tissue to wipe our eyes.  Adeline can hear, but has a long climb into the world of speech with few specialists here to guide her.  BUT this was a step, the first one and Adeline knows the climb is possible!  She will return each week an Audiology Team is present to keep her progress steady.


I know, like Adeline, I can now hear.  I can hear cries of pain; I can hear thanks and blessings especially to God  and I when I listen, I can hear what God needs me to do.

          Maria, who is now 13, came to us 3 years ago, as a small child she had fallen into a cooking fire.   With no doctor available, her burned right hand was bandaged and had scarred into a clenched fist, making it useless, with no range of motion in her wrist.   Drs. Jose, Dan, and their team released scar tissue, freeing all five fingers and straightened them with pins.   The scar tissue on Maria's wrist was also released.  Last year, she visited Drs. Jose and Dan who had performed this life-changing surgery and showed them how well her hand worked, but when pressed, admitted that the scars bothered her.  Such a disability in this hard country would preclude her from advancing in school, holding a job, being married or becoming a mother.  
          At the doctor's invitation, Maria returned this year and further work was done to improve the strength and appearance of her once-useless hand.  Both Maria and her Mama wept as they thanked God and all who had helped make this possible.  I was awestruck to think what the medical team and these doctors specifically had done to so profoundly change the life of this beautiful young lady.  I said as much to the doctors and was quickly reminded by both that it was God who changed Maria's life.  They were merely His instruments.

Like Maria, I know my hands are capable of doing amazing things.  With God's help, I can use my hands to improve the lives of those who are in need.  As His humble servant, I can use my hands to answer prayers.
          As a self-proclaimed control freak (Sandy can attest to this) I have a problem with the concept of surrender.   I want to push and force things to go the one way I think they should.
          Last year, Adonis came to our team as a last hope.   Looking at his once handsome face, it was obvious he had been in a horrific accident.  While travelling home on Christmas Day, his motorcycle collided with a speeding ambulance.   The scar that ran from his scalp, through his right eye, down to his lip gave him a monstrous look.   At first I guessed Adonis to be 30 and was shocked to learn he was only 18 years old, one year older than our Thomas.   Even if his family had the money, there were no doctors qualified to fix what had happened to this poor boy.   Because of the Humpty Dumpty job that had been done to put Adonis back together, he could no longer close his eyelid, which led to multiple infections.   He had to quit his job, and was so ashamed of his face; he no longer left his family's home.  Our doctors cut away this dark, red, ropey scar, releasing and restoring not only his eyelid, but also eyelashes, beautiful black eyelashes!   Doctors were able to restore this young man's handsome face and his life.
          I became very attached to Adonis and his parents in the week we spent together.  I prayed for them and looked forward to seeing them when Adonis returned this year to see our team for a second scar revision.   On triage day, I had the entire team on the lookout for Adonis...the day came and went, but he never showed.  I was heartbroken, worried, confused.   Not being able to surrender, I asked the Faith In Practice Director to track Adonis down, contact him, and ask why he had not shown.  Several days later I was told there was good news!   They had found Adonis, not as easy as it is to find someone here, and he would be coming to the hospital...on Sunday.   I was leaving on Saturday.   I admit, while being happy that he had been found and would hopefully receive a second surgery, selfishly I was disappointed I would not see Adonis, talk with him, find out what has happened this past year.
          That morning's devotion was all about surrender.  It was on the way to the hospital, I reminded myself none of this was about me.   I would continue to pray for Adonis' health and happiness and I would look at the big picture, God's plan, and would not spend one more selfish moment being anything but happy for this deserving young man.  I prayed that God would take care of Adonis and I let it go... Done, finished, the end!
          Here is an excerpt from that day's blog:

"We entered to the wonderful, welcoming smiles and greetings of "Buenos Dias!" from all the people waiting to be seen by the various clinics run from the this hospital.  We rounded the last corner, "Buenas Dias!  Buenas Dias!..." smiling at each face... wait, that face was familiar... I stopped, turned back and "that face" had also turned just slightly and is looking at me.  It can't be, but I know it is!  The bandages are gone, there has been a year of healing on the inside and out...this is Adonis!!  With all the charm and grace of an over-excited water buffalo, I shout, "ADONIS!!!" and throw my arms around him!   I push back holding onto his arms and look at his beautiful face.  His smile, I think, is as wide as mine.   In this excitement, I cannot come up with one word of Spanish!  I do my best version of Spanglish charades to let him know I am running to the Surgery Area to find a translator and will be right back. "No vamanos" I lamely shouted as I ran!  This is the one and only time I could care less if I appeared to be the loud, crazy, ugly American...this was Adonis!   He WAS here, TODAY!"
          We had our reunion!  In the past year, Adonis returned to high school, earned his diploma, and will soon start college.  He was at the hospital that day for a back issue he has had since his accident.   I believe that our meeting was no accident and I was filled with joy, pure joy that God put us there together.  After surrendering, leaving this in God's hands, being filled with pure joy, I found a quiet corner, fell to my knees and gave thanks.
          From my meeting with Adonis, I have learned (but have not perfected) the power of surrender.  One cannot push and twist one's path.   To "respira profundo", take a deep breath, surrender, pray for guidance, and follow God's path leads to true joy.
          On the mountaintop in Guatemala (5000 ft. altitude) I know I am bathed in God's love and grace and mercy.  There I am separated from all the unimportant things that weigh me down here (the stuff, the phone, the computer, housework, petty annoyances that are just that).
          On that is quiet.... there is time to pray...time to ask for forgiveness...time to really think. There is time to listen.... and surrender...and be filled with joy.
          I can close my eyes, lift my face to the sun, hold my arms out; hands open to accept God's warm love, to accept His plan for me, to accept all of God's children as my brothers and sisters.   I know I am His instrument; he will show me how to use my gifts to answer prayers of others.   I know through my trips to Guatemala I have had my prayers answered.  "Thy will be done"
          I travelled to a mountain, was unsure, was at times afraid, but was comforted.  I learned through many, why I was sent there, I felt God's glory, basked in it and then went down the mountain.  I appreciate you listening to what I saw, what I heard, what I did and how I felt on that glorious mountain.  My wish is that you say your prayer and you find your mountaintop.  My Guatemala things are in a clearly marked box on top of my closet shelf as a daily reminder that God answered my prayer and I know I will be going back.