Recently I found myself in a small upper room in a Franciscan Spirituality Center in Tarata, a town about an hour drive outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia. I was sitting in a plastic chair in a circle of Franciscan volunteers from around the world, some from Germany, others from Brazil, and me from the United States.

We were listening to two Franciscan friars speak about the national reality in Bolivia, from their decades of experience of living and working closely with the people here.

And as we concluded our time together, one of the friars added this to the conversation:

“What is essential as a Franciscan is that every day you look at our reality from the perspective of the poor.”

I had to let that message sink in, and each time I revisit it, I have to let it sink in deeper.

He explained that as Franciscans, we are not here in Bolivia to be a ‘voice for the voiceless,’ that our work is not about us speaking for the poor, but about us working together with the poor to open spaces where they can speak for themselves and have their experiences and their needs heard.

It was not a comfortable message to receive. Actually it felt more like a challenge.

It took me back to my time in college and the social justice advocacy work that I engaged as a student.

And it reminded me of the shadow side of that work, how if I was not careful, my advocacy efforts could become more about me and my voice than about the voice of those who were experiencing the injustice.

But when I studied abroad in El Salvador two years ago, something within me shifted. The relationships that I formed with families there that were poor and marginalized profoundly changed my perspective.

Upon returning to the States, I couldn’t go to class, couldn’t go to meetings on campus, couldn’t go work or go to bed without thinking of these families and their reality, not only their struggles but the joy and the faith that they live in as well.

These relationships taught me about solidarity.

Now in Bolivia, sitting in this upper room in Tarata, I felt a wave of consolation. In the midst of so much changing these past few weeks, it was this message from the Franciscan friar that made me feel right at home.

I knew what he meant, I had lived what he was saying and I knew how it had transformed my life, to be so close in relationships with those living on the margins that my understanding of reality became interwoven with theirs.

My prayer is that as I form new relationships here in Cochabamba, the reality of the struggles and joys that people on the margins here experience every day can continue to affect my perspective and inform the work we share together.

From St. Paul, Minnesota, Annemarie Barrett graduated from Loyola University in Chicago in 2012 with a degree in Communications. Possessing a strong interest in social justice issues and some experience with international travel, she is in Bolivia on mission for two years.