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Welcome Back, Kotter — I mean, Hady

Photo by flickr user Olivier de Sedona

Missioner-in-training Hady Mendez reflects on her past and future. 

You ever heard of the hit TV show “Welcome Back Kotter,” which aired back in the ’70s?

It’s a story of a teacher who graduates from a high school in Brooklyn and ends up going back to the same school to teach a group of “unteachable students” called the Sweathogs. He returned to the school when he realized that he was one of the last hopes these kids had. He befriended the kids, gained their trust, and truly believed in their potential.

What does this TV show have to do with me, you ask? Read on to find out…

I grew up in Brooklyn in the ’70s and ’80s. We lived in the ghetto although I didn’t really know it at the time. We had gangs in our neighborhood. People got mugged and shot in our building. And I played “kicked the can” in what was essentially a garbage dump. As I got older, my goal was to get an education and get out of the slums. I didn’t want that kind of life anymore.

I succeeded in that plan. I went to college and got my degree. I joined a great firm upon graduation and was on my way. Until this past May, I had a career in corporate America that lasted more than 20 years. During that time, I held several positions that allowed me to make great money and enjoy a good life. I drove a BMW. I went shopping at Tiffany’s. I ate at great restaurants. I traveled the world. And I was comfortable.

So you can imagine my surprise when I heard God tell me “go back”. Go back? GO BACK???? Are you kidding me? I don’t want to go back to that life. To that ugliness. The Lord persisted – YOU MUST.

I cried a lot. Because I knew He was right. Because I couldn’t very well enjoy all the great things I had been enjoying when I knew there were so many people going without. It didn’t seem fair that I would have this life of luxury when other people were struggling just to survive.

And so I made a decision to “go back” and serve God’s poor and marginalized. Going on mission is the first step for me. I expect it will make me humble. And to understand what it’s like to live simply. And to “get” the struggles of the poor first-hand. Then I want to come back and do great things! I’m not sure where I will end up although I will tell you that going back to NYC is on the top of my list. I’m putting it in God’s hands. He’s led me this far. I know he will continue to light the path for me.

I’m excited for what God will have me do. I can already see myself at my old elementary school in Brooklyn talking to the young children and telling them they too can get an education and go on to do great things for this world.

Or joining my awesome cousin Jessica (she’s the first and last speaker in the video) in building an urban garden for kids and teaching them the benefits of exercise and nutrition.

Or hooking up with an organization like Harlem Children’s Zone and advocating on behalf of children’s educational needs.

Or doing prison ministry. Or working with immigrants. Or engaging in community organzing.

The possibilities seem endless. My heart is filled with joy and anticipation for what will come and how I will continue to grow and learn from the work that I will do. It feels GREAT to be “going back” to where I came from. It truly feels that’s where I belong.

A self-described “Hija de Brooklyn y Puerto Rico,” Hady Mendez is the youngest of four daughters raised by Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, NY. A proud Jasper, Hady graduated from Manhattan College in Riverdale, NY, before starting a corporate career in technology that lasted for more than 20 years. Hady has a true passion for world travel and social justice and recently returned from two years of mission in Cochabamba, Bolivia.