It is official: I am extending my contract to stay in Bolivia for a fourth and final year.

With this decision, I have a sense of excitement and joy… as well as a bit of relief.

In my discernment, I had my pros for staying in Bolivia and my pros for returning to the U.S. I felt good about either option, free to decide either way, but I was waiting for some kind of inner clarity. Thankfully that moment came.

Last year when I was discerning whether I would stay in Bolivia for a third year, I accompanied fellow missioners Nate and Mary Mortenson to Carmen Pampa, a rural community four hours outside of La Paz. While they were touring the university where they would eventually serve, I went off on a couple of hikes. One of these hikes led me to a waterfall where I spent the afternoon playing in the stream and in prayer. I left that time with a certainty that I wanted to renew for a third year with FMS.

Now fast-forward to this most recent visit to Carmen Pampa to visit Nate, Mary, and new FMS missioner Tom Little. After a hike, Nate and I broke off from the group because he wanted to show me a waterfall. It turned out to be the same one I had visited last year… only I learned that last time I had stopped short of going all the way to the “real waterfall.” As we continued to climb through the stream, all I could hear in my mind was “THERE’S MORE.”

We spent some time in silence enjoying the stream and the waterfall, and once again I climbed back down with the certainty that I wanted to renew for a fourth and final year with FMS, and with a strong consolation in knowing there’s more for me still in Cochabamba.

The organization with whom I have been doing prison ministry is adding a post-penitenciaria support group to help those recently released from prison as they make the difficult transition back into society.  Right now the only program that exists like this is for women. We are currently in a trial-and-error phase with a pilot program at a men’s prison with the goal of having an inside group that meets weekly that will eventually include an outside group as well once people have left.

In the next few weeks we’ll be starting a similar “inside group” at a couple of the other prisons as well. With both the inside and outside group we’ll be discussing various Restorative Justice themes from the workshop I attended in April. We’ve already included a couple reflections on self-forgiveness.

In general I hope that continued presence will only further deepen my relationships within the prisons, and we’ll see where those deepening relationships lead. It has been amazing to watch these relationships grow over the past couple years, especially in the workshops. In San Antonio, San Sebastian, and San Pablo I’ve simply become part of the various groups, where the men work to pay for their costs of living. Whether it is sharing a soda, working alongside a zapatero or an artisan, or picking up new products to sell, the time together has allowed new connections to form and old ones to deepen.

It is only through the support I receive from family and friends in the U.S. that these relationships are possible. “Thank you” is less than sufficient in expressing gratitude for the support I’ve received.  While I don’t have the words to express my gratitude for those who have supported me through prayer, emails, letters, and donations, I express that gratitude in the way I live and the way I love. As one of the desert fathers once wrote, “I’d rather live without speaking, than speak without living”. In being present to those in the prisons here, I am living my gratitude for your continued support, even if I don’t have the words to fully thank you.

It is a lived out gratitude that I bring into all of my interactions here. Here’s to another year!