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To Bolivia and Beyond


Editor’s Note: Missioner Jeff Sved decided to co-write a blog post with his friend Billy to tell the story of a small plant and its significance.

While I was a volunteer with FVM, we regularly had a retreat with the Franciscans at the Mt. Irenaeus community. During those retreats, I would spend much of my time reflecting in what we referred to as the “mountain plant room”- a reading room that had been completely taken over by a leafy vine. In talking with the friars, I learned that the plant flowers once a year for a single night. The entire community gathers together and celebrates the gift of the flower in a sort of sacred vigil, passing the night singing together in the presence of the flower.

Inspired to experience this ourselves and as an on-going connection of friendship among fellow FVMs, a few of us accepted clippings from the plant in hopes that one day they would grow enough to flower. By the time I was prepping to leave for Cochabamba, my plant had barely grown. Not wanting to give up on the plant, I decided to gift it to my dear friend Billy, and from here I’ll let him tell the story…

Before he left for Bolivia, Jeff gave me a clipping of his clipping. It was three ragged leaves planted in a plastic coffee container that had lost half its dirt at some point during the 30-mile bike ride it endured in a backpack to reach my apartment in Philly. For a while it merely survived, but eventually it began to grow, and finally came to flourish.

Three years later, with the help of some creative structural engineering, it had made substantial strides in taking over the top floor of my residence when a single bud began to grow. And, with less than 48 hours to go before I left the country for my week-and-a-half long odyssey in Bolivia, it blossomed for the first time. It certainly seemed significant, but I couldn’t put a finger on what it actually entailed. With this puzzler as my send-off, I departed for Bolivia.

Billy's creative engineering to support the plant

Billy’s creative engineering to support the plant

Jeff, true to form, had me inside of San Antonio prison within five hours of my landing in Cochabamba. That sort of pace was the story of the whole visit. We made half a dozen visits to the prisons including three different sites, two small group reflections (in which I found myself participating with embarrassingly rusty Spanish), and even a Sunday Mass. I met craftsmen and carpenters, learned firsthand how the prison society and economy function, and played chess with an inmate.

Outside of the prisons, I got a taste of Bolivia – literally and figuratively – as Jeff and I went on a whirlwind tour of Bolivian culture, society, history, geography, scenery, and cuisine.

So, what does this have to do with the blossoming of the “mountain plant”? As I began to process my trip in Bolivia, I found it difficult to come to an understanding of the point of it, or, in another sense, to justify its importance. Given all that I saw and experienced, it seemed self-evident that there must be some revelation to be had. It dawned on me that this strongly paralleled my struggle to assign meaning to the flower.

What I eventually came to is this: the reason that I initially struggled to find meaning – in both the plant and the trip – was that I was too focused on deconstructing the significance I felt in search of a moral or a lesson. This is by all means a worthwhile exercise, but I realized that trying to put a finger on the specifics of how and why had become so burdensome that it was detracting from my ability to appreciate the experiences as a whole – I was failing to see the forest for the trees. So I took a step back, and found that both experiences came into focus.

In terms of Bolivia, I realized that my eyes have been opened in many ways, anticipated and not, by my glimpse into Bolivian culture and society, and my understanding has grown of the purpose and practice of the mission work that Jeff has undertaken within that community.

At the end of the day I have accepted, and am content with, there being no ultimate meaning or life changing aspect to it. My recollection of new knowledge and understanding, thankfulness for the time spent in camaraderie, and appreciation for the beauty I witnessed is sufficient. And when it comes right down to it, that’s a great summary of that flower as well.

Jeff Sved served in Cochabamba, Bolivia, from 2013-2016. His main ministry was working with inmates in seven prisons throughout Cochabamba.

Prior to joining FMS he served in Wilmington, Del., with Franciscan Volunteer Ministry teaching math in a prison and teaching English to members of the Latino community. Originally from Pittsburgh, Penn., and a graduate of Villanova University.