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Love in a Suffering World


Editor’s Note: After accompanying her friend and fellow missioner through illness, missioner Allison Dethlefs reflects on fighting through feeling helpless and finding assurance that merely being present is more powerful than we often realize.

 For three months during our training for long-term mission it was repeatedly pounded into our heads that our main ministry was to be one of accompaniment and presence—in short, we were going on mission to be in relationship. I pictured myself forming deep friendships with my future Bolivian co-workers and neighbors and tried to imagine how I would be present to those most in need in Cochabamba. My prayer was constant: Lord, show me how to love, serve, and walk with those I will encounter on mission.

I am now three months into my time on mission, and God has been teaching me how to better love, serve, and accompany. However, as is so often true in life, that journey has looked much different than I expected.

On Good Friday, my fellow missioner and best friend, Catherine, suddenly became very ill. After several miserable days, I was finally forced to take her to the hospital, where she ended up staying for four days and three nights. Then, only days after leaving the hospital, her symptoms returned full-force which led to weeks in bed as we walked the very slow road to recovery.

Catherine and Allison during Catherine's four day hospital stay

Catherine and Allison during Catherine’s four day hospital stay

Catherine’s sickness over the last month has taught me about ministry of presence in a completely new and unexpected way. Being able to do so little to relieve her pain, discomfort, and loneliness filled me with a sense of helplessness and impotency that I could do nothing to shake. I was given a glimpse of Mary’s lot as she watched her son fall to his knees and stood at the foot of his cross, and of Veronica, who was able to wipe Jesus’s face, but not stop his bleeding or take away his pain.

As I walked alongside Catherine’s way of the cross, I received an essential insight into our call as missioners and as human beings in a world of suffering people. Here in Bolivia and back in the States, I will be called to accompany many people whose life situations are far worse than my own—people who are homeless, sick, imprisoned, who come from broken families, and who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And I will rarely be able to change their situations. I will not be able to free them from prison, find them homes, fix their families, give them money or medications, or make sure that they never go hungry again. I will feel impotent. Helpless.

But love demands that we walk alongside the suffering anyway. Love demands that I make sure Catherine drinks her water, that I sit beside her and try to make her smile, and allow her to feel miserable in my presence. Love will demand that I listen to people’s stories, that I do my best to make them feel valuable and loved, and that I dive fearlessly into their lives so that they need not suffer alone.

No matter where we are, as long as we love, we will have to suffer and cave to love’s demands. But however small the work may seem, I choose to believe that it is exactly what we are called to, is infinitely valuable, and is always enough.

Reflection Questions: Is there someone in your life who is struggling with a challenging situation right now? Even if you can’t “fix” the situation, what small gestures can you make to assure that person that he or she doesn’t have to journey through the darkness alone?

Allison has been serving in Cochabamba, Bolivia since January 2016.

Allison has a wide range of interests and loves including art, dance, long-distance running, baking, literature, and languages. She graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, NE, where she studied Spanish, studio art, and justice and peace studies. After serving and studying in Honduras, Peru, and the Dominican Republic during her university years, she chose to to dive into the new experience of long-term mission abroad.