Editor’s Note: A Junior at St. Mary’s University and a finalist for the San Damiano Award, Valeria García reflects on how she came to a deeper understanding of what it means to “be present” and witness to the lives and sufferings of those around her.

Barreras: they were always present. I grew up knowing that the border was a symbol of separation. I was well aware that while on one side of the river, the citizens were living a dream, the people on the other side were not. Born and raised in the very southern tip of Texas—in a border town that many do not know—Brownsville taught me much more about breaking barriers than I could have ever imagined. Bearing witness to the truth of someone’s life experiences is often hard to do—there are societal walls and even self-imposed barriers which can prevent us from reaching out to those around us. However, the moment we open our hearts and minds to the gift of relationships and presence, we begin to be transformed.

Life as a kid was the happiest it’s ever been for me. However, as time passed, things began to unfold right before my eyes. I began to see the bad, the evil, and the unfair.  I saw all these in my own town, in my own people. As a Latina, low-income, and first- generation student, my life wasn’t “supposed” to be the way it is at the moment. I was not supposed to be where I am right now and I was not supposed to overcome the barriers. Yet, I find myself here, in a position that allows me to serve with eyes wide open.

My time in Ecuador was powerful. It was full of emotions and ideas that felt bottled up within me. Listening to the challenges the Ecuadorians had to face was overwhelming. How could I stand in solidarity with them? What could I possibly do to help? It was questions like these that made me feel naked, stripped of all ideas, helpless, and powerless.

But through the Ecuadorian’s stories and God’s everlasting love, I began to understand that being there for someone is much more than a physical presence. Truly “being there” means giving of yourself entirely. It means listening, understanding, conversing, and trusting. It is about accepting that being present sometimes means giving and at other times means receiving.  

As Henri Nouwen writes, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

So break those barriers and go be.

Reflection Question: Where has God been present in your life? How have you been present to others?