Editor’s note: Missioner Allison Dethlefs traces the ups and downs of her journey on mission and reflects on the challenges and joys of forming relationships along the way.
When I decided to go on mission, Iwas prepared to experience two of the most fulfilling and gratifying years of my life. I pictured myself arriving in Bolivia and diving right away into my new mission site(s)—doing fulfilling work, forming deep relationships, and embracing new experiences enthusiastically. As it turns out, beginning my new life on mission was much more complicated and slow moving than that.
I did not expect to spend the first four months in Cochabamba simply trying to find a ministry site, and to wrestle with feelings of failure and inadequacy when I was unable to do so. And then when I finally did, I was unprepared for the struggle that my first year of ministry was going to present.
To begin with, a few months after I arrived, I started teaching Zumba classes two evenings a week at Nuestra Casa, a home for girls who have experienced sexual violence. It sounds good on paper, but I cannot tell you how often I dreaded those Tuesday and Thursday nights. I knew that going would mean ending my day with the normal teenage level of (low) enthusiasm and whining from girls whose relationship with me was mostly surface level.
But still, week-by-week, class-by-class, I showed up.
A few months later I began working with a rural health organization called Fundación San Lucas. I spent my first year there hopping from job to job, all of them things that were outside of my areas of expertise and most of which I did not feel qualified to do. My schedule was so varied that I never knew what the next day would hold, and while some weeks I would work every day, others I was only needed once or twice. I found myself longing for routine, constantly restless and wondering if I needed to look for other ministry sites or what I could do to make my experience the life-giving, fulfilling journey I thought I had signed up for.
And yet, day-by-day, challenge-by-challenge, I showed up.
Then as I began my second year of ministry, slowly, almost without me realizing it, things began to change. Suddenly the tías (aunts) in charge at Nuestra Casa started asking me to take on more responsibilities and get more involved with the girls. Instead of just going for my normal twice a week dance classes, I was also accompanying the girls to doctors appointments, taking them on outings, or being the one in charge at the home when it was short-staffed.
When the girls had their winter vacation, the home’s director asked me if I would take on some extra activities, so I decided to embark on the task of painting a mural with the girls to cover the 30-foot wall that lined their basketball court, which
meant hours of one-on-one time with the girls every week. Suddenly, my coworkers weren’t just people whose names I knew—they were friends who I walked home with every night or who invited me to meet their families on their days off.
At San Lucas too, not only did I begin to see how much my relationships had grown, but, looking back, I was also blown away by all that I had learned, and seen, and experienced, especially in regards to witnessing and accompanying those who lived on the margins.
While I had been waiting, frustrated and restless, for the good parts of mission to begin, continually showing up to my ministry sites week in and week out had done what no level of skill or knowledge or special initiative could have achieved. It was showing up often enough for long enough that was the key to the relationships I had been seeking, the trust I had been hoping to build, the wisdom and understanding I had been missing, the bigger picture I hadn’t been able to see. In a place where volunteers and missioners come and go all the time, it was time that was needed to break down walls and build bonds that no force of will could have constructed on its own.
It has not always been easy to show up over the course of these past 20 months. But for all the challenges along the way, that is what has made all the difference in the world.
Reflection question: When have you applied patience and hard work to a task that finally came to fruition?