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Beyond Language

Sabrina Portner Blog

Editor’s Note: Missioner Sabrina Portner reflects on language barriers and ways she can better connect with her surroundings as she begins her ministry in Cochabamba, Bolivia

San Martin, the home for boys that has become my new place of service and source of contentment, cares for one singular cow, Betty, and her bull calf. Beyond all the other joys San Martin blesses me with, this creature has welcomed me to Bolivia in ways no human could. Just the sound of her mooing outside during my first weeks provided a source of comfort amidst the sea of newness and uncertainty.

Somedays I feel like my only job here is to be humbled, over and over and over again. As much as I have learned in these last three months it feels like every other day I am overwhelmed by the ways my broken Spanish impedes relationships, my ability to receive directions, understand context, listen to other’s stories, share more of who I am, and most of all encourage the boys I work with. As other Spanish speaking volunteers arrive my heart sinks a little when I watch them connect with the boys in infinitely less time due to the blessing of a shared language.

Admittedly, I am incredibly well cared for here in Bolivia. There are many people in this life who suffer far worse than I due to the lack of a way to communicate. With the inability to communicate, a large sense of loneliness sets in even when surrounded by so many people.

The importance of speaking the same language has blown up in my face. Yet, I am surprised by the subtle ways humans communicate without language to both other humans and creatures. Standing in the presence of my friend Betty, the cow, I feel a deep understanding between us. She somehow knows that I am only here to respect and care for her. I have shown her this by my calm demeanor and daily head scratches. Yet, there must be something that goes beyond her evaluation of my present actions. Why else will she stand so peacefully while being milked when I am by her side? She knows. She just knows somehow that I grew up with my cows as my second family; she knows that this is a partnership.

But of course, I have a connection with this beautiful creature in the middle of the suburbs of Cochabamba, Bolivia. We are made of the same stuff. We are both consumed by the incarnation of the Christ. In Christ we live and move and have our being. This singular thought provides so much fuel for my love and devotion to the mind-boggling gift that is our earth.

Recently, SarahJane and I have began watching the Netflix docu-series Our Planet. While depicting the immense beauty and diversity of our planet the show explains the rippling effects of rapid climate change and the perilous future of this place we and every other living being calls home. We are truly connected not just through Christ but through a complex web of ecosystems. I must reevaluate the way I am living and what it means to truly live in community with all creatures who inhabit this earth. With a lack of verbal communication, my eyes have been opened to the endless ways living beings interact beyond words. These marvels must be preserved and we all must take responsibility.

My friend Grace sent me on mission to Bolivia with notes for the journey that she compiled during her time of service. What a blessing they have been. Poet Rupi Kaur eloquently expresses my feelings toward God’s creation:

“The necessity to protect you overcame me I love you too much To remain quiet as you weep Watch me rise to kiss the poison out of you I will resist the temptation Of my tired feet And keep marching With tomorrow in one hand And a fist in another I will carry you to freedom.” – Love letter to the world, Rupi Kaur

Reflection Question: Who in your life do you struggle to communicate with? How might God be inviting you to see past initial communication barriers to pursue a deeper relationship with others?