First Mission Assignment in Peru
It started out like any other normal evening meal in the formation house in Fiji when we were informed we will be going to Peru for our FMA (First Mission Assignment). Two days after our arrival in Lima, Tex and I were called to a meeting with our FMA Director where he outlined the program. He mentioned there was a possibility of doing pastoral work in a school. Having the experience of being a teacher before the seminary, I told myself "I got this one in the bag." It's either math or basic English. I did not even bother to ask what school it was or what was involved in the pastoral work.
After language school, I was settling into my appointed parish of "All Saints" in the township of Huandoy, when I was informed of pastoral placement in the school. Indeed, it was the school next door but not the one I had anticipated. There were two schools beside the Columban Central House, one a Diocesan secondary school and the other a special needs school. So, it was welcome to Manuel Duato, a school catering to the needs of special students. Without any formal training prior to this, I had a bit of confusion, feelings of helplessness and a surge of anxiety.
The first day came, and it was like reliving my first day in elementary school where it literally took me seconds to exit through the other door. My fears became a reality as there were screams, parents chasing their kids around, a kid chewing on some crayons and another throwing stuff at other students. The class was chaotic and in a mess, but as I would later find out, there was a certain beauty and fulfilling joy hidden within that mess. One simply needs time to adjust to unfamiliar situations and adapt. Somehow I always find myself back inside a classroom but this was different.
The assigned class comprised of ten severely mentally challenged students, a teacher, and myself as assistant. As weeks turned into months the unfamiliar gradually became familiar. Each student had a different way of being approached and assisted in class. Activities involved some simple art work in class and physical exercises outside. At other times it would involve feeding some of the students during lunch. Language was a challenge for me, and luckily it was of minimal use since the students also had speech impairments. Communication was kept at one-word commands accompanied by simple hand gestures; anything more would confuse both the students and myself.
Regular or traditional classrooms gauge students' progress generally through exam results and are most rewarding to any teacher who puts in effort sees the results. In our class at Manuel Duato, the completion of art work or physical activity, however small, is an achievement in itself. The means of getting there may be difficult, but it is worthwhile when one sees the joy expressed on these students faces upon completion of a simple task. There might be aspects of the love and care missing in their lives, and hopefully I have done enough to fill in these gaps for them. These students are occasionally misunderstood by society and looked at differently, but for me to be able to understand and to "feel-with" them offers another perspective.
As a Columban seminarian I am also reminded of the possibility of working for and alongside special needs people in the future. Truly there have been areas of growth in my own person, such as gaining a great deal of patience, accepting others for whom they are and having tolerance for special needs students. One could easily define these areas of growth, but to live them out is a different ball game. Spending time with these students made me realize my own shortcomings and provided the opportunity to identify them, acknowledge, adjust and to improve upon them. I may never really know the extent to which I have assisted them in class, but on the other hand, they have imparted life lessons that I would draw from as I continue my vocation journey. The experience reminded me of a Columban priest's sharing in the formation house in Fiji in which he said "The formation years are about going around with your tool-box and collecting tools for the journey ahead." The FMA program has thus far provided me tools, some new while the old ones need a bit of oiling.
A Scripture passage I can relate to this experience would have to be the "Woman at the Well" (John 4:5-42). The Samaritan woman may have thought she had it figured out by travelling far to get water from Jacob's well. She arrives at the well and encounters Jesus. The exchange leads her to admit her past, to be fully present there with the Lord and a renewed faith for the future. There is a sort of spiritual displacement that has taken place within the woman that she leaves behind her empty jar and goes off to proclaim the Good News. The other aspect of this passage that I find intriguing is the image of water, how it takes the form of any enclosed object and how freely it flows when released. Before the commencement of pastoral work, I honestly thought I had it all figured out. The classes with the students revealed how far I have come, the need to be fully present, and the necessary adjustments that I will need to make heading into the future. I may have entered their lives with preconceived notions of the experience, but I was so wrong. As I continue with pastoral work, I see the beauty and the joy that accompanies it when one is of service to the community of special needs students. What a blessing!
Finally I wish to convey my sincere gratitude to all benefactors of the Society. It is through your prayers and support that such institutions and projects undertaken by the Society manifests itself in the lives of these children, their families and your seminarians. God Bless.
Aminiasi Ruvawi is a Fijian Columban seminarian.