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College students in Belize: Loving the children, loving like a child

Catholics from Conway find selves changed by students and parishioners in Central America

Published: June 16, 2012   
Hendrix College graduate Anna Roane and Juliane Pierini of Little Rock instruct students at Immaculate Conception School on baptism and reconciliation.

There are few things I do in my life that make me feel like I actually make a difference, and one of those things is missionary work.

On May 27-June 2, I went with the University of Central Arkansas/Hendrix College Catholic Campus Ministry and 15 other missionaries to Bullet Tree Falls, Cayo, in Belize. Among those of us in attendance were Deacon Richard Papini, campus minister, and Father James Melnick, associate pastor of St. Joseph Church in Conway and CCM chaplain.

This was my third mission trip, but my first time in Belize. I had previously attended the Christ the King Honduras Mission in 2008 and 2011. I was cautious to not go into this mission expecting it to be just like the CTK mission. The Belize mission was primarily an evangelization and construction mission, which is different than the medical work that is a big part of the work in the CTK mission.

At first, I was a bit wary of going on a mission that was centered on evangelization. Usually, I associate missionary work with taking care of the people's primary needs, such as medical care, education and shelter. I was not so sure that we would make such a huge difference in the lives of the people if we only took care of their spiritual needs, but the Lord had big plans for us. With morning prayer and Mass every morning, we were given the strength to do our work, his work.

In addition to several construction projects, we worked at Immaculate Conception School and broke up into teams of two and taught children ages 5 to 14 about the sacraments. Each team specialized in two sacraments and moved from classroom to classroom teaching the kids for an hour each. In Belize, school is taught in English instead of Spanish so there was no real language barrier. It was an amazing experience to see how well the kids listened to us and answered our questions. I could see that the kids and the teachers in the school were truly grateful for our presence there.

When we weren't teaching or working on construction, the kids were grabbing at our hands begging us to play games with them, share jokes or just sit and talk. They had so much energy and joy that it did not matter how tired I was that day, I tried hard to be there for them. Every night after we were through with our work, the missionaries gathered in the chapel at the old monastery where we were staying and offered reflections on the day. Everyone felt that we were making an impact on the people, but more importantly, we felt the impact they were making on us.

I gave Belize a piece of my heart. I think it's only natural to do that when you spend time in work and fellowship in a foreign country. Father John Antony, pastor at St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville, told the CTK Honduras mission in 2011 that there is something strangely spiritual about being in a foreign country, and I agree. Working, praying and playing with these people has been more than just to do a good deed. I did my best to serve these people and in the process, but not really intentionally, I gave my love.

Usually, it takes a lot of effort to put love into the work you do, but for anyone who has done missionary work, it is actually effortless. The love simply flows from you.

I didn't notice I was really loving these people until I sat on the plane home. As I reflected on my experiences there, I felt a tremendous heartache and a strong desire to return to those people.

Some would say that I was enchanted by the magic of the country, but I say that I was captivated by the Spirit.

It isn't difficult to see the Holy Spirit in a child that you meet, but these children were completely consumed by it. Their simple ways and contagious joy made me feel like a child again. I rediscovered the faith of a child.

I could have taught them all kinds of theology, tell them why we believe this and don't believe that, but they taught me so much more. It might sound cliché, but the world seems brighter than it was before I came. My adult concerns don't seem so burdensome anymore. For six days, I was blessed to have the experience of being a child again.

A child is simple, does not worry and loves all. They are not quick to judge and they accept everyone. I never noticed how judgmental and doubtful I had become until I spent time with these kids. Now, I feel like my spirits are higher and my outlook on life is more positive.

It may be just a mission trip “high,” but even so, the change in my heart is real. In a few days, I'm sure that I will revert back to my old attitudes, but I believe that once your heart has changed for the better, it will take a whole lot more than everyday trivial things to make a change back to the worst.

When I do missionary work, I feel like I can change the world. It's so simple. If I can somehow make a difference in the life of even one child, why can't I tackle the world? My youthful optimism may be getting the better of me but allow me to dream: If everyone could learn to love another unselfishly and unconditionally, at least one other person, this world would be a much better place. Once you feel profound love, all you want to do is share it.

Juliane Pierini is a summer intern for Arkansas Catholic and attends UCA.

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