A Familys Ignatian Journey: Beyond the American dream

I used to be a soccer mom, minivan and all. But this morning I had to roll down the windows on my 14-year-old jeep to get all the mosquitoes out that had festered there from the night before. I used to like to grill out on nice summer nights. I havent grilled out for the last two years, out of respect for neighbors who have to cook rice and beans over an open fire and rarely taste meat themselves. I used to worry about a lot of pointless things. Today I realize that we wont have water tonight to wash dishes. It is Thursday; no water on Thursdays. Our journey as an Ignatian Associate familyfinding strength in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyolahas led us from the first world to the developing world, only to find that we dont really belong to either.

A New Perspective

In the fall of 2003, my husband Tom and I moved to Omaha for his new job at Creighton University as a theology professor. At that point our main goals in life were tenure, a house and achieving the American dream. While we had always been dedicated to working in the church, I cannot say we were always dedicated to working for Christ. Then, through colleagues and friends, came an invitation to explore a different perspective. It came through a relatively new community of lay couples and families who try to live the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola in their daily lives through Gospel-based service to others, especially the poor. For us the invitation came as nothing less than a gift, because the life of chasing the American dream left little more to desire than more itself. In two years of spiritual formation with a strong community of friends, we found ourselves pulled away from that dream. But into what? That remains the question.

Through chance meetings and opportunities that went far beyond mere coincidence, Tom walked in one day with the idea of applying for a position as director of Creightons study abroad program in the Dominican Republic. The deadline was the next day. It would require that I give up my part-time position, rent out our house and take our children (ages 2, 7 and 9) to Bolivia for three months of language school and then on to the Dominican Republic for at least two years. It would require shots and moving expenses. It would require faith that our discernment was sincere. And it would require unconditional loving relationships to sustain us through it all. To be honest, I feared and fought it every step of the way. Luckily, gracefully, I lost.


Life in the Dominican Republic

Toms position in the Dominican Republic was the ultimate connection between practical action and academia. Mornings he would teach the 8 to 16 Creighton University students studying at our Jesuit mission home, the Institute for Latin American Concern, in Santiago, D.R. He would tell them about the history, economy, sociology and politics of the Dominican Republic in light of Catholic Church teachings on poverty, spirituality and liberation theology. In the afternoons he would be in a four-wheel drive vehicle on roads passable only in the dry season headed to small remote villages to plan student immersions and build relationships with the campesinos. For him, it was consolation to an extreme. My experience as a full-time parent was a bit different.

Discerning my vocation as a mother first and foremost had been easy. The challenge of reconciling the American way of understanding that vocation with the practice of it in a developing country was what lay ahead. My life was filled with more questions than consolation. Do good parents drive their kids anywhere without a car seat? Here in the Dominican Republic families of five ride mini-motorcycles without helmets. Do good parents risk their childrens health and safety? Here my daughter has been hospitalized for urinary tract infections from dirty water. Here there are no parks or sidewalks, no enforced government standards of food inspection. Good parents seek the best possible education for their children. Here the public schools operate only half a day every day in crowded classrooms with no books. Was I being true to my vocation? Was I being a good parent?

Living Simply

Then came the challenges of being an American family in a developing country. How much should I be responsible for feeding all the neighborhood children? What kind of birthday gifts do I give my kids when the neighbor kids lack shoes? How do I answer my three-year-old when she tells me she wants to give away all her clothes because her friends dont have any?

Ultimately came questions about how to be an Ignatian associate: How can I live simply in a place where refrigerated water is a luxury? How am I being apostolically available to those all around me who live in deep poverty, when I have three children of my own to care for? How am I being faithful to the Gospel when I have the freedom to enjoy the delights of the Caribbean, while my neighbors are not allowed even to enter the resorts because of the color of their skin?

After two years here I still have far more questions than answers; but perhaps more important, I have stopped fearing to face those questions. I have learned that good parenting lies in deliberate action, not just in following regulations. I have learned that having our kids understand the roots and impact of poverty is far more valuable to their lives than having them understand square roots. I have seen them face challenges, suffer and grow beyond my expectations. I have accepted the fact that I am a privileged person in this world, and that along with such privilege comes not more rights or accolades, but more obligations.

Our time in the Dominican Republic made us confront some very sobering realities. Most of the world suffers from the affluent minoritys inaction and apathy, in which many of our own friends and extended family members participate. We lack for examples and direction in living out Ignatian spirituality as a family. We yearn for a community to help us bridge the gaps between these two worlds, so we do not feel we are trying to do so alone. And if we fear anything now, it is going back to a culture that does not understand or care about those to whom we have given our hearts.

I really cannot say that I have accomplished a whole lot by living under these challenging conditions for two years. That would be an American way to assess the situation. But I can say I no longer fear the journey away from being seen as a typical American family. At the same time, by virtue of my white skin and access to opportunities, I could live in the developing world for 20 years and never fit in there. So we are left undefined, ruined for life, as Jesuit Volunteers like to say. Perhaps in 15 years our children will be saying to their therapists that we ruined them in many other ways.

But we do have one another, and as a family we can love and serve others in ways the ordained cannot. Each one of my kids made best friends with a child of a different race, culture, language and socio-economic levelfriendships that will not easily be replaced. Our home became the local Y.M.C.A. for children with no yard or toys and a place of refuge for many others working at the mission, a couch to flop on, a kitchen where they could enjoy a home-cooked meal. After two years, we found that we are able to face all the differences, challenges and inconveniences because of the security we have in the love of Another and of one another. Because I do not take this journey alone, I have the strength to be sure others will not have to face their journeys alone either. And with that knowledge the journey continues, not knowing into what, but trusting that it is the journey we need to take.

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11 years 3 months ago
I thank you for the inspiration and challenge for us all, to be dedicated in serving Christ. From there, everything falls into the right direction.
Jane OBrien
11 years 3 months ago
Thanks for the honesty in this piece of writing--the uncertainties, the complexities, the questions to which answers are easily or quickly forthcoming. Thanks also, especially, for this phrase "the security we have in the love of Another and of one another," which haunts me with its apt descriptiveness of what Christianity is. Thanks, thanks, thanks.


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