Part of our History: Little sisters of Jesus in Paraguay: Planted by the waters.

Guarani neighbourGuarani neighbour

The history of the native peoples of the Americas after the European conquest has been for the most part one of extermination and explo itation, poverty and discrimination. The Little Sisters of Argentina had long desired to have a community among the Indians of Paraguay, and they were recently able to spend some time among the Guarani people in a place called Yvapovd. Most of the people of this town worked until recently for an English company that exploited the local forests for tannin, used in the production of leather. The little sisters write:

When you live on the shore of a wide and generous river like the Rio Paraguay, these words of the prophet Jeremiah from today's first reading take on a very concrete aspect: "Blest are they who trust in the Lord, they are like trees planted by the waters, that thrust out their roots to the stream; they have no worries in a year of drought, and never cease to bear fruit." (ch. 17:5-10) This river is a precious blessing for which we never cease to be grateful, especially in the recent drought.

"Ndokysei vaicha," the people say, "It seems it doesn't want to rain." The earth, the trees, and the people are waiting, thirsty for the sky water... Perhaps there is some connection between the lack of rain and the massive burning that's taking place on the island just in front of the town, in preparation for planting. Sometimes at dusk it's very impressive to see the flames and smoke, made all the more vivid and close by the coming of darkness.

Also waiting for the rain is our future vegetable garden. One of the Little Brothers, came for two weeks in early February to turn the ground and build an enclosure to protect it from animals, especially chickens and pigs. He also built two wooden fences and cleared the land all the way down to the River, so that we now have a wide and beautiful view of its waters, which change color as the hours of the day pass... Now, when the heavy rains we need come, we'll be able to start planting something.

With the help of the people, our house is also slowly taking shape. Organizing a house is always a communal exercise of figuring out "how to do this, where to put that..." One neighbour dug the hole for the outhouse and built it. Another closed the eaves, and built the kitchen outside, with a table made of hard wood from an old door; and he installed the system for collecting rainwater on the roof... and then it rained, enough that we were able to fill our tank with several days' supply of water.

Meanwhile we had quite a few experiences of friendliness and sharing on the part of the people: One brought us water; another offered homemade bread and basins for washing dishes; another brought a dustpan her husband made; the Health Center loaned us a refrigerator; someone else put in lights; others offered us firewood... We've been amazed how generous the people are, and they're still bringing eggs, manioc, batata cooked on a wood fire...

When he left, the brother told us that it all had reminded him of what L.Sr. Magdeleine had lived with her neighbors when she began the Community.

We had spent five months in the house of the nurse who gave us one of her two rooms so we could have a place to live. And now we have been one month in our own house, still as "pilgrims and guests"... It was a big step, to leave a place where we were under the "protection"of the landlady and settle in our own house, with the responsibility and vulnerability such a change implies in this new country. The Blessing ceremony was very touching the day we moved in, and we were so grateful to all the people who had made it possible. Living closely with Valentina and her family was a wonderful experience and we can live what we're living today thanks to the roots we were able to put down during that time.

Since we arrived in our own house, we've had lots of visits, especially from the neighbors who feel most free: the children of our closest neighbors. We are learning to balance being available and welcoming with setting the limits necessary for healthy relationships. We are already limited by the fact that we don't speak Guarani very well... but we are making slow progress and it is the children who are teaching us—the language, the manners and customs of the place: how to make fire, how to carry water from the river, how to find good firewood, sweep the patio, swim, fish. They are slowly revealing to us the secrets of the mountain and the river, of wind and of fire... and of God who dances close to us through their eyes, their hands, their hearts, their spirits... and in a short time we have found ourselves mothers and grandmothers without having known the pain of childbirth... Very often they stay to eat with us...

Through visiting and receiving visitors we are getting to know the town, its life and history. We're getting a feel for the harder aspects of life here: nearly every day children come from near and far, selling door-to-door—food, bread, cake, empanadas in baskets or wrapped in cloth... they are long-distance walkers undaunted by the heat. As our house faces one of the streets leading to the River, all day long we see women and children passing by, carrying home several liters of water on their heads. Some come on motorcycles or bicycles, but most on foot.

There are also divisions in the town, and as many of the people are related to each other, the divisions begin within families and wind up being expressed in the politics. And there are different religious groups—Evangelicals, Anglicans, and one Mormon lady. At Mass one day in December, the priest spoke about the complexity in Yvapovo, its internal divisions, and made a sort of invitation to us to seek unity—"if there could be two or three persons who would work for that," he said at one point... and a question sprouted in our hearts: might that not be our task, as a way to walk the road in deeper community with these people, building bridges, forming bonds, with patience and creativity. The desire for unity was so strong in L.Sr. Magdeleine's heart... how can we try to live it here, each one as we are, aware that it comes about through our attempts to live unity in the midst of our own differences and diversity. May we live it with simplicity and trust.

There has been no shortage of questions about our mission. One day the parish priest explained that we didn't come to do catechesis or teach, but to share, to create relationships with everyone. At the beginning, Pabla used to call us "ma'am," saying, "they have no habit, they don't do catechism, or anything you expect nuns to do." Now she feels very comfortable calling us "hermanitas," "little sisters"—a step has been made with her and in her relationship with us.

Another reality we've come face to face with is the problem of work. Families have been dispersed far and wide in search of work, and Christmas and Holy Week, when family members come home to visit, are very emotional moments. We're looking for work too, trying to figure out what we can do, trying to be open to what life brings. One day a local lady came with her husband, asking us to help with the housework at his 80-year-old mother's place (she lives with her husband, who has Alzheimer's.) We share the hours each morning. Valeria is also trying to find work in private homes. We'll see how things go in the future; much will depend on how our garden turns out as well—we might be able to sell some of the vegetables in town. Our neighbor Licia takes in other people's laundry to do, which is another possibility...

In the midst of it all we're trying to build our life as a community as well, each one being herself, and that implies a certain amount of tension... a sign that we're going deeper, exploring in truth, and in trust.

Here too we are enfolded in nature, which adorns our path with extraordinary beauty and wisdom: the colors of the sunrises and sunsets, the song of the different birds, the designs the different species of fish draw on the surface of the river in the silence of dawn, the dances of the clouds and wind, the embroidery of the stars in the night... We also experienced the power of that nature in a tornado which tore the roof off the school as well as several houses, including Valentina's, while we still lived there. We saw the people's will to re-build and their patience in the face of the government's paralysis in fixing the school (it hasn't been done yet, and classes have begun in the reduced space which is left.)

We end here, on March 12, when the readings speak of other running water... a stream which comes out from the sanctuary, healing and fertile waters which make trees grow with medicinal leaves and fruit for eating. How can we not ask to be given those waters, with their healing powers; not ask that they water our earth, making our life as a community fruitful in this town which the Rio Paraguay embraces day and night?

Rio ParaguayRio Paraguay