They Call Me Mr Weird

Well, most of them still call me Maestro. Mr Weird is an appellation given to me by one specific student, Helen, whose pretty dark eyes and long curly hair accentuate her larger-than-life sassy personality. As I’ve developed my teaching style, though, I’ve embraced it, and I think that most, if not all, of my students would agree with Helen that it certainly applies.

It all started on the Outdoor Leadership Adventure. I was determined to make a memorable first impression, and I’m naturally a goofball anyway, so the students were all amused and a little thrown by my shenanigans. For instance, the girls would sing while they cooked and did dishes and during any other brief instances of downtime. Their repertoire varied pretty widely, featuring popular tunes from each of the last four decades in both English and Spanish. I have a head for song lyrics, at least in my native tongue, so I was able to keep up with them pretty well. (Though there was one instance where I started singing a Spanish song I knew. Leonardi was having an animated conversation with some of the girls, and cried “AY AY AY AY!” in feigned dismay for reasons I never bothered to figure out. I seized the opportunity and replied with “Canta y no llores!”, which was swiftly followed up with the rest of the chorus to “Cielito Lindo” and a peal of laughter.) I also have a predilection for certain female artists and a remarkable lack of shame when it comes to singing lines that are awkward coming from a guy. One night, the students were singing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” while sitting around the fire pit, and were a bit stunned when they finished the verse and I launched into the bridge. (“Boys only want love if it’s torture…”) Helen, in particular, wasn’t quite sure what to make of me. In her (slightly paraphrased) words: “Mister, I have all the other teachers pretty much figured out, but I dunno about you… You’re just weird!” And thus it was.

Fortunately for my students, my weirdness is of the enduring variety, and is able to transcend such drastic context changes as the shift from a once-in-a-lifetime camping adventure to the everyday reality of the classroom. Usually, it just manifests as a tendency to make snarky jokes and asides during my lecture. Sometimes, it comes in handy when I’m trying to make an abstract concept memorable. My philosophy class was reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy alongside Plato’s Crito last week, and I was trying to illustrate divine providence. We spent a while wrestling with the idea of predestination and free will, with me trying to string the class along with little tidbits of information about the nature of God while suppressing my two seminarians from giving it all away to the detriment of the others’ reasoning process (and the runtime of my lecture). Eventually, someone blurted out that God is outside of time. In my typical fashion, I woke everyone up (some more literally than others) to the importance of that insight by lunging forward at the knees, pointing at the contributor with my marker, and announcing “Ah-HA!” before writing the key idea in block capitals on the board. I then proceeded to draw a timeline of all creation on the board, with just a few important highlights. At the far left, I drew a large irregular red and blue starburst and the words “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” At the far right, I drew a small stick-person, to which I added a ponytail and the name Hun-Nayi. (Hun-Nayi sits in the front row of my class and likes to ask borderline-relevant questions to amuse herself and let me know she’s paying attention. When I described the Socratic method in brief as “asking annoying questions to make people analyze their assumptions”, she asked “Why?” and then repeated the question as many times as I cared to indulge her. This went on longer than I should’ve allowed it to and frustrated me more than I care to admit. So basically, we’re kindred spirits and we get along famously.)  (Also, “Hun-Nayi” means “a dream” in one of the Mayan languages native to the area. I can’t get over how cool that is.) In between the two ends of my timeline, I put a cross, for the redemptive act of Christ, and a hastily drawn Tyrannosaurus with an over-sized and under-detailed head that immediately spurred half the students to denounce it as creepy and exhort me to erase it (I didn’t). Over it all, to demonstrate the point that God sees all of Time as one Eternal Now and so can be omniscient and will everything into existence without dictating every single human act before it happens, I drew God the Father as He is typically represented, as a wise and peaceful old man with a long beard. (Picture a smiley face with a mass of curly loops around and beneath the mouth.) To emphasize His role as observer of human action, I drew a tub of popcorn next to him. This was greeted with enthusiasm by the students, who informed me that the Principle of Perfect Unity needed a Pepsi to wash His extra-temporal popcorn down with. So I spent the next minute or so drawing a soda can and making sure I had the logo right. It’s the little things that make lessons memorable.

I’ve had a few opportunities outside of class since school started to exercise my weirdness, too. September 21 is Belize’s Independence Day, and Benque had a parade including most of the town’s important organizations and institutions that wound through the streets for two hours before ending in a large party. The ever-resourceful and artistically gifted Miss Natalie dressed up our smoke-belching old Mitsubishi van to look like the Junior College’s campus, complete with paper columns down the sides and a plywood-and-plastic dome on the roof. A few of the teachers and students present rode in the van and waved flags out the windows, while the rest of us walked in front or behind. A parade in which one is representing a new school that’s trying to become a community fixture is one scenario in which it pays to be uninhibited and energetic. We also seriously lucked out in that we had a marching band right behind us that gave us music to dance to for the duration of the parade. I spent the parade alternately taking pictures, dancing like the gawky gringo that I am, and exhorting the students to wave their Belizean flags with vigor instead of shyness. I distinctly remember Merly sitting in the van window and giggling shyly as I gently grabbed her hands, swung her flag back and forth, and threw my head back, shouting “WAVE IT, MERLY!” The float made an impression on those watching the parade; there were a number of expressions of gradual recognition as the similarities between the van’s decor and the architecture of the college became apparent. Hopefully, my antics accentuated and cemented that impression. (Even if they think I’m a dork. Any publicity is good publicity, right?)

Sometimes weird occurrences take place that are in no way my fault. Miss Joan, who’s teaching the first-year biology course and is at least as weird as I am in her own way, is requiring all of her students to collect insects and kill them by placing them in a sealed container with an alcohol-soaked napkin. Almost all of my philosophy students are in that class, and they do most of their bug hunting on campus, so it’s not uncommon for them to bring little (usually dead) friends in to keep them company while they take notes. Florinda, who’s very reserved but has expressive eyes that make it very clear that there’s a lot going on behind them, caught perhaps the largest cockroach I’ve ever laid eyes on and had it in a little Tupperware container one day. While I was facing the white board, it escaped alive somehow. I didn’t realize what was going on initially, and didn’t even notice until Nayeli, who was sitting next to Flori, tensed up from head to toe and started emitting strangled shrieks of horror. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or spring into action of some kind until I saw the roach crawling down her leg toward the floor. Maria, three or four seats away at the end of the table, saw this about the same time I did and immediately sprinted away toward the wall. Flori, meanwhile, was a little embarrassed at being the center of attention, and began matter-of-factly trying to collect her prize. The roach got out away from the table, seizing the attention of the entire room, and stopped to collect itself. With Flori’s permission, I loudly stomped on it so all the students would know the threat had been neutralized and then kicked it out the door and over the railing on the second-floor walkway. It took a couple of minutes after that to get everyone’s mind back on philosophy.

Doubtless these will not be the last episodes of my strangeness in the classroom. In the future, I will do my best to report them with greater consistency (3+ weeks is too long to go between posts; sorry).

Getting into the Independence Day spirit before the start of the parade.

They Call Me Maestro

I’m a week and a half into my formal teaching career. It’s been a little rocky, but my students make it worth it, and I’m determined to master this for their sake.

Being a teacher is a lot harder than being a student. When I was in college, I didn’t do a lot of the assigned readings, instead preferring to cruise by on my very detailed lecture notes and my innate ability to figure stuff out. For my Modern Philosophy course in the spring of senior year, I literally did not do a single class reading aside from the one that our final paper was based on. When I’m teaching, that is not an option. It’s my responsibility to know the material backwards and forwards in anticipation of whatever question the students pose to me. Not only that, I have to go a layer deeper, doing supplemental research to ensure that I can establish my assigned readings on a foundation of historical and cultural context. I’m finding that this demands my whole workday and much of my free time, as compared to being a student, which took maybe 25 hours a week. The hardest part is forcing myself to be linear. I’ve compared my thought process in the past to a rubber ball in a coffee can that’s being shaken. I jump from one idea to the next in conversation in a fashion that I can usually retrace, but that doesn’t make any sense to an outside observer. This does not lend itself to a coherent class presentation. In the first session for my course on the history and literature of the Middle Ages, I decided to set the stage for the meat of the class by reviewing the history of the decline of the Roman Empire from Trajan (117 AD) to Justinian (565 AD). This would’ve been a tall task for even a veteran teacher, and the students were a little shell-shocked by the amount of information I threw at them. My scattered thought progression only made it worse; for instance, I forgot to mention that the capital of the Empire had moved to Constantinople in around 310 until I’d already gotten to around 550. (If you’re confused, you have a sense of how they felt.)

That class was a little rough, but my philosophy class was far worse. On Day 1, I read through the syllabus with the students, and then finished it and found myself with two thirds of the class time still to fill. My mission for the semester is to teach the students to start thinking philosophically, so I thought I’d get a jump on that. I went around the class, asked everyone what their favorite subject was, and wrote them in a list on the board. Then I went down the list and asked annoying questions about each subject to establish that they’re all grounded in philosophy. For instance, I asked Debby, who chose “Technical Drawing”, why we study technical drawing, and then why we don’t want our buildings to fall down, and then why we don’t want to die. I also asked the surprisingly large group of math people what a number was. (That’s a difficult and complicated question and I haven’t studied it in any depth, so we didn’t dwell on it too long.) Finally, after putting it off as long as I could, I got to the last subject: PE. Now, since physical education is by definition not an intellectual discipline, making the connection here was a little harder. Then, remembering the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius and the immortal “This is Water” speech of the tragically mortal David Foster Wallace, I had a revelation. Philosophy is a means of pursuing the highest truths on a detached, abstract level, but the true philosopher lets those truths penetrate his soul and drive and motivate him to improve himself in all he does. I made the effort to share these elevated Stoic principles with the students, punctuating my argument with a couple of pushups.

Now, before I continue, I’ll share an important side detail. When I was packing to come down here, my provided packing list said “4-5 professional outfits for teaching – NO SHORTS”. I don’t know the business norms for Belize, but I’d heard things were more informal down here, so I figured I’d be okay if I brought down my two pairs of jeans and my one pair of khakis. I wasn’t wrong about things being more informal; when we had the convocation Mass to start the school year, I was the only person wearing a tie, and the dean of the college, Mr. Ruiz, noted it publicly when he was introducing the new teachers. I was, however, mistaken about being able to wear jeans to class. I resolved to get more slacks before classes started, promptly forgot and spent the weekend monkey-watching at a Mayan ruin and teaching a couple of fellow missionaries to play chess instead (couldn’t be helped; you know how it goes), and resigned myself to the idea of washing my lone pair of khakis every day for the first week.

So anyways, back to my heights of lofty PE-related philosophical grandeur. I did a couple of pushups, grunted out some platitude about how self-driven and motivated I was by virtue of my philosophy, and picked myself up off the floor as the class tittered. As I launched back into my lecture, it came to my attention that I’d experienced a slight tearing sensation high on the rear of my right thigh as I’d gone down to the floor. As I rambled on about the virtues of the philosophical life, I allowed my fingers to wander down to the spot to assure myself that nothing was amiss. Once they got there, such assurance was not to be found. The look of horror that flashed across my face when my fingertips found bare skin, followed by the glare of comprehension when I realized that the laughter in the class earlier was not attributable to my sense of humor, alerted any students who’d missed it to the fact that I had, indeed, ripped my only pair of pants wide open on the first day of school.

I like to think I handled it with grace. I simply spent the rest of the session leisurely leaning against the dry-erase board and then let everyone go twenty minutes early. A couple of the snarkier students came and asked me if I would walk them out of the classroom; I cordially declined. And needless to say, I taught in jeans for the rest of the week.

Surprisingly, that incident did not lead to my students losing all respect for me. (Though they do still talk a lot in class, and I had to bring my lecture to a screeching halt on Tuesday in order to go back over why we study philosophy to begin with; that was a little discouraging.) Mr. Ruiz has set up a series of talks for us to introduce us to Belizean culture and history, and one of the first things he told us is that deference to authority in the person of the teacher is a deeply held value among students here. I wasn’t kidding when I said that they call me “Maestro” (which just means “teacher”, though, like most Spanish words, it sounds infinitely cooler than its English counterpart). Mr. Ruiz warned that this might cause difficulties in our discussions, since students might be averse to voicing opinions that might not line up with ours. So far, though, I’ve been quite impressed with the initiative my students have taken, both in and out of class.

My birthday was at the end of last month, and I happened to casually mention it to a few of the students and teachers on the Outdoor Leadership Adventure a week or two before. One student, Jomenica, immediately decided that we were going to party all night long to celebrate. Naturally, I assented to the prospect, but I didn’t think much of it after that. We returned from the OLA and my birthday rolled around a few days later. I got warm birthday wishes from all the other teachers and a cold beer from Matt. We attempted to go get ceviche for lunch, only to find that our intended destination was closed. I ran into Jomenica again at one point, and she reiterated her desire to rock the night away; I dismissed it as facetious. And that, as I assumed, was the extent of it. I spent the afternoon looking over my syllabuses and planning logistics for the convocation. When Joan showed up in the office just before 5 and asked Matt and me to help move some things from one classroom to another, I jumped to my feet and thought nothing of it, even when she pulled out her phone and read a text that indicated that we needed to wait another ten minutes.

In the last three weeks or so since I met Jomenica, I have learned that she is one of the ringleaders of the student body, and a talented one at that. Joan and Matt preceded me into the classroom, and as I was about to follow them, I saw two of the other students, Jaimie and Diannie, waiting just inside the door. We stared at each other for an awkward, giggly second, and then I walked in to find almost the entire first-year class, a large table full of food, and a beautiful handmade banner that read “HAPPY BIRTH DAY ISAAC”. As it turned out, Jomenica had been quite serious. As I came to understand it, she spoke to Natalie, and between the two of them, they got all the other students and every other missionary down here in on the plan. While Joan and I were getting rained on in the truck bed on the way back to town after the OLA, they were all in the van working out the details. I was completely floored. In fact, for much of the party, I didn’t do a whole lot, because it was all I could do to sit with a bowl of nachos and drink it all in. We had a lively foosball tournament, there was thumping Latin and Caribbean music playing, and there were two different kinds of cake, pizza, and even ceviche, which Natalie and a couple of the other teachers went way out of their way to obtain for me. I took part in the “Belizean tradition” of “leaning down to take a bite out of the cake”, and someone pushed me into it, so I ended up with strawberry cake and chocolate frosting all over my face. (The students also said not washing my face for the duration of the party was traditional, but I called their bluff, so I think they were lying about that one.) I also did a little dancing, and even briefly obliged the students when they started chanting “TWERK! TWERK! TWERK!” (The likelihood of this being repeated is astronomically low.) All the other teachers were there, most of the students from the OLA made it too, and even Mr Ruiz and Amin (the college’s finance guy) made an appearance. To make a long story short, I had an amazing time, and I’m immensely grateful to my students for making it happen.

As you can tell, we’re off to quite a start for the semester. Doubtless I’ll have a lot more stories to tell as we forge on. The students are great, the other teachers are great, my classes are getting there, and life is good. Keep praying for me.

Three Rides in a Truck Bed

John Paul II Junior College starts every year with a mandatory five-day Outdoor Leadership Adventure, which each student must complete before graduating (most students go at the start of their first year). As a teacher, I had the privilege of going on the Adventure and watching the students enjoy it and grow through it. Encapsulating a very full week into one blog post is tricky, so I’ve decided to tackle it through the lens of the three times I rode in a truck bed this past week.

The OLA took place at Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, a fuzzily defined patch of west-central Belize administered by the government and inhabited by only a few radio tower operators and fire watchers. It’s not far from where I’m staying in Benque Viejo, but it’s only accessible from the next town over, and the road leading up to it is rough and winding gravel. In order to make the students’ lives easier, we sent a pickup truck full of supplies to the site the day before they arrived. We had five people, a truck bed mounded up with lumber and food, and three seat belts. Thus did I spend perhaps the most perilous two hours of my life next to Matt, my smilingly cynical housemate who’s been teaching Latin longer than I’ve been alive, perching precariously on the sides of the truck and using our legs to hold a table in place and literally keep all our provisions from sliding out onto the road with us on top of them. The bumpy mountain roads were difficult, with unexpected jolts tossing us into the air and two guys in another vehicle following and laughing at us for one ten-minute stretch. Worse still were the highways, where we had to scramble to brace as we executed turns at relatively high speed. I benefited from my youth and my superior position on the truck bed, but Matt was sore for the rest of the week. It didn’t get much easier from there. Sleeping on rocks, hiking up steep slopes, and climbing through a cave and up a waterfall took a toll on all of us. Again, I was a little more resilient than Matt, but I compensated for it by not wearing insect repellent; the sand flies obliged me by leaving what looks like chickenpox between my T-shirt tan line and my fingertips. Those suckers itch.

But it was worth it. Pine Ridge might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. The mountains are more or less regular in size and shape, with wide ridges like immense waves topped by sparse pine trees and thick grass that ripples in the breeze far into the distance. There was a full or nearly full moon all week, so especially in the silver darkness, the immensity of the landscape was awe-inspiringly evident. Sometimes, mist shrouded the farther hills or even passed between them, contributing a sense of untouched mystery to the vista from our peak. At one point, after a rain shower, there was a vivid rainbow juxtaposed entirely against our neighboring hillside. In the valleys, the vegetation grew thicker and the rain and dew collected into flowing streams. The pool at the bottom of our hill that we used for bathing was shrouded by deep green foliage and vines, ringed by rocks, and fed by a waterfall that plummeted from the cliff face thirty feet above. It was postcard picturesque, and we were using it as a bathtub. I can’t get over that. Even the dirt out there was pretty. It was usually cherry red or saffron gold, and the rocks were striated with not only those colors, but gray and even deep green and purple.

The natural setting was memorable, but the truly life-changing part of the Outdoor Leadership Adventure was the leadership, not the outdoors. This applies to the students, but to me as well, which leads into my next ride in a truck bed. At one point, our pastor Fr John and our unofficial volunteer coordinator MaryRose were inspecting roads that we’d use for hiking the next day, and they stalled out the truck at the bottom of a hill and couldn’t get the traction to get it out. After they hiked back to our campsite, they threw a steel cable, our seminarian Br Dave, and our resident Eagle Scout (i.e. me) into the back of the van and drove to the crime scene. It took us about fifteen minutes to determine that steel cable is too stiff for tying Boy Scout knots and the van was too weak to help drag the truck. As a last-ditch effort, Fr John deflated the truck’s rear tires and then had me and Br Dave stand above them in the truck bed, bouncing up and down to enhance the traction. There was a brief moment of concern when the truck started to fishtail toward my side, but the Hail Mary I prayed aloud and the gas-pedal finesse of Fr John eventually got us home. I don’t usually consider myself a physical, fix-it kind of guy. I learned a lot about that aspect of myself last week, because I was compelled to. Fr John tapped me to help him get the truck out, and he also left me, Matt, and a junior college alum named Leonardi at the campsite a day early to replace the outhouse that had blown down in the recent hurricane. All we had was lumber, a handsaw, a hammer and nails, and an old tarp, but we built a serviceable outhouse that satisfied everyone’s needs. I honestly think I walk with a little more swagger in my step for having done that.

I only got a little taste of what some of the students experienced, though. We brought nine first-year students up the mountain, and I don’t think any of them had camping experience. We started them off slow, with a steep and rocky six-mile hike on the first full day. That was followed by a hike in which we paired off and took turns leading each other blindfolded, a trip through a cave that involved a fair bit of bouldering, a swimming outing to a beautiful series of natural pools, and finally, a free climb up a 200-foot waterfall. The endlessly patient and caring Br Dave taught a lot of the students how to swim, the waterfall climb changed all of their expectations for what is and isn’t possible, and the whole trip showed them what they’re capable of when they practice determination and a little bit of boldness. Everyone stood out, but I’ll name two students in particular. Susana has some breathing problems and told us she’d never walked farther than to the store a few blocks from her house. She was at the back of the group on every hike, and she was very reluctant to do the cave climb at all. With a little coaxing and a lot of encouragement from my fellow teachers, though, she made it every time. She learned how to swim, she finished the hikes, she did it all with a positive attitude, and the sense of increased confidence in her was palpable at the end of every day. Her sense of humor was a light to cut through the fatigue during the evenings at base camp, too. Merly was another student who frequently ended up at the back of the group. Like Susana, though, she gained a lot of confidence as the week wore on, which nicely complemented her sense of quiet grace and joy. That sense was put to the test during the last two days or so of the trip. She caught a cold, and Kleenex and Advil became her constant companions. Worse than that, on the final hike back from the waterfall, she stepped on a loose rock wrong and turned her ankle. She tried to soldier through it, but really struggled until Natalie, one of my fellow teachers, selflessly and decisively picked her up and lugged her, huffing and puffing, up a hill. For the remainder of the trip, we all took turns carrying her. It was awkward, and for me it would’ve been humiliating, but she was flawlessly gracious about it and let us know how much our efforts meant to her.

My last ride in the truck bed was on the way back. Most of the supplies were used up and a lot were left at the site for a retreat the next week. Everyone was sad that the week had ended, but tired and relieved to be heading home. We got up at 4:45 and got both vehicles packed in record time, and it looked like we would have a seat belt for everyone, which was a relief, because grey clouds loomed. I was happy as a clam in the cab until we realized we’d failed to account for one teacher, Joan, as she ran up and started rapping on the window as we drove away. I gave up my seat and resigned myself to a long, wet ride in the bed, glad at least that we’d tied everything down much more securely than on the trip out. Imagine my surprise, then, when five minutes later, the truck stopped and Joan hopped up next to me. I spent the next two hours getting intermittently rained on, making sure passing cars didn’t remove my feet, and enjoying Joan’s insightful, pensive, enthusiastic company.

Arguably the most difficult part of any major transition in life is rebuilding one’s social circle. When I got to Belize, I found myself surrounded by strangers, and while I could tell that they were all people I would come to like and trust, it hadn’t happened yet. Potential bonds of intimate friendship are not the same as real ones. Getting past that potential stage requires a gamble on someone’s part to leave their comfort zone and reach out to others. Joan did that when she joined me in the back of the truck, and I’m grateful to her for that. She wasn’t the only one who did it, though. All of us teachers grew in friendship over the course of the week in the mountains, and so did the students. I’ll single out Jose in particular. He’s the only man in our first-year class this year, he went to a different high school from most of the others, and his preferred language is Creole, not Spanish, which excluded him from many of the casual conversations of the other students. He overcame all that and put himself out there with style. He was helpful, joyful, confident, and a shameless flirt, and by the end of the week, I thought he’d cemented his status as one of the group. I’m proud of him, and I think he’ll be more than okay at the junior college once classes start.

Overall, I’d consider the Outdoor Leadership Adventure an unqualified success. Yeah, it wasn’t super fun all the time, and yes, we had our hiccups (like when we forgot to bring all the meat we bought and became vegetarians for the week, or when Susana wasn’t paying attention and scrambled a rotten egg). We achieved our objective, though, in ensuring that the students bonded and gained a new understanding of their own capabilities. As a bonus, we, the teachers, gained many of the same benefits. The teachers at the high school have proposed that we implement a similar program for just the missionaries as soon as they arrive in Belize each year. Given the results of this year’s OLA, I’m all in favor, and if that plan does come to fruition, I’m excited for future missionaries already. Even if they don’t end up perched tenuously in a truck bed, they’re in for one heck of a ride.

Jumping In With Both Feet – or, if we’re being honest, Getting Thrown In Headfirst, Kicking and Screaming

Missionaries are called to emulate Christ’s love for the people whom they serve. This calling is double-layered. First, we have to get to know the persons and the culture we’re working with. Jesus has the advantage of divine omnipotence, but we don’t get that head start, so we have to learn through research and especially immersion and firsthand interaction. It’s possible to love someone you don’t know, but it becomes easier to desire the best for them when you know what it is. Once you know who you’re serving and how to serve, you have to wholly dedicate yourself to service. Real love is unconditional, all-consuming, difficult, and demanding.  This is daunting, until you remember that God’s love is limitless, you’re just the means by which He conveys some small share of it, and He loves you too.

For me, the call to love didn’t wait quite as long as I thought it would. I flew into the international airport in Belize City on Saturday morning, coincidentally sharing a flight with Kellie, a compassionate, no-nonsense fellow Texan missionary. Since we were a few hours in advance of the bulk of the group, we were shuttled to a local parish run by the order we’re working with to wait for the others before heading to Benque. Now, Belize City got hit by a hurricane two days before we arrived. It was a Category 1 and nobody died, thanks be to God, but a great many of the poor lost their homes and belongings to the storm surge. The parish where we were waiting, Divine Mercy, was distributing food and clothing to those who needed it, and they were swamped by storm victims in need of assistance. They needed every pair of hands they could get, so Kellie and I took half an hour to eat lunch and then got to work.

I’m a perfectionist. I like to know what’s going on, who’s in charge, what my role is, and where I can pitch in and help out without fear of making a mistake. I had to swallow that, hard, and keep it down in the two hours after I stepped out the rectory door and into bedlam. In the rectory garage, tables along each wall were stacked with donated clothes, sorted roughly by size and type and watched over by a handful of middle-aged women volunteers. On the other side, the rectory kitchen was being stocked with boxes of beans and fortified rice and pouches of drinking water. Seemingly everywhere were dozens of storm victims, lined up in anticipation of anything we could give them to get them through to the next day. In short, it was all very overwhelming. There were two complex and imprecise tasks to be accomplished at once, working with a group of people that were hot, hungry, impatient, and spoke a brand of Belizean Creole that was just enough like English to make me attempt in vain to understand it.

As with everything, the key turned out to be practicing charity toward everyone present, including myself, and having faith that it would work out. I was assigned to crowd control, making sure that the entire assembled mass of people didn’t bum-rush the clothes donations all at once. Did I restrict the flow of people to four at a time? More or less. Did I successfully get everyone to wait their turn? No, not really. Was I cool, confident, and collected the whole time? Nope. Did everyone who needed clothes and food get some? Yeah, I think they did, and that’s what matters.

Much credit goes to Kellie here. She was fun and inviting for the kids, kindly but assertive with their parents, and cool and decisive throughout. I also admire the lay local volunteers, who made the plan and adapted it with aplomb as needed. The recipients of the donations themselves were gracious and patient in the face of trying circumstances, particularly one woman who saved my skin by translating my requests to the crowd and calling them out in commanding Creole. She also jumped right in to heft 20-pound boxes of rice through a narrow passageway to the storeroom when a shipment showed up (and you can bet I seized the opportunity to contribute in a way that didn’t require so much on-the-fly organization; I was hauling two boxes at a time, and might’ve tried three if they’d let me). And of course, Sr. Stella Maris is a superhero, but all SOLT religious are.

So when all was said and done, Kellie and I felt pretty accomplished. We finished up just before the next vanload of volunteers arrived, and we were just a bit satisfied to inform them that they’d missed all the action. God knows I don’t want to take more credit than is due, though. Where two or three are gathered in God’s name, He’s there, and there were a whole lot more folks than that present at Divine Mercy on Saturday. God was there, He had a plan, and His plan came to fruition, even if some of us (i.e., me) took a little longer than others to get with the program.