By Erica Pereira
I spent this past spring semester studying abroad in Santiago, Chile and while I was there I spent quite a bit of time working with the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Little Sisters played a huge part in two great lessons that I learned while in Chile: humility and hospitality. My experience in Chile overall was very, very good, but also very challenging. I found myself in a foreign place, hearing a foreign language and not being able to fully express myself because of my not-very-fluent Spanish. I found myself getting food poisoning three times, being far away from my family for the longest period of time that I had in my life, and encountering a great spiritual dryness. Chile truly taught me how to be more humble and grateful as I encountered all these challenges.
But my time in Chile was not just difficult—it was also filled with times of wonder. I encountered so many Chileans that showered me with so much love even though they barely knew this new foreigner. The nature in Chile is astounding. One of my favorite memories is hiking up Volcán Villarica volcano with my roommate, Anna, (who is from Palatine), and our other friend, Aly. It stands at 9,380 feet and is one of the most active volcanos in South America.
One of my greatest joys while being in Chile was working with the Little Sisters of the Poor at their Home in Santiago. I first met the Little Sisters in Palatine while visiting Anna. We discovered that the Sisters also had a Home in Santiago, and decided to go visit when we were in Chile. I was taking a class called Poverty and Development in Chile in which I needed a service site that I went to every week, and I decided to make the Home my site. I wanted a prayerful environment and I loved the idea of working with the elderly. I also had the opportunity to meet Sister Lizeth, at the Home in Santiago who lived in the Palatine Home for a while, so it was very fun to get to know her and talk about all of the mutual people that we knew.
Chile, in my experience as a whole, taught me humility and the Sisters played a huge role in helping me to learn it more deeply. There is one story in particular that exemplifies my greater appreciation of humility. Whenever I went to the Home, I did any sort of chores or tasks that the Sisters needed me to do, and one day it was making the Residents’ beds. I began to make the beds, like I would make my own bed at home, and I was thinking about how I was making beds for Christ. But when I thought I was done, one of the volunteers brought me into one of the rooms and asked me if I had made the bed in that room. I told her that I had, and she told me quite sharply that out of 7 (everything in Chile is out of 7) my bed making was a 3.5… I felt so embarrassed especially because I was trying to do it well and with love. What I didn’t realize was that they wanted me to take all the sheets completely off the bed and then remake it. I now know how to make a bed really well– Little Sisters style! Even though this was really embarrassing for me in the moment, it is actually beautiful because it shows how much the Sisters care for the elderly in their Homes. The Residents are treated truly as sons and daughters of God. It was a great lesson in humility for me because even when I think I am serving Christ, sometimes I am called to serve even more radically and to go further than I am. Christ’s love isn’t easy, it’s radical.
My second greatest lesson that I learned from the Sisters in Santiago is hospitality. I ended up spending quite a bit of time at the Home and they always invited me for lunch, and once I spent the night there which was very neat because I could pray the full liturgy of the hours with them. I particularly encountered this hospitality and used it myself on the feast of Corpus Christi. The Sisters were having a Eucharistic procession. To prepare for the procession, we had to bring all the Residents into the chapel. I was standing in the chapel, and they were just about to begin, but I felt like I should go back to the infirmary just to make sure no one was left behind. I went back to the infirmary, and there was Hipólito, finishing up his afternoon snack. Hipólito is a bit slow and isn’t completely coherent, so it took a bit of coaxing to get him to walk with me to the chapel. He can’t really walk well by himself and he didn’t have a wheelchair, and refused one when I offered to give him one. So, we began our trek down the hallway to the chapel very slowly. At the end of the hallway we could see the procession starting in front of us. I decided that we were better off going straight to the chapel instead of trying to catch up with the procession because we wouldn’t make it. We made it into the chapel right before the rest of the procession came in to end it. Even though it took a lot of coaxing and patience to encourage him to walk the whole way down the hallway with me, we were still able to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the end.
You could say that we missed the procession entirely, but we didn’t at all because we had our own procession into the chapel. When I went back to see if anyone was left in the infirmary, I kept thinking about the lost sheep and how Christ always goes back to find the lost sheep and rejoices when he finds him. Hipólito was that lost sheep. Just as Christ was present in the Eucharist in the procession, Christ was so present in our walk down the hallway in Hipólito and our mutual accompaniment. I had to follow Hipólito’s pace and be in solidarity with him. We didn’t miss the procession; we just had our own version. Just as the Sisters were so loving and hospitable to me, that same hospitality was present in my procession with Hipólito.
I am so grateful for my time in Chile and my time with the Little Sisters in Santiago. The Little Sisters played a huge part in teaching me greater humility in their little and profoundly loving ways. Chile and especially the Little Sisters in Santiago gave me a deeper realization of the importance of humility that results from an active gratitude in the realization that while I am a tiny, tiny part of a much bigger world, I am still unequivocally and deeply loved by God. How truly wonderful a gift that is.