Two years ago, I returned to Ecuador for the first time since my year as a volunteer in Arbolito ended five years before. I could not have asked for a better week of nostalgia and reminiscing with neighbors, rekindling so many wonderful friendships while recounting numerous heartwarming memories. As I managed to reconnect with many old friends, there was one family that I was very excited to see again. It was a family of two sisters, both raising their three children together with their mother in a one-room casa de caña not far from our house. We spent so many happy and laughter-filled Sundays in their home trading stories, sharing meals, and learning from each other.
When I arrived at their home on one of my last days visiting Ecuador, I was disheartened to find the house in a troubling state of disrepair. It had partially collapsed and had to be lowered onto the ground, where layers of trash formed their floor. Four beds for six family members were crammed alongside a kitchen, table, and various household items. It was a scene that I had seen so many times in other neighbors’ homes but seeing a family with whom I was so close in such a state was different. Returning to Ecuador, there was a naive part of me that held out this strange hope that the passage of five years meant that life would change for the better for our friends and neighbors, and indeed, I was greeted with many joyful stories of growth and happiness. Yet, visiting this family’s home was a stark and frank reminder that these stories are also tied to the complex and relentless challenges of poverty. Even they were quick to answer my question of “How have you been?” with “God has given us both blessings and challenges.” It was an opportunity to once again to simply be and be present to their story in their life as we laughed, cried, and prayed together. The meal we shared was an incredibly humbling memory and challenge to once again see Christ in such an intimate way.
I wonder how if this is the same challenge the disciples saw in the opening scene of this Palm Sunday’s Gospel readings, where Jesus is anointed by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with an expensive perfume. The disciples berate her for wasting an expensive perfume that could have been sold and profits given to the poor. As I move farther from my experience in Ecuador, the disciples’ voices often echo in my mind. I find myself more frequently wondering if I’m doing enough. These voices of doubt sometimes burden me with questions of a standard of moral perfectionism. Do I still follow a life of service, faith, and hospitality, living these values that were once the center of everything I did through my current relationships, vocation, and life choices? If I expect the world to get better, what I am doing about it? Whatever happened to that volunteer who left for Ecuador and supposedly returned a changed man?
Jesus is quick to answer these voices of doubt. Answering the disciples, He remarks, “She has done a good thing for me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for the burial.” The powerful image of Jesus with Mary of Bethany is moving, where the Christ humbly receives her gift through such an intimate ritual. Both the anointing of Jesus and the Last Supper serve as a reminder that living Christ’s call of service and solidarity is also rooted in relationships with Him and each other. Whether it is a simple meal shared in a cane house in Ecuador or the anointing of Jesus with precious perfumes, these moments of vulnerability offer a personal gift of seeing Christ directly in each other’s eyes, hands, and feet.
To answer my own questions of doubt, it gives me hope to look at these careful and compassionate actions of Jesus. He ends His time in Bethany with this charge: “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mary’s actions in Bethany were the beginning of what Jesus surely knew was a long road in the coming days ahead. Our memories and time as volunteers launched a lifelong conversation that we all must have on what it means to answer Christ’s call to build His kingdom on Earth; certainly, most of us continue to live a life where service, solidarity, justice, and peace all play a central role. As we saw the face of Christ so many times in our Ecuadorian friends and neighbors, I would hope that they also saw Christ in us too. Our stories, memories, and time together were not a journey unto their own, but the anointing of our journey that is to come.
Christopher Brunner was an RdC volunteer in Arbolito from 2011 – 2012. He now lives in Boston where he is a math teacher at Archbishop Williams High School.