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Maryknoll lay missioners in Bolivia

Maryknoll lay missioners serving in Bolivia discover the most effective way to make a difference.

Maryknoll lay missioners in Bolivia discover the most effective way to make a difference.

By Marc Adams
We had gathered with some 30 to 40 residents of a small, impoverished barrio on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia, to listen to local leaders share community news. Word came of the passing of a community member. He was in his 30s, the brother of one of the female leaders. I didn’t understand everything that was said, but from what I could make out, the victim died from a preventable accident. The community leader sharing the tragic news concluded, “Asi es la vida,”—That’s life.

In our nearly two years living here in Bolivia as Maryknoll lay missioners, the one thing that has struck my wife, Lexie, and me is the resignation with which folks accept things as they are, with seemingly little importance given to prevention. From toddlers being allowed to play at construction sites, to motorcycle riders weaving through traffic wearing their helmets around their arms, safety often seems to be an afterthought in too many avoidable tragedies.

Of course, not everyone accepts things as they are. Protest marches and roadblocks are an almost daily occurrence here, attesting to the frustration and anger many people carry with them as they push for change. Much like them, I refuse to be lulled into a feeling of indifference toward tragedy. That’s precisely why Lexie and I are here, doing what little we can to help prevent some of the suffering we see all around us in these forgotten barrios, particularly in the field of healthcare.

Three mornings a week we make our way together to a small clinic where Lexie organizes patient charts and runs an exercise program to help prevent stress, diabetes and heart issues. I work in the communications office, going to as many surrounding barrios as I can to inform the local population of the services offered at the clinic and, more importantly, to share the immense value of preventative healthcare.

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The clinic where we work is an almost entirely Bolivian operation that focuses primarily on the people of the impoverished southern zone of Cochabamba. Most of them never visit a doctor until they are physically debilitated by one condition or another. All our efforts are part of a larger Bolivian initiative to encourage a culture of prevention.

Often, Lexie and I return home lamenting the choices people make regarding their safety and healthcare. At those moments, I feel gripped by a suffocating sense of paternalism, somehow having convinced myself that I know what is best for others. And while my wife admits to being plagued by confusion at times, she constantly tries to change things by living a life of love.

One cold day, for example, as we walked past a church in one of the city’s main plazas, an indigenous woman reached out to us asking for change. I gave her a half-hearted hello and intended to keep walking when Lexie stopped and struck up a conversation with her. The woman had her grandchild asleep on her lap as the air around us grew colder. Moments later, Lexie whisked off her bright red heavy sweater and gave it to the woman, literally giving her the sweater off her back.

Another time, weeks later, as rain began falling and we headed for shelter at a nearby café, we walked past an elderly woman in traditional indigenous garments sitting on the side of the road. She reached out her empty cup toward us, mumbling words we could not understand.

I dug into my pocket for a few coins, but Lexie said, “Why don’t we invite her to join us? She could probably use something warm to drink.” The hour that followed led to a beautiful human connection with this woman, Catarina, which never would have happened had Lexie not reached outside our comfort zone.

As Advent approaches, signaling a time for new beginnings, I find myself unable to accept things the way they are with a “that’s life” shrug. Lexie is no different, but she teaches me every day that perhaps it is in the simple acts of love that we can hope to make the biggest difference.

Marc Adams, a journalist, and his wife Lexie, a registered nurse, from Washington, D.C., joined the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 2012.