Guest Column: Ryan O’Connor’s Peace Corps Experience

Ryan O’Connor is the pastoral associate for youth faith formation at the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill. After graduating from Villanova in 2008, Ryan spent two years in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer. He looked back at his journal from that time and wrote this reflection for The Ampersand. His experience is a reminder that if our faith communities take the Gospel seriously, some of us will find ourselves called to voluntary displacement.

Ryan with a group of children in Talanga, Honduras.

Ryan with a group of children in Talanga, Honduras.

As I revisit my journal from my Honduras experience as a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer, where I served more than two years ago, I observe the prayers I wrote in Spanish and the ordinary depictions of un día en el pueblo de La Concepción, Intibuca, Honduras. I warmly recall each day being deeply filled with God’s grace. Was it really any different from any of my days back at home? Or did the people of Honduras help me to slow down and notice God’s grace in every small moment?

I learned a new language, and then I learned a new way of listening, of storytelling, of joking and receiving a joke. I learned a new culture and grappled with blending new beliefs and lifestyles with what had already been conditioned within me.

Although the community quickly felt like home, there were many unfamiliar experiences along the way. With a group of 10 year-olds, a slingshot and a handful of pebbles, I learned how to hunt iguanas. With bleeding elbows and knees, I learned how to walk off the field after each “friendly” men’s soccer game. It became clear that everyone wanted to play up close and personal against the gringo. With two weeks of disorientation and the sensation of my bones crumbling beneath my skin, I learned why dengue fever was known as the “breakbone” fever. Poisonous snakes that would have killed me within an hour of their bite, gunshots around the block, witnessing a bullet traveling through a man’s chest – these are the stories family and friends were enthralled to hear upon my return.

After a muddy soccer game.

After a muddy soccer game.

But I would like to share with you a greater part of the journey.

There is one particular conversation that was near to my heart all throughout my Peace Corps experience. Actually, I still return to its wisdom with each day.

I had just arrived at the quaint, wooden house of my second host family, tucked within the beautiful mountainside of a small town called Zarabanda. My host papi was an incredibly intelligent engineer who had worked as a farmer in Arkansas, lived for a year in Japan and had traveled much of the world. He helped me develop mis oidos (my hearing) for the Spanish language by listening to folk music. He immersed me in every detail of ordinary life. He brought me along every family or friend gathering. He even allowed me to be his apprentice in the yard when he was working on small projects.

One evening, during dinner, he looked at me and asked, “Ryan, why are you here in Honduras? How do you plan on helping the people here?”

Feeling confident from my recent Peace Corps training classes and convinced of my purpose as a volunteer, I responded in a classic textbook fashion, “Well, I believe I am here as Youth Development Volunteer in order to raise the local capacity of youth leaders in the village and support the development of successful youth programs, which will last long after my volunteer term is finished.”

He gently smiled at me, and then spoke words I would never forget.

“You will not make any positive change here by attempting to change these people. The youth leaders would still be youth leaders, even if you were never to step foot in their village. If you do one thing during your time in Honduras, do only this: Learn more about yourself – focus on self-awareness – allow yourself to be changed by your many experiences and interactions you will share with various new people. If you do nothing else than this, I promise you, you will have reached a higher goal then the one set for you by your ‘program’.”

Just a week later, when I arrived in the village of La Concepcion, Intibuca, where I had been assigned to serve as the “trusted and qualified” youth expert – my previous host papi’s words continued to resound in my heart. There wasn’t a day that passed that I did not question my role there as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Was what I was a part of really helping this village? Was it really sustainable? As I built many relationships within the community, God continued to shatter my previously held expectations. This village was beautiful and thriving with community life. Every neighbor greeted each other in the morning on the way to work or school. They spent time with neighbors for an afternoon coffee and bread descanso (rest). They even toured the blocks at night to catch up on the latest chisme (gossip) of the day (which sounded very much like it did the day before). I slowly discovered that they did not see themselves as poor. It was simply a matter of perspective. They had a roof over their head and a means to provide food on their table. On the other hand, they described the poor as those living in the aldeas (smaller towns on the outskirts of the town) which consisted of little huts barely holding onto the mountainside.

There was a very poignant moment during my time in Honduras when I realized what I was not there to do. I was not there to carry out an array of objectives set by Westerners who designed the training of Peace Corps. I was not there to hand out manuals of “correct” styles of teaching –  which were also written by Westerners. I was not there to put sustainable youth programs in motion – when non-traditional youth programs were already alive and well. Everything I expected to accomplish and everything I expected to do during my time in Honduras was appropriately flipped upside down. I expected to be with the poor and suffer and provide many forms of assistance.

The truth is – I was the poor guest they spent time with, who they fed with rich foods, who they nourished with genuine love and hospitality, who they looked out for with each step I took on their beloved land, who they sacrificed for to make me feel more at home. Ultimately, they gave me a gift that has only continued to grow. They guided me to a new perspective on being with people and a new self-awareness on who I truly am. I became convinced that “success” for a volunteer needed to be redefined.

Real success for me was all about my “being with” and not dependent upon my “doing” or “implementing”. By simply being with the people and practicing the ministry of presence, my heart was now ready to listen without being preoccupied with what task I had to get done next.

As Robert J. Wicks puts it in his book Prayerfulness, by developing a “grateful readiness”   (p. 31), I was able to receive the spirit of hospitality and the perspective of life’s simple gifts. For one of the first times in my life, I learned how to receive gracefully and that there is so much more to give, when it is not based on my terms of “giving”. Pride, anxiety, confusion and frustration could now trickle out of my heart.

Each afternoon, I would run along the mountain trails towards the aldeas with my heart pounding while I climbed the hills. I knew whoever I met along the way was a special part of my day and a special part of my journey. After I stopped to talk with whoever I crossed along the path, I would take una respiracion profundo (a deep breath) and fill my lungs with nothing other than “grateful readiness”, anticipating the next blessing around the bend.

ryan talanga 032

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