Prophets in Our Own Homes: Bringing Back the Immersion Experience

My father passed away unexpectedly about four months after returning from a trip to Malawi and Kenya.  After his death, I read the journal that he kept there, from cover to cover, hoping to gain greater insight into who he was and what he had to share.  It was clear that he undergone a profound spiritual transformation.  He wrote with great zeal about what he experienced and how he hoped to bring that into his ministry as an educator.  On the last page, however, he noted a certain level of disappointment upon his return.  Many of his love ones did not seem genuinely interested in his experiences.  He had photos and stories to tell, and had hoped to find an outlet in those closest to him.

Reading this after his death naturally caused a lot of personal soul-searching.  I have had to wrestle with questions about how I present I really was to his experience.  In recent years I have also reflected on it from the perspective of someone returning from his own immersion experiences.  There is often a sense that many people are unwilling or unable to really hear about what I experienced and how it affected me.  While I was away, they were living their lives, and seem to expect me to simply pick up where I left off.

But when I left for Bolivia about a month ago, I came to a much deeper understanding of what my loved ones were really giving up, and the challenge of bringing these experiences back to them.  My son Isaiah, our first, was about to turn five months old.  Unlike on my previous trips, I was now leaving behind a young child.  The spouse that I was leaving was now not only that, but a parent responsible for caring for an infant without her partner.  I realized that this journey that I was about to embark on was a gift from my family.  They were giving me up, allowing me to abandon them in the coming weeks so that I might find God in new and unexpected ways.

This realization shook to the roots my understanding of how I am called to share experiences like this with the people that I love.  One of the problems that our loved ones often face when we return from immersion experiences is that even in our presence we remain absent.  My family already allowed for my absence, and needs me to return fully present, not still off in Bolivia or Guatemala or Haiti.  So while I am discerning how best to enter into the story of Jesus' love for the stigmatized and abandoned, I also need to discern how best to re-enter the lives of family and friends.  I need to ask myself: how does my experience become a gift to those that allowed me to enter that sacred space, and not simply another demand on their time?

Kevin Foy in Bolivia, August 2013
I think that it helps to view the immersion as the conversion experience that it is.  A conversion is personal.  We need to remember that we are returning to people that have not had the experience that we had, and cannot expect them to act as if they did.  Instead of expecting things from them, we can start to view our conversion as a gift from God that we are invited to share with them.  When we enter into relationship with the poor and marginalized, it alters how we view, treat, and interact with those people on the margins of our lives.  But it should transform  of our relationships, beginning with our deepest.  When I return, I am invited to help others feel something of the joy that I feel - to be a part of their conversion experience, rather than simply talk about my own.

How I share my experience with my loved ones, then, becomes less a question of preaching to them about the people and realities that I encountered and more about becoming a living example of the Christ that I encountered while away.  What do the people whom I meet and visit with teach me about being a Christian presence in the lives of others?  What do they teach me about friendship?  What do they show me about slowing down and finding God in the present moment?  If my loved ones are going to give me the gift of these experiences, then I want to share the gifts that I receive with them.  I want to be a presence of joy in their lives.

In returning from Bolivia, I know that I am changed - more present and more patient with those closest to me.  Cultivating this Christian presence to those that are often the easiest to take for granted - the fixtures in our lives, those that we no longer feel the need to make an impression on - challenges us to grow in ways that help us to build the Reign of God as we encounter the wider world.  If we truly wish to find God in all people, then we can start with the people right in front of us.

Kevin Foy works in mission education for Maryknoll in the Pacific Northwest.