A letter from Chenoa Stock in Bolivia
June 20, 2011
From the Mountaintop
Montañas! (Mountains!) An entirely new phenomenon to be surrounded by in my life, and something of such beauty that I am grateful I have not missed out on the opportunity to discover. As our bus slowly and carefully ascended the slightly paved road to the lagoon and our starting point to climb Mt. Tunari, the highest peak in Cochabamba, some of the students of Maryknoll (where I was doing my language training) began to anticipate the headache that sharply ensues upon reaching high altitude and passed around a local antidote which is known to alleviate the pain. As we reached our base, the majority of us lathered with sun block, as the sun was becoming stronger by the minute, and began the ascent. We followed our guide, Emilio, up the rocky path, choosing for ourselves the pace that suited us and the altitude we could handle. As the path became steeper, some stayed behind to simply enjoy the view, some slowed down, while others forged ahead, determined to reach that peak that seemed but a high rock in the sky. I will happily admit that I was in the latter group, but will also admit that I probably have not breathed in that manner since running sprints for high school basketball practices. Phew! But my lungs pulled through and, along with four other students, our guide, and his son, gloriously reached the top.
Some people talk about mountaintop experiences in their lives—those times when we are enlightened, obtain an understanding of the unknown, or receive a renewed energy to continue to pursue our goals. But to literally embrace the grandeur and majesty of a peak brings another meaning to this metaphor. It is a feeling of serenity, a feeling of oneness with Creation—feeling so small, but feeling a part of something so large, enveloped by a feeling of freedom. As we looked down and saw how small the lagoon, our starting point, was, we could trace back the steps we had traveled, remembering the toil of the hike but recognizing it was all worth it once we had reached our destination.
I would say that my time in the Maryknoll Language Institute in Cochabamba, Bolivia, these past months has been a mountaintop experience for me. However, this experience was not only about the final enlightenment of learning a language but included the entire five months’ journey—as the peak can only be reached after the hike.
It was a journey for everyone in our community: those who advanced faster than others; those who forged ahead but later slowed their pace; those who struggled continuously, gasping for breath at every break; and those who encouraged others from their individual place on the path, helping a fellow traveler to push through frustration and confusion, knowing there is no right or wrong way to ascend this mountain of language. As in our climb of Mt. Tunari, when the ascent became steeper and we needed all the breath our lungs could find within us, it became a silent journey, with more breathing than talking. It became a solitary time to contemplate the amazing nature surrounding us as we continued on our own journey with the unspoken, yet felt, support of the community walking with us.
And so went my time at Maryknoll: a solitary journey of learning within a community of love and support—advancing at my own pace, reaching for my own goals, arriving at my individual destination of success. I have graduated! As language learning goes and as my professors told me every day, it is a process, and I have a "bit" more studying to do before I can claim fluency. I have reached a peak in my learning—a mountaintop from which I can look down and see the beauty of my unique journey and level of success. I can see the reasons for my struggles and be thankful and joyful for them, for what I have learned from them, and for how I have grown through them.
But there are plenty more mountains in Bolivia to discover, as there are many more tenses in Spanish to master. Thus we move from one mountaintop to another, building on our experiences, growth and enlightenment as we explore the new terrain of life’s continuing journey.
For me, it is a continuing journey not only of language learning, but of a mission also. Upon receiving my diploma, I returned to the United States for a couple of months in order to take care of visa paperwork as well as attend the PC(USA)’s "World Mission Matters" Big Tent conference and mission personnel orientation and celebrate the retirement of my parents after 42 years of pastoral ministry as they begin a new phase of the journey to a new mountaintop. After this transition time I will be returning to La Paz, Bolivia, to work with the Joining Hands network UMAVIDA (Uniendo Manos Por La Vida—Joining Hands for Life) and the current campaign to address water contamination due to mining activity.
It is a bittersweet experience to reach a mountaintop, as I must recognize that new uncertainties and struggles are to follow, but I also rejoice, knowing that within each struggle I am supported by a community of love and spirit within and around me, guiding me every step of the way.
Joining Hands - UMAVIDA
For more information:
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 301