Well here we go. Excuse the fact that my own Spanish is at best passable, but I’m going to just go ahead and put my best foot forward to explain how these two words have become the two that speak most truly of my own experience of Cochabamba. These two words simultaneously belong to a New Years Eve four years past, and to a door sketched in a notebook, and to a small girl sitting on my knee with an open bag of popcorn.
“Me invitas?” I hear this phrase many times over every single day here at the Hogar. Usually it’s spoken to ask—“Will you share that with me?” Most often, it’s one girl asking another to share food. This phrase translates more or less as –“Do you invite me?”
Last night, as I sat on a stool in the kitchen watching Paola and Lourdes fuss over a massive pot of fideo (pasta), Kamila climbed into my lap with her bag of pipoca (popcorn), which Rebecca and Jhenifer made in bulk that afternoon. We’d just returned from a beautiful Sunday hike from the Hogar to a nearby town with Padre Pepe, and that familiar feeling of a tired but satisfied end to the week seemed to cloak the Hogar. The lights from the cancha reaching over our front door bathing the jardin in a quiet glow, the patter of feet in the pasillos playing liga-liga, doors opened for the girls to retrieve their chompas to keep warm as the cool of night descended.
Kamila, who’s perched in my lap, is a particularly observant, whip-smart drama queen of a girl who enjoys quoting Snow White “Soy la reina” (I’m the queen) and on the whole, exemplifying the word “sassy.” She’s got a mind of her own, and a fearlessness that compels her to go scrapping for the soccer ball amidst the older girls, though she’s only in first grade. She gifts her sweet smile and infectious laughter frequently, boisterously singing through the day—Ducha, ducha, ducha (shower, shower, shower, during shower-hour)—and intently following the dance moves of the other girls (for the record, she can move her hips better than me).
She’s in her own little world as she sits on my knee munching on her popcorn, as perhaps I am in my own, but she turns to profer her bag of pipoca to me. I remember those words, “Me invitas” which come out without my having to think through them. The filter between my thinking and the Spanish that comes out seems to grow thinner and thinner every passing day. Kamila nods at my request, and then it’s the two of us munching on her popcorn in this little corner of the kitchen where it is quiet for the moment, no matter the building noise of an argument between the liga-liga players just outside the door. And for the first time, I stop to think about those words: “Me invitas.”
Rewind to New Years Eve, the beginning of 2014. In a a few days I would board a plane to spend six months abroad, but that evening I found myself in the living room surrounded by family and friends, some who had traveled far to send me off for the semester. As the minutes slid by, the stroke of twelve drawing nearer, my friend Katie reminded me of our New Years’ eve ritual of choosing a word for the year—a word that somehow would provide a guidepost or a lens through which to live the next twelve months. In the minutes left before midnight, we scrambled, laughing at our lack of preparation, to find the word. Both of us twenty-somethings, unsure of what this coming year would hold, smiled as we arrived upon our respective words. For me—cherish—a word that I carried with me through airports and along unfamiliar streets and into new relationships as I left the states. For Katie, well, to be honest I don’t remember—sorry Katie! But not a month later after this moment of laughable uncertainty, she was dating the man who would become her husband, and then the father to her precious little boy.
This past New Years eve, I stumbled not less than a bit wearily into 2016. Exhausted and confused by what had been the most trying six months of my four years in Des Moines, the future seemed more obscure than ever. But I had with me in my notebook a sketch of a door and this word, Invitation. Like most else in my life at that particular moment, I had no clue why this word in particular, only that this was it.
Eleven months later, that word returns to me now with clarity, as I see how I have been invited into so much.
On the road to where I am now, in Cochabamba, are a number of invitations—to catch a plane to spend less than 48 hours in New York City on the weekend of graduation to meet the Salesians; to make the phone call saying no to other plans, to other possibilities; to sign a contract; to say goodbye to home. And others as well–invitations to let go of the pain of a disorienting six months, to confront my own fears of an uncertain future.
But here in Cochabamba, in a tangible way, I have been invited into the lives of these forty girls, into their home, into the ministry of these sisters. It’s not a position I take lightly, being invited like this. It strikes me as particularly radical to offer a stranger the opportunity to come be a partner in your life—with this invitation comes the possibility that I could really screw things up and with the certainty that my presence will cause at least some disruption.
“Me invitas”—“Will you share with me?” This understanding of invitation as sharing, to my mind, is the most honest way I can view why I am and how I am here. I’ve been invited here, and while surely I will give in these twelve or more months, the reality is that while here, much more will be shared with me than I could ever give. Now yes, God willing, I’ll hopefully keep the kiddos from losing limbs or burning anything to the ground when the sisters aren’t around. And it is my hope that my presence will be one of patience and love, and that when I leave, they will know that I loved them and loved being with them. But at the end of every day, it is these girls and these sisters that have opened the porta negra, the door to the Hogar. I am the lucky one to share pipoca with Kamila, and watch Sandra carry her little sister Laurita over a muddy patch on an afternoon walk, and try to coax girls down from the wall as they tease the boys on the other side of the gate on the last day of the school year this past Wednesday, and to gasp in solidarity with the older girls at the latest plot turn in their Korean soap opera.
The door is open, an invitation. It is not one I take lightly, especially as I consider that this is their home, and that these girls are people, just like me—complex, to put it mildly. Please give me a friendly ‘could’ve had a V-8’ slap to the head via electronic message if I ever start talking about these girls as if they are some sort of project, as if I am somehow the beneficent one in this equation.
“Me invitas.” To be invited into someone’s life is no small act. It is the same form by which we were and are called into life with our creator. The Word is not enough in a book, our creator knew, if not also in the flesh, if not in a person.
This radical invitation into another’s life carries with it risk, and if accepted, should give birth to change, to consequence. It is this that I ponder today, as I see the trees in Plaza Principal adorned with Christmas lights. The risk that this community takes in opening their lives to me, the generosity of this act, should never escape me, in the same way that I should not be seduced by a tamed, fluffy version of the event of God made man. These risks, these invitations, are not meant to leave us immobilized in fear of their import. And if I find myself joyless, I’ve missed the point completely. But taken seriously, these invitations ought to move us, to make us pause as we sit in the corner of the kitchen with a small child on our knee and an open bag of popcorn.