While visiting the Diocese of Mendi in Papua New Guinea right before the pandemic hit, I visited a tiny rural school in Margarima, hometown of one of the Sisters who were offering me hospitality during my stay, Sister Agnes Ipai, OSF. Upon arrival, I was swarmed by children -- social distancing was not a phrase any of us had heard at that point. Having been told in advance that Sister Agnes would be bringing a visitor from the United States, the students were jumping up and down with excitement. They moved around me like a flock of swallows following the lead bird.
The school building was typical of those we had passed (when we passed anything!) along our four-hour journey. Made of rusting metal sheets, the structure had cracked wooden doors and glassless window frames. Everything was open to the elements. The dirt floors were covered by woven reed mats that were rotting in many places. A well-used chalkboard and large sheets of torn, frayed paper covered the walls with math and vocabulary lessons hand-written in faded ink. Learning from these displays was difficult at best.
Classrooms were packed -- most had at least fifty students who sat at wooden picnic tables. The overflow stood around, looking for a chance to squeeze in if a seat became available.
Although there was no electricity in the tiny school, the students' smiles lit up the rooms! They were so happy to share their school with me, proudly pointing out their names on papers and projects hanging on the wall.
I was led outside, even though it was chilly and rainy, so that everyone could assemble and sing me a song of welcome. As my camera clicked away, I captured the most beautiful smiles -- some eager and some shy, but all curious to hear about where I was from and how I knew Sister Agnes and their teacher, Maria.
My explanation was that because we are all God's children, we are born into the same family no matter what country we are from. I was simply a sister from another mother to them all. We took many family portraits that day!
When the visit was over and we walked up the muddy hill to our truck, I looked down and mentally noted that I was wearing leather shoes while many of the children were barefoot or in flipflops. I made a silent promise to redouble my efforts to support missionaries working to help children worldwide who have so little.
Join me by using the coupon below or go to propfaithboston.org and click on Societies/Missionary Childhood Association.
- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.