“Welcome to Zuni” was not only a greeting, but an invitation to virtuous friendship, a desire for a deeper relationship with our Father, and sharing the Gospel with students. New Mexico reminded me of my littleness compared to our all powerful God in the night’s endless stars, gave me people who showed me Christ’s joy, and opened my heart to growing closer to Him through the Sacraments and service.
The rental car’s tires hit the gravel around midnight, after we had driven for miles on empty roads underneath the stars, immersed in conversation. But the night and unknown was intimidating. We were eager to figure out the next step and find sleep after a 2.5 hour drive and two flights. One of the FOCUS missionaries reassured us that we would remember this moment in a week and laugh at how scared we felt.
Sunlight brought the Indian reservation into perspective, as we exited the small houses near the playground to attend Sunday mass. Surrounding the school grounds were miles of red rock, peppered with greenery. Donuts after mass gave us the opportunity to meet the parishioners, some of whose grandkids and children we would encounter within the next five days.
We met the kids for breakfast and started to get to know them. When they broke off into lines for class, we paired up and introduced ourselves to the teachers. In the first class, the sister gave us the floor to teach the lesson. Shocked, the missionary and I saw the words ten commandments written on the board and taught them the laws God gave Moses.
The mornings for the rest of the week were spent sitting in the cafeteria among breakfast trays, reading the jokes on their milk cartons that had already been told, and getting to know them. We followed them to class, sat at the empty desk next to them, and listened to their next science, language arts, or history lecture. The day after helping teach the ten commandments, we had an outline of what part of the Gospel to teach each day. With each new day came a new grade and partner to serve alongside.
Teaching the Gospel looked unique no matter the grade or pair. For me, sharing about how we were made for relationship with God was watching middle schoolers float from one side of the room to the next answering questions and then drawing what their relationship with God looked like. It meant witnessing every kid’s unique perspective on their relationship with the Lord, and seeing one girl sketch the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The next day, playing Red Rover on the basketball court explained how our relationship with God was broken by sin. Telling kids about Jesus dying on the cross to save us from our sins took me back to this past summer at camp, where we had kids try jumping to the other sheet of paper, labelled God, but always falling in the middle, labelled sin. It took my partner carrying them across the void as a representation of Jesus for them to understand that Jesus is our Savior. On our last day, we invited some of the youngest kids to let Jesus be their best friend, which meant writing captions under their drawings of what He could do with them as their friend.
When we weren’t teaching the kids or in class, we played basketball with them in the sun, pushed them on the swings, or chatted on the monkey bars. As they headed back inside for the afternoon of class, we stayed on the playground or in the houses. Afternoons were made for naps, conversations about saints and spiritual reading on the porch, learning more about each other on the swings, or praying together. Being in fellowship with one another was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
We also went on adventures. We stared up at the smooth faces of the rock formations, tried deciphering the carvings that had been left behind, and stood at the edge of a valley at El Moro National Monument. We drove to what we thought was a canyon, dust billowing behind our car and music filling our ears to find we weren’t getting any closer to the mountain. Getting pictures together in front of the scenery was the second best option.
Before dinner was Holy Hour, a time of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament (along with daily mass in the morning or evening). I never realized how much peace this gave me until I did it for a week. Almost every time on the way back from Holy Hour, a dog that roamed the school grounds would meet up with us on our walk back from the church to our houses. She was another example of the love we experienced in Zuni.
Almost every night involved a variation of Mexican food for dinner, laughter during card games, and giving testimonies. We would process our days by sharing the highs, lows, and God moments, followed by saying Night Prayer together.
On Wednesday, we went to mass with the school. As I listened to the homily from the choir section and shared my Magnificat with the fourth grade girl beside me, the priest engaged every age, teaching how God gives us second chances. I was taken back to the masses I grew up attending on Fridays at my Catholic middle school.
It caused me to reflect on how God has slowly worked in my heart. Growing up, Catholicism had always been boring and felt routine. I was introduced to Young Life and through my leader’s love and support was shown that I could have a relationship with God. Coming to college, He has given me friends who encouraged me to join Catholic bible studies and events, even when I didn’t think I needed more than weekly mass. But as I was learning so much at bible study, my friends and the FOCUS missionaries invited me to two FOCUS conferences, speaking truth into my fears and allowing God to open ways for me to grow. Through every opportunity and loving friend, our Father has invited me to come and see. He has given me friends who bring me joy and a sense of belonging. He pushed me to share His love with kids at Spring Hill, Young Life, and within my own relationships.
Now, in New Mexico, He gave me comfort and peace in the Sacraments I had once avoided. He gave me joy in the friendships we made on our team, in listening to their stories and the way God has worked in their life. He showed me love in the children we served and befriended. Sitting in front of Jesus at Holy Hour, the Great Commission stood out to me (Matthew 28:19-20). With His words came a desire to not only share His light with others, but to know more about Him and the teachings of the Catholic church.
Another verse that stood out to me was during Lectio Divina in the girls’ house. In John 13, before washing Peter’s feet, Jesus says, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
Looking back, I can see where God has worked in my life through people and opportunities, even when I still don’t know the Father’s plan for my future. But praise Him for Zuni, the students we encountered, and our team of college students, missionaries, and a priest who travelled down to New Mexico to serve, love, and make disciples.