Faith in a Foreign Land

Generally, in modern America, there are two topics we tend to avoid in conversation: religion and politics. We don’t like confrontation. We value expressing our opinions, but many of us think we should keep our opinions in these areas to ourselves. Twitter agrees.

Twitter says there is no safe place to talk about politics or religion. See below.

Family dinner style.

Office style.

College style.

Wheelchair van style.

Moral of the story: No matter where you are, if you talk about religion or politics, someone will rant about it on Twitter. So, while I tend to be fairly disclosing on this blog, I have until recently avoided both subjects.

So they’re uncomfortable subjects in modern America. But guess what? I’m in Argentina, not modern America! Actually, as I explained previously ,Argentina is part of America (they are very indignant about that here.) Anyway, in my last post, I talked about politics because I’ve been talking a lot about politics here. Now that I’ve touched untouchable subject number one, I’m gonna break taboo number two. Well, I’m actually going to talk more about faith than religion. Complain on Twitter if you must!

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As you may or may not know, Latin America is fairly Catholic. Of Latin American countries, Argentina is the Catholickiest, with 90% of its population identifying with the denomination. The percentage of observant Catholics, or those who practice their religion on a regular basis, is much lower. My first host family was among the minority, with an atheist sister, an agnostic mom and a who-knows what dad and brother. In the apartment, I spotted Buddha statues, a Ganesh painting, and a Virgin Mary. The Mom had a lotus flower tattoo, my little brother had a first communion figurine, and my older brother had a giant Jimi Hendrix poster in his room. A little of everything, a lot of nothing.

My current host family is Catholic. There are rosaries hanging from the rearview mirrors in both cars. My oldest sister’s name is Milagros (Miracles). She and Luciana had masses before their quinceñeras.

What I know about the Catholic Church: Priests are supposed to be celibate. The Virgin Mary is a big deal. Saints are also a big deal. My favorite is Santa Librada (Saint Uncumber), a Portuguese princess who was due for an unwanted arranged marriage and thus took a vow of celibacy and prayed that she would grow a beard in order to become repulsive. Legend says it worked and she narrowly avoided getting hitched. That’s some girl power for ya! I also know that the Pope is a really swell dude from Buenos Aires.

Thus, when it came time for my sister’s quinceñera mass, I was a bit lost, and not just because of the language barrier. I sat down in the pew when we were supposed to kneel on the prayer bench. (I had to do a subtle slide off the cushion onto my knees.) I did the sign of the cross backward. (Up-down-right-left instead of up-down-left-right. Oops!) I did not know the responses to the priest’s intonations. (This time, I did not even attempt to cover my ignorance by mouthing “watermelon.”) What I did know is that you’re not supposed to take communion in a Catholic church if you’re not a Catholic in good standing. So that’s one way I didn’t make a fool of myself.

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Confession: I have an irrational fear of confessional booths.

Apparently so does Milagros. My mom asked her if she would go confess. “It’s your sister’s mass. You really should go to Father Lalo.” She looked uncomfortable and changed the subject.

“Ahhh, Kamila’s here!”

“And Carolina too! Look at that cute dress,” I backed her up, smiling awkwardly.

The matter was dropped due to our team effort. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. Honestly, I’d rather confess straight to the Lord than have another human judging me from behind a curtain. Now I’m picturing the Wizard of Oz in full priest garb on the other side of the partition and me trembling in the corner of the booth. Funny how it’s easier for me to be straight with the Creator of the Universe than with a balding old man in a musty box. I don’t like facing the idea of the split second automatic judgment made by a priest’s brain. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal; human judgment is so trivial when I think about God’s mercy. And here’s why: when people hear about what I’ve done wrong, it often changes their impression of me, and not for the better. When God looks at me, he always sees his son. He sees sacrifice Jesus made to save me, to wash me clean of my sins. He still sees me as his daughter, with his unwavering, unconditional love. No matter what I’ve done, He loves me.

So maybe, like me, the thought of box the gives you nerves. If you’re honest, you too care about what people think sometimes. So you understand why I’m reluctant to confess to a man. It’s not that weird. But my reluctance to talk to God, who always forgives? That’s weird.

Possible explanations (ok, excuses):

1) Being an exchange student is exhausting. You need to make a huge mental effort to follow conversations where people talk really fast, find the right words to express yourself, and to conform to another culture’s rules, which you usually can’t identify until you break them and have to deal with the consequences. So can I claim that I’m too tired to talk to God?

2) I’ve been so distant lately; it’s hard to start communicating with God after months of ignoring him. And maybe I’m ashamed of the time I’ve spent away?

3) I’ve never been jumping up and down eager to read the Bible. Why would I be now?

Hey, look at all of those ways to justify my lack of effort and sin (separation from God)! I’m not holding myself accountable, I’m giving myself a way out.

I should be relying on God more than ever: I’m in a foreign country, in someone else’s home, away from my family for the first time in my life, missing my boyfriend and adjusting to all the cultural stuff. Even when no one can decipher my Yankee accent or follow my tripped-up syntax, God knows what I’m talking about. Even when no one seems to know who I really am (myself included), God does, down to the number of hairs on my head. So it would be really cool if every time I felt alone or upset, I ran to God. Even when I feel like no one else is there for me, He is. I should’ve packed HIM in my suitcase! Well, God is omnipresent, so he was there in my bag anyway… (Editor’s note to herself: Ugh, Carly, stop being so technical–we were rolling with a metaphor there).

INFOMERCIAL BREAK:

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We would normally ask for payment in two installments of $19.99, but God’s already paid your debt with the blood of his son! Often, you receive orders in three to five business days, but the moment you accept the love of Christ into your life, it arrives. In fact, it was already there and you didn’t even know it! Now that’s quality shipping. So take Him up on this offer now and be changed. Wait no longer, because God is waiting for you!

AND NOW BACK TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING!

Hmmm, maybe I should’ve jumped on that offer some time ago and called on God. Instead, I’ve been running away. I haven’t been to church since Easter and I didn’t go at all before that. When I pray, it’s hard to get out more than a sentence or two. I let myself get distracted with something else. I listen to for KING & COUNTRY’s latest album during my commute. It gives me life when I’m dead in the morning. It distracts me from my anxiety when I’m about to enter the classroom. The only other time things seem to click for me is my youth group. Even if I get lost in the occasional metaphor (God is a refrigerator? WHAT?!?!), life makes sense during that Saturday evening two hour Bible study.

And what seems like moments later, I’m back in the trenches trying to figure it all out again, feet in muddy water, tear gas in my eyes, bullets whistling overhead. I’ve got my no air in my lungs, I’ve got hands full and my heart heavy. Hold on ‘cuz I’m a little unsteady.

Holy roller coaster, Batman.

Reading that, it seems like going on exchange is no fun. That’s not true. Going on exchange is really fun. There are moments when it’s really fun. The insanity of club soccer matches. Going out to breakfast with your class. Everyone laughing hysterically at your cousin’s birthday party. Shopping. Driving through the city at night with your mom. The rite of passage/water fight at your high school. A surprise concert. Eating like a king. (Steak, at a level of deliciousness you did not know existed.) Dancing with your friends at a party. A day at the hot springs. Watching a telenovela on Disney channel with your sister. Skyping your crazy birth family. A weekend away in the countryside.

So highs are really high, and lows are really low.

Maybe it’s been like that with my faith, too. Not just on exchange, but throughout my entire life. Fall retreat. Christian summer camp. An awesome sermon- (shoutout to Steve Weed). Volunteering at a food pantry. Worshipping in another language in another country. Building houses in Mexico. Youth group bonding.

You know what all those highs have in common? They’re moments: an hour, a day, a week. The problem with moments is they are so temporary. You know want I want? I want to live on a perpetual God-high. Pray without ceasing. Thank God for every good thing. Find comfort in him when I’m sad, when I’m stressed, when I’m alone, and even when I’m perfectly content. Read the Word, and discover new truth. Wake up Sunday mornings excited to go to worship. Ok, maybe that last one is a stretch. For me, wake up and excited don’t belong in the same sentence. But worship and excited? That could be.

I’m going to church next Sunday.

Sound familiar? It should, because I’ve said it before.

And I didn’t do it.

BUT THIS TIME, I’M GOING TO!

This is me, setting three alarms on my phone for Sunday.

Yeah, it’s happening, folks.

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