Freedom has been driving many of my reflections lately. Freedom is widely used and understood to mean autonomy of choice. Children have a lot of that autonomy kept from them. Many parents opt not to have McDonald’s for every meal, to their children’s dismay. Likewise, watching Frozen for the sixteenth time in a day may be a little excessive for most, and few would allow for such a use of one’s time. When I was young, I desperately craved the freedom to choose for myself. I wanted to be a grown up – to eat what I wanted, go where I pleased, and pick up fourteen boxes of Cocoa Krispies when they were on sale. I had a real thirst for independence and to demonstrate that I was capable of making important decisions.
High school arrived, and with it came many responsibilities. I got a license and started to drive. Quickly, I found that driving didn’t really mean going to see my friends any time I wanted so much as going on grocery runs for my parents. I also was free to choose to play whatever sports I wanted, but that meant going to long practices and dealing with bigger, better competition. I was free to act in theater, so long as I met the rehearsal requirements and was also dependable for carpooling. I was free to choose the college of my choice, and toiled for scholarships to secure a relatively pain-free financial commitment, though I still needed loans. But these privileges were limited, and I longed to be free of obstacles and take control of my life.
In college, I was finally free to spend my time as I saw fit, and that meant a plenty of studying and many, many hours watching TV, playing video games, sports, and hanging out with new people. With this new freedom also came something that I had not bargained for – a gigantic load of stress. My success depended completely on myself. This was the first time that I relied on absolutely no one else, and that reality came with a steep price. Self-reliance is learned, but seldom taught. I found ways to cope with my procrastination, anxiety, and stress by making many mistakes. Too many close calls on missing deadlines for assignments forced a change in how I organized my time. The pressure building from my stress and anxiety forced me to change how I process my emotions and experiences, and encouraged me to reach out and seek help from others. I began to understand the price of autonomy – the weight of responsibility, the toll of stress, the reality of anxiety, the panic of never having time to complete your goals, and so many other newly encountered effects began to take hold in my mind and heart.
One of the missionaries on campus for FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, approached me one day asking if I would be willing to embark on a mission trip to Uganda the following summer. Against my better judgement, I agreed on the spot and began preparations to go. Through the amazing generosity of my partners in mission, I fundraised the entire cost of the trip and set out in May of 2014. Our team was made up of thirteen students and leaders from the United States, and nine from Canada. Our goal was to spread the Gospel by witnessing with our words as well as our actions. We worked in different cities, starting in the capital city Kampala, then Luweero, and then moving on to Masaka, south of the equator. We visited people in their homes, sharing the Gospel with them and giving talks at schools and parishes, some as big as 5,000 people. We also helped with retreats for college students and young adults. Before all this, however, we helped out for a couple of days at orphanages run by the Missionaries of the Poor.
I was uncomfortable my first day. Of the assigned tasks – laundry, cooking, sweeping, feeding the babies, and so on – the one I was most apprehensive about was bathing the children. The images that I had seen of African orphans on television and in magazines had not prepared me for how I felt in person. Some had flies hanging around their heads and bodies, and seemed to possess no motivation to brush them aside. To my shame, I felt disgusted. I did not want to touch them. Naturally, this was the task I was assigned. Because of the nature of the center, there was not much water to spare, so we had to wipe down the children with wet wipes. After avoiding my task for a couple of minutes, I thought of all the amazing people who had supported me and who had helped send me here. I thought of Jesus and the lepers and how I was not showing these children Christ-like love. I swallowed my pride and apprehension and wiped the forehead of one of the toddlers. In an instant, I began to feel tears in my eyes and thought, as I looked into her face, “You are so loved.” I did not know her name, where she came from, what her story was, or anything, but I felt an amazing love that was overwhelming. I finally realized, as I finished wiping down her limbs, why I was in Uganda, and why I had felt this way: I was a vessel for the love of God. It defined my mission trip and changed my life.
For the first time since I can remember, I felt no stress. I felt peace and direction. Every day I knew not where we were going, what we would eat, how we would get anywhere, or what I would do. I had no control over much of anything, except choosing to participate and let God take over, or choosing to fight Him and force my will to be done. Finally, I understood the Scriptures, when we are told that God will ease the burdens and that we will find rest in Him. The freedom that God promises us is freedom from the oppression of stress, anxiety, and the burden of responsibility. He longs to take that from us so that we may be as children – free to rejoice in the wonder of life without worry, free to dance with abandon, free to love without consequence, just like the children in the orphanages that we met, who were so full of thankfulness, life, and spirit. I experienced true freedom for the first time half-a-world away, and I have been chasing that freedom ever since.
My mission at the JSC reminds me greatly of that time in Uganda. I am surrounded by a passionate team, encouraging young people to reflect on important questions that define their lives. We also give up a lot of liberties in our community life, work, and service. In those moments, I feel small doses of the same freedom I experienced in Africa. Allowing God to guide me in this mission, I have again found peace and direction. I find the steps to my journey illuminated by this joy and servitude. Service has taught me the most valuable lesson – that true freedom lies in service. I encourage you to find that same freedom in your own life and embrace it.