Reflecting on Teens on a Mission 2019
This month, Teens on a Mission embarked on our annual mission trip. We served the community of Oakland alongside 4 other parishes, which came from regions such as Tacoma, Claremont, and Sacramento.
My Expectations Going In...
On my way here, I was expecting the worst. East Oakland is notorious for being a rough neighborhood, and I was familiar with the streets from visiting my Lola in Longfellow (West Oakland) as I grew up. However, as we pulled into the neighborhoods surrounding St. Theresa, which is the church that we stayed in, I would begin to realize that our experience would be the complete opposite. St. Theresa felt like a safe haven, protecting us from the presence of suffering and impoverishment that I expected to be immersed in. It did not really feel like East Oakland at all. Although our added safety relieved some level of uncertainty that I had going in, I felt a level of sadness because I did not feel as if we were truly engulfed in that community. I also did not expect the type of work that we were assigned. Considering the mission trip last year, I had expected to get our hands dirty by cleaning alleyways, building shelters, serving food, or painting structures. So, when we were assigned the Center for Elderly Independence as our worksite for the week (each parish was randomly assigned a worksite in Oakland), I definitely had mixed feelings about the potential impact that we could really have on the community by serving there. What I did not realize at the time, however, was that I should never underestimate the impact that I could have on others, regardless of how little or how large the task at hand seems to be.
Searching for Purpose, and How My Perspective Changed
When our group sat in reflection as we navigated the week, I asked Jesus to allow me to have an open mind and to maximize the experience that I had in front of me. I felt as if this prayer was answered as I gradually found comfort throughout the week. The challenge for me was understanding and discovering my purpose in serving the community at CEI. I discovered that purpose when I heard the stories from the people that I had encountered at CEI. My perspective had evolved, changing from the judgmental attitude that I had going in to the week to understanding how much I could impact others.
Meeting Mr. and Mrs. Li
There is one story in particular that will stick with me forever. I had met the sweetest and most welcoming Chinese couple, with Mrs. Li at 87 years of age and Mr. Li at 95 years of age. I’m getting teary-eyed as I write this, because it was simply the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. They immigrated to America in 1999, following their retirement from their respective musical careers in China. Mrs. Li would tell me stories about the evils of the Communist Party and how America helped them to escape those horrors. She gave me a large stack of bookmarks to give to my friends and family members, and the bookmarks read: The world needs Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance. It also contains a link for minghui.org, which teaches Falun Dafa, an advanced practice for self-cultivation based on the Buddha School of teachings.
As for Mr. Li, he had actually written an autobiography documenting his life in Communist China. He started writing it 13 years ago, and he was still editing and revising it with the help of his English-speaking colleagues. On the day that we met, we made a pinky promise that by the end of the week I would read through his entire autobiography, leave notes and opinions, and then ask him questions. One of the employees at CEI told me that Mr. Li had given his autobiography to other volunteers in the past, but none of them ended up reading the story, nor seemed interested in getting to know Mr. Li’s story. I knew that it was going to be very difficult to read the entire story within a week, considering our very tight-knit schedule as a team. But I felt a calling from God to learn about Mr. Li’s story and I knew I had to find a way to read the entire book. I wanted to be that person that allowed Mr. Li to be heard, and to give his story a voice.
As the week had passed, I was successful in reading the entire book, despite the slight language barrier with the book written in Ching-lish. I had read about his time as a soldier in World War II, his time of being framed by the communist party, his various love stories throughout his life, the cute story of how he met his wife, his devout passion for music, as well as his work with nonprofits and his fight for retaining Asian libraries in the Oakland Area. Our last day of work was filled with anticipation, for it was an opportunity for me to tell Mr. Li that I had read his entire story and that we could have a conversation about his incredible life. Unfortunately, our team had to leave halfway through the day, and we did not have an opportunity to see Mr. Li who had come in the afternoon. I was crushed. In order to send Mr Li a message, Angelique, one of the CEI employees, gave me an email address. I wrote to Mr. Li, telling him that his story was very touching and that he had a devout impact on me. I’m hoping that he will reply soon.
"You are the Salt of the Earth."
Our theme for this week's service was to be the salt of the Earth, or in other words to give
'flavor' to diverse settings and preserve them from decay, as salt does. It was extremely humbling to hear the impact that we had on the elders at CEI based solely on our presence and our interactions with them, and it makes me believe that we were able to live up to this week's theme.
How This Week Changed Me
I am so thankful to have been able to serve the community of Oakland while also growing in my faith. Serving these people opened my eyes to God‘s calling for me to serve others, and motivates me to want to serve even more. This week has been transformational for my outlook on the impact that I can have on other people and for my appreciation for listening to other people's stories. I will never forget several of the interactions that I had with the elderly that I encountered this week, especially John, Esmerelda, and Mr. and Mrs. Li. I absolutely loved serving with this group, as well as our Carpool Karaoke’s, Gian's reckless driving, nightly group talks, or our endless bingo games! I am also really thankful to have gotten to know and to meet so many people from different parishes.