Gifts Greater Than You Can Ever Imagine: An Interview with Father Bob Oldershaw
Flying home to the United States after our 2018 Multi-Specialty Mission Trip to Mizque, Bolivia, Father Bob Oldershaw reflected on his role as chaplain and the highlights and challenges of his eleventh mission trip. Here are excerpts from his interview with Solidarity Bridge communications volunteer Betsy Station.
Betsy: You didn't go on the multi-specialty mission trip in 2017. What did you miss most and why did you want to return this year?
Fr. Bob: I missed the people; I missed the experience. In some ways it's a selfish thing, because I always come back with more than I go with in terms of the peace, the joy, the hope. I missed being with people who don't give up, people for whom the littlest thing means everything. Of course, I missed the team and the interactions—praying together, preparing and leading the rituals, and just being there for the missioners, to provide a little solidarity or guidance or just a shoulder to lean on.
What are the duties of a chaplain on a mission trip? How do you prepare?
There are duties before, during, and after the trip. We generally have an opening ritual, morning reflections, and a closing ritual. Because I go as a priest and a chaplain, this sometimes involves the Eucharist, so there are preparations I do ahead of time. For instance, as I do for any liturgy or Sunday Mass, I prepare a homily. I don't wing it or speak off the cuff because I don't wear cuffs—be they French cuffs or blood pressure cuffs. I also engage other missioners in doing reading and reflections. Prior to the trip, I put the word out and let people know they will be welcome to share.
During our time in Mizque we celebrated the feast day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patroness of world missions. She had never gone on a mission or even left her convent; she died at the age of 24. But she developed her "little way," which would become so much a part of the Church, of doing little things with great love. That translates into what we're doing on a mission trip.
We also had the feast of the guardian angels, so we talked about the different ways that we experience God's touch. There's touching others and there’s being touched, and that's an important thing to try to emphasize—that we're giving and receiving, mutually.
Another role I have as chaplain is to minister to the patients in different ways. I pray with the surgical patients and administer the sacrament of the sick and blessing with oil. Conversing, I find out who they are and where they are from, and I learn something about their families.
But I would say that the first and most important thing I do to prepare for a mission trip is to pray. And during the mission, I pray. And post-mission, I pray.
What were some of the highlights, for you, of the trip to Mizque?
There was a particular quality there. It's a lovely little town with a small-town warmth. I loved the way the mayor said, “We are autonomous; we do our own thing. We don't depend on every move of the federal government.” Mizque is self-enclosed in the best way, radiating out to the larger world. And I liked that there was a less formal atmosphere.
Was anything about the trip challenging for you?
One of the challenges that I had personally—and one of the reasons I didn't go on mission last year—was that I was getting a little more tired. It takes more effort every year. First, there’s the long trip with very little sleep on the plane; that is a continuing challenge for me. Then there's the challenge with the altitude—at 8,000 feet in Cochabamba and 6,000 feet in Mizque, when you're used to 125 feet. When you put that together with the accumulating years...
How many years have you accumulated? Am I allowed to ask your age?
I'm 82 and I've been ordained for 56 years. So being sort of wiped out on the journey down, my first day or two, I was thinking, "Should I really have done this?" That first Sunday was a killer, because we had a long bus trip from Cochabamba to Mizque. We immediately go to the hospital, drop our bags, come back to the hotel, and go out and visit patient homes, which was wonderful. Then we have our opening ritual. Putting all these things together was a challenge, but it worked.
At the hospital, you would greet patients waiting to see the doctor in Quechua, their indigenous language. Where did you learn it and why is it important for you to speak some Quechua as well as Spanish?
I first learned a word or two of Quechua in Sacaba, Bolivia, on my second or third mission trip. I think the only word that really stuck with me that time was wallajalla (“I’m well”), and then I learned Imaynam kasanki? ("How are you?"). I learned some expressions just talking to people and asking them to teach me—by ear. The director of our Catholic immigration office in Chicago, Elena Segura, is Peruvian and so a few years ago I reviewed a couple words with her. The other source is to go on a website with expressions in Quechua.
Did you brush up before this trip?
Yes, absolutely. I have a little gazetteer with about 10 expressions that I always use. And when you say imaynam kasanki, you see people’s eyes light up. You hear them answer, wallajalla, wallajalla no más.
So what is that doing? It's connecting. There’s a bond that’s set up. It’s much like my going to Mexico to learn Spanish and study about 25 years ago, when the Hispanic and particularly Mexican community was new in our parish. Did I come back speaking perfectly? Absolutely not. But it created a bond, and that’s enough.
A few days into our trip, I heard you saying, “Somos mizqueños” (We’re from Mizque). It was very sincere and heartfelt. What made you feel this strong attachment to the people of Mizque?
From the beginning, they were very warm and welcoming. The medical staff and the local government appear to have a very collaborative bond. The certificates we received from the hospital as missioners have the signature of the mayor and of all the important people in town. What does that mean—were they trying to impress us? No, it was a way of saying we care about this and we really appreciate that you are here.
There were certain moments like the fiesta they prepared for us on the second night we were there, with the mayor and all the dignitaries. Everyone spoke. And then when we had our closing ceremony at the hospital, they seemed to do it all again.
There was a really nice expression of solidarity from the beginning that seemed to carry all through the week. I hope that we come back to this little town.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about coming on a Solidarity Bridge mission? How would you encourage someone who has never done this kind of thing before?
I would start out by asking, How would you like to do yourself a favor? How would you like to know deep peace? How would you like to feel that your life is really worthwhile? Because there is an opportunity to do that. Most missioners are very busy people, but one of the most precious gifts you can give is time. We try to make the trips accessible, using the weekdays for work and weekends for traveling to and from Bolivia. The trips provide an opportunity to get to know other people and get in touch with another culture. Because, we are one people, one human family.
So I would also say, in the context of today, when so many walls are being constructed in the world, how would you like to build a bridge? The bridge is being built; it's under way. How would you like to add to that, to cross that bridge and share the talents and gifts and expertise you have? And then to come back home, to re-cross that bridge with gifts greater than you can ever imagine. It’s really a wonderful adventure—to go out in the world with little, and return with great gifts, and with peace.