"Empower | Community Engagement Through COVID-19"
By Wilzave Quiles Guzmán, a St. Mary's University student, a Senior double major in Environmental Science and International and Global Studies
Despite the tribulations and distance, we’ve faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have still been able to engage with each other in meaningful ways to create community and care for those around us. I have learned this through participating in the program Empower: Ecuador. In this program, we planned to travel to Ecuador for spring break with the purpose of being present with our neighbors in Ecuador, listening to their stories, and sharing our own. EMPOWER stands for “Engaging Mission through Purposeful Outreach, Wholistic Education, and Reflection.” The program’s mission is to practice what EMPOWER stands for and to intentionally establish deep relationships and community with those around us and our neighbors in Ecuador.
Unfortunately, the program was canceled with the outbreak of COVID-19, which was a great disappointment since our desire was to meet the people in Ecuador we were hearing so much of. However, this experience allowed me to understand that even in dark valleys one can experience peace and have hope... yes, even during COVID-19. My takeaways from this experience include learning about self-reflection, being intentionally present with others, and best practices to communicate in intercultural and interfaith environments.
What is Empower: Ecuador and what happened?
Empower: Ecuador is a course in which undergraduate students are continuously building a community and preparing emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to travel to Ecuador for a unique missionary trip later in the semester. In our group we did this by having intentional conversations, journaling, praying, researching Ecuador, and reading books like "Tattoos on the Heart" by Father Gregory Boyle. As we were packing and getting ready to travel, a day before, we were notified that our trip to Ecuador was canceled due to the rising global pandemic; COVID-19. This was a moment of much reflection and sadness. Despite this disappointment, we found ways to connect with our neighbors in Ecuador through our prayers and letters we wrote to them. It was our intentionality that allowed us to have a great experience and to continuously dig into deeper conversations that were bringing us close to God and each other in special ways, even in the darkest moments of the pandemic.
Being part of this community engagement program filled my life in many meaningful ways, but I also wanted to gather and share others’ perspectives to collectively reflect on our shared experience. Through these interviews I gained different perspectives on what it was the program of Empower: Ecuador and the Office of Community Engagement before and after COVID-19. Clare Acosta-Matos, the director of the Office of Community Engagement, shared with me the transition that the Office of Community Engagement passed through after COVID-19 started. Prior to COVID-19, the Office of Community Engagement focused on serving the community and being physically present. However, after COVID-19, the focus transitioned to inviting us to move from a place of service to reflection and acting on different injustices in areas like race, environment, and immigration.
In another interview, Sarah Uhlig, an amazing classmate shared through the interview her own experience in the Empower: Ecuador program. Similar to me, she carries the program experiences in her daily life now and it helps her look at her world in a different way. For Sarah, her experience showed her the true definition of what it is to be a missionary, not only internationally but right where you are. These different perspectives of the story of Empower: Ecuador gave me insight on areas that I did not noticed the same way; for example, the definition of missionary work. In my experience, I noticed the most learning how to be self-reflective and using that to better ourselves and the way we address injustices in our daily lives.
We can connect!
The internet is a tool that can be used for both good and evil. However, this experience has shown me how beneficial it can be to utilize social media to interact with others whom we may never be able to be physically present with. This connection can happen despite of our country, our location, our time zone, and any global pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, my perspective on social media and connecting with people was very negative because I thought that being connected to the internet decreased our social interactions with those physically present in our close circle. I have found that if a balance is maintained between interacting with those who are and are not physically present, the internet connection can really be a true blessing.
During the program Empower: Ecuador, we were given a picture of a person from Ecuador and a list of their characteristics as a person in the community. We were asked to pray for this person and have them in our minds while preparing physically, mentally, and spiritually to travel. However, when our trip was canceled, we lost hopes of meeting these amazing people we were praying for and thinking of. This hope was revived when we received the news that we were going to be writing letters to the neighbors in Ecuador and sending it to them. Working on the letter was a passionate and personal experience that was so exciting for me! Nevertheless, it never passed through my mind that my selected person was going to look for me on Facebook and thank me for the kind letter. This was amazing because we were able to reciprocate to each other's messages and meet virtually. It was truly a blessing!
There are many ways in which we connect with each other and many of these ways include physical interactions. However, it is possible that when all of our lives are in danger by our presence, we learn to become more united even in the distance. About four years ago, I moved from Puerto Rico to San Antonio, Texas, and to be honest, communication with my family members and loved ones back home was not always that active. Nevertheless, after the onset of COVID-19 I realized that we can build community and care for others in deep meaningful ways despite distance. Presently, I contact my loved ones more often and it is a gift. Empower: Ecuador moved my heart to care for people in Ecuador that I never personally meet, but I love them and pray for them. This can be possible also with those whom you know despite any difficulties or global pandemic. Love has no boundaries when one is desiring to connect with each other!
All this learning experience did not only stay in my hearts, but I definitely try my best to also make it true in my university community. I am present in my university through my participation in class, helping others and receiving help in class and outside of it, and making sure I am doing my best to give back to my community. The other day, a friend of mine tested positive for COVID-19 and I made sure I checked on her and even took her food one day, maintaining all precautions. I mention this not to celebrate myself but to show that I truly belief that by minimal actions of grace and love we can really impact those around us, even when there is sickness like COVID-19. Being present is not always a matter of being physically there, rather it might look like a call, a letter, a meal, or a text. Today, just show others that you care!