When I met Sister Juana Ponce Gámez in 1994, I probably couldn’t have pointed to the tiny country of her birth on a map. I had scant knowledge of the USA’s CIA-backed intrusion into the political affairs of neighboring Central American countries, and only slight awareness of El Salvador’s Civil War in the 1980’s. Had I even heard of Monseñor Romero? Perhaps in passing. Could I have explained his devotion to ideas associated with liberation theology or his tragic fate, murdered on orders by the extreme right-wing faction of his government? Probably not.
If you asked Sister Juana what brought us together, without hesitation she’d mention Dios, the Lord. Her unwavering religious faith is the lens through which Juana lives her life. She practices that faith every waking minute with daily prayers, and fulfills demands asked of her by her church as well as by her community. Until a few years ago, she also taught at a parochial school two hours from her home.
Asked the same question, I’d tell you fate brought her into my life. I believe our first meeting at the Amherst Family Center was far from a random coincidence. That first brief encounter hinted at a profound, ineffable and life-sustaining offering I desperately needed at the time. Strange though it may sound, Juana’s loving gaze in my direction offered a generosity of heart I’d never experienced before. Mired in self-doubt and distress at that time due to the shroud of clinical depression, I responded to her gift of kindness with urgency. That’s why I risked rejection that day and asked Juana if we might correspond by mail once she returned to El Salvador. Beaming her trademark smile, she asked for some paper and a pen to write her address.
That’s how our correspondence began. In her weekly letters, Juana always reminded me I was worthy of genuine love and affection, not just from Dios, but from my family as well. In one of my earliest letters, I confessed that except for my young daughters, I was a stranger to that kind of love. Without my going into much detail, she intuited my suffering.
When a devastating earthquake and powerful aftershock tore through El Salvador in the last days of 2000 and the first of 2001, my imagination went wild with worry, imagining worst-case scenarios. I waited for Juana’s weekly letter with ever-growing concern. When it finally arrived, I was stunned by her description of the extensive damage to her church, to other buildings throughout her neighborhood and well beyond. Placing the letter back into its envelope, I was overcome with feelings of powerlessness and shame. How could I justify my privileged lifestyle in contrast to her dire circumstances, now made even worse by the forces of nature that hadn’t even spared her church?
Some unwelcome features of my depressed condition included lethargy, anxiety, hopelessness, and self-doubt, combined with persistent shame. Depression is such a lonely disease. As with so many people, my suffering was made more acute by its invisibility.
After reading Juana’s letter and feeling tremendous compassion for her and her compatriots – which in itself was unusual given my self-absorbed state of mind — I felt compelled to do something. But what? I could send her a check for a modest amount but that seemed like a coward’s solution. With scant experience in fund-raising and in my emotionally depleted state of mind, raising funds seemed an impossible challenge. But I had to do something. Since Juana’s own words describing the devastation in her midst communicated their tragic circumstances much better than I ever could, I decided to translate her two letters (a second letter written less than a week later described further damage caused by strong aftershocks) and send them somewhere with a plea for donations.
Translating to English from Spanish was effortless for me, given my decades studying the Spanish language. I asked myself who might respond with donations? Religious communities soon came to mind since Sister Juana is a nun. I grabbed a phone book, flipped through the yellow pages, located listings of local religious institutions, and decided to send them her translated letters with a cover letter from me requesting donations, highlighting the extensive damage to her church. After signing the letters, printing copies, inserting them in envelopes and affixing a stamp to each, I felt a fleeting sense of accomplishment and hope. I say fleeting because another feature of depression (for me at least) is an ongoing psychic battle between hopelessness and faith. Especially if that tentative faith is linked to one’s self-confidence, as mine was. Hampered by a deeply held impression of myself as a fraud, it was difficult to convince myself otherwise. All in all, my efforts were not completely in vain though they yielded only modest results; a local synagogue sent a check in the amount of $100, with a compassionate note attached. I was pleased that I’d made the effort and that it hadn’t been in vain.
Ten years later, I hosted Sister Juana at my home for ten days. Our goal was to raise funds for the ongoing repairs to her church. We raised $10,000 in ten days! But that’s a story for another blog post.