This time it was Gardenia who complained, and making a weird noise combined with a smell of a burning wire, forced us to stop in “that” exact place, on Holy Wednesday. It was in front of a charming inn at Mindo, Ecuador; an oasis of the subtropical forest in the middle of hills and clouds. At the door we mt and talked to the owners: Luis, Ecuadorian, married to Susan, from the United States, who were intrigued by our trip. The following morning we were invited to the best coffee we had had in the last 6 months, and then we “self-invited” to see their organic coffee plantation, confirming our first impression: we were facing a very special couple. Susan told us about many supportive projects at Mindo, we shared our joy and liking for the choice of an Argentinean Pope and also disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi, their favorite saint (and also ours!). They suggested that we talked to Father Ubaldo, who could guide us in our search: Someone who is changing the world through the service to others.
Three minutes were enough with Ubaldo to re confirm it. All the roads took us to Susan! Despite the fact that her humbleness, simplicity and dedication had impressed us, he shared with us many experiences of her limitless generosity, always available to help, to say “YES”. To any request or idea of the Father, she doesn’t doubt it and say yes. She was always at the service of others, being a volunteer in a Seniors Home when she was 13 years old and then becoming a nurse, working in the Peace Corps, teaching music to kids, etc. Just by observing her tending to a guest table, her vocation of service is reflected: her Ecuadorian Spanish acquired with the years and her native English emanate special warmth.
Of course, behind a great woman there is a great man, and vice versa. Susan has no limits, she always says yes and gets compromised until her own numbers don’t add up; Luis grabs his head and then slowly re accommodates all back to normal. They know that everything comes and goes, and a proof of that is that there is never a lack of clients. Susan is always ready to help, and somehow she obtains the funds to repair the Parish, build a grotto or buy medicine to a sick person. Since she was living in Chicago saving to start her life in Ecuador, her dream was to become part of a small community where people know and support each other.
Susan never thinks about herself, or her needs; she is always thinking about the needs of others, with a ready smile to share or a hug to give, constantly on a good mood, spreading joy. She is very sensitive, and is almost impossible not to get emotional when she cries or shares something deep. She gives all of herself, to the others, in silence. For example, once, on Saint Francis of Assisi’s day, she wanted to give a gift to her favorite saint and offer all the income from the inn of that day. The hours passed and there was no new client, she started to lose heart and reminded her saint that it was everything for him, while she cried. Fifteen minutes before the kitchen was closing a group of 30 people came to eat, and 6 to sleep, just to show her that Someone was listening to her; and this is how she accomplished her gift for her saint Panchito, as she likes to call him.
We had the good fortune of spending Good Friday at Mindo, sharing with Susan the traditional pilgrimage of the Cross and the Stations of the Cross. This year it was made from the “Y” of the route, some 7 kms of deep and sinuous descent. Susan and Luis had the Cross made 3 mts long out of some trees fallen in a storm, it was extremely heavy. While we prayed and sang, we all were taking turns to carry the cross, putting ourselves in Jesus’ shoes, feeling the exhausting weight on our shoulders.
Susan was born in a Presbyterian family, typical from Arizona, United States, and after many years of doubts, conversion and prayers, she was baptized catholic 8 years ago. Beyond the religions, Susan has an overflowing faith, which has always been in her and made her turn to the service of others since she was a little girl. She remembers vividly that when she was 5 or 6 years old, she watched in television something on the Vietnam war, terrible images of kids with hunger or sickness, it was such an impact to her that she thought: “Sometimes I’m sad or feel bad, and I do have my parents, my brothers who love me; I have clothes, shoes… and despite this sometimes I feel bad… How are these kids surviving this, when they are my same age, have nothing and they are in war?” Immediately she promised herself: “When I get older, I have to go out and do something about it.” She ran to tell her parents, who would frequently support her in everything and they answered: “Yes, yes, sweetheart, some day you will understand”, without paying her much attention. This answer surprised and shocked Susan so much, not being taken seriously, that she went away feeling hurt and not fully understood. Without even noticing it, this was the beginning of her vocation of service.
Luis tells us that he met Susan while she was working at the U.S. Peace Corps, “Susan was always like this, dedicated to the service, helping out others. She was a volunteer in 4 projects at the same time! Now her Big Moment is one week a year, when a medical mission comes, and she is dedicated 100% to serve as a nurse, contributing with everything she can. I’m happy seeing her happy and these are the things that make her really happy. We have always supported the idea of teaching the people how to fish and not giving them the fish itself, we have always said: we can give this, maybe we may need it, sincerely, we are comfortable, what else may we need? We don’t have kids, money comes and goes…we think: Now we can do it, God will provide later, it has to come from somewhere, and there is no lack of people, clients keep on coming….There, you can see one coming inside the inn. We are not attached to the material things, but if everything were lost in a fire, then we would see what to do, how to move forward. If life now is blessing us and giving us stuff, then this is what inspires us to do things. Although sometimes it may seem like crazy, this is part of the whole idea, one can do something, but the 2 of us together can do even more! Nothing is accomplished alone.”
Obviously, they had never imagined this life, “It doesn’t matter what you plan in your life, because life has other plans for you”, Luis reminds us: “She has studied a lot to become a nurse, and I have studied music a lot; and here we are”. Now they belong to a nice community and are an important support to the new parish priest, Father Ubaldo, who they try to spoil with burgers and his favorite desserts. Susan always says yes to whatever he asks of her, always open to other people’s needs with a smile. Luis, with his feet on the ground, confesses us: “She flies up so sometimes I have to grab her by her feet, stop her before she wanders away! She has a noble soul, a big heart, always thinking about others, she dedicates so much time to others that often I have to duplicate my work. Though I know she is constructively working for the community, sometimes I get angry because she gives me a hard time. I have to be the ‘bad guy’, the strict boss; it’s just that someone has to balance things out!”
But, what is it that moves her to do everything she does? According to Luis: “The compassion, she is always thinking about others, never about herself, never in the 25 years we have been together has she ever told me: I want to buy this for myself; it is always for someone else, who may need a medicine or clothes. It is more like me going to buy something for her once in a while. She devotes so much time, it’s not the money, she puts dedication and effort, and to her the others are always first.”
Susan and Luis work all day together, are mutually complementary and they have fun; and it definitely fills the air. The harmony and happiness is contagious to anyone who passes by. Sometimes Luis realizes that Susan is missing because one of her 3 dogs, ‘Bufanda’ (Scarf) gets nervous and starts walking in circles searching for her. She goes out every morning for her walks, looking and detecting needs in her community. Apart from working, what she loves most is: “To serve and teach, no doubt about it. I love it, I love it; this side of what I love to do I couldn’t dedicate so much time, but any knowledge I may have I like sharing it with others, this is what I like most about Nursing, explaining to the patients what they didn’t understand or the procedures they are about to go under.” How does she pour that thirst of service in her community? Through the Parish, the Father Ubaldo, helping him in everything she can, always available to lend a hand, and when she sees someone doing something for others she joins in, trying to help. “If it were up to me, if I had more time, I would like to dedicate my time to whatever is necessary in the town. It is not that I don’t like what I’m doing, I love to be in contact with people, meet new people, but the other….it is really my passion, it comes naturally, really naturally.”
Right now, she has some new projects in her hands: a scholarship program for students, so they may finish their studies financing them with the necessary materials; and a book written by her with drawings of the kids from the school of Mindo, which sales proceeds will be designated for repairs in the Church. She is also involved in the building of a new Hospital with top notch technology donated by an US citizen where she can pour down her nursing knowledge and her vocation of service. We warmly say that Susan is a “compulsive donor”, she distributes all her personal income (which are the tips) for the school, the Church and any specific need in the community. Even Father Ubaldo realized that she hasn’t bought any clothes for herself in the last 4 years and jokes with her saying: “I know you, instead of purchasing something for you, you give it to the church”. And she admits: “Part of this is because when we lived in Chicago we would buy cheap little things second hand and now half of my clothes are the clothes left behind by guests which are never claimed. Honestly, the few things I have purchased for myself have been books, I don’t need anything else. What else could I need?”
Susan has always had a close relationship with God, speaking to Him, keeping Him close; and she shared with us the transformation of her spirituality: “Always, but always, He has been my Friend, I have always been very spiritual. I had always felt affinity with the Catholic Church, even if my family was Presbyterian and I attended a public school. We had a family friend who studied in a catholic school, I always liked it and thought that it was a better education, they would talk about doing a sacrifice for Lent, What does it mean? I used to wonder. My eldest sister had a catholic boyfriend, and he always talked about a young friend priest, I was so fascinated with the Father that he would take me with him; and I would fall in love with him, just by listening to him, see what they were doing, how they helped the aboriginal communities with this missionary priest. When I was 14 years old, some kids from a catholic school from Germany came in Exchange and I thought it was fascinating, so I told my parents, a bit scared, that I wanted to do it, thinking they weren’t ever going to let me do it.” Susan gathered some courage over 2 months and to her surprise her mother said: “Really? I always wanted to do it and my parents didn’t have enough money!” Evidently the money was important because they needed USD 2,400. “The deal was that I would earn half of it and they would help me with the other half. The only thing I could do at that age was babysitting kids or houses when people would go away on vacations. I also cleaned the houses of friends of my mother, in which case I was paid 50 cents the hour; also clean the windows of my mother’s house. It took me 2 years to collect the USD 1,200, and when we went to register it had raised to USD 2,800! But seeing all my effort they gave me the rest as a graduation gift. So when I was 16 years old I went in exchange to Colombia, to a catholic boarding school, and I loved it! I had a great happy time there. I made friends with a girl, whom I would ask everything about her religion, so I wrote to my parents asking them to explain to me about their Presbyterian religion, as I knew nothing about it, so they sent me books and answers. Looking at all this, in my heart I was choosing the catholic religion, reading, studying, learning and getting closer to it, until I was baptized, 8 years ago. The first time I prayed the rosary, with my instruction manual next to me, I felt that the Virgin was there with me like a Mother, helping her daughter do her homework…”
Susan and Luis are mutually complementary, becoming a silent and extremely important engine in the community of Mindo. This time Providence brought us not only to their doorstep, but also one day before their wedding anniversary, no less than 24 years of marriage. Only 20 more than us, we had celebrated our first 4 years wedding anniversary some weeks before. We made a big toast and shared that very special moment with them, getting to know them and like them even more.