That invitation led to me joining seven students and one staff member from the University of St. Thomas VISION program, to serve the mission of Jesucristo Resucitado parish in San Felix, Venezuela, from December 28th, 2013 to January 18th 2014.

After nearly 24 hours of flights, layovers and even a couple hours of attempted sleep in the Caracas airport, I was so grateful that my first invitation was heading to one of the 11 barrios the parish serves for Holy Mass for the Feast of the Holy Family.  The people welcomed me with open hearts, offering hugs and greetings at the sign of peace and a delicious spread of traditional Christmas bread, 7-Up and fried cheese at the conclusion of Mass. This was a scene that would repeat itself with every barrio we would visit, every member of the staff we met, and every group of Venezuelans we would have the privilege of serving and getting to know.

Week one of our visit offered a beautiful balance of pastoral visits, cultural experiences and taking in the breathtaking landscape of Venezuela.  Jake and Ruth, two Venezuelans, kicked off our week with an invite to their wedding reception, a dance party like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

Transitioning to a pastoral moment, I was able to attend a funeral with Fr. Adams.  Typically celebrated in the home, the service lasts about 5-10 minutes and does not generally include involvement in the burial, as the cemeteries are too dangerous. They also don’t embalm the body, so a funeral and burial usually take place about two days after death and very often the priests are called about an hour before the service.

New Years Eve day started with a beautiful 5:30am sunrise walk through Cachamay Waterfall Park.  We then made a brief trip to the town of Oyapa, before getting ready for the big New Years Eve Mass at 7pm.  This is a very special Mass and occasion for the Venezuelans.  They save up for a brand new outfit, get really dressed up and celebrate the night away.  After Mass, we were invited to a home for an evening of dancing, food, fireworks going off in every direction, and then more dancing and singing.  The Venezuelans have two traditions that I thought was very cool.  Just before midnight the sky becomes a sea of red lanterns, which they send off with a wish for the coming year.  Then right after midnight, they walk out of their homes with their suitcases, signifying that they hope to travel within the coming year.

Other highlights of the week included Mass with the Missionaries of Charity and a visit to their home for men, which serve among others, four men with AIDS.  We were given a tour of the home and had the opportunity to visit and pray with them. 

We closed out our week with a three-day trip to the Gran Sabana, where we played in many breathtaking waterfalls, hiked many trials, and stopped in Brazil for lunch and a little shopping. We had the most beautiful vigil Mass of the Epiphany atop a waterfall rock as the sun was setting, the moon was rising and the stars were shining.

Stay tuned for my week-two adventures.  The priests and staff of the parish welcome you to visit at anytime.

 

 

May God bless you,

Shantel Schallenkamp