Some of the most difficult obstacles during my early years on the field were the lack of amenities and technology. Those were hurdles to be sure, but really the hardest part was the isolation.
During our first four-year term in Guatemala, we lived in a remote village location where I had no English-speaking friends. My husband was happy and fulfilled ministering among the nationals, and I was home with one- and two-year-olds. Those were lonely times for sure. A weekly letter from my mom was my only reliable contact with the outside world, and that was only when the postal workers were not on strike.
I will never forget the joyous occasion when word reached me of an upcoming ladies’ retreat for my agency’s women. My friend Lila, who at that time lived in an even more remote location with two small boys of her own, likewise heard about this getaway weekend. It sounded like just the ticket to get us over the hump of cross-cultural adjustment and homesickness.
Our husbands agreed to keep the toddlers, so we met in Guatemala City, packed our bags and nursing babies, and headed off for the hotel somewhere outside Antigua. After a quick farewell to the men and boys, we bounded excitedly into our room, bursting with all the pent-up emotions and news of the past few months since we had seen each other.
Still bubbling with joy, we made our way to the main meeting hall. Looking back, it may have seemed a bit quiet and subdued, but in our exuberance, we were oblivious. Being the youngest of the group, still in our twenties at the time, I am sure we looked like teenagers to those older, more sedate global workers. Certainly we were the exceptions to the norm, being the extreme extroverts in a room full of thoughtful introverts.
No, it was more than that. The room was positively frightening in its silence apart from our friendly chatter. We joined in the silence as the retreat coordinator stood up to speak. That is when the light began to dawn. She opened with words that forever echo in my mind as the ultimate irony: “As you probably already know, this is what is known as a silent retreat. We will be spending this weekend in quiet meditation.”
That is the last thing I remember her saying. I heard no more. Judging by the serene expressions on all faces but Lila’s, I assumed this was no joke. With my little one in tow, I made a quick exit while stifling my spontaneous burst of laughter that threatened even then to morph into tears of frustration.
Maybe ‘silent retreats’ were all the rage in the U.S. and Canada back in 1988, but to my ears it sounded like cruel and unusual punishment for one so recently released from solitary confinement. I am sure the women who traveled to Central America to orchestrate this event had genuine intentions of blessing our global worker community, but for at least two fellowship-starved extroverts, their efforts fell flat.
Explaining our plight and begging the mercy of one of the leaders, Lila and I received special permission to whisper with our roommate, Leah, in our room as long as we did not disturb the others. The whole scene continued to tickle my funny bone. There is something inherently humorous about a dining hall full of ladies eating in silence, gesturing for the salt shaker when needed. I could not help but laugh. Our table with babies banging on high chair trays was anything but quiet. It was the only sign of true life in the room.
Solitude has its place. I do not dispute that. But in my ever-so-humble opinion, it has no place in a room full of global workers. To this day it annoys me to think of all the wisdom, experience, and encouragement each of those ladies represented. What a waste to keep them silent! Maybe one of them held the key to my contentment in the difficult years to come.