By Raquel Hernández
When I finished my university studies I decided to pack my bags to come to Israel not knowing exactly what to expect, and, to be honest, not knowing what my heart was looking for.
My experience as a volunteer had ups and downs, as is normal in any change of routine, especially when it comes to being on the other side of the world, far from home and family, with a different culture and environment than what you are used to. Little by little, different experiences filled my heart: seeing Jerusalem and Galilee, and getting to know all their holy places; building friendships that, I am sure, will prevail in spite of time and distance; and even a smile or a “how admirable that you are here as a volunteer, it must be a blessing” from a pilgrim who was in Magdala. And yes it was, that is, the mere fact of living in the Holy Land and so close to the Sea of Galilee, is in itself a blessing.
But even in the midst of so much joy, sudden changes and uncertainty are frightening, and in March, as the pandemic began, I can assure you that I experienced a fear and concern as never before. El Salvador had closed its borders a couple of weeks before the quarantine began in Israel, so, in the midst of all the volunteers trying to look for flights or deciding whether to stay or return, I was the only one who didn’t have the slightest option to return home. In less than a week I said goodbye at least 10 times, left the volunteer house and, together with three more volunteers who decided to stay, settled in Magdala. First big: “God, why is this happening to me? He knew why.
This new life, not at all foreseen, also brought ups and downs, but He knew why I should stay: because He wanted me to make even more friends, whom I now consider family; because He wanted priests and consecrated women to come to us and be a guide to Him; because, although I longed to live Holy Week in Jerusalem, God gave me the best week of my life, allowing me to meet Him in the silence and tranquility of the sea, without hustle and bustle, just Him and me. It was during this time of quarantine that, in my free moments (we also worked to keep the guesthouse and the archaeological site standing) I would take a small break and let myself be amazed by God’s creation, admiring every detail, from a sunrise to a fallen leaf, which to my surprise I found beautiful. I also devoted myself to drawing, painting and singing. I was finding myself, letting myself be carried away by an immense joy and peace that only God would be able to transmit to me through the beauty of everything He has created for love of us.
A little after the end of the quarantine, I felt nostalgic, I wanted to go back to those days when I had felt so much peace and I asked God again what He wanted and expected from me here. A humanitarian flight to El Salvador moved my world again. I didn’t know if I should take my possibly only hope of returning home in many months, and despite feeling the pressure of losing such an opportunity, I stayed, not knowing why. He knew.
This was followed by an incredible amount of cancelled flights, saying goodbye to my quarantined family and much more uncertainty, which made me question whether I should have taken that flight, and I thought: it wasn’t worth staying to see how everyone was leaving and how it was getting harder to go home. But after several attempts, at the end of September, I finally had a flight scheduled for October, and as the day arrived, the virtual pilgrimage took center stage.
I didn’t know what my role was in all this, but I did know that I wanted to participate. Moved by the desire to make the most of my last days and get to know more places before I left, I started to help. Suddenly, and to be honest, without asking, I started to have more responsibility in the project and I panicked. I’d never been in charge of filming before, nor am I an expert in editing, but I did it anyway. They were heavy days, full of work and a bit of stress, but worth it. When I read some of the people’s comments, I remember crying more than once and thinking: I am an instrument of God, and I will improve and try to give my all from today on, even if I have to sacrifice a little to live the pilgrimage the same way they lived it on the other side of the screen, but what is service if not that? Offering one’s work for the good of others without expecting anything in return, and when it is to bring us closer to God, it is an honor for me to serve.
In mid-October the world clouded over me again: flight cancelled, but I could take a 100% insured flight in three days or, the closest one they could offer me, on November 12. The decision was mine. Again more uncertainty and fear, because when it comes to unique opportunities, you always feel the pressure to take them. But I stayed: I stayed to go to Mass at least three times at the Holy Sepulchre, to pray alone in the garden of Gethsemane, to listen in the front row to Father John in all his Masses, to go to places I did not know, to laugh, enjoy, discover, grow and get closer to God and serve Him through my work. Now, a few days away from my flight, which by God’s perfect design was no longer cancelled or modified, as if to say: “now you are ready to come back;” I realize how it was never my plan, but that which He wanted for me, because He knew that it would make me stronger, that it would bring me closer to Him, and that I would grow spiritually and as a person.
My favorite place in Israel is Gethsemane, and I never understood why. Now I understand that God was teaching me to live my own Gethsemane. He taught me to guide my life according to his will, not to fear the unknown or the trials that life put in front of me, which is not like me, selfishly,my first thought is “I want”, but He knows the whys, and I know and recognize that He does not abandon me, He is there whatever the trial, He listens, comforts and supports me.
I do not know what is next or what awaits me when I return, but as long as God guides my steps, there is no reason to fear.