Choosing to become a mentor with Casa Chirilagua was definitely a leap of faith. Like so many others I have encountered in this ministry, I was drawn like a moth to a flame, knowing there was something special about this ministry and sensing God’s hands all over it. Mentoring was an opportunity to go one step further, past the awe and getting my hands dirty, to find out experientially what the brass tacks of that difference are. For me, it’s all about the relationships.
On the surface, the premium placed on mentor-mentee relationships by the kids is not always obvious. As a Kids Club volunteer, I’ve observed that at times it seems limited to a “cool-factor.” I often hear the children comparing notes amongst their peers on the playground (“Is he your mentor?” and “My mentor and I got to go THERE and do THIS and THAT!”). While there is a degree of one-upmanship taking place publicly, with a definite cache belonging to the one deemed as having the best testimony, it is a far cry from what they actually hold dear. I came to that realization the first time I asked my mentee, to return thanks over a meal at Popeye’s. At first he was a little reticent, but when he began to pray, his first words were “Thank-you, God, that we could spend time together.” There have been other, more indirect ways he has communicated to me the issues at stake in his heart. Early on, he would ask me odd, random questions like: “Are you going to leave, like, just take off to another state or something?”; and, “What would you do if I got run over by a car?”; or, “If I hit you, would you get mad at me and hit me back?” These are a 9-year-old’s way of asking, “Do I really matter to you, enough for you to stay? Even when I behave badly?” I could share deeper, more visceral conversations. Suffice to say, there is absolutely no question in my mind that what Junior wants more than anything from me is my time. Time is what speaks to him, what his heart understands, and how he hears love.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the academic work. Of that there is plenty, and it is needed. Casa sponsored two training sessions through American Reading this year, which, for someone like me with no formal education background, was exceedingly helpful in preparing me to help improve his reading skills. The ability to read is something his parents place a very high premium on, and they continually relate to me how grateful they are for the work I do with their son.
Of course, my relationship with Junior extends to the immediate family too. Latinos excel at hospitality, even among their poorest. I have learned to eat sparingly while out with Junior, knowing that on returning him home, I will be fed. Now, I happen to LOVE native Latino cuisine and often forget (well, selective memory) that my raving about his mother’s cooking ensures that I will also be taking food home with me, like homemade queso de cabra (goat cheese) or tamales. But beyond their instinctive hospitality, they too want—expect even –to spend time with me. I will never forget the look of disappointment in his father’s eyes the one night when, due to another meeting, I had to excuse myself and leave immediately upon dropping his son off. Yes, they want someone to help their son in ways that, as non-English speakers with little to no formal education, they are unable. But also, they clearly view me as an integral part of their family’s life as well. Even if it’s just talking un ratito (a short while) in two languages (English with the kids, Spanish with the parents) about the novelas (Latin soap-operas) turned on in the background. My mentee has demonstrated definite improvement in his academics since we started meeting, but somehow I suspect that without the relational emphasis of this program, in the long run my efforts would be little more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”