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“Out from the pews and into Paraguay"

Mary Cinadr
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Mary Cinadr’s work has been scribbled on napkins, along book margins, and occasionally published in periodicals like The Boston Globe, The Aleph Journal of Global Perspectives, and Delicious Living. Mary is from Clifton Park, New York and holds a B.A in Writing and Rhetoric from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, as well as a Master’s in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Creative Non-Fiction from Empire State College.


Mary served as a beekeeping volunteer with the Peace Corps in rural Paraguay for the past two years and is currently extending her service to work with a poverty reduction program. Prior to her work in the Peace Corps, Mary taught therapeutic writing to young mothers in an anti-poverty program in Boston, designed a creative non-fiction program for adolescents, and led youth volunteer and outdoor adventure trips in Central America. Some other titles Mary dons include freelance writer, waitress, greeting-card maker, animal lover and outdoor enthusiast.

That dripping hour was spent raising hell, not escaping it.


We arrived with empty stomachs and sheet creases in our cheeks. We slept in an extra 15 minutes; my father’s after-church sourdough pancakes made following the rule of not eating an hour before communion a little easier.


My dad barreled around the corners of our sleepy neighborhood in our ’84 Chevy wagon to get us there before the priest parade to the altar. We’d dock the rusty vessel among shiny sedans and minivans and trudge up to St. Edward’s The Confessor, a vast grey warehouse of a church with a Home Depot-sized parking lot.


When each hymn was announced, my brother and I raced to get to the page first, and then we lip-synced the lyrics. We entertained ourselves thumbing through the index of hymnals — titles like "Alone thou goest forth" and "Lord, thou hast searched me" would send us into fits of illegal church giggles.


When I hit adolescence, that hour in church became intolerable. I proposed to my parents that I would volunteer at a soup kitchen instead — "actions speak louder than words," I argued. I wanted to know what happened with the money the parishioners put in that long-stemmed basket that glided across our laps each week with amazing grace.


I asked the priest for detailed information on the distribution of donations. I looked for concrete examples of good Samaritans in action. Disappointed with my findings, I convinced myself that things didn’t make sense.


I grew up and went to college, where Sundays meant sleeping in. I found myself yearning to believe in something. I sought God outside of church walls and outside of my adolescent understanding. My faith took the form of homemade mantras repeated while running, requests for strength to do things I didn’t want to but knew I should, and thanks when God answered my prayers.


I didn’t know if I believed in everything the church did, but I did sense that God listened to me. And then, for a reason I still don’t understand, half way into my junior year, I went to church. After college, during my career in marketing, I read the Bible. I was a copywriter; I made words work for me. I sold them. I decided to heed the advice I gave my parents and make my actions speak louder or even replace my words.


As part of my Peace Corps assignment, I am in a small wooden shack in rural Paraguay, still reading my Bible. I live in a tiny community tucked in the forest, among 22 families in 22 thatch roof houses that sit on fertile land. I am still more than I ever have been in my life. I am able to engage the obvious, and the obvious seems to be, that God is love and that I should seek His will. In the quiet of this place, my emotions are easily identified, not muddled by distractions. My life here is lived with thrift and care.

"… Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more." (Luke 12:48). My mother’s often repeated words of scripture come to me, unconsciously, like the way I can sing along to ’80s songs. I thought of being responsible three years ago from the desk of my advertising agency job. With graduate school debt and a new car loan, I wondered if working for free for two years is logical.


Maybe when Jesus asked us to love one another, he wanted us to go beyond simply being nice. When I start to pity my Paraguayan neighbors and project sadness onto them, I ask God to help me love instead. I ask God to help me communicate from a place of love, not criticism. I ask God to guide me in the art of the pause — observe, truly listen, and then choose my words. In a place of so much need, I sometimes ask God for the strength to bear witness. Yes, in these 27 months, I have asked for a lot of things. "Ask and you shall receive" my mother used to tell me.


"Nde resarai nde eira" (You forgot your honey), Emiliano said, a smile beaming from his toothless mouth. He stood in my yard holding a liter of the honey we harvested that day in a dirty soda bottle. I gently declined the gift, knowing how much more the others needed it. Emiliano placed the bottle in my hands.


"Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood." (Mark 12: 41-44). If to give out of need rather than excess is to share, I ask how much have I given? Much is expected.


While one of the goals of my service is to educate people on the most sustainable way to live from our earth without damaging it, I can’t escape the knowledge that I don’t have to live from the earth. I can buy food. I am not tied to the land. Yet I live in a place where a bad storm has the power to make a family dangerously thin. I can see now why gluttony is a sin.


I’m from a country where half of our meals are eaten in the car. I question our nation’s gratitude for a full belly. What is the price for this ease in hand to mouth interaction? Surely there is a physical one as is seen from the various illnesses confronting us, but what of the spiritual ramifications? What did I learn? Will I adapt the very practices I teach? "Much is expected."


Even those who reap the benefit of their land in sustainable ways face a global food crisis that involves actual hunger. They live this way out of need, not an effort to live green. Do they fall below a poverty level, yet above a universal lack of consciousness that has separated so many of us from the earth we inhabit? Is this what is meant by "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth"? (Matthew 5:5).


Bible passages flash through my brain and make sense to me. Out of a need, 4-year-olds build kites out of old plastic bags and make squirt guns out of old shampoo bottles. The need makes bungee cords out of old tires, lines bread tins with banana leaves, has gardens covered in rich earth the color of dark chocolate. People gather around fresh local markets to converse and share the fruits of their harvest. "One who is full, tramples on virgin honey: but to the man who is hungry, any bitter thing is sweet." (Proverbs 27:7)


My job description said that I was to live in a poor area. The people here never produce waste that can’t be tilled back into the soil from which it sprung. An anonymous author wrote, "It is not he who has little, but he who wants more, who is poor." When friends and family comment on how hard it must be for me to work with the poor, I think of this, and respond, "I work with some of the wealthiest people I know." They do not waste, they do live green. They share, but not to get something back.


That’s the irony, most of us who do something difficult, making a grand gesture trying to find out what we are made of — we end up finding out what God is made of.



Published in the December 25, 2009 issue of The Saratogian;  Saratoga Springs, NY.

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