A few years after my divorce, I was seized by the idea that I should seek an annulment. I had no idea why, but the feeling was so strong that I followed. I met with my parish priest, who quickly assessed my marriage and pronounced it “without form.” Translation: I did not marry in the Catholic Church and did not marry another Catholic, so my marriage was not a sacrament and therefore eligible for annulment.
“I just need a copy of your baptismal certificate,” he said.
I was born and baptized in Belize, where generations of my family lived until devastating hurricanes convinced my parents to root elsewhere. They chose California and packed what survived the last hurricane. My baptismal certificate had been devoured by the terrible winds. I had to get another.
Belize was a mythical land to me. As I was growing up, my parents and relatives told stories of shape shifters, ghosts, jaguars and duendes; stories of childhood pranks and food they longed to taste again; stories that all began with the words “Back home.” I never traveled to Belize as a child; my first trip back home was as a 30-year-old. I’d returned perhaps four times after that, but this time, I had a mission.
A day or so after my arrival in Belize City, my cousin Cynthia and I walked the three miles from her home, past the open sewers, past the stench of the sewage canal filled with catfish that became dinner for those hungry enough, through town and over the bridge near the water taxi to Holy Redeemer Cathedral. As we waited for Bishop Dorick Wright to arrive and sign my certificate, we greeted those who entered the rectory office for free bags of rice and beans or to ask for other help.
Bishop Wright, tall, with a serious countenance and a wicked sense of humor, was a dear friend of my Aunt Helen, Cynthia’s mother. Cynthia introduced me to him, and we chatted pleasantly as he signed the certificate. I shook his hand and heard myself say, “If there is ever anything I can do for you, please let me know.” I wanted to take it back!
Bishop Wright smiled and said, “You can organize a teachers conference for me” and explained the need for it. My cousin and I looked at each other, astonished. I filed the request away; it was simply too extravagant.
In 2003, when I sat down to face my New Year’s resolutions, I decided to complete tasks bubbling on the back burner of my life. I e-mailed the bishop; I was ready to volunteer. The new year arrived with no response. I was relieved, actually. Then my Aunt Helen died, and I traveled to Belize for the services.
At the funeral, goaded by guilt, I was careful to tell the bishop that I had e-mailed him. “I don’t know how to use e-mail,” he said and suggested that we meet with school administrators the next day. Together, we planned a professional-development workshop for 50 Belizean teachers. In 60 days, I found two elementary-school teachers in Sacramento willing to volunteer as facilitators and, with the support of friends, raised the necessary money. The training was a huge success and was even covered by two Belizean television stations.
Our new nonprofit, Rise Up Belize! Advancement Through Education, provided two professional-development programs for nearly 80 Belizean elementary-school teachers in 2005. This year, in addition to our two intensives for 80 teachers, we are offering academic camps for 150 Belizean children. All programs are free.
Belize is a small country (about the size of New Hampshire) with 360,000 residents, so our work has a direct impact. That’s vital. Currently, half of the population of Belize is under 18 years old, one of the youngest populations worldwide. Poverty is extensive, persistent and widespread. Education is tuition-based, so school is unaffordable for the poorest families. Only 50 percent of school-aged children attend elementary school. Thirty percent graduate to high school, and 20 percent complete it. Few proceed to college.
Spiritual maturity includes the experience of the world—beyond the borders of one’s daily life—as one’s true soul mate. “Back home” is not just our comfortable houses or homelands, but places all over the world where we create nurturing, loving environments where none previously existed. Will you join me?