The cheerfulness, resilience and faith of four deaf girls led Kevin Murphy to change the direction of his life.
The recent article by Joseph Evans on the benefits of travel prompted me to remember a journey and experience that had a profound influence on me and indeed changed the direction of travel of my life after it.
I share with Joseph an understanding of the caution we still need to exercise in undertaking long journeys in the pandemic, and the need to be mindful of our carbon footprint. Nevertheless, I also share with him an unshakeable conviction that travel enables us to grasp profound truths about ourselves and about others.
My own travel-epiphany took place in 2007 and I need to take you on a short personal journey to explain the context. For many years I had been very happy as a teacher of English and Senior Tutor in a sixth form college in the UK. Despite the fulfilment of this vocation, I began to sense that I had a vocation to the Catholic priesthood.
Life as a teacher was so busy that when the call became louder and clearer, a habitual pattern was to immerse myself in the busy industry of A-level exams and the gaining of university places. That blocked out the ‘pull’ of vocation very effectively.
Eventually, though, I decided I needed to dedicate a summer holiday to a process of retreat and discernment. Just as I had made this resolution, I was invited to accompany four other teachers and 20 sixth form students to work at a school for children with special needs in Lima, Peru.
I questioned myself: was I running away from the vocation by accepting the invitation of the trip?
Would the three weeks in Peru just distract me further? I prayed and pondered and still felt that the opportunity was too good to miss.
And so off I went to Peru… I quickly found out that Lima is a drab concrete city where it hardly ever rains, the ground is bare and the low clouds hang permanently overhead. The children at the school came from shanty towns. Their homes were bits of scrap metal and wood hammered together.
After two weeks, we had a weekend break of a coach trip to a holiday beach, a few hours away. We had five spare places on the coach so the school chose a teacher and four girls aged about 12 to join us. These girls were deaf and spoke with sign language. This would be a treat for them: they were especially deserving, always lively, cheerful and hard-working.
Our coach headed down to the coast and suddenly we came over the top of a hill where a dazzling blue ocean and paradisiacal beaches stretched before us. The four girls danced in the aisle, pointed to the beauty and pointed to heaven, signing their praise of God in a way which moved my heart.
In the evening, by the side of our hotel swimming pool, the manager hadn’t banked on all 20 English students asking for pizza and chips, so there was a delay of about an hour and a half in getting our food. (We found out later he’d sent to a town 25 miles away to get extra pizzas!)
Though the British students grumbled and complained, the four Peruvian girls seemed not to have a care in the world: they ran round, played games and enjoyed every minute of the wait.
When pizzas the size of car-wheels finally arrived, they were demolished in about five minutes. Then I looked across at a table where the girls had barely touched their food. I was so disappointed – I thought they didn’t like their meal. I asked their teacher if we could order something else.
Her answer came like an annunciation.
“Thank you, no,” she said, “the girls think they’re in Heaven. They’re trying to make their food last forever.”
(Their meal, by the way, was simply chicken and chips. They hadn’t asked for pizzas.)
I think in that moment, I saw the faith of those girls who had a promise, a vision of the eternal banquet they believed in and awaited in their ramshackle homes in the slum, and I just felt God saying, “Kevin, what is it you’re still waiting for yourself?”
Sometimes since then, when I’ve reflected on the journey of my life, I’ve realised how significant that evening by the swimming pool was.
I do appreciate that our epiphanies can take place on our own door-steps, but in my case the journey to another continent and my encounter with four of the least privileged people I have ever met led me to hear the deeper call being made to me.
At times when I have felt the challenges of being a priest in the modern world, I have at least brought to mind and prayed for those four profoundly deaf girls, who danced when they saw the ocean, who played table-tennis and splashed in the pool during the long wait for food and who, when their meal finally arrived, thought they were in heaven and tried to make chicken and chips last forever.
Travel, we must.
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