La Esperanza: Ordinary Moments Made Worshipful
Shana Harrison’s journey to the Sheltered Workshop La Esperanza led her from an Arkansas catfish farm across three continents to Santiago, an unfamiliar city of nearly six million people whose language she didn’t speak.
What began in 1997 as a nine-month tour in Chile with Volunteer in Missions has become a long-term commitment to La Esperanza (Spanish for “hope”), the workshop for mentally handicapped adults that Harrison helped found. As workshop director and a field executive of the General Board of Global Ministries for the United Methodist Church, she works with local governments in Chile, international mission organizations, and mission groups from across the United States to meet the needs of a special group of people who regularly help her see “ordinary moments turned into worshipful ones.”
These moments still catch Harrison by surprise. During a walk back to La Esperanza after a recent field trip at a nearby park, Harrison’s group began making animal noises. When she tried to establish order by asking, “Are we animals or humans?”, she was promptly reminded by one of the group, “The animals are of God too.”
The Journey Begins
The first leg of her transcontinental journey took Harrison across the Atlantic to the British Isles. At the suggestion of Brett Webb-Mitchell, her Christian education professor at the divinity school, she took a leave of absence during 1995-96 to live in L’Arche, a community for adults with handicapping conditions, in Inverness.
“It was there in Scotland that the pieces of my life began to come together,” says Harrison. “At L’Arche, I began to practice gifts of hospitality, learned to enjoy simple things, and was humbled on a regular basis by persons with disabilities.”
When she returned to Duke in the fall of 1996 to complete her M.Div., Harrison’s plan was to continue the familiar rhythms of academic life. She applied and was accepted for the master of theology degree program. But during spring break, she accompanied a family friend on a mission trip to Chile. The experience “excited my imagination enough,” says Harrison “that I decided to delay the Th.M. and return to Chile for a nine-month tour with Volunteer in Mission.” That nine months has stretched to seven years and counting.
Harrison’s first few months were not particularly promising. As a volunteer assistant pastor in a Methodist church in Quillota, a village outside Santiago, she visited the sick and shut-in, taught Sunday school, and led prayer meetings. Although she had studied Spanish in high school and college, the Chilean dialect was difficult to speak and understand, and few of the residents in her village spoke English. A private tutor helped, but mastering the language was a slow process. With no Internet access, Harrison had trouble staying in contact with friends and family back in the States. Headaches became a daily occurrence.
But through her work in Quillota, Harrison gradually made connections in the Methodist Church of Chile, a small organization in that predominately Roman Catholic country. In the spring of 1998, a friend introduced her to the John Wesley School in Santiago. “Once I visited, I felt I was exactly where God was calling me to be,” says Harrison.
Santiago is a far cry from Carlisle, Ark., where Harrison grew up. Her father is a catfish farmer and caterer, her mother a high school teacher and local pastor in a small United Methodist parish. The only girl between two brothers, Harrison decided as a child to become an elementary school teacher. Her mother likes to describe Shana, a preschooler, patiently teaching her infant brother his vowel sounds. Following high school, she earned an undergraduate degree in elementary education from Lyon College, a small Presbyterian school in Arkansas.
Harrison’s passion for teaching has proven invaluable at La Esperanza. “My education training has helped me to see each moment as teachable,” she says.
When she began working with the school, it served all ages. Recognizing the need for a more stimulating and appropriate environment for the adults, Harrison and Raquel Pavez, the director, set to work. Soon they had developed new spaces where the adults could work without interruption from younger students.
In 2000, the Chilean Ministry of Education designated John Wesley School a public-private institution eligible for student subsidies. The government funding, while welcome, was limited to students up to age 24. That left a dozen of the school’s older students in a bind. In order to maximize the school’s funding and physical space, the older students would have to go to another facility.
A New Ministry
The John Wesley staff, which then included Harrison as chaplain, turned this dilemma into an opportunity to create a new ministry. In 2001, the Sheltered Workshop La Esperanza, with 12 students and Harrison as director, opened in a small, rented house near the Wesley school. Within a year, the General Assembly of the Methodist Church in Chile approved La Esperanza as a conference mission, recognizing it as another means of outreach to persons with handicapping conditions and their families.
Currently the mission serves 18 people ranging in age from 21 to 69. Day-to-day activities at the workshop give them the opportunity to explore, identify and use their many God-given talents in a non-threatening environment while simultaneously learning how to better care for themselves. Arts and crafts made by the participants provide them with a sense of accomplishment and productivity, as well as monthly wages.
Although many of the adults at La Esperanza live at home with their families, others are in elderly care facilities ill-equipped to meet their needs. With Dora Canales, the workshop’s chaplain, Harrison has established meetings and a series of retreats to help families begin to make arrangements for future care of their sons and daughters.
Long-term plans to offer residential care at La Esperanza became an urgent priority last fall when conditions at an elderly care facility endangered two people. From November through February, Harrison shared her own apartment with them, providing a safe and comfortable space.
With the blessing of La Esperanza’s board of directors, a house to serve as an emergency shelter was rented in Janauary 2004. Soon afterward, mission groups from Conway, Ark., and Centreville, Va., helped clean and furnish it for the first two full-time residents and a volunteer family, who moved in later in February.
Harrison’s ability to meet such daunting challenges doesn’t surprise Bruce Stanley, who served as her field education supervisor at Duke and later, as the N.C. Conference director of missions, her advocate to the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. “Shana is probably the most powerful person I have known,” says Stanley. “She has both an academic interest in missions, and the willingness to undo her life for the vocation.”
An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Harrison made a rare return from Chile in the summer of 2001 to officiate at the wedding of friends Tracy Anne Allred D’97 and Mark Chancey G’99. Allred, who has visited La Esperanza, describes Harrison as “a person who lives her life finding Jesus in the struggle for justice with those she serves.”
Community worship at La Esperanza is a dynamic experience, says Harrison. The traditional sense of reverence and order in the liturgy may be enhanced by the unexpected scream of a disabled child expressing joy or a believer who interrupts the liturgy to touch a cross behind the altar and show Christ’s immediate presence.
Her goal, says Harrison, is to “provide a place where all are loved and accepted. A place where, in return, these adults can thrive and show others the face of Christ.”
Harrison publishes an electronic newsletter, Spilling the Chile Beans, for friends and supporters of the workshop in the United States. To request a subscription, or for more information about La Esperanza, contact Harrison at email@example.com
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