by Riley Nee, J2A Pilgrim, Class of 2023
Our group of twelve J2A pilgrims, and our three lovely leaders, left for Belize with little knowledge of what it would hold for us. Our plane touched down in the small, sub-tropical nation on June 17th, and we were immediately greeted with a wall of stifling heat. The heat served as a reminder that we were entering new territory, a literal foreign country, along with all the foreign experiences it would bring. And it did: a wonderful, sweaty week of learning and “Belize-ing” in something more.
We were received by our guide, the enigmatic Colby, who had more raw wonder and excitement than all of us put together. As he packed us into a bus to head to Spanish Lookout, our home for the week, Colby seemed immediately ready to conquer the country, when the rest of us weren’t equipped to handle anything more than a nap.
On behalf of both myself and my peers, let me start by saying we weren’t quite… elated to arrive in Belize. It was unbearably hot, and I watched my not-yet-friends shift uncomfortably in their seats as we drove. Staring out at the cracked earth beyond our bus, brittle vegetation sprinkled across the landscape. The breathtaking beaches and jungles we had been promised were absent, and we would later learn the dry season hadn’t broken yet, the land still craving moisture. When we were brought to our rooms, air-conditioning had also seemingly taken some time off, and geckos scampered across the wooden floors.
As a collective, everyone was exhausted and ready to admit defeat, settling into the long week ahead of us with lowered expectations and a shared feeling of unease. I, for one, was not necessarily excited to spend so much time with near strangers. This, however, couldn’t have been further from the truth of what our week would become.
At first I think we failed to recognize God in the immense generosity offered to us. God only seemed to appear in fleeting moments. I think there was still too much noise from home to hear clearly. Almost like water in our ears, everything was muddled. We could recognize the kindness of the people around us, and we could see the importance of being in a new place—but it wasn’t until we smacked the water clean out of our heads that we could feel God in all of it.
After the first few days, when the residue of home finally faded away, God was everywhere, just waiting for us to open our eyes. And he’d been there all along, waiting for us to be ready.
God was in the service we attended at a local church, as those around us danced and celebrated, singing the same songs we knew from our own church, but more robustly, full of life.
God was waiting in Jeannie, our generous host, who’d given us pieces of her faith and showed us her community within the Mennonites. During our visit to her parent’s house, we listened to their stories and learned about the livelihood that made the land we slept on so significant: how they’d come to Belize, and what it took to establish the community that now thrives. We ate delicious fresh fruits, grown by dedicated hands. We observed a life, fascinating and new to us, that revealed different values.
God was waiting in Colby, who treated us like family and seemed effortlessly at home in this new place. He rubbed off on us, showing us how to unapologetically love people, be vulnerable, and search for opportunities to know them better whenever possible. He remembered the names of everyone we met, and spoke to them kindly, without inhibitions.
We continued to find God as the week progressed. We met kids at schools that couldn’t be more different from our own. We played soccer with them, sharing pockets of joy. They welcomed us without question, joking around and roughing us up on the field as if we’d been in classes with them for years. We let ourselves be freer, as we played games like we were little again, and re-learned childlike simplicity. A little girl grabbed my hand when it was time for us to leave, and she declared proudly, “You’re coming with me.” She took me to her classroom, and asked me to stay, or at the very least, “When can you come back?” I opened my mouth to explain that we wouldn’t be coming back, that we were only here for the week, but I hesitated. I wanted to come back, and I wondered if we could. And though I told the girl we were only there for a brief window, I felt myself reaching for more—feeling more connected to this place, and looking to hold on to that.
I sensed a growing feeling of connectedness in my classmates as well, as they opened up in our prayer circles each night: revealing more of their lives back in Bethesda, and sharing how “in awe” they now felt of everything around us. I saw it as we befriended each other, along with everyone we met. I saw it when we danced together, showing off so-called ‘talents’ that were more ridiculous than anything else. We laughed hard, cartwheels and stacking of plastic items coming to life because of those behind the acts. I saw it as we pushed each other to jump from waterfalls, started conversations with strangers, ate new food, and actively participated in a religion our parents know, but a God whom we were coming to trust ourselves.
The more time we spent away, and the further we dove into the nature and people of this place, the more impossibly gorgeous it seemed to become. I’ve never before been excited to get up before the sun, but when it meant a journey to a sailboat, and hours spent in the sun, I was more than happy to oblige. The bluest waters I’ve ever seen, and the sharks and fish beneath them, took our breath away. But they were still second to the pure peace found in napping on the sailboat and making fun of each other’s sunburns. Even when we could barely move because the sun had assaulted our skin, leaving us reddened and aching, we found solace. We were all scorched together, and in a miraculous way, it was because we were closer to the sun. Our bodies were filled with sunlight in a way that just wouldn’t happen at home.
And that’s supposed to hurt, the growing pains of so much new. The pains of looking through a dense jungle and wondering where it’d been your whole life. Looking out at the stars and feeling shocked that there were so many, and that they were so bright. Seeing the darkness of an underground cave filled with clear waters and stories of the Mayans who’d thought it to be the underworld. Each guide spoke to us like we were old friends, teaching us new words in new languages, and pointing out nature-procured foods we would’ve never imagined edible.
During this week, our world widened. Like they say: seeing is believing. We knew of tropical places, of different cultures—but to see them? To feel them? It was a different thing entirely. I think we learned to believe more. Or if you’ll humor me: Belize more. Believe in ourselves, believe in each other, believe in God, believe in people. We believed through the remarkable waterfalls we helped each other swim under, and the cheers as we each jumped off high rocks into cold water. And we believed as we became friends with each other, although the laws of teenagers say we never should have. All of us from different schools, with clashing personalities and ideals, came to know each other. We came to know our teachers, too, and their never-failing ability to put our enjoyment and experience above all. They were always there with Advil and aloe, poorly timed jokes, and above all, relentless support. We believed as local kids told us our less-than-masterpieces painted on their school walls were “beautiful.”
Each of our experiences allowed us to believe more, and to leave with some of the peace we found. The peace of the jungle, the ocean, and the peace of the people who showed us such love and generosity. And as we return to our busy, overwhelming lives, I keep the jungle with me. I keep the friendships I made, and though our closeness may fade away from the social lawlessness Belize held, I miss and cherish each of my St. John’s classmates and the ways I grew to know them better. Those moments of peace and wonder are where I think God finds us all best. I think everyone should try and find their moments of peace. Knock some of that water out of your ears and look around, because God is waiting. Search for the jungle, and the unexpected, but welcome the warmth of being so close to the sun.
J2A, short for “Journey to Adulthood,” is a spiritual formation program for middle- and high-school students. See more images from our J2A’s 2023 pilgrimage on St. John’s social media accounts: Facebook.com/StJohnsNorwood and Instagram.com/StJohnsNorwood.