Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hope's Conversion

David Dufresne (Enthusiasm), Christine Dufresne (Hope), and Tom Ostrowski (Encouragement)

Last week, having celebrated the feast of the conversion of St Paul, I decided to share a piece of my own conversion story.  My story is somewhat of an ongoing one, but my time in Kentucky was a major turning point in allowing God to heal and grow my heart.  The following is a piece of creative nonfiction that I wrote for a class I took this Fall.  I felt it was appropriate to share it here as well.  I hope you enjoy.

My name is Hope.  This wasn’t always the case.  In fact, before I came to live in Kentucky I would have to say my name was more Depressed or Discouraged.  But thanks to the lessons like the one I am about to share with you, Hope is now what I am known by.

I’m really here, in Warfield, KY, in my kayak, in a place that up until this point I had only ever dreamed I would be.  About to set off downriver on an approximately forty mile journey without being completely certain what lies ahead.  Will there be branches down from the storm?  Will there be rapids around the corners of the river that I can’t see from the road?  Will my muscles be able to hold out for this huge journey when the furthest I’ve been able to paddle back home was thirteen miles?  In this morning light, the river is eerily landscaped, with the forest climbing up the banks on both sides, still somewhat dark from being so early in the day.  A mist hovering about the water hides what lies ahead.  Once I start paddling, there may not be another chance to get out until I reach the boat ramp in Louisa.  Where do I even begin?  First one stroke of the paddle cutting deep into the water, then the next and the one after that, a steady rhythm pulling me closer to the finish line with every smooth move.

Now I am here with the deeply soothing smells of the woods surrounding me as if I am being
embraced in a deep hug of memories of wilderness from childhood.  There is not much pine in these parts so it seems like the other smells have the freedom to come out more vibrantly.  So many distinct smells surround me that even though they are not really recognizable, together they make the air smell cleaner and fresher--especially after a warm rain, or like now, as the sun grows higher in the sky warming the air around us.  The mist is lifting and all around there is a rugged beauty that comes only in things that are untouched by human hands. Knowing that we may be the only people to have ever taken this exact journey--and maybe the only ones who ever will--is awe inspiring!

I first saw this journey from a very different view.  I was driving on the road up above that winds alongside the river most of the way from Warfield to Louisa.  I would drive this road on a daily basis in my job as driver for a blind, 88-year-old priest I will call Inspiration; he is the one who inspired me to hope in the first place.  One day after Mass, having heard the readings about using your gifts for God, I shared with him how I felt that the river was calling to me, and how I wondered also what gifts I had to offer back to God.  I didn’t have any major talents, none that I knew of anyway.  I began thinking about the children’s outreach program at the mission center and wondered how I could help raise funds for enrichment activities.  These children had faces and stories, but not too many happily-ever-after options in their futures.  I wanted them to see how big this world is and how they could offer whatever talents they have as a gift.  Unfortunately this takes money, and in Appalachia, Kentucky, funds are hard to come by.  So one day, after driving along on this windy road, thinking about my love for kayaking and those sweet children, I sent a text that would forever change the course of my life to pretty much everyone I knew at that time.

“If I was thinking about kayaking 40 miles on the Tug Fork River as a fundraiser for the mission center, would you help me?”

I don’t know that even I knew completely what I meant by those words, but I was going to find out.  I had left the invitation imprecise on purpose.  Did they want to help me financially on this quest or did they want to physically join me?  I was in need of both kinds of help.  My answer for companionship on the journey came in the form of two men I like to call Encouragement and Enthusiasm,  Without them, I am not sure I would have been able to complete this journey.  Encouragement did just that--he gave me the strength to push ahead with my plans despite the multitude of fears and doubts I was confronted with.  I had only a few months earlier gone on my first successful kayaking trip, so it was a huge leap of faith for me to even consider this.  Enthusiasm was my "MacGyver" go-to man, he planned for everything we might possibly need: snacks, water, saw, first aid kit… and he even brought a tow line just in case!

Also along for the ride is the blue heron that guides us on this journey.  It flies just to the edge of our vision on the river, waiting until we catch up before once again flying ahead.  It is as if it is helping us to not get overwhelmed by the big picture, but instead to take it one stroke of the paddle at a time.  I feel like Inspiration is behind this phenomenon--not physically, but it is as if his prayers have taken life and are there with us since he isn’t able to be.

Enthusiasm is taking pictures of every last detail to share, maybe in a small hope of bringing others back here again someday.  He captures both the sadness of an area of poverty where it is considered an acceptable practice to dump huge amounts of trash into the water, and the immensity of captivating life that is all around us, even when we don’t see it.  There was only one instance of rapids where I was concerned we were going to tip over and where I wondered if we should turn back.  Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.  Then there were the somewhat comedic elements--like the couch wedged in the branches of a tree fifteen feet above the water!  We can only conclude that during some of the flash flooding--which happens suddenly, fiercely and quite often in these parts--someone had their couch relocated for them.  The couch must have drifted down the river on higher flood waters, got hung up on the tree, and when the waters receded was left as a humorous ornament to make us wonder if it would be a good place to sit for fishing or hunting, too high to be a platform for jumping into the river from.

We paddled through some quickly moving water; and then, toward the end when our stamina was
starting to fade, we paddled through some very smooth water with very little current.  We paddled on, following the heron all the way to the bridge in Louisa, where he turned back upriver and flew over our heads back to Martin County.  Having led us to the finish, his job was complete.  After ten hours on three rivers, between two states, across two counties, happily exhausted, we had finished this journey.  Yet somehow we all knew that this was really only just the beginning.

While we were on our quest, Inspiration was on a quest of his own. To fix some existing heart troubles, he was having surgery to place several stints in to increase blood flow.  I was able to see him on the Saturday after our trip and share with him every detail.  Despite his not feeling very well, he listened undividedly as I shared everything I could remember.

Msgr. Ralph Beiting (Inspiration) and me
Unfortunately, his journey didn’t turn out as well as ours did, not here on Earth anyway.  He passed away the following week from sepsis.  It was a long time before I could look at the pictures or really even grasp what a conversion had taken place in my heart on that water.  I had begun the journey mostly for Inspiration, but somewhere along the way--without me really even knowing--he taught me how to dream, how to hope, and how much I had to offer. That is something that has completely changed every aspect of my life. In fact, in some ways it is like he helped bring me back to life, but to a new and more alive life, if that makes sense.  And now, now my name is Hope.

Jesus Master, Way, Truth, and Life have mercy on us. St Paul pray for us.
Fr Beiting pray for us.
From all sin, deliver us, O Lord.


Christine Dufresne has been a Pauline Cooperator for 2.5 years. Originally from New Bedford, MA, she served at a mission in Kentucky for 16 months before settling in Waltham, MA. In addition to being a foster parent, she has been working with children in various ways for the past 23 years, helping with the children's program on retreats and with the Holy Family Institute group in Boston, and is currently a nanny for several families. She serves as a Eucharistic minister in her home parish of St. Mary’s in Waltham and visits the hospital monthly to bring Scripture and Communion to patients in the eating disorders and behavioral management wards.

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