by Henry Baer-Benson
When I first sat down to eat with my family my host mom told me, slowly and clearly, that in their family they pray before every meal. “Is that ok?” she asked. “Si si si si si” (yes yes yes yes yes), I cleverly responded. I had never prayed before eating anywhere outside of my grandparents’ house before, and I was excited to take part in this ritual and feel like part of the family. After a week, however, the novelty had worn off and I began to realize that I was truly a stranger in this house. The moments before meals punctuated my day with feelings of doubt and guilt. For fifteen seconds, as I watched my family close their eyes and lower their heads, I felt like an outsider. I wanted to participate, I wanted to be a part of the family, but I couldn’t. It felt wrong for me to do so. If I closed my eyes to join them, I felt like an imposter. I understood words they were saying, but I couldn’t share their prayer.
Fortunately, like all things bridge year, time was my savior. After a month it was comfortable. I still didn’t feel involved. Sometimes, I admit, I was bored, but I was only disinterested instead of disconnected. I was happy to be present for these ritual parts of my family’s day. As the year went on I noticed them less and less. It became habitual, and by April it was not only comfortable, but comforting. Eating meals as a family is an integral part of Ecuadorian culture. We sit down together for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We eat and talk and joke and learn. And we always begin with a prayer. It’s become a natural part of the process such that when my host mom isn’t home and we don’t take those 15 seconds, I feel less engaged with my family and less focused on the meal.
I’ve periodically found comfort in other rituals as well. For the first half of the year the Maxes and I would go out to eat at least once a week, for a while my host siblings and I would watch a show before going to bed, and I try to call my family on Sundays. But none of these rituals have been as consistent as prayer before we eat. In her TED Talk, Baya Voce says that “connection isn’t created by the things we go get. Connection is created by the things we go back to.” I’ve realized that I look forward to praying before meals as a moment of decompression after a long, confusing day. A pathway back to the present, where I can laugh and share and connect with my family. After so many months of repetition, “Señor Jesús te damos gracias…” has become my singing bowl.