Editor’s Note: This was an entry in the 2011 “Who Inspires You” contest.

by Kathleen Atkinson, OSB

There was nothing magnanimous in the gesture. I was with a GOD’s CHILD service team at Panajachel, Guatemala, and we were eating breakfast when an elderly woman came to the door begging. As she walked on, I picked up my waffle and syrup packets to follow her. We sat on the curbside and ate in comfortable silence, broken by soft laughter when syrup would run down one of our hands or chin.

Though a busy morning, one man stopped long enough to simply say, “You are a beautiful woman.” I translated it for my barefoot, syrup-smeared friend, giving her a smile and a gesture that said, “He told us we were beautiful women. Isn’t that wonderful? And it is true, too.”

I am inspired by her and still remember her months after that short meeting. I am inspired by the many beautiful women who live life valiantly. Their beauty will never make it to the front cover of a magazine; it will often come crusted with dirt and second hand clothing. It will come from an inner strength that proclaims “I will survive! Against all odds, I will survive!” This story is not about just one woman, but about the many who touched my life that year as I worked in Guatemala. These are some of the women:

Maria Juliana. I held her, bathed her and fed her at the Casa Jackson Home for Malnourished Infants. Rescued as a newborn from a dumpster, she was a fighter surrounded by people fighting with her. As I whispered to her of her beauty, I sent a prayer out for her mother. A woman must be devastatingly desperate to abandon a child that way.

Mother of Anita and Juan. I didn’t know her name because she often did laundry when the family arrived at the homeless shelter. She dressed her children for school in the morning. She worked during the day while they were at school, carrying the family belongings in a black garbage bag. Coming “home” every night to their mattress in a corner, she reviewed their homework with them and reminded Anita and Juan to say their meal prayer . She was a beautiful woman, fiercely believing in a better future for her children.

Marcia. I first met her in 1992 and in the decades since then, she has drawn the same heart and bird pictures, colored pencils held in her toes. A begging basket held in her wheelchair. With a smile and kind word for the people of the street – tourist or tramp, she treated all with dignity. One morning, a handwritten sign appeared on the chair where she had grown from a young teen to a woman. The sign simply read, “May 7, 2010. Marcia died.” The basket now received donations to buy this beautiful woman a final resting place; her heart and body are now free to fly.

Who inspires me? I am inspired by the many beautiful women who live life valiantly; most often for a person or purpose other than themselves. In meeting the women whose stories I have shared here, my life was changed and yet, I realized I have been blessed to meet many equally strong beautiful women here at home. They have lived here for centuries on our vast prairies: planting corn, braving blizzards, birthing and burying babies without medical care. They are living here today: I have met them in the schools, social agencies, country churches and city streets of our area.

Maria Juliana, Mother of Anita and Juan, Marcia, and the others of Guatemala simply opened my eyes. Opening my eyes often broke open my heart.

I’m frequently surprised by the broken and valiant spirit I find there, too.

Sister Kathleen Atkinson is a Benedictine Sister from the Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck, ND. She currently ministers at Charles Hall Youth Services and the ND Penitentiary.