Tori in Spain: The Boy Who Bowed

October 13, 2016

Since coming to Spain, I have had the privilege of joining BocaTalk, a group who walks through Madrid every week to sit with people experiencing homelessness and listen to their stories. Before we leave, we make sandwiches together to give to the people we meet that evening. However, our motto is, “It’s so much more than a sandwich,” because the focus is on listening, not material goods given.


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I have been both broken and blessed through this experience. I am thankful it has broken me, because I believe people must be broken before they can receive blessings humbly and give themselves to others wholeheartedly.

Last Wednesday started off with a blessing named Maria. I sat with her for a long time despite my inability to understand and to express what I wished to say to her well in Spanish. The language barrier is still really hard for me, but she didn’t seem to care. I think she told me her life story, but am honestly not sure. Whenever we didn’t have words, we just looked at each other. That was powerful to me.

Her gaze held no bitterness or resentment. I often resent myself for the privilege I have been given, and I felt that she was skeptical of my intentions, but appreciated me despite my brokenness. As a knelt on the ground beside her place of residence (a box she sat on) and all of her belongings (a small cart), she was worried for me. “Why are you on the ground? Don’t get your pants dirty! You don’t need to sit on the road.” Here she was, an old woman whom had experienced oppression and exclusion from society, worried about me, a privileged White American on a semester of vacation. 

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I told her I was so grateful for her words and thankful to have met her, she pointed at the sky and said “No, todas gracias a Dios.” All thanks to God. After that, I began to understand more of what she was trying to communicate to me. She told me of her Christian roots, how good the Lord was, and how He always heard our prayers. I wanted to pray for her, but she told me that prayer was for quiet, private places… not on the streets. There’s a verse in Matthew which says just that, and I was humbled by her wisdom and knowledge of scripture. Here she was, an old woman whom had been victim of abandonment and countless difficult circumstances, blessing me, loving me, and pointing me to Jesus with her steadfast faith and joy. 

I left her later that evening, and continued on with our group throughout the center of Madrid. I struggled with my ability to walk away from Maria. She could not walk away from her circumstances, so why was I able to walk away from hers without a scratch? Privilege is a terrifying and convicting thing.

Little did I know what was in store for me the rest of the evening. Less than a half an hour later, I met the boy who bowed, and our encounter broke me.

We were wandering the side streets of Puerta del Sol, when we came upon a man whom was lying facedown on the street, holding a cup in his hand. We tapped his shoulder to ask him his name and offer him a bocadillo, expecting nothing out of the ordinary. I was shocked when a young, beautiful pair of brown eyes met mine. This child could not have been older than my little brother, and here he was, alone in the streets. We tried to talk with him, but realized that he could not speak English or Spanish.

We left him a sandwich and walked away, feeling like we had nothing else to offer him since we didn’t share a language. This young boy was alone in a foreign country where he could not be understood nor could he express himself to others.

I felt paralyzed. 

I realized that we didn’t offer him a juice, so I grabbed one and ran back to him. I placed it in his hand, placed my hand on his shoulder, and merely looked into his eyes, hoping to communicate all I wanted to express to him through a look. Even if we had shared a language, words would not have been sufficient for this moment.

I left deeply disturbed and couldn’t hold back my tears.

WHY WAS I ABLE TO WALK AWAY? Why didn’t I sit with him longer? I should have stayed. Should have done something more. Should have bought him groceries for the week. Should have done anything to show him that he was loved and valued and worth it and not alone.

This experience has lead me to question the hip-evangelical-Christian subculture I immerse myself in at home. My love of bible verses in calligraphy, fancy dinner parties, hospitality, quiet times on perfect front porches, freshly picked wildflowers, acoustic music, hipster cafes, and organic food feels silly and superfluous when juxtaposed with Maria’s simple life. She loves the Lord with all she has, which is just herself. I have much to learn from Maria.

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Do we hide behind the trappings of our Christian subculture? What does it mean to live courageously and walk through life with open hands? Faith requires surrendering all we are and have to the Lord in the knowledge that everything we have we have been freely given.

Luckily, the Lord does not need us. He has already won. It can be easy to feel guilty and helpless and be paralyzed by the brokenness and inequity in this world, but we serve a God whose light cannot be subdued by darkness. My prayer is for the Lord to take my guilt and helplessness and change it into a fire within me that pushes me to give of myself, my money, my time, and my privilege in radical, courageous ways. I know it is impossible on my own, but trust that the Lord is inviting me into His beautiful story of redemption and healing in every moment, I just need to learn to say yes to those invitations.

A good friend and I sat down for coffee yesterday, and I began to process this experience with him and my frustration with privilege and guilt for the joy I derive from traveling, good food, and other material comforts. He wisely reminded me that in order to give to others, we ourselves have to be filled up. The list of things I love that felt wrong and superfluous after talking to Maria are all things that remind me of deeper truths and allow me to savor life with others. Without those reminders and relationships, I would not be wholehearted enough to give away anything at all.


I hope to see the boy who bowed again, and hope to give more courageously to him next time. Not because it is required of me, but because the Lord is inviting me into the extravagant adventure of loving and caring for His children.




Tori in Spain: From Confusion to Confidence

September 12, 2016

Tired. Intimidated. Inadequate. Confused. Lost. Overwhelmed. Unable to understand.

These words characterized my first two days in Madrid.

I didn’t sleep on the plane from Charlotte to Madrid, but watched an old movie called The Color Purple and cried 3 times during it.The Marine next to me thought that was hilarious. Whatever. It was the best movie I have ever seen. Needless to say, I entered my first day in Madrid in an exhausted, emotional daze. By the time I went to sleep the first night, I had been awake for about 40 hours.

My greatest fear in coming abroad was that it would be a waste of time. I feared I was not supposed to be here, that I made a selfish decision in leaving Richmond, and that my time here would serve no purpose in the beautiful narrative God has woven throughout the history of humanity. How can I love people well when I don’t know their language well enough to express that love for them? Are they all casting me off as an ignorant American tourist before I even say a word? How can God use me despite my pride and selfishness and weaknesses? Although on a surface level it seemed like my first couple days were going well, these questions weighed heavily on my heart.

When I arrived in Madrid, my roommate Amalie picked me up from the airport and helped me take the airport to get into our apartment. She had already been in Madrid for a week and had it dowwwwwn. This girl could navigate like a pro, her Spanish was already back up to speed, and she had already met our host mom earlier in the week. I was thankful for her help, but had a sinking feeling I was already behind and would never catch up. Classic me, making everything a competition instead of just being grateful for a friend who already was beginning to grasp the culture of Madrid, and was willing to walk with me while I figured out this place I would call home for the next 4 months.


Stumbled upon Palacio Real in our first night explorations. 

The first day, Amalie and I picked sides of the room we would share, unpacked, went on a walk with our host mom and new baby brother, had dinner, explored downtown Madrid, and met up with a couple friends who had also just arrived. It was a long day, I was running on zero sleep, and I just felt really confused, incapable, and out of it the whole time.


One of our first dinners with our host family!

The second day we had our orientation at SLU Madrid, the university we would be attending, and it was discouraging at best. I felt sure that the caliber of my classes and professors would not meet my expectations due to my deep love for the faculty and programs at U of R. It also seemed like every person had come with a huge friend group from their school, and I was a lil’ fish in a big pond of people who all knew and liked each other. My usual outgoing and extroverted self just wanted to curl up in a ball and journal away my frustrations rather than being with people.

Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t waste things. The story He desires to tell through us will be told. I serve a God who is in the business of instilling purpose, meaning, and value into even the darkest and most broken places and people. Regardless of my abilities or inabilities, He promises that He will use me wherever I am, and that I am simply enough, nothing more or nothing less.

My third day in Madrid was my first day of classes, and it blew my expectations out of the water. That morning I was able to wake up early to read and journal on the porch, and I wrote down all of my doubts and fears, and asked God to take them from me. As soon as I stepped into my first class, they evaporated. My ethics professor wrote his dissertation on Altruism and Egoism, which is very similar to what I hope to write my senior thesis on! I felt confident speaking Spanish for the first time, and my Public Health and Social Justice class was amazing. The professor had just returned from Guatemala distributing HIV/AIDS prevention medication to the population there, and a guy in my class had worked with the Nobel Peace and Clinton Foundation the past summer.


Puerta del Sol, Madrid

Jesus surprised me a lot, took away my fears, and reminded me that He has placed me in Madrid for a purpose. I left school filled with excitement about discovering what that purpose is.



Tori in Spain: Excitement & Doubt: Pre-Madrid Ponderings

September 8, 2016

Hello! My name is Tori Noles and I am a junior at the University of Richmond, studying PPEL (Political Science, Philosophy, Economics, and Law) and Health Care Studies. This semester, I have chosen to study abroad in Madrid, Spain at St. Louis University. Choosing to study abroad was a very difficult decision for me. I have loved my time at Richmond thus far, and was not sure I wanted to sacrifice a semester filled with incredible professors, thoughtful discussions, and strong friendships for a semester alone in a foreign country. I knew if I stayed at Richmond, I could almost guarantee another great semester would ensue. However, two days before the study abroad deadline, I completed the application on a whim.

All throughout February, I thought deeply about whether I should go abroad or stay in Richmond. My Christian faith is integral to who I am and the perspective through which I view my life and the rest of the world. One of my key beliefs is that God has a perfect plan for my life, but discerning if abroad was part of that plan was really difficult. One day I was struck with the realization that God would be with me and would use me no matter what I decided. My God is just as much the God of Madrid, Spain as He is of Richmond, VA. I believe that God has created every person to love different things, and He delights when we pursue the things he created us to love alongside Him. I longed for adventure and to get to know a new place, so after I was accepted into my first choice program, I said yes!

My summer consisted of living in Richmond, VA with a host family and interning for an anti-human trafficking organization and for Hope Church. I fell head over heels in love with Richmond and, for the first time, knew with certainty that Richmond is the place I hope to call my home after I graduate. As sweet as that realization was, it made it that much harder to leave. I barely thought about Madrid all summer, and cried when I left Virginia to go home and prepare for abroad.


I will be sontinuing my internship with The Prevention Project, an anti-human trafficking organization, while in Spain!


Sweet Community from my internship with Hope Church makes it hard to leave RVA!

However, once I began to get ready to leave, the nerves and excitement settled in. I got to talk to my host mom in Madrid before I left, and was comforted by her warmth and fluency in English. She told me that I would become part of their family, which made my heart happy. I’m all about relationships, and was excited to get to know my two little host brothers, as well as my host mom and dad! She asked me if I like vegetables, legumes, chicken, and seafood…. if you know me, you know that those are some of my all time favorite foods, and food is a BIG deal for me. We made plans to cook together on weekends in Madrid before I even left the United States!

With that, I packed up my 50 gallon backpack, a big black suitcase (capable of smuggling my little brother, 19 favorite books, and 5 lbs of dark chocolate), and drove to Charlotte to catch my flight to Madrid!


Ready to go!


The airport was a little more emotional than expected…


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