Home.

My associations with home…Warmth. 400 thread count cotton sheets. My dog to lick my ear, nose, and mouth. Pie. Comfy couches. People. Water. Great bathrooms, with a shower and tub. My own room. A fridge with abundant and diverse food in it. Trinkets and photos that represent places I’ve been and people I’ve loved. My guitar. Easy access to transport. TV, movies, radio, music, internet. Easy and multiple means of communication. I’m very rarely left wanting for something, and that something is usually fairly easy to find. Yes, I’m thankful for my home, and I take it all too for granted.

—-

There seem to be two types of suffering: one that is abusive, and one that is redeeming. My thoughts this week are entrenched in how my country is set on being complicit in assuring that the primer be the experience of Syrian refugees, whether that be it’s involvement in the Syrian civil war or examining it’s responses to ISIS in a holistic way. ISIS wields fear wherever it goes, feeding on terror and psychological violence. The reality that refugees are escaping right now is one that I can’t imagine if I tried, and I won’t be naïve enough to try to write about it.

What is the most bothersome part about this week and these reflections though, are that my government and compatriots are trying to deny a home, an attempt at comfort, stability, and safety to those who are living in hell right now. It seems that the USA, home of manifest destiny, the American dream, built on different waves of migrants and refugees, is abandoning its ethics to the fear that ISIS has bred.

It’s heartbreaking. And it’s not surprising. It’s a repeated tale of xenophobia, bias, prejudice, racism, violence of privilege, and fear winning once again. This week I’m tired, my heart aches, and I’m left with little hope.

I’m begging that some act prove me wrong. I’m desperate that my politicians show up for complex conversations. And yet, I’m positive that my frustration and pleas does not match the anguish and realties of refugees.

Here is a great poem I stumbled on that does a great job of doing something I cannot do…talking about home when there is no place to call home.

 

“HOME,” by Somali poet Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one’s skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child’s body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

 

 

 

My prayer for citizens and politicians of the USA:

Let us be anchored in truth. Let us remember the comfort that the word home should elicit. Let us not walk this earth in a deep slumber that is ignorance and inhumanity. May we live valiantly without giving into fear. There are living, breathing examples that should appeal to our ethos and pathos. May our pride not be a bluff that prevents action, but may it be a motivating factor to delve into complex conversations and realities. When stomachs are bulging this week after gorging on a Thanksgiving meal, let us remember the popular origins of the holidays, when white Christians were religious refugees and needing a place to call home and food to fill their hungry bellies.

What’s your Focus??

The following article originally appeared on June 22, 2015 in the ‘In The Voices for Justice’ blog by Ignatian Solidarity Network’ (link can be found here). Many thanks to Jenn Svetlik from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. for her support and efforts in the process. 

a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-word

If a picture is worth a thousand words, who decides what those words are?

I have played often with my camera during JVC, trying to capture the wonder of the Andean mountains surrounding Andahuaylillas or the vibrant colors of the textiles worn here. It’s a way of documenting my experience so I will be able to recall more easily the moments and people that have enriched my time as a JV.

I know many of the stories that are captured in my camera because I live and work with alongside the subjects of my photos—whether they be the street dogs or the cute kids I work with in the parish. These are people with whom I have hiked mountains, gone to mass, danced and eaten meals; people who have opened doors to this beautifully complex place.

Although Andahuaylillas is a small town of 3,000 people, it boasts the ‘Sistine Chapel of South America.’ Tens of thousands of tourists pass through annually to catch a glimpse of the famous Baroque church, looking for proof of the often-simplified story of Spanish colonization over ancient Incan peoples. They’re disappointed that they can’t capture the gold leafed altars on film because cameras are prohibited inside the chapel. Instead, they focus their lenses on the majestic mountains and women selling their goods in front of the church.

An older woman rests on the chapel steps every day. She sits with her puppy and knotted wooden cane, wearing a bowler hat, knit skirt, woolen knee socks, and multiple sweaters. I come in contact with her frequently because she is my co-worker’s aunt and eats lunch in the parish kitchen where I work. We have sat side by side and eaten in silence, since our language barrier between Quechua and English is vast and breached only by my elaborate attempts at speaking with my hands.

More than once while passing through the plaza, I have witnessed a tourist, often white, stand in front of the old woman to take photos of her. They cannot communicate with her, but they feel a freedom to shamelessly walk four feet in front of her and snap photos without permission. My stomach feels unsettled and my heart hurts seeing her as the model for how folks will remember Andahuaylillas, without her consent. They think they have caught her story by boxing her into what will be a 3×5 photo.

What must the woman, who has likely never left Peru, perhaps even the Andean mountains, think when she sees tourists with their fancy Canon Rebel 10x taking photos? But more important, what becomes the thousand words that is her narrative in the photo? Is she just another abuela, wrinkled and withered from harsh weather and even harsher poverty? What parts of her own story are revealed through that photo, and what parts remain untold?

The success and hope of human interaction depends upon mutual respect and relationship. Yet, it is an easy pass to let our presumptions fill a photo instead of actually bearing witness to the subject in front of the lens. I’m not sure even I could write a paragraph, let alone one thousand words about the woman, despite our numerous interactions. Her story is exposed slowly through our small encounters. I wonder if I will take her picture before I leave. If I do, the story it tells will be the one that she has shared with me.

Theology of Coffee

The following article originally appeared on January 2, 2015 in ‘God in All Things’ (link can be found here). It can be found at http://godinallthings.com/2015/01/02/theology-of-coffee/ . Many thanks to Andy Otto from ‘God in All Things’ for his support and efforts in the process. 

When I was still a youngster in high school, my gaggle of gal pals and I loved to bring each other Starbucks in the morning. Nothing was better than the sugary winter drink of a white chocolate mocha, under the guise as a coffee. Nothing made me feel better than my cup of ‘joe’ in hand, flaunting the red holiday cups and demonstrating my maturity as a coffee drinker. A few years passed, and I moved to Seattle to go to college. There, I soon became acquainted with real coffee. My flirting with real coffee quickly escalated into a full on relationship. I tried to learn more about the history, the roasting styles, the economics, and growing patterns—even going so far as to spend a summer in Costa Rica volunteering on a farm that grew coffee. Now, in my post-grad life, I am a Jesuit Volunteer outside of Cusco, Peru. Here my budget really only allots for Nescafé or other brands that do not offer the top tier coffee in regards to business practices and ethics. But this drop in quality does not necessarily suspend my relationship with coffee in the morning.

I have heard used the phrase, either giving or receiving the comment, “Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.” I’m usually too tired to fire back a snappy comment, but it would be something along the lines of, “My bed is fine! My coffee maker just isn’t working today!” Is it a bit of an addiction? Easily. But is coffee something more? Yes. Would I even say that it is a spiritual, sensory experience that creates a space for me to greet the morning, myself, others, and God? Yes.

drawing coffee mugIgnatian spirituality suggests invoking our senses and imagination to encounter God and ourselves. When I am holding a cup of coffee, the warmth radiates through my hands, forearms, and shoulders. The smell wafts through the air from the dark caramel color, almost black. The whole experience is sensual, and helps my sleepy self wake up to greet the day with gratitude and a tranquility that I feel from this warmth. It induces a peaceful demeanor, which invites me to meet God and my own thoughts. In these moments, I review the previous and forthcoming days, reflecting on both the harder and easier parts in order to create my hopes for the new day.

Coffee helps facilitate my conversation with God and myself in the morning, therefore making it quite literally a vessel in which I see, taste, feel, and talk to God. Dorothy Day was once quoted saying that “My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.” She identified this as a way to ready herself for the day and her work through simple practices. With the work that Day committed her life towards, the act of finding daily practices that facilitated conversations between herself and God was vital. What are our daily rituals that help us encounter ourselves in the morning? Is it the comfort of a mug, a morning stroll, the dog scratching at the door? By finding God in the daily habits and becoming mindful towards what could be mundane, I have found some of my most precious moments throughout the day. Here’s to a cup of steaming coffee and rich conversations: may the silence be rich in conversation.

Volunteer outside of Cusco, Peru learning how to play soccer and eat guinea pig.

Oh…that Voluntourism!

The last month has been full of traveling between Lima and the mountains (yes, even higher up than Anda!). While the first and final weeks were spent in Lima finishing (you read it…I finished it!) visa paperwork, the two weeks in between were spent in Ocongate, a small town southeast of Andahuaylillas. Here, Quechua seems to be the primary language and Alpaca ribs are on the comodor menu often. My fellow JV and I were charged with the task of teaching 2 English classes. My group was the basic level, consisting of 20 kids (17 boys….) ages 8-14. To give you a better idea of what my class looked like, water guns were a regular, English was often the back burner, Quechua conversations were often, and my hair stuck straight up. While I can’t say if the kids actually learned much, I can say we had a good time. They even went on what was their first retreat for many of them.

During my time in Ocongate, I read an article that was circulating around Facebook on Voluntourism (click on the link to visit). Several of my friends had posted it with a few comments in agreement with the message. As an international volunteer who owns a shirt saying ‘Serve Local,’ I have my opinions on it and am eager to continue the conversation posed by the author.

The author captures an important, fundamental idea in volunteering/voluntourism: If initial desires are to ‘help’ those who reside in the ‘3rd world,’ or live in ‘developing nations,’ the intent is forthrightly problematic. Our skills that appear impressive or desirable on a resume in the USA might not always be desired abroad, given language, cultural differences, or varying levels of access. For example, global health access is lacking in a dire way. Yet, a fully educated North American nurse who goes to northern, rural Guatemala is rendered nearly powerless without any previous cultural understanding of the way Mayan women view their bodies.

If we choose to enter a marginalized population to ‘help,’ we foster a power dynamic that implies the original way of the populations needs fixing. This becomes fundamentally problematic in terms of perpetuating cycles of power and privilege that prohibit eventual fairness in so-called ‘equality.’ The author recognizes this, stating: “Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is … detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the ‘white savior’ complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.” Patterns of poverty and discrimination will continue to manifest and become exponentially worse if current forms of volunteering, aid, or international charity are left unchecked (fortunately, I’ll limit my scope to volunteering tonight).

What the author fails to do is dive into the depths of this complex, yet important conversation around how volunteerism can provide a window of opportunity to develop in understanding of populations too often deemed as ‘the other.’ Through accompaniment, education, and questioning, volunteerism can be transformed from a quantitative experience of ‘how many photos were taken,’ or ‘how many buildings were raised,’ or ‘how many people told me how nice I was,’ into a qualitative experience measured through the way our hearts and hands were opened. This is obtained by gathering knowledge prior to the volunteer experience, and a metaphorical, though sometimes literal, taking off of the shoes before entering into a community. Formation and an open heart are of key importance to entering into a volunteer experience.

Some of my fondest memories in the story of my own personal growth are held in the awkward, yet necessary situations of trying to respectfully understand ways of life different from my own…based on a difference of access or social location. These are the moments where race, weatlh, privilege, countries of birth, and languages are not forgotten, but put aside to witness one another in our common humanity. It’s the conversations where I have entered into a community, taken off my shoes, and opened my hands to recieve. I have nothing to give other than accompaniment and the curiousity to understand, but I have everything to recieve.

Many agree that the idea of ‘helping’ does little for social change in the grand scheme of things.The late, great Dean Brackley SJ quotes which explains “In the [United] States, the great challenge for Christianity is now downward mobility, if that makes sense. The challenge is not to help the poor to join the rich; it’s to help the rich join the poor. That’s where our salvation is.” While salvation can be, at times, a loaded religious word around fire and brimstone, if we are challenging ourselves to uproot social inequality, it works out quite well. My favorite, Gustavo Gutiérrez, compliments this idea with the language of Liberation Theology: “If there is no friendship with them [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.” These words are a call to action to learn, dialogue, and be willing to change as a result of cross-cultural interaction.

Since I can only speak from my experience, I want to disect my current volunteer position. I will be a high school teacher in a Fe y Alegría in Peru. While my subjects that I will teach are still to be determined, they will be either in English or Theology. I’m fluent in English and have a degree in Theology, yet my teaching experience has been racked up only in the last few weeks in rural Peru (basically, next to nothing). I have grappled with the pros and cons, and, as nearly anyone who is close to me can attest, I nearly turned down this opportunity to pursue a job or other possibilities in Seattle, where I am more familiar with just about everything. Yet, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I have reframed what teaching will be in light of conversations with my bosses, my program, my community, a Paulo Friere book, and myself. Teaching will not be a formal endeavor, but one that seeks to listen, observe, and accompany.  It will be a hands-on, ears open, messy experience that will seek to build capacity rather than a construction.

My final reflection that I’ll offer now is to quote Mary Oliver: 

“Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.”

At the end of a volunteer time period, much changes. The aesthetic and environments change, but most importantly, our hearts and minds are opened and broadened. Ignatian pedagogy deems this as a time for reflection and furthered action. From reflection of the experience and noticing what was important, what was different, and why was it like this, we arrive at the ‘what now’ stage.  We are charged with using our privilege and access to conversations that influence others–whether this be via government policy, consumerism, or disrupting cultural norms–to advocate for change. Our volunteerism takes on a different appearance, but rather, we must ‘tell about it.’ Fortunately, this is not confined to only going abroad or only in your own backyard.

No one says it better than Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal activist and artist in Australia, who asserts, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Our liberation, our salvation, our hope for the future depends on crossing cultures, borders (by neighborhood or state or country), and experiences by opening ourselves to the rawness of humanity.