The motto for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps is that being with the poor and marginalized will leave you “Ruined for Life” because once you’ve stared poverty in the face it is impossible to return to a life of comfort without eyes that only see excess and a heart that breaks for those who live without. One of my goals for my time here in the Dominican Republic is to pose questions to myself about how the way I live my life contributes to the travesties in this world and how I can change from being the problem to being part of the solution. I challenge those of you following my journey to do the same. Ask yourself the difficult questions. Don’t be afraid of uncovering the dark parts of yourself because there is no hope of eradicating those parts without first acknowledging them. Challenge yourself to question the ideals you’ve held for your whole life. And most importantly, don’t be scared to be “ruined for life”. The goal of this blog post is to reflect on the ways we live in the United States versus the way the people of the Dominican Republic live and also to tie in moments from my own life when I have felt God’s presence. Hopefully, you will be able to use this post and ones like it in the future as a challenge to begin your personal transformation.
In my class, Social Justice in the DR, we are currently reading two books Doing the Truth in Love by Michael Himes and The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times by Dean Brackley. Both books offer Earth-shaking insights into how we perceive and interact with the world and a revolutionized vision of what it means to be Christian. Doing the Truth in Love discusses God as a verb instead of a noun found in the relationships between people, “What happens when you serve your brother or your sister is that you are enacting the meaning of the word ‘God’”. The importance of this lesson has become incredibly clear to me during my time here. If I could use one word to describe life in the Dominican Republic, it would be community. Every household owns a roof-high stack of plastic chairs, which are set out in front of the house several times a day in order to enjoy the company of friends and neighbors. The Dominican Republic is a front porch community. Walking down the street, every house you pass has a cluster of people outside playing dominoes, dancing, or talking. People blast music from their cars, businesses, and houses not to be annoying or rude, but to share their music with the rest of the community. Can you imagine if someone constantly blared music from their stereos? A noise complaint would be filed in a matter of minutes. Whereas in the United States, most people look down or at their phones instead of saying hello to passersby, Dominicans shout from across the street to greet friends and strangers alike. On the guaguas, people strike up conversations with us and even persist when they learn our Spanish is limited. This sense of community warmly reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in, where every evening a group of neighbors would set out chairs on someone’s driveway and spend hours chatting and sipping wine. I learned incredible life lessons from listening to the stories of the adults. I consider my neighbors a part of my extended family and I am very grateful for the blessings they have been in my life. My neighbors across the street, Jim and Helga, were my fill-in grandparents, coming to Grandparents lunches and band concerts since my grandparents lived in different states. Other neighbors supported the random businesses and lemonade stands my brother and I started, always offering generous tips that exceeded the actual cost of the item they bought. I am so grateful for the loving community I grew up in; unfortunately I realize my community was a novelty that most people in the United States didn’t experience. Community is God, love, in action. However, most of the time in our busy lives, we pass up an opportunity for community in order to get to a meeting on time or get to the store before dinner. My parents have both been great examples of how to live life in community with others. My dad’s business is a community unlike one I have ever witnessed in a company. Whenever I visit his office, we make the rounds to countless offices throughout the building saying hi to his co-workers and friends. From the way they know all about my life, I know my dad talks with them, forms community, on a daily basis. My mom is the perfect example of taking time out of your busy day to love others. Our trips to the grocery store often take two hours because we stop to talk to the workers that she has befriended over the years. She will regularly stop to talk to strangers especially if they look like they’re in need of support. One time she was walking out of Walgreens when she spotted a girl nervously staring at the trashcan. She went over to ask the girl if she was ok, and the girl said was looking for a monster that had supposedly crawled in the trashcan. Mom spent the next half hour talking and praying with the teenage girl who was tripping on acid and afraid to go home. There is nothing in life more important than loving your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Brackley says that modern life is a “desert of materialism”. How many times have we each heard, “You better finish your food, there are starving kids in Africa!”? The constant reminders of poverty have numbed us into being unable to truly see the poverty. We think of the poor as problems instead of people. We think we are doing our part by giving a couple dollars to the homeless man on the street corner. You may be giving him enough to treat his physical hunger, but what about the gnawing hunger of worthlessness and inhumanity. In many cases, rolling down your window, looking the man in the eye and asking his name may do a lot more good than a couple of bills. People who live in poverty may be materialistically poor, but often times they are spiritually abundant. In contrast, most people in the United States are materialistically abundant, but impoverished spiritually. In reality which is the worst form of poverty? Heartland Hope Mission in Omaha exemplifies healing the whole person. The mission of the food bank is to fill up the person’s stomach and their soul. Every person that walks through the door hears a message of hope, love and worth before receiving their food. Volunteers individually walk with each person asking them what food they would like and then serving the person by putting the item in the cart for them. The goal of Heartland Hope Mission is to let the person know that they are valued and worthy in addition to filling their pantries. Brackley states that, “The crucified people of today lead us to the center of things”. Ask yourself what that quote means to you. To me, it means that no person asked to be born into poverty, to be born with a certain color of skin, to be born into an abusive household, to be born gay, to be born male or female. Every person has a cross to bear. Some crosses are heavier than others. Those that accept the burden of their cross and act as a representation to spread awareness for those with similar struggles lead us to the center, the meaning of life. My favorite bible verse has always been Matthew 16:24, “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.’” This verse has always spoken to me, but I never really knew why. I questioned myself, thinking this verse would be more suited for someone who had experienced a lot of suffering in their life when I have experienced very little. Slowly the meaning is becoming clearer. My cross isn’t one of suffering, but one of wealth and luxury. The life that I was born into is one of extreme comfort; I have never had to go without. My fortunate circumstances are both a gift and a curse. They are a curse because it is hard for me to give up my wealth and comfort in order to help another. My cross is heavy under the weight of my opportunities and my luxuries. I don’t need to feel guilty for the life I was born with, but I need to be able to give up aspects of luxury as well as my inhibitions in order to be in solidarity with the suffering, to love those deemed unlovable, and fight for those without a voice. One week from today, I will start my first immersion, living with the poorest of the country. I am both nervous and very excited to experience this poverty and allow it to change me.
After observing or hearing about the injustices and travesties in our world, it can be almost impossible to move beyond the overwhelming devastation. To me it sometimes feels like all of my breath has escaped and my body turns into a vacuum overcome with guilt and frustration. Many people experience this state of shock, especially after disasters like hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, however this paralyzed state doesn’t result in change, it hinders it. So how do we become part of the solution? First, we must accept our role in the evil that occurs; “Getting free to love requires facing up to our part in the sin of the world” (Brackley). We must open our eyes and accurately see how what we do affects those both near and far from us. It is not the job of a select few Saints to save those in need, we are each responsible to act, ““Responding to massive injustice according to each one’s calling is the price of being human, and Christian, today. Those looking for a privatized spirituality to shelter them from a violent world have come to the wrong place”. We need to hold each other to a high standard and challenge each other to live a life of peace and love. I’m not saying that in order to fix the world everyone needs to sell all of their possessions and move to a third world country. Each one of us can contribute to the solution of the injustices in our world by building community, by slowing down, by loving everyone including the person that drives you crazy, and by viewing every person you come across with dignity and purpose. One beneficial tool for reflecting on the direction of your life is the Ignatian Daily Examen. This prayer/meditation is a powerful technique that you may find useful for guiding your actions. Ultimately, the crucial change is to turn form selfishness to love. I want to end this very long (my apologies) reflection with an influential poem by Fr. Pedro Arrupe:
FALLING IN LOVE
Nothing is more practical than finding God,
That is, than falling in love in a quite absolute way.
What you are in love with,
What seizes your imagination,
Will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
What you will do with your evenings,
How you will spend your weekends,
What you read,
Who you know,
What breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love,
stay in love and it will decide everything.