Christianity, Episcopal Church, Episcopal Diocese of Costa Rica, International Mission, Mission, Personal

Week 1 Reflections: Pentecost and New Beginnings

Our totally friendly/deathly serious Houston vs. Dallas. vs. Costa Rica soccer match

Our totally friendly/deathly serious Houston vs. Dallas. vs. Costa Rica soccer match

Our first summer mission group began their first full day in Costa Rica by celebrating Pentecost with one of our Spanish-speaking congregations, and I can’t think of a better way to begin our mission summer. Last week we welcomed two congregations to Costa Rica for the first time: St. Michaels and All Angels from Dallas, and St. Marks from Houston. We gathered together and, just like the citizens of Jerusalem, heard the Word of God together, despite our differences of language, culture, race, and income. On this celebration of unity within diversity, we were called to work and worship as one. Both groups spent time painting and playing at our Hogar Escuela program, while St. Michaels continued the construction our Church of the Ascencion,[i] and St. Marks ran a vacation Bible School in Heredia. Both groups did great work, impressed our staff, and were loved by our kids. We’re sad to see them go, and we sincerely hope to see them again.

This week was extra-special for me. Eight years ago, I went with St. Michaels and All Angels on my very first mission trip, to build houses in Chile. I didn’t go for any deeply spiritual reasons. My friends were going, I needed the service hours, and it was probably the only way I was going to get my parents to pay for a trip to Chile. But God called out to me in that trip, mostly in how much I enjoyed the physical work and how impressed I was by the Chileans I worked with. So I kept going, and the once-yearly mission trips became the beginning of a passion I’m living out today. At every step, God has called out to me in a way I could understand, from teen to trip leader.

It’s possible that, in the mostly-Spanish service, some people were very bored. So was I, when I didn’t speak a work of it. I know that, as we shuffled young people between the school and the construction site, that there were differing levels of enthusiasm for painting, playing with kids, digging holes all day[ii] or hauling around 500-pound concrete beams. I wouldn’t have it any other way—I would consider the whole program a failure if we only had space for the enthusiastic and the already-spiritual. If you felt deeply and honestly called by God to Costa Rica, we’re so glad you came. But if you came for less lofty reasons, it doesn’t change the fact that, because of you, kids were loved and taught, walls were painted, holes were dug and roofs were raised. We aren’t any less overjoyed that you came. Because Pentecost means that God calls to us where we are, not just geographically, but spiritually as well. It’s a celebration of beginnings, and of possibilities. We hope to provide a new beginning for every child in our Hogar Escuela progam. We hope that people will find encounter new possibilities at the Church of the Ascencion, especially the ladies of Esperanza Viva who come together to overcome HIV. We hope that this week was the beginning of a long friendship with our new friends from Texas. And we hope that, for everyone who came down, God spoke to you where you were, and this week was a new beginning for you as well.

 

[i] Literally raising the roof. It was pretty cool.

[ii] I can’t leave without giving my sincere thanks to everyone who managed to stay enthusiastic about digging holes all day

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Personal, Uncategorized

An Adventure and a Shoutout

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One of my closest, oldest, dearest friends is embarking on an adventure. No one was really surprised: Stephen’s exactly the kind of person to be doing something no one else would think about doing. But I admit, I am impressed with the audacity of his current project: flying cross the United States with a plane that looks like it’s held together with toothpicks and floss. Please please please check out his project here, and if you’ve got the heart or the cash, support the project here.

And I love that he’s taking this adventure now. While others are urging that the sluggishness of the job market and the economy mean that we need to be sensible above all else, he’s taking it as an opportunity to do something insane. And I’m proud of all my friends who are chasing big dreams, whether they’re slogging through medschool or waiting tables to make ends meet so that they can pursue their real passion when they should be sleeping or eating. Because right now any dream is a rebellion. As Stephen takes to the skies on the grey wind, I’m going to let my good friend Frederick Buechner say what I mean better than I ever could. I’m so proud of Stephen and all of my friends who are putting themselves in vulnerable places because they believe that life is and should always be an adventure.

From The Hungering Dark:

“When you are young, I think, your hearing is in some ways better than it is ever going to be again.  You hear better than most people the voices that call to you out of your own life to give yourself to this work or that work.  When you are young, before you accumulate responsibilities, you are freer than most people to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and to what you really want to do with your life.

But the danger is that there are so many voices, and they all in their ways sound so promising.  The danger is that you will not listen to the voice that speaks to you through the seagull mounting the gray wind, say, or the vision in the temple, that you do not listen to the voice inside you or to the voice that speaks from outside but specifically to you out of the specific events of your life, but that instead you listen to the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us all by blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status, and that if it is gladness you are after, you can save that for weekends.  In fact one of the grimmer notions that we seem to inherit from our Puritan forbears is that work is not even supposed to be glad but, rather, a kind of penance, a way of working off the guilt that you accumulate during the hours when you are not working. The world is full of people who seem to have listened to the wrong voice and who are now engaged in life-work in which they find no pleasure or purpose and who run the risk of suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only life they are ever going to get in this world doing something which could not matter less to themselves or anyone else.  This does not mean, of course, people who are doing work that from the outside looks unglamorous and humdrum, because obviously such work as that may be a crucial form of service and deeply creative.  But it means people who are doing work that seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time, but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.

…To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go,” and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one that we answer.  No one can say, of course, except each for himself, but I believe that it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us:  we should go with our lives where we most need to go and where we are most needed.”

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Christianity, Episcopal Church, Personal, Theology, Uncategorized

Good Friday and Taking Pain Seriously

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velazquez, 1632

I was never really spared from images of violence growing up. My Dad was the one who taught me to be a nerd — one of my earliest memories is of him playing Doom, my coming-of-age was watching The Matrix, and our bonding was playing Halo. I did a lot of shooting people in the face before I ever thought to ask how it was affecting my perception.

It didn’t make me a violent person by any stretch, I morphed into a fairly assured pacifist, despite my days spent watching or participating in murdering zombies or Nazis or zombie Nazis. But I started noticing the differences between movies and games where a lot of people died and the movies where you see a lot of people dying. This great NPR piece works through the contrast with two of my favorite franchises: the scientifically-precise popcorn of Captain and America and the less-publicized but more-visceral The Raid 2[i]. People die in both of these movies, but as the article concludes,  “[The Raid] a strong drink that you know is a strong drink. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its ilk are, in this analogy, the sort of sugary cocktail where you never realize how much booze you’ve been served. Or how much fake death you’ve witnessed.”

Some people conclude that keeping the blood off-screen is better “for the children.” But I think there’s a lot more of what people are scared of — desensitization towards violence — in the PG-13 film than the R-rated film. In Captain America, thousands of people die, if any of the buildings that explode are occupied at all. In The Raid, the body count is much lower, but you watch every bones shatter, windpipes crumple, blood splatter. It’s bloodier for sure–but at least the watcher will walk away with an appreciation for what the destruction of the human body actually involves. Some people may call it for glorification, and I will concede that’s an element. But it’s preferable to a disregard for human life where thousands of deaths off-screen only serve as the means to an end for a superheroes story.

Protestants can make the same error with our empty Easter crosses. In Spain, whenever I entered an old Catholic Church, every cross had Christ on it, bleeding, pleading eyes to heaven, obviously suffering. It’s gruesome and a little off-putting, to be sure. But it takes seriously what the Cross involved, as an event and as a symbol. As an event, it’s important to remember what Christ’s life bought him. Not to fetishize the violence of it,[ii] but to be honest about the whole story of Jesus, that a life of peace led him to a death of torture.

As a symbol, the light of the resurrection is the brightest when contrasted properly with the darkness of the crucifixion. There is great joy in Christianity. But there is also suffering, and the call to attend suffering, a call so deep that Jesus includes “those who mourn” in his list of the blessed. In the triumphalism of American culture, this call to mourn is often forgotten. Without this ‘dark night of the soul,’ the message of Easter becomes watered down, positivity replaces joy, optimism replaces hope, and belief replaces faith.

In its most honest forms, Christianity offers no glib, easy answers to the suffering of the world. It doesn’t give us a God who pats us on the head and tells us that all of our suffering is just part of the plan. It gives us something bigger: a God who suffers with us. A man who died feeling that his God had forsaken him. A man who lived, accepting no comfort, turning away from no pain, healing hurts and weeping at death. Just like a popcorn superhero movie, there’s a Christianity which features a superhero Jesus, where all the suffering happens offscreen, where the cross is always empty, the pain is just a point in the story which wraps up with a tidy moral: the good guys win, or they will eventually.

But that’s a dishonest and shallow faith. I think its one of the reasons many people have such a gut reaction against your typical always-smiley Christians: the Mormons at the door, or the Young Life leaders at your high school. The Bible is a dark and gritty and gory book, but when you get down to it, so is the world. And so we’re commanded to mourn with the world, to cry as often as we smile. If we only admit to small sufferings, we can only hope for a small salvation. It’s the difference between sleeping in, greeting the day with groggy eyes, and keeping vigil all night to see the sunrise. The more we obey the call to watch and sit with the suffering of that the Cross stands for, the greater the miracle of the Resurrection becomes.

 

[i] I love The Raid series. It’s the answer to this XKCD

[ii] I’m looking at you, Passion of the Christ

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Christianity, Episcopal Church, International Mission, Personal, Reconciliation, Theology, Uncategorized

What Privilege Can Mean for Christians

pharisee-and-tax-collector

The word ‘privilege’ belongs to a class of words that can just as easily stop a good conversation as start one. For many people it’s a helpful concept to be used when discussing power structures. Some people hear it as a demand that they feel guilty about their race, gender, sexuality, whatever; an accusation of racism and sexism, and general close-mindedness.[i] A word which is supposed to mean something specific[ii] can easily mean only ‘this conversation is now over.’

Which is a shame, because Christians getting better at ending conversations than beginning them. Part of the problem is that many American Christians, especially those with the power to influence national discourse, are precisely the demographic which feels most threatened by the concept of privilege. Despite our persecution complex, our faith in the United States is overwhelmingly guided and represented by people with almost every possible privilege in our society: straight, white, wealthy, Christian[iii] men.[iv] Does that make them bad people? Of course not. But when we, at the top of society, cast ourselves as the victims, we deafen ourselves to God’s words, and blind ourselves to the work that God means for us to do.

Christians should care about privilege because it is one of the fundamental Biblical narratives that positions of power are morally and spiritually blinding. We see it in the Old Testament. The pride and riches of Egypt serve as the backdrop for the oppression of the Israelites, and Pharaoh, with the resources of a god, cannot hear Moses and his God. The saga of David and Solomon can be read as the story of two men who are gradually tempted away from God’s call by their power and riches.[v] And the theme gets stronger in the New Testament. Our consumer society frequently and conveniently forgets that the earliest Christian communities were socialist communes. Jesus was not vague or subtle in his demand that his followers leave behind money, possessions and position before they follow him. He said that it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He consistently stood with the poor, the prisoners, and the prostitutes against the politically and religiously powerful of the time.

But I think the parable that best explains what privilege should mean to a Christian is Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

When we read “Pharisee” we are primed to read “evil person who killed Jesus.” But the non-time-travelling recipients of Jesus’ teaching would have recognized a Pharisee as a respected member of the community. Jesus identifies the Pharisees by their societal privileges: “Woe to you Pharisees, who love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.”[vi] While we identify the Pharisees as the spiritually hypocritical, we can miss the other connotation: the Pharisees stand for the socially, politically and economically privileged.

The tax collector stands for the most hated person in society. A Jew who collected taxes for the Romans, selling out his people to the foreign invaders. A desperate and ostracized person, and the protagonist of the parable. Because he makes no defense before God, denying nothing. Society has told him that he is evil, and he makes no defense, because he only looks towards one Judge. He doesn’t build, on shifting sand, a narrative in which he is the righteous one. He merely asks for mercy, and walks away forgiven.

The parable turns on the Pharisee’s blindness to the fact that God isn’t buying his BS. He expects God to be impressed with the very things God has gifted him. The Pharisee has never been desperate enough to steal. He’s had plenty of access to the culturally-acceptable marriage options. Free from manual labor, he is free to fast. He has enough that a tenth of it is a painless sacrifice. He has defined his own righteousness precisely in those things for which it is easiest for him to be righteous. And while he looks down on the people who don’t fit in the system that he and his people have created, he imagines that God sees as he sees, and dares to pass judgment on God’s behalf.

So, we return to that already-tired phrase, “check your privilege.” The concept of privilege combines two insights found all through the Bible, crystallized in this parable. First, we should regard everything we have as a gift from God. There is no narrative of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in the Bible. There is a narrative of God equipping God’s children to do God’s work, and the most faithful of God’s children are the most fervent in their thanksgiving. When we check our privilege, as Christians, we should be digging down into our spiritual pride and seeing where we’re taking God’s gifts and making them into our own righteousness. Second, we should strive to see from the perspective of a God who stands for the justice of the marginalized. We have to stop re-defining righteousness to protect ourselves and to blame the poor for their own predicament, to ‘first make thieves then punish them.’ We have a mission to tend to a sick world. It’s hard to help if we won’t let ourselves be honest. We can’t fulfill our Biblical duty to care for the prisoner if  we close our eyes to the fact that people of color in the United States are more likely to be arrested for, and receive longer sentencing for, the same crimes as White Americans. We can’t serve the poor if we don’t admit that it’s harder for the poor to just go to school get jobs when the experience of poverty itself literally saps brainpower, or that inequality in our society is increasing, not decreasing, or that we sometimes don’t see the homeless as fully human. We can’t serve the Lord in truth if we sometimes willingly and sometimes in ignorance or by silence circulate lies about homosexuality. We can’t welcome the foreigner if we don’t overcome our prejudice and embrace the fact that immigrants actually create jobs. We can’t tend to a sick world if we’re lying about the symptoms to spare ourselves the guilt.

When we ignore our privileges, we become the Pharisees in the parable. We stand in our churches and say “I thank you God that I am not like other people. Not like the gang-bangers, the homosexuals, the drug-addicted, the politically misguided, the single mothers, the illegal immigrants.” We are blind to the fact that we have been power to define what is righteous in our society, and we’ve chosen those things which come easily to us. To check our privilege is to exit the temple, walk down among the sinners, to try to see the world from the perspective of the poor and the God who loves them. To admit that our worldview might be self-serving, that we have pasts and presents and probably futures of oppression. Nothing shocked the Pharisees so much as the fact that Jesus could so often be found among the sinners. We should rediscover that scandalous truth. “The first duty of love is to listen,”[vii] and if we believe Jesus when he says that how we treat the poor, the homeless, the foreigners and the prisoners will be the measure of our devotion, we need to listen when the marginalized in our society ask us to consider our privileges over them. We worship the God of the living, not of the dead, and God speaks more powerfully through the people who unsettle us than the Scripture which comforts us. The concept of privilege is the unsettling but necessary plea of the marginalized that we listen to their experience, as vulnerable and willing to admit fault as the tax collector whose only prayer is ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ The first duty of love is to listen, and if Christians want to have any compassionate presence in national discourse, we need to leave the temple, stop judging, and start listening.

 

[i] To be fair, there is often a certain… combativeness in certain liberals which backs up this perception.

[ii] Good place to start

[iii] A long, great article about Christian privilege, for the skeptical. And a shorter blog post for the skeptical with less time.

[iv] I am writing as someone who is all of these things

[v] David goes from the slaying of Goliath to taking an unlawful wife, Solomon goes from making just laws to constructing temples for other gods. For a good analysis of how particularly Solomon runs back on the Exodus narrative, I recommend Walter Bruggemann’s Journey to the Common Good, p. 46-50

[vi] Luke 11:43. “Woe to you, white males, who love respectful greetings from law enforcement, higher wages and lower arrest rates for the same jobs and crimes as women and people of color, respectively.” I’m like halfway joking.

 

[vii] Tillich quote, because I can’t make it to the end without one

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Christianity, Episcopal Church, Episcopal Diocese of Costa Rica, International Mission, Personal, Uncategorized

A Ministry of Missing People

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This is the best picture of all time

Almost everything I touch, here in Costa Rica, is arriving from or leaving on a thousand-mile journey. The emails that make up such a frustratingly large part of my work, sending and receiving requests, updates, reprimands, and the occasional wonderful thank-you. I get and send packages and gifts, from the table scraps of old donated clothes and knick-knack souvenirs, to the gifts given with so much love and sacrifice that it’s hard to receive them. And then there’s the oddest cargo of all: the people who come down here, every one an odd mix of tourist and crusader. They come, and I spend the vast majority of my waking hours with all of them, doing the weirdest mix of construction work, sightseeing, strategizing, and spiritual vulnerability. And, after a week, they leave, and a new group comes. I don’t know if they realize how much of their mission they accomplish just by getting on a plane and coming down. And I don’t know if they realize that, as cliché as it sounds, they tug a little piece of me away when they leave, and I miss them when they’re gone.

It all makes me feel a connection with and sympathy for what that older Paul was doing, tramping across land no less harsh for being holy, writing letters, oblivious that one day his advice would become dogma.[i] Because that’s how we’re kind of trained to read them in Church, or at least how I was trained to read them, as God’s word, as theology. Paul’s letter to the Romans was my first favorite book of the Bible, with its straightforward explanation of who and what Jesus was, and its eloquent assurances that He conquered death in our lives. Lately though, I’ve become fascinated by the last chapters of Paul’s letters, which I always used to skip when I ‘studied’ the Bible, as a textbook, looking answers to my own questions. I didn’t need to know what was going on in these epilogues in which he sends his love to all the individuals, lost to history, who made up the churches he raised up. Now, I want so badly to know the stories behind the people he sends his love to, because just as my ramblings here aren’t the real story of the mission work that we do in Costa Rica, Paul’s theology is not the story of the early Church. The real story is hidden in the shoutouts, in the epilogue, in what happened when Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for Paul, how Epenetus became the first convert in Asia, how Paul and Andronicus and Junias got thrown in jail together.[ii] Because the Church isn’t a creed, it’s a community, and Paul gave up the comforts of community so that the early Church could become one. He found friends and followers wherever he went, all those cities immortalized in his letters: Corinth, Ephesus, Phillipi, Rome. He shared faith and bread with people who found through this man some sense of salvation strong enough to work with him on his insane dream. They had adventures, they stayed up late talking, the came to love each other. But Paul kept moving, and every time it was the end of summer camp, it was graduation, it was packing up your apartment and moving to a new job in a move city, and the pain of leaving is proportional to how much you let yourself love while you were there.

This ability to leave a little bit of ourselves behind is, I think, one of our super-powers as humans. It sucks, but it’s the way we overcome the inconvenient physical fact of having to be in one place at a time. And so we knit our little local lives into bigger things. From the disciples and Paul to our modern missionary friends, we go back and forth and give pieces of ourselves and take pieces of those who welcome us. We make of our little local churches the Church, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”[iii] Not because we always agree, of course. Not because we can make it through a decade without damning each other to hell. But because individuals cross the earth and risk their lives for each other, give and receive hospitality, teach and learn, get thrown in jail together, one net stretching all over the world and all the way back to Jesus himself. And it’s not just the Church, it’s the difference between people you’re related to and the family who you fly home to see for the holidays. It’s the difference between college buddies and the friends you keep up with and invite to your wedding, the kind of friends St. Augustine talks about, “Thou half my soul, for I felt that my soul and his soul were one soul in two bodies, and therefore was my life a horror to me, because I would not live halved.”[iv] It’s the difference between someone you dated when you lived somewhere else, and someone who loved enough to at least try and see what happens, because you kind of understood what Rumi wrote, “When you’re here, I stay up all night/ When you’re gone, I can’t fall asleep/ Thank God for these two insomnias/ and the difference between them.”[v]

It’s my birthday today, so I hope I can get away with all the extremely corny things I just wrote. I’m spending it away from most of the people I care the most about. And there’s a lot of sadness in that. But I feel that sense of connectedness more than ever. I’m part of a Church, part of a family, part of friendships that overcome all the miles and months of separation. And not just the distance: this love in my life conquers the separations of age, race, culture, sexual orientation, political learning. I’ve been lucky enough to love and be loved by people across all of these divides, with the missionaries who have come and gone, the family and friends I Skype with, or the friends of a friend who threw me the tiniest birthday party in my three days in Mexico. That’s all love is, in Tillich’s words: “the striving towards the reunion of the separated.” Loving anyone means standing at the other end of some divide or other wishing desperately you could be closer. And love calls us, with courage and faith and patience, to close those gaps, knowing that we’ll never quite touch, not on this earth. So, on my birthday, I feel blessed to miss my friends, my family, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Because it means that love is bigger than everything that separates us, that a piece of me is with all of them, and that Christ’s final prayer, “that they all may be one,” might still come to pass.

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[i] I know that, if some post-apocalyptic society found my email inbox and used it as part of the foundation of a new religion, it would make for some WEIRD dogma.

[ii] And in whatever the hell Alexander the coppersmith did.

[iii] C.S Lewis. Screwtape Letters. Read it.

[iv] St. Augustine. Confessions. Read it first.

[v] Rumi’s mastery: he’s writing about God, but you can use it to seduce someone too.

 

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Christianity, Episcopal Church, Episcopal Diocese of Costa Rica, Faith and Reason, Interfaith, International Mission, Mission, Theology, Uncategorized

Priorities

Last week, the Christian charity World Vision announced that it would hire people involved in same-sex marriages. In response, several prominent evangelical leaders threatened to pull support from their very popular child sponsorship programs, which provides children in rural poverty with access to food, water, shelter, and education. More good information can be found in the linked articles.

I was on the World Vision website yesterday. I was wondering if a child sponsorship program might work for our schools in Costa Rica, and they have one of the best ones. Then today I read this and this, and I wish I could say I were more surprised. One of my favorite internet forums is called “Not the Onion,” which collects headlines that look like they should be satirical Onion headlines, but are hilariously or depressingly true. This story falls under that category: I would expect to see “Evangelicals Starve Children to Get Back at Gays,” on the front page, alongside “Drugs Win Drug War,” and “Archeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race of Skeleton People.” The religious obsession has descended into self-parody.

I don’t have much more outrage to throw on the pile. What’s the point, really? There can’t be much of a middle ground. Either this looks exactly as heinous and childish as it is, or it’s a brave defense of Biblical values. It’s also exactly the kind of thing which could only happen when your politics are personal and your philanthropy is by proxy.

“That they all may be one,” Jesus prayed before his crucifixion. That’s what he wanted for his disciples, for his Church, for his Kingdom. It’s our only hope, and our greatest failure. Our worst temptation and our ugliest hour is always this kind of thing: the setting up of an idol which stands between us and the rest of God’s children. The heresies, the issues, the excuses to hate, the specifics change, but dynamic is always the same. Find the belief, the viewpoint, the idol which comforts you by telling you that you’re righteous and that some Other is sinning. Let the division spread, until the people who disagree with you aren’t brothers and sisters to be lived with, they’re enemies to be defeated. And when we can lock ourselves in and bombard ourselves with the idol: with the television we choose, the internet we choose, the books, the articles, the church we choose, the indoctrination is easier, the lines are clearer, the divides run deeper.

It’s our ability to segregate ourselves with people who agree with us that creates this monomania. We’ve maximized choice: if you want it, there’s a news station, a magazine, and author, a website, a church, filled with people who already agree with you. If you’re not careful, your worldview can become so obvious.  Until you meet the one person who shatters everything. The queer person, the atheist, the homeless man, the illegal immigrant, who makes it impossible to think what you always thought. And I think that’s why Jesus didn’t set up shop in Jerusalem, in the temple, and teach to whoever who would come. He tramped around in the dirt, pissing off the righteous by hanging with the sinner, pissing off the sinners by hanging with the righteous.

I think the only way to inject any sanity into this debate is to get outside. To meet enough people different from us until we can put faces behind these debates. Until we can get past the point where the threat of gay marriage is more real than the suffering of a child. We condemn gays in straight-only churches, we discuss gang violence and illegal immigration from inside white, wealthy neighborhoods. Jesus shared food with the Pharisees before he criticized, them, befriended a tax collector before he lectured on wealth, accepted a prostitute into his inner circle before he preached on marriage. And so his final prayer wasn’t that they all abstained from fornication, or that they all worshiped in any certain way, or that they all believed anything. His final prayer was that “they all may be one,” these people, all, different, all sinners, all beloved, were first in his mind when he prepared for his death.

So get up, go, get out, to a shift in a soup kitchen, to a friend’s church or synagogue or mosque, to another side out town, to a different country. Have a human face, one you know, a person you would pick up from the airport or call on their birthday, before you get caught in an argument. Even if we’ve never threatened to pull support from children because somewhere along the line a queer person might handle our charity, we’re all guilty of locking ourselves into a worldview and thinking of people as less than people, as pawns in some great struggle of liberal against conservative, Christian against atheist against Muslim, East against West, whatever against whatever. All these concepts are ultimately our children: politics, nations, religion itself, we made every one. But we are God’s children, and the more we invest in the world of people, especially people different than us, the less likely we are to get our priorities so hopelessly confused.

 

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Christianity, Episcopal Church, Episcopal Diocese of Costa Rica, International Mission, Mission, Multiculturalism, Theology, Uncategorized

Voluntourism Loose Ends: Valid Objections and Tentative Answers

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Some caught me reading comments at the worksite

There was a lot of awesome response to last weeks post responding to the Voluntourism article. I usually feel so isolated doing this work all the way down here, and its super fun to see people talking. That being said, I think the objections that people had, on Facebook and elsewhere, were the most interesting to read. I wanted to see if I could try and respond to them without being argumentative, but still covering my own ass. Enjoy.

Objection 1: “My biggest problem is that both this girl’s original article and your response are all about YOU. Your blog is all about how these experiences can benefit people who want to take volunteer trips and how we shouldn’t discourage them. It’s about how privileged people have to overcome hurdles and cope with guilt. But that discourse surrounding volunteerism is the exact problem. We shouldn’t be having those conversations, we should be having conversations about how volunteer actions impact the people in the countries you are physical asserting your presence in.”

This is such an important point, I should probably tape it to my mirror so I have to read it every morning while I brush my teeth. I’m constantly tempted in my job to treat poverty as a problem for wealthy white people to discuss and to fix. Which is it’s own kind of dehumanization: poverty isn’t a puzzle to be solved, its a collection of the real experiences of real people, and our discussions should begin and end with them.

The shallow response here is that I was only trying to write about the effect of mission trips on participants, as a response to an article on the same theme. But that’s not a real answer. The real answer is complicated and rooted in the concept of tragedy I brought up last time: all the solutions are so tangled up in other problems that there isn’t a clear way forward. It is evil and wrong and unhelpful  that these conversations are taking place through TED talks and blogs, between people privileged enough to have the technology and leisure to participate. But it would be just as evil as wrong for me to presume to speak for those on the outside. All I can trust myself to write is my own experiences. This is actually a huge problem in the nonprofit sector: privileged people using their position to assure other privileged people that the lives of the poor of course are being changed, don’t worry about it, look at this school we just built, look at these pictures of all these smiling children. People like me, doing this kind of work, are already such tenuous bridges across the global poverty divide that the poor can’t cross and the rich don’t want to. We have way too much power to influence one side’s perception of the other.

So, yes, this flurry of articles about the experience rich people have working with poverty is kind of missing the point. In many ways my whole entire blog is missing the point. But it would be even more dangerous, and even more dehumanizing, if I used my blog as a platform to assure the few, mostly-rich, mostly-American people who follow it that the poor here are or aren’t overjoyed with the work we’re doing. And so, like I said last week, we have to muddle through just so we can get to the place where we can start addressing the real issues. For instance, that the places where the conversations surrounding poverty take place: our corners of the Internet, our institutions of higher education, our government agencies, the upper levels of our non-profits and our churches, are gated communities as surely as our suburbs are. Our best hope is that, with these awkward half-measures, we can create the networks and the friendships which will allow the people we’re supposedly trying to help to add their own voices to these conversations. Bringing people here from America, even if it sometimes looks too much like tourism or too much like colonialism, is the only way I know right now to get both parties in the same room and start to talk about aid work. I hate feeling stuck between the bad choices of only talking about me or trying to speak for them. Addressing this objection is one of the main reasons I’m doing this job, to get and to bring others close enough to have this dialogues, authentically and organically, with the people we’re trying to help. And when I get there, I’ll let you know.

Objection 2: “The problem is the premise that I have to go further than, in my case, across the river to work with the poor. It’s particularly wasteful and culturally destructive, for me to take myself to [insert third world country here] when I have the poor in my life and community every day. It reinforces the idea that poverty, material or otherwise, happens to “other people” who are so separated from me I can’t even meaningfully interact with them, and who are so desparate my random inexpert piddling contribution is in any sense a profound or helpful change to their lives.”

Again, on the one hand, I completely agree. In the United States, we’re experts in making poverty disappear. I remember going on trips to the woods with the Outreach director of the homeless shelter I worked at and being absolutely shocked by the number of people living in under tarps or cardboard boxes or large rocks, right in the city. Making poverty a far-away problem is just another layer of invisibility that can be cast over our near neighbors. I truly believe that much spiritual pain and unrest in the rich world begins with the cognitive dissonance of some of the richest people in the world living so close to, but so out of community with, real poverty.

I do, however, want to urge against the false choice that we can either help the people near us or the people far away from us. If that were true, then all of the people who paid time and money to come down to work in Costa Rica would be all the people who hadn’t used up all that time and money helping their neighbors back home. But that isn’t true: generally we get the people who are also taking time and money to participate in their spiritual communities and service organizations back home. Because we’re, or at least I’m, not trying to find a way to shuffle the resources we have around to do the most good. We’re trying to change lives, on both sides, in such a way that our communities don’t expect to solve poverty with 3% of their income. If we can really buy into the idea that you can’t separate the idea of God from the idea ideas of justice and community, we’ll get a lot better at helping both the people near us and the people far away from us. If we can do that, we we’ll get a lot better at addressing local and international poverty in ways which are, hopefully, profound and helpful.

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