Monday, December 17, 2012

On the way home, being a stranger with candy, and so on

Schipol airport, Amsterdam.

On the way home
I’m sitting in the “library” in the airport—“we invite you to read, download, and explore Dutch culture”—there is also a note that says politely that the sleeping area is upstairs. I’m sitting at a long counter with 20 other people, all of us industriously attached to our devices.  I just drank water from the tap and displayed in front of me sits a book entitled “Dutch Delftware: Vases with Spouts/Three Centuries of Splendor.” What a contrast.

Of our group, Tom is the only one who has been to Africa before (and already has plans to be back in 2013), and I think the remaining four of us are struggling a little to figure out how the last two weeks will assimilate into our “regular” lives of busy-ness and privilege.  We are clear that there is a lot to learn; how the groups we’ve met fit into their wider networks of advocacy and service, how these relationships will be sustained, and how we can best use our resources to help.  And we have fickle hearts. In Tanzania what we were doing seemed so important, and it is, but the level of fundamental need in Uganda was even more staggering.  There are still landmines left in the hills near Kasese, and war and AIDS have decimated the social structure.  There are so many places where it just seems like there are no adults; there just aren’t any.   But I also would love for all those churches not to have dirt floors, and I also have faith that those relationships will deepen.

It’s hard to compare the experiences of each country as well. The Uganda time couldn’t be more different than Tanzania, though each casts light on the other. In Tanzania, our interactions were almost according to ritual; we came, we did church, welcomed, thanked.  It was glorious. But it was mediated in a very distinct way through that structure. Held in the container of shared faith, it was easier to feel connected and to have a kind of narrative thread to hold it all together.   Even though we interpreted the ideas differently, the church provided a common language.  In the Sunday service on our last day, when I was at the altar with the priests there I could feel in my bones that yes, there is all kinds of sin and inequality and injustice, but that there is a unity below it that can transcend everything.  Or at least it feels like it can.  I do, after all, have a BA in gender studies, and am very aware of how power and privilege and difference get in the way of real community.

In Uganda, there’s still plenty of praying (each workday begins with a 30 minute long staff chapel service, where one of the staff offers a short meditation). And of course our shared faith (no matter what the institutional churches say about who’s going to hell) offers a link. And of course everywhere, whatever belief or lack of belief, mediated--or not--through a religious tradition, love and respect and mutuality are always a gift.  For my personal preferences, though, the girl with the incense brings me to my happy place very quickly.

So we all have a lot to learn.  Like any organization founded by a strong leader (and, in this case, named for him) succession and leadership development and institutional growth is a challenge. BMCF, though, is an international organization with an American board as well as a Ugandan one, and all of our time with them was very smooth and strategic.  We had a meeting with “stakeholders” (teachers and students), were intentionally introduced to the present and future focus in the healthcare and children’s programs with personal contact with intentionally representative groups. The BMCF is not a bunch of naïve people singing about Jesus who just want to help.  So I guess the familiar language of the nonprofit world offered some connective tissue, as does the wonder-filed passion of those who are doing the work. And Jesus.

On being a stranger with candy—a lot of candy.
Looking back over these posts, I set out with a fairly nebulous sense of purpose on this trip. I wanted to go. I fretted about what I bringing in my suitcase—candy and bubbles are, in some ways, literally useless (there was also paper and colored pencils, which for sure are more practical).  Being with kids who have very limited opportunity actually to be kids, though, “useless” kids stuff takes on a whole new significance. 

It felt awkward to be the one with all the candy—more on that below—but seeing the kids was delightful. Those kids have so many adult-sized problems, and to see them just having fun and simple pleasure is a big deal.  A lollipop won’t bring back their dead parents and the bubbles pop right away. But to have a few seconds to focus on something else counts for something.  I think one of my landmark moments was seeing a one year old at the clinic waiting for vaccinations with a lollipop in each fist while breastfeeding. Embarrassment of riches!

At first, it felt very awkward to show up as a random stranger with goodies.  I felt so acutely the power dynamic of being the “have-er” in the midst of the “want-ers.”   I decided who had already gotten one and was fibbing about collecting for “my sister,”  and I decided who got one next and when everything got put away. And you know what? Yes, it’s uncomfortable.  I don’t enjoy feeling needy, either, though it happens often enough. I need one of those meme pictures of Willy Wonka with him looking condescending, saying, “I can’t wait, tell me about how your privilege makes you so uncomfortable.” I’m flying home to dressed and healthy children, with whom my greatest complaint is their reluctance to brush their teeth at a sink with running hot and cold water after a meal prepared indoors. Really? Uncomfortable? Do tell. 

Yes, I’m uncomfortable, and that’s important.  I heard a quote from Rabbi Abraham Heschel about inequality recently: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” I did not create a colonial empire that abused individuals and families, aided and abetted genocide, and continues to hobble emerging economies through its aid and foreign policies.  Send US grown grain to a poor country? Of course! But what happens when all of that “free” food floods the market and the bottom falls out for local growers? Oops. Our entire government didn’t think of that, did they.

So, yes, I did not personally create the market conditions for poverty or the social conditions for an AIDS epidemic. But given the sheer quantity of “getting” that I do, there is a lot more giving to be done. And inviting others into it, and saying, yes, it really does look like the pictures and yes, these are beautiful and funny and smart kids who have just as much a right to flourishing and imagining their future as mine do.  And, by the way, global warming: you can bet that the drought in Tanzania is caused directly by the climate change that our car-driving, single-serve package, new-stuff-buying lifestyle. And I am both guilty and responsible for that.

Grace, anyway
Still, I think of those moments of church in Tanzania, or the 45 minutes I spent with Pree sleeping on my shoulder or Amy surrounded by kids doing the hokey pokey. There have been transcendent moments where time stands still and all of the separation melts away, where holiness pushes aside all of the brokenness and pain and guilt and the sky opens.

As a Christian, I understand those times to be Jesus moments--Jesus was always pulling people in who didn’t fit in other places and making something new.  Whores and bad guys and, yes, kids, were at the center of his mission—to throw open the doors and let absolutely everybody have the life and grace that he knew was their birthright.  As children of God all of us, imperfect and needy and making bad choices all over the place, are loved and treasured no matter what the world says.  There’s forgiveness, there, both for well-meaning but often clueless do-gooders as well as for the adults who have let these kids down. And for them, a promise that poverty and illness don’t have the last word.

I have been away from home for 16 days—at least 4 of those on a plane or bus trying to get somewhere. So I don’t pretend to have any answers after two weeks. I have a lot of questions, and a lot of interpretations. Spiritually, I know the places I want to return—to that moment of being completely cracked open and flooded with light in that church in Kihurio, Tanzania, where all the women and some men and lots of kids came out singing to meet us on the road and brought us in. I want to return to that moment of eating together, of communion and being joined in the mystery of sacrament and silence and riotous music in Amboni.  I want to return to the love in Ann’s eyes when she talks about her seven foster kids and the future that’s possible for them, one of whom came to her at just a few weeks old, for whom she is all the mother she has had.   And all of those dirt floors swept clean and all the prayers said in gratitude for whatever we have been given, no matter how small. And I want to hang on to the requests—Bahati, one of the teachers at a school that has kids sponsored by BMCF, who sent us a meticulously handwritten note asking that we double our support, and Kizara’s need for hospital beds at the clinic up in the mountains, and even the housekeeper at the hotel where we stayed who asked us for money for a suitcase. I want to be on the hook for that, to remember to tell these stories and not just come home with some lovely baskets and a sunburn, but a mission and a hope for the future.

Finally, I want to remember to be moved.
We heard about the Newtown killings in a text message to Tom from Mally at the diocesan office, and spent the day on the road wondering what had happened. As the details emerged and it got worse and worse, all we could do was be silent and remember that there is insecurity and danger, even at home.  Our culture does not have a lock on communitarian goodness or even any claim to functional society by a longshot.  Next, of course, was to question why our country doesn’t have meaningful gun laws. Not asking that question is a little like getting sick from bad food and then going back for seconds and wondering why you got sick again.  Not politics, causality. Nobody needs an assault rifle. Nobody.

So there has been plenty of Good Friday, but we have also often noted how without the blare of Christmas music from everywhere, Advent has been quite a different prospect. Heaven knows that the amount of time we’ve spent in the car has been an excellent waiting discipline. So Christmas is in a week—that moment where the world gets turned upside down and God becomes human and goes to the unlikeliest, poorest place, and lights it on fire with God’s grace and call to peace and justice; a powerless baby telling everyone to wake up and know that everything can be different, that there is enough, that we can be different. 

And for now, that will have to be enough.
Thanks for reading.

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