Sunday, December 23, 2007

Love and Loneliness

I have never been much of a romantic but I must say, as of late- love is all around. In every song I see, in every park I pass, there seems to be some sign of romance. And movies- movies kill me. I can’t watch anything which has an even somewhat romantic theme- and that’s 99% of movies. Even Transformers (car robots blowin’ crap up) had a love theme to it, and please, don’t ask how I know. It seems love in full bloom everywhere- everywhere but here.

Don't get me wrong- I love my life here. I love these kids and feel like at this moment, that’s who should receive every ounce of my energy and care. But ya know, something happened in Chile and continues on in Ecuador that is making me want to organize my life not around success anymore- but love.

I know what you might be thinking among other things (he’s gone crazy). But the answer is no- both to the craziness part, and what I think many might be thinking … I won’t find someone in Ecuador. There’s something to being alone, cursing it, and then grudgingly bearing it. Born into a generation desperate for quick fix diets and the like, it appears we rarely understand the need to experience loneliness in order to truthfully understand love. Call it what you will, judge it as you see fit- but I don’t want a quick fix. And so, the long loneliness ensues.

You wanna do service abroad? All the good stuff the brochures and recruiters say- it’s all true. But there’s another side to this that no one seems to mention. It can be lonely and it can be difficult. And ironically enough, a lot of that is what makes it worth it in the end. You have the opportunity to discover brokenness in your service that completes you. It unites you in solidarity with those you work amongst. It is that brokenness that will teach you how to embrace love.

And so I think this much is certain in the life of an international volunteer: a juxtapose of overwhelming genuine love and incredible loneliness.

I made a choice that changed my life in ways I never planned. And ya know, I don’t regret any of it, because it’s making me who I’ve always wanted to be. As Christmas looms on the horizon, it’s hard not to get a lil’ sad and feel a bit lonely. But I’m reminded of another quote I found while studying in Dublin: “Home isn’t where you’re from; it’s where they know you the best.” The past two years have changed me in such a way that I can say- I’m at home this Christmas. At home amongst the kids I have grown to love, at home with the love and loneliness that are present in my life… at home amongst myself.

I pondered whether or not to publish this reflection. It’s personal, very easily misunderstood and let’s be honest- pretty damn cheesy. But in the end, I heard lyrics from a John Mayer song “Say” that made me realize what to do. “You better know that in the end, it’s better to say too much, then to never have to say what you need to say again…do it with a heart wide open and say what you need to say.”

Happy Holidays from me and the kids at The Working Boys Center!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Art of Sitting

Sitting. I realized the other day how complex it really is. I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful volunteer community of Rostro de Cristo this past weekend. It’s a community in Southern Ecuador, in a town called Duran. Coincidentally, I visited this community 2.5 years ago and it was there I realized my call to do service in Latin America.

And so going back to Duran was moving. I saw some of the same sights and met with some of the same people that moved me to move to Latin America. And in the process, I did a lot of sitting. Entering people’s houses and over the course of hours, just talking. It’s a common theme of almost any international volunteer experience. And it’s the part I struggle with most.

But this past weekend in Duran I sat like a true champ. I looked at photos of a family and volunteers I didn’t know and as they shared their story with me I shared mine with them. I soaked in sweat and gulfed down some of the best Arroz con Pollo I’ve ever had. I played dominos with a group of elderly, outcast lepers for hours on end. And in all three situations- I shared in the quiet, sometimes awkward solitude of companionship. I learned to just “be.”

In many ways, we are called less to be servants and more to be present to people. It shouldn’t excuse us from working where we are called, even needed, but rather it should permeate in our work in such a way that we never lose sight of what, or that is to say- who, we are working for.

You can only fight so much for a cause you don’t intimately know. If you want to learn about poverty, if you want to learn about love, reading Jeff Sachs poverty book isn’t enough. You have to meet the people that embody the experience. You have to embrace who they are in such a way where both their unjust suffering and their inexplicable joy infiltrate your defenses so you connect with them. And you’d want to do anything to eradicate the injustice that victimizes them.

And so, bringing this back home, I have a simple challenge this holiday season. May we all can try and see the world less through the marketing of “presents” and more through the challenge of giving all of ourselves through “presence” to those we love, and even those we don’t know. Sit with people and learn their stories. And in the process of sharing your own story, you might even learn a little more about who you really are. Happy Holiday’s Y’all.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Volunteering: The Big Reality Break

(This is a journal entry written in July while I was volunteering in Chile. I thought it was a pertinent response to something I have heard one too many volunteers relate to. I have edited it a bit to mix experiences both from Chile and Ecuador.)

Taking a break from the real world. “A year or two off from reality” seems to be the catch phrase many people have used to explain my decision to commit two years of my life after college to international volunteer work. And I’m here to tell you- what a break it’s been!

What’s my life like as a volunteer in a foreign country? First, live and communicate in a foreign language. Move away from everything you love and feel secure in, everything that validates you. Leave all that false security to come to a foreign land and have your day to day experience be radically changed into nothing more than a humbling attempt to get up after you have fallen again and again. But unlike other trying moments in your life before, there are no friends around that can help you out. No night out for happy hour or anything like that. There is a cold house that leaks when it rains, and is freezing in the coldest of weather and a sauna on the hottest of days. It is there, in that excuse of a shelter you will find out what you’re made of, you will find out who you are.

Then you have to look beyond yourself and open your eyes to a horribly depressing story called poverty that plays out day to day. I teach a group of kids that often times are the principle bread winners of their family. Do you have any idea what it feels like to look into the weary eyes of a 7 year old child whose hands are blackened after hours of shining shoes? It is neither glorified nor cute. It just is what it is: someone else’s cold, hard reality. And you, you’re a helpless witness to a tragedy you can only do so much to change.

You still want to talk about reality?

I didn’t take any break from reality when I graduated college. I’d say the 22 years of life I lived up until my time in South America was the true break from reality as the majority of the world knows it. No disrespect to anyone in continuing education or working the day to day in the United States. I do not discount the trials and tribulations that pass through your life.

So for God sakes, give me a break and, at the very least, recognize that what I have chosen to do with my life is the furthest thing from a vacation or play time. I am an eyewitness to the grace of God at her best, and the power of humanity at our worst. I see and live intimately in both extremes. And I pay the full price of my ticket, every damn day.

So until you have seen injustice at its worst and had the ugliest and weakest of yourself revealed in it, you have no right to merely “glance” at what I am doing- and without an ounce of experience in it, demean it as something that is only cutesy and idealistic.

I guess I just need to know this: if encountering and battling poverty manifested in one’s own personal identity and the world at large isn’t reality…then what in God’s name is your definition of reality?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Blast From the Past, A Fear For the Future

The decision to do service abroad is the result of the accumulation of several events over my life. But it was a trip to Southern Ecuador with the Alternative Spring Break program at LMU that I must credit with giving me that final push. I had just seen poverty at its ugliest the day before. I felt worthless and utterly hopeless in the face of it, and for the first time in my life, began to buy into that pessimistic view that nothing can be done to battle the poverty epidemic. And in walked Pat.

I never got her last name or fully understood exactly what she did. But what I will remember is the talk she gave to my group that day, and the way it made me feel. “Having just seen what you all have seen” she said, “you have a moral obligation to do something about it.” She concluded by telling us that, in the face of such devastation of innocent life, “we have no right to fail.” There was a certain confidence that emanated from her in the face of such dire conditions, and it was allergic. We don’t have many moments in our lives that we can point to and say “there, that was when I decided to make a life changing decision.” But this was one of those moments. There is a bracelet I received that day, a bracelet I have not once taken off in over 2.5 years in order to always remind myself why it is I needed to come back to Latin America.

Over the last year, I had tried many times to write a letter to thank her. I had always wanted to do service but was so afraid. She gave me the courage to take a leap of faith that to this day still surprises and amazes me. And when I decided to leave Chile and return to Ecuador I couldn’t help but think about that life changing moment. I couldn’t help but wonder about Pat.

The other day, at a Mass at The Working Boys Center, a good 12 hours from Duran, I saw Pat. I knew she didn’t remember me, but still, I felt I had to say something. I walked over and, avoiding any attempts at poise and tact, said “Hi. You don’t really know me. But you gave a talk to a college group one day in Duran and well, you’re the reason I’m here doing what I am doing.” I babbled a few more incoherent words, and then just said, “you probably never realized it, but your talk that day made a big difference in my life. I just want to thank you for how you inspired me and gave me the courage to be here.”

Seeing Pat made me realize just how happy I am with this decision to do post-grad service. It has made me genuine and permitted me to love and be loved like I never allowed. And so, seeing Pat also made me realize something else. Though it may be many, many months away, I’m so incredibly scared to return to the United States. I have changed so much since I left. And frankly, I don’t know if who I am here can survive the daily ritual of life in the States. The priority to do all things out of love and with love seems to get lost. My two weeks home taught me that as much as I wanted to hear everyone else’s story, not many people, save but a few really good friends, cared to hear mine. “How was it?” was the question of the day it seemed no one truly wanted an answer to. And you know, before my time down here, I was that otherwise well intentioned but not truly caring guy as well. I don’t want to become him again, and I’m so afraid when I go back to the United States I might lose the courage to stay true to what I have learned here.

And perhaps my next moral obligation as Pat might say is finding how to take who I am and what I do here and bring it back home. In a new twist on an old theme, seeing Pat 2.5 years later reminded me that, here or there, I have no right to fail.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My Biggest Mistake Yet

For the last few weeks I have been heading to school with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I wish it was an exaggeration, but I’m here to tell you that a devastating mistake I made some five weeks ago created unbelievable repercussions on my happiness for sometime now.

It all happened when I thought I heard one of my students call me a maricon. It was already building into a long day, and as I’ve come to learn, the quickest lapse of sound judgment can be the most dangerous.

I snapped. I ripped her apart, berating her about the lack of respect. I went on and on, demanding accountability for her actions. She denied any wrongdoing, refusing to admit she called me what I was so sure she called me. And you know, playing the moment over and over in my head again, a bit of doubt has began to creep in, questioning me to wonder if I really did hear her wrong.

Anyway, on I went, humiliating this poor girl in front of the rest of the class until I finally forced her to break down- sobbing and embarrassed. I stood there in front of the class, just having humiliated one of my poor students into tears. Mr. Tough guy, just like I felt I had to be- feeling like the biggest and most worthless jackass in the world.

Two days later I was in a bind. I couldn’t shake the guilt of my actions like the Patrick Furlong before South America might have been able to so easily have done. It became a moment in my young teaching career where the supposed mistake of the student paled in comparison to my mistake, that of the educator. And so, I made one of my most difficult but altogether important decisions: I humbled myself and apologized to this young girl. Throughout it all, she never once looked me in the eye or even acknowledged what I was saying to her.

Five weeks had crawled by and she still wouldn’t speak to me or even look at me. Racked with an incredible guilt that wasn’t disappearing anytime soon, I did everything I could to reverse the situation: all to no avail. A child was entrusted into my care, and I violated that trust. And she had every right to feel and act the way she did. She even got her little friends to ignore me as well. I was once like a saint to these children, and now I was nothing more than a jerk whose existence was acknowledged with a silent eye roll (and these kids give killer eye rolls). And so what once was my personal heaven, the downtown center in “La Marin”- quickly became my nightmare.

I submitted myself to my own trials of humiliation when day after day I would attempt conversation with her and day after day, she ignored me. And so imagine my surprise the other day when at last, she responded to me. It was nothing major, a short conversation about something or other at school, but the look in her eyes moved me profoundly. There are times, I am convinced, where God DIRECTLY communicates with you through another human being. It was as though the lesson of a lifetime was conveyed through her cautious eyes.

I went to a little hidden nook in the center after that little conversation and shed a few tears of relief and ultimately, of sincere thanks. In the end, 6th grade Diana taught me a think or two about forgiveness. And through her forgiveness, I’d like to think I learned more in that one shameful downfall then I might throughout the rest of the year about what kind of teacher, what kind of person I not only should be, but desire to be as well.

I have learned a lot about vulnerability over the last 15 months and would like to propose it is perhaps the most misunderstood adjective in our language. Perhaps it conjures images of susceptibility or weakness. But to me, vulnerability is having the courage to declare we are broken, and as a result, incredibly blessed. It’s looking at the world with the walls of our defense down. It’s allowing the human condition which seeks to permeate through our being to do just that. Ours is a life of co-dependency. To be vulnerable therefore is nothing more than to love without limits.

It’s taken a bunch of street kids and some lonely and challenging moments to teacher me the greatest lesson of my short life. Call it cheesy or call it cliché, but the only thing worth a damn in this life is finding a way to open ourselves freely to love in a way in which we live fully in the consequences: the sadness and the pain, the joy and euphoria. We all make grand mistakes, but perhaps the biggest of all would be to allow our pride to blind us in such a way that we see vulnerability as a weakness rather than our most admirable strength.

(Oh, and an update since I wrote this journal entry. Things with Diana are going great. She is talking to me again, joking and laughing, and even gave me a hug as I left work the other day.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

When a Student Drops Out

I lost a student the other day. I walked into class and was told that Jose Luis won’t be coming back to the center. He apparently just up and left. I’m told it’s a common occurrence at the center. But I got so into my routine I guess I just kinda forgot it might happen. The problem with my routine however, is that the more I got into it, the more I cared about the well being of each of my students. You develop a relationship that I really think sustains you through the monotony of doing simple math and reading exercises over and over again. If you don’t love these kids, you can’t do that shit again and again, because to be perfectly honest, I hate teaching and yet, I love my job. Why? Because I love my students. And so losing my first one, has really been a personal blow, and I am still reeling.

Those of you who have been keeping in touch with me have no doubt been subject to my relentless conversations about Jose Luis, my 17 year old student who bravely began attending school for the first time ever this year. When I first got him, he couldn’t write his own name, count past 10, or even recite the first 5 letters of the alphabet.

But over time, we began to see progress. The last class I had with him, we were doing simple addition and subtraction, counting to 100, and reading small and basic sentences. Everyday was at once frustrating and enlivening. For so long, I struggled with him, but near the end, it was like something clicked. You work with a kid long enough and you learn how he learns. I learned about Jose Luis, and began teaching to how he learns. And as we began to see progress, there was this sense of excitement about what was going on. A life was changing, he was learning and it was having a tremendous impact on every aspect of his life. And I was in the front row, blessed to witness it all!

I go to bed tonight and I wonder where this kid is. You can’t over dramatize what it is we do, because in the end, we are nothing but a tiny peg in the system. But with this kid, my role was bigger. I really had an opportunity to do something substantial. To teach a kid to count his bus fare, to read. Really, it was beginning to see a future for a kid that once had none.

One of our last days of class, timid Jose came in and started giving me lip. I was so taken aback that it took me a while to realize what he was fussing about. He was holding up a book his cousin lent him, demanding me to account for why he couldn’t read it. Teach me more, teach me faster. Professor, please, push me more, he told me. And just like that, the motivation my student had found deep within himself lit a spark of my own. Quiet Jose, demanding to learn more. I had planned this week to try and squeeze in more hours one on one, so we could move him along more rapidly. I had all these grand visions of what we’d do. For Christ sake, I had a kid begging to learn, begging for homework, begging for more class time!

And none of that will happen. I lost a student and I’m losing sleep on it. He’ll never learn again, I know he won’t. I hate to be so cynical, but every core of my body knows this to be true. There is no fairy tail ending, no life lesson learned. At this moment there is me, in this room, looking at the lesson plans I had created just for him that are now wasted. Jose Luis is gone, and with him went an opportunity to get educated, an opportunity to break out of poverty. Why? Life isn’t fair, but damn it, sometimes it should be.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Choices We Have To Live With

Punishment is a tricky thing here at the center. The basic facts of the matter are that kids are kids no matter what part of the world you find them in. And being in the position of a teacher now, that also means inevitably my priorities (that they learn something) are going to clash with one of their most frequent priorities (that they get away with doing something they should not be doing). That said I always hated hearing that classic teacher’s diatribe about how “this is not a democracy and blah blah blah”…and wouldn’t you know I used it the other night.

Make rules and keep them consistent. Establish your classroom management. The advice was all there, and it all seemed so easy. And yet, I’ve learned in my brief time here, as a teacher, if there is anything that is my responsibility, it’s less about sticking with the rules I made and more about seeing these kids and situations through loving and logical eyes. For if kids are a tricky thing, so too are parents.

I confiscated a cell phone the other day. RULE= Items that have nothing to do with my class become mine for a week. And so, when a 10 year old was text messaging under her desk (something I did countless times as a student) I seized the phone. The girl stayed after class and begged for her phone. My response was simple. No. After my next class, she was there again, begging even more. No. Tears were almost in here eyes. But rules are rules, and I insisted, no.

And then near the end of the day, I started to process just why she was so desperate. It was nagging me, something about the way she looked at me. You get to know your students in a way where an unusual reaction stands out. Not exactly one of the teacher’s pets, this girl had already had her fair share of runs in and punishment with me, and never flinched before. So why now? I spoke with a colleague who put it into perspective. “Some of the parents here are still learning good parenting. And so, her mom might hit her if she comes home without a phone tonight.” There it was, clear as day, and complicated as all hell. Keep the phone and drive home my point of classroom management. But at what possible cost? It was my call.

Follow through seemed less and less viable but I didn’t want to let the girl walk off free of punishment for breaking a rule. And as the day came to a close, out of time and without an answer, I pulled the student aside from a class to speak to her. Maybe I am a sucker and maybe it will come back to bite me, but I gave her the phone back with nothing more than a talk about respect and a huge assignment: writing lines. I told her she was a great student but I needed her to be more attentive. Next time I wouldn’t be so lenient, but I told her I was hoping there would not be a next time.

I left school that day, failing at the one thing every expert told me was a must win situation: class room management. But I can tell you this. I slept a little easier knowing that in the everyday struggle to size up as a teacher, I at least had the common sense to look at the student first, the rules I created before I knew what I was doing, second. Would she have gotten hit by her parent? I don’t know, but I at least learned a little something about myself that day. Simply enough, whether she would get hit or not wasn’t a gamble I was willing to take over a stupid cell phone. That said, tomorrow it’s back to the routine rhetoric of “this is not a democracy… this is a pure and simple dictatorship.” (= Just kiddin, I don’t really say that… at least not the dictator part.

Monday, October 01, 2007

My Legs Hurt- My Life As a Teacher

My legs hurt and I’m talking to myself a lot. It’s been about a month in the classroom now, and that is the short and sweet analysis of it.

I guess it makes sense. I mean, most of my days start boarding a bus at 7:10 AM to head to our downtown school. Unfortunately, the downtown school is very urbanized and therefore lacks adequate playground equipment. And so, from 7:45 AM to about 8:00 AM I serve as the in-house jungle gym for all the younger kids. Truth be told, it’s a highlight of my day, no matter how tired I am.

And come 8:00 AM, the magic begins. Downtown, I’m teaching English to little kids, or that is to say, corrupting young minds to say the most essential of English phrases. You know, “book, eraser, hello, hi, I’m fine, Patrick is the coolest person ever,” etc… So two hours of English and then two hours of what we call Girl’s Program. Girl’s program is time we provide our girls while the boys are out working. It’s their time to learn to cook, work on the computers, and make arts and crafts that they are able to sell and make money off of. It’s also a great opportunity to get to know the story of these little girls, and for that, it runs a close second to the human jungle gym as the best part of my day.

And come noon, I am on a slow moving city bus working my way back to our other campus. A quick bite to eat, a scan of the Miami Herald, and I am off to my most magical class. I don’t know what more I can say other than I taught a 17 year old boy how to read a sentence and count past 20 for the first time in his life. You can’t put a price tag on being present for that moment. And so three hours a day I work with him and three other students with one simple goal: get them up to the educational level they should be in Math and Spanish reading, and do it quick. It is my most challenging course, and my most meaningful one as well.

Come 5 PM, it’s English with little boys. Come evening, on Monday and Tuesday I am teaching Industrial English (words I don’t understand in English or Spanish) and Religion the rest of the week. At 8:30 PM, I call it a day, and head home where we eat dinner as a community. A little lesson planning and paper grading, and then off to bed and the whole process starts over again. It is not much of an exaggeration to say personal time is bed time. Period.

There is so much room to complain about the long days, until your think about your students. I can’t begin to explain to you how moving it is day in and day out to meet my evening English class and shake the little blackened hands of boys who themselves have been working all day as well- but they make their living shining shoes. On my weekends, I have the opportunity sometimes to participate in house building projects in the community or respond to the whinny chants of Ecuadorian kids calling my name to join their pick-up game of basketball. Did I mention we live on the campus we work on? It’s the coolest thing ever to hear them shouting for you to come outside. And ever played bball with little Ecuadorian kids? Two words on how it makes you feel- Michael Jordan.

So here I am, living in Quito, Ecuador, working with one of the most phenomenal organizations ever. My legs hurt and I am talking to myself a lot. A small price to pay for the many gifts this experience is giving me.

“Don’t ask so much what the world needs. Go out and do what makes you come alive, because what the world needs most are people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

If you are new here...

I got a large amount of emails from strangers all around the country responding to the story at Catholic News Service.

Please feel free to read some of the posts that try and say what it is like being a volunteer after college.

Also feel free to subscribe to email updates in the right hand corner. I post about every two weeks.

Lastly, the drive to get my kids in Ecuador good supplies continues. As such, there is a paypal donate link to the right hand corner, everything helps!

And ok, this is the real lastly, please feel free to email me or comment with any questions or comments and thanks for taking the time to check the page out...

Papa Vs. Papa- An intro into learning Spanish

Spanish is a hard language to master. Think about the following...

In English, there are six different tenses of a verb like “to eat” for example. There is the present, past, the future, the present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect. The last three are based on the first three and are compound verbs, which means they require a helping verb. Stay with me, it will be worth it.

Six. A challenge to be sure, but let’s look at what the Spanish language throws at us.

Instead of six tenses, we have 14 (grant it not all are commonly used but you still have to at least be able to recognize em’ when they come up). In addition, Spanish verbs change, depending on who we refer to. In English, I ate, you ate, they ate, etc... The verb does not change with the subject. Memorize the simple forms of the verb, and you’re good… But in Spanish, think of it this way: I ate, you ates, he or she or “the other you” (we’ll get to that soon) ato, we atemos, they aten... are you still with me?

Now about that “other you”... Spanish has two forms of the word you- (sometimes three but that is beyond today’s lesson today) an impersonal form and personal (wud up) form. Figuring out when to use which you can be a social etiquette nightmare in itself Not to beat a dead horse, but to say the word “for”, you use por or para, but each have their own laws of usage and are not interchangeable. Damn.

Perhaps at this point you are confused. First, bienvenido a mi vida (welcome to my life) for the last year. Second, let me break it down in numbers...

English= 6 ways to use any given verb.
Spanish= 70… mas o menos.

And so, say I want to learn all 501 verbs in my book of “commonly used verbs” appropriately titled 501 Spanish Verbs.

In English, it would be 3,006 forms. DRUMROLL PLEASE…
In Spanish, we are looking at learning 35,070 forms.
There are no typos here... so please, just sit with the difference between those numbers for a moment.

And, once you master the verbs, such fun things such as gender assignment to nouns and adjectives await. La cabeza and el cabeza, spelled the same and all but yet two different things because one is a feminine word and the other, masculine (la is feminine and el masculine). El papa is the pope. La papa, the Irish pope- that is to say, nothing more than a potato.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

First Thoughts From Ecuador

After a few days in Quito, Ecuador at the Working Boys Center, I have a few observations right off the bat.

First, elevation sucks. Think about it like this: Quito is a city, at 9,000 feet, about two times as high as Denver which is known as the mile high city. If that weren’t enough, the city is full of hills here and a climb there. San Francisco has hills too you say? Please, a walk in the park compared to this place. If you were in need of a good laugh, I wish you could have seen me play soccer today- both for the elevation and because, well, the only goal I had was against my team.

Second, here, they use the word voluntario not misonero to describe me and they dig spicy food like no other. If that’s not saying Ecuador is the place for me to be, I dunno what is.

But my most important observation is this: this place is something special and unique. People have asked what it is I do and what it is we as a center do? I’ll update you on my own unique roll later, leaving us to describe what it is we, as a center do. Since I am going to be a teacher, here is your homework assignment dear reader. Find a way to articulate in a brief paragraph all this that is done by the Working Boys Center. It may seem like a lot, but rest assured, I left a lot of amazing things out in the interest of space. Good luck!

• 35,000 meals served a week
• 5,000 families (25,000 people) pulled out of poverty in the last 40 years, according to an independent and external analysis of the Center.
• In terms of education, we have Day Care and Early Childhood Education, Grammar School, Technical Education, and Adult Education spanning across three campuses.
• Our kids and their families have free access to on site MD’s and Dentists, as well as a psychologist.
• The Center has a program called “Drop of Milk” providing milk, nutrients supplements, medical attention and parenting skills to mothers in the wider Quito area who have malnourished kids.
• All of our participants participate in community service. The most common and popular is our Sunday “Mingas” which are house building opportunities in the community.
• Again and again, I have heard that we are not a charity program, we are a development program. To that end, participants receive financial budgeting lessons and our boys, who continue to work while going to school (I can explain about why the kids continue to work in a future post), are required to have a savings account with the center. When they graduate, they are given that money as seed money to enter whatever trade they desire.
• Microcredit, otherwise known as small loans, can be applied for by graduates who wish to start up their own business.
• The center also operates shops and businesses like a restaurant and toy store on site that are visited by the greater Quito community and also provide our students great in house training.

I can not tell you how inspiring it is to be a part of this. What’s more, individuals and groups who wish to visit the center get room and board, wait for it… FREE OF CHARGE!

Sounds great, right? But does it work? Consider the following…

Before joining the Working Boys Center (WBC), 60.30% of the participants surveyed in this external analysis of the center lived in single room dwellings. After joining the center, that figure dropped to 2.90%. * One last stat- before joining the center, 40.50% had potable water access. After graduating, 94.70% of participants receive potable water.*

There is not enough space to proclaim the good deeds of this place. And I know, I have not even been here a week, aren’t I getting ahead of myself? Personal challenges aside, like the, “holy crap I am a teacher molding young minds panic attack”- I think if you came and saw this place you too would be amazed. It’s like, after years and years of work and study in this area, for the first time I am a part of something that aims not to be a band aid but a set of tools (be they carpentry, auto mechanics or baking, etc..) meant to empower people to break the cycle of poverty that has possible been persistent in over three generations of their family. This place says it wants to end poverty in the lives of its participants- and it works.

Don’t believe me? That’s fine. Come and see for yourself, after all, you only need to pay for airfare- we’ll provide the rest. (=

*Facts and figures from The External Study of the Impact of Working Boys’ Center, A Family of Families

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What It's Like To Be Home

The other day a friend relayed a story to me that got me thinking about what my two weeks back in the United States has meant. He shared the story of a priest who went on a house building trip and after a weekend of silence his much anticipated comments at last came out as they neared the border. “You know what I like about the people here” he said. “They treat their dogs like dogs.”

Perhaps it was meant to be comical but it struck me the other day, with a twinge of deep sadness that I have indeed come across pet dogs that are treated better than so many of the people that live in poverty.

And so, this is what might be chalked up as my failed attempt to articulate what it feels like to return to the United States after a year of service abroad in a developing nation.

In many ways, it’s the dream two weeks. I’ve eaten a great steak or two. I went back to “my service roots” with a visit to the community it Tijuana I always went to never being able to say more than hello, and this time I could communicate. I can’t begin to express how amazing that was. I have been to three baseball games, two of the them Cubs games, one in which I got a tour of the organization from a friend who works with the org and another one of them came with the all too incredible opportunity to go hang out in the club house area and be surrounded by my favorite ballplayers while I pitifully attempted to play it cool. I discovered Pink Berry, which can only be described as the ultimate frozen yogurt experience.

Of course, there is another side to the story. While it has been a dream vacation it has been a rude awakening. People ask me if I am ready for Ecuador and I must confess I am so gripped with an uncontrollable (and irrational) of what I will do after Ecuador that I have barely thought about the next year I still have in South America.

Perhaps worst of all is the most common formality I undergo daily. People are fond of asking, ever so casually, “so how was it?” like the sum experience of your last year can be broken down and analyzed as easily as you might evaluate going to see a movie. And it’s like, I look in their eyes, and just know, through no fault of their own, they really don’t want the real answer I am somewhat dying to give. I can’t describe to them the inexplicable liberation that sought to thrive amongst a month or two of deep sadness. When people invite you out for a beer, it’s hard not to ask “how is it you can get a beer with me but you couldn’t send a two line email every once in a while when I was out there?” For all the blessings, there has been, as people said there would be, incredible culture shock, confusion, and just general, inexplicable anxiety.

And yet, all my reflections go back to a most pleasant surprise: love endures through all. The last few years I was so into building an adventure resume if you will. I somehow equated my happiness with my travel agenda. And while I will continue to travel and appreciate the many values it brings to my lifestyle, I feel like I kind of missed the point of the grand adventure. I was so afraid to come home. Questions flooded my senses: who are my real friends? How have they changed? Who am I and how have I changed? And you know, I felt at peace, I felt at home, in the midst of everything, I feel at peace among the people I love. And so getting back to missing the point, I’m coming to see it is not about saying I have lived here and there and done this and that but more about making decisions that enhance my ability to both give and receive love in a more open and vulnerable way.

Am I ready for Ecuador? Yeah, but I’m also, in ways I never imagined possible, ready for life after Ecuador. And how was Bolivia and Chile you ask? Serendipity. Look for an update on Ecuador soon as I fly there September 1st.

Again, in my final push for Ecuador- any amount of help helps me to help others. Thanks for your time and support!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Like A Blind Man Cutting Hair

It’s only a haircut and yet, it’s not. Really, a haircut is almost like an adventure sport when you are living in Latin America. Skydiving, forget about it. The real adventure begins when you sit in your local barber chair.

I mean, for one thing, it only takes a few glances at most of the “fashionable hairstyles” of the men my age down here to realize, with absolute finality: I do not want to ever let my hair look like that. I am talking about rat tails, mullets- just think 80’s retro... yeah, like New Kids on the Block and Vanilla Ice Ice Baby.

But OK, so what, the slant in all the barber shops these days seems to indicate a blind man is giving scissors and simply told to go to town in an attempt (and horrible failure I might add) to make something stylish. Sure, perhaps in the United States, a detail by detail break down might work in the United States... i.e. 2.5 inches off the top, no sideburns, and a number 2 razor for the sides with a square back. But herein presents one of the most common dilemmas of my life for the past year: try doing that in a foreign language. Even once you start to get the word for translation you still realize that some direct translations don’t mean the same thing. Uh oh.

So, in a roundabout way I am telling you not only that sitting in the barber chair’s is one of the most harrowing experiences I put myself through in South America, it is also, an experience I am keen on avoiding. The last time I tried it, I got a beautiful haircut, except for the long rat tail running down the middle of the back of my head. Thankfully, Emily, a housemate, did some damage control.

In the USA, I averaged a haircut every six weeks and even then, my hair was usually beyond a point where anonymous notes were being left on my door saying something subtle like “the prehistoric age called, they want their wooly mammoth back.”

I have to admit that I have gotten a haircut, over the past year, three times. Yes, that is one every four months.

So take your pick of which reason to buy, I find a bit of rationality in both.

1. It is cold as hell down here and every little strategy to defeat the cold must be capitalized upon.

2. Or imagine sitting in a chair and looking into the eyes of a man with scissors, who, mind you has a track record of, shall we say, less than desirable haircuts. And you look at him, he looks at you, The Outfield is blasting through the speakers ranting “I don’t want to lose your love, Toniiight”. You hesitate and then you tell the man, with sharp objects in his hand, to do something to your head. Ya see, you wouldn’t want it either.

Then again, I am not so sure this is a more preferable result...

OK, who am I kiddin. If that is not sexy, I don´t know what is!

And again... By clicking on the DONATE button bellow you will be able to help me buy needed supplies for my upcoming volunteer work in Ecuador USING ANY MAJOR CREDIT CARD. If you don´t have a paypal account, select the step that says "don´t have a paypal account?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Leaving My Program

I am leaving my volunteer program in the middle of August. I am thankful for my time with HCA. I have learned a new language, experienced Bolivian and Chilean culture, and met some incredible people that I won’t forget.

But I just know that to stay here another year would be to stay where I am not meant to be. I was working in jobs where I was charged with zero responsibility. There is so much more than could never be captured in this short amount of space but I guess you could say the following: The more I learned about who I am and thought about what it was that brought me to Latin America to serve in the first place, the more I realized my time in this program had ran its course.

And so, I am leaving my program, leaving Chile, and yet I won’t be coming home to the United States.

In September I begin new work as a volunteer (again) in Quito, Ecuador. There is an organization called The Working Boys Center (WBC). The basics are this: The WBC serves impoverished shoeshine boys and their families with a variety of programs, not the least of which is where I as a volunteer come in: an education. I will be working five days a week, 8 AM to 8 PM as a teacher, possibly teaching adults to read and write, teaching kids English, Theology, Sales and Marketing, and God knows what else- the program is extensive. Even my weekends can be spent volunteering- from field trips with my students to building houses in poor neighbourhoods to visiting people in their own homes- the opportunities are there for me to find my heart.

But there is always a catch in this life, and in my case, the catch is this: I am joining a program that can provide nothing more than room and board. No health insurance or airline ticket. Not even some of the school supplies I will need to be a good teacher. If I want to take my kids on field trips (which I am told most volunteers do on a regular basis)- again, that falls on my shoulders, or dare I say, our shoulders…

Yes you are getting dragged into this. Fingers are crossed for the dollar lottery ticket my mom buys in my name every week but I bet there is a greater chance of buying my classroom supplies and the like through donations from the people like you who, like me, really want to make this world a better place. $1 or more, anything helps, and it is now easier than ever: you can donate with any credit card, right here, and right now.

I feel torn asking for this help, it kinda lashes away at the image of self reliance and independence I once liked to paint myself in. But in all seriousness I think if anything, the last year in South America has taught me this: a life well lived is not one that can be done independently. Your help enables me to continue to try my best at helping people living in conditions of extreme poverty, and in a sincere sentiment that could never break through simple words such as these: it means a lot and I thank you. And yes, just to break the “priceless Visa” moment, I still feel that way whether or not you are able to financially help! (=

By clicking on the DONATE button bellow you will be able to help USING ANY MAJOR CREDIT CARD. If you don´t have a paypal account, select the step that says "don´t have a paypal account?

And if you like, click the blue link to read an article about the WBC- my new home!

¨Wherever you go, go with all your heart.¨ Confucius

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Just Call Me The Onion Man

They call me the onion man. OK, well, not really, but it’s one of those titles I think I am deserving of. I think I even committed the cardinal sign of trying to nickname myself- that didn’t work.

First, you have to understand, nicknames can be weird down here in Chile. I mean, my name, Patricio, is often abbreviated to Pato, which translated to English is duck. So just imagine walking around and having people call out, “Hey duck, come and check this out?” or something of the sort.

But really, I could perhaps be called the onion man because one day a week while I have been in Chile I have worked in the kitchen of a modern day saint. I think first I hoped the nickname I might earn could be chef-boy-r-me or something of that nature, but it only took a couple weeks to realize one thing that stood in the way of that nickname: if Spanish is a foreign language, cooking (in that foreign language mind you) is even more foreign.

Every Wednesday when I show up to Hermano (Brother) Donald’s kitchen I have this weird mixture of excitement and fear. I carry a little pocket dictionary with me for moments like this:

My first week there, while making the desert, the instructions told me, in regards to the chocolate topping I was making for a pastry, to “hervir a fuego liento”. Confused, I turned to Hermano Donald, to ask what that meant. “Oh, simmer it, that’s all” he told me. I guess my poker face isn’t all I thought it was because two minutes later (I still hadn’t moved an inch) he asked me if I was ok. “Yeah, it’s just, well, uh, Hermano, what does simmer mean?” My first day went down in the books as a complete embarrassment.

And yet, I love it. For you see, in many ways, it is as though I work with a modern day saint, or as the women I work with often call him, un Santo de la tierra. Hermano Donald is a gourmet chef, training and all. Every Monday through Thursday, he comes to the kitchen that he personally built and with a small staff of volunteers, prepares food for 45 elderly people struggling to get by and has it delivered to their house. And again, we aren’t talking your ordinary soup kitchen like operation. I am talking about freshly made bread, delicious soups, fresh and seasoned fish, etc... Everyday Hermano is there, and everyday he puts up with a range of issues, from problems with the people receiving the food to lowly foreign volunteers like me whose conversation usually ranges from “what’s this mean?” to “oops, I really just messed this up.”

But perhaps you are wondering, why on earth would they call me the onion man, at least in my own twisted head? The other day like so many other days I found myself pealing and cutting the onions for the recipe. Again, we serve 45 people and so a typical onion count for a days order can easily turn out to be 30 or 40 large onions. Anyway, I pealed and chopped each one of the 34 onions I had that day and, drum roll please.... Not one tear was shed!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I was on CNN! Call it my 30 seconds of fame... (=

Some get there 15 minutes of fame, and well, in my case, it was more like 30 seconds thanks to the good people at CNN who brought me to TV screens around the nation.

The Democratic presidential candidates are having a debate July 22nd and the questions being used are those submitted by everyday people like you and me, via Youtube. Turning the camera on myself, I asked the candidates to address the issues that concerned me most: poverty. And then July 17th, I got an email. The first email I got said this:

Hey there,

Great video submission for the CNN/YouTube debate!

We are running some pre-debate promotional shows on CNN next week,
starting Monday. CNN wants to be in touch with you about a potential
interview -- could you email or call Alex below if you're interested
in potentially being on the show?

The sooner the better....



Head of News and Politics, YouTube

It peaked my interest, but still, they must send this out to several people I reasoned. Nonetheless I replied and was surprised when mere minutes later, I received this:

Hi Patrick-

I understand you have corresponded with a couple of my colleagues here at CNN. I’m writing to find out a bit more about you. We absolutely loved your submission for the You Tube Debate and would like to see if you are willing and able to join us for a LIVE interview! I first need to know if you are in the States today? What does your week look like?

Thank you very much,

Editorial Producer
CNN-Paula Zahn Now

After I responded I never received a further response, and so, figuring I was not selected to be on the program, I went about my day. And so imagine the shock when I received a call saying that Paula Zahn featured my 30 second question on her nationally broadcast primetime talk show on CNN!

Greater yet, my question still might be used in the upcoming debates. Who knows, maybe the candidates will be asked to answer my question, which, call it conceited, but I’d like to think would be pretty damn cool! But if not, I’d still say getting my 30 seconds of national TV fame was more than fun!

I am trying to get a copy of it as it appeared on CNN and hopefully someday in the next month can post that for fun!


Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Dogs Are Taking Over

Dogs are everywhere in Santiago. They run the streets...

My favorite, is the ones that stroll through the super market doors, just watching the people go through the check out counters...

Walking by the Presidential Palace (La Moneda) promises a sight for sure... A beautiful color guard, a lush water fountain, sometimes a motorcade and, always, the local stray dogs can be found camping out and watching the political news of the day pass in and out of those doors...

And the only thing better, at least in my opinion... The aniamls are reclaiming the sea, one oily ship at a time in Valparaiso!

Friday, July 06, 2007

I make what Bill Gates Makes...

I make $2,796. The reality hit me the other day when I was asked on a survey what my annual income was. Fluctuations aside, I am in the ballpark of $2,800. We are not talking a monthly salary here folks, this is what I make in a year! And of that, only about $60 a month is money I can use for personal spending. The rest is what we call community funding- groceries, repairs (and God there are many of those), water, gas, etc... Can anyone figure out how long it takes Bill Gates to make my yearly salary? My guess is less than a minute. If you have the answer to that, I’d really be interested.

Given our financial constraints, I had to recreate the notion of “going to the gym” a necessity for my mental health more than any physical health. Pictured below is “my gym.”

An old mattress off the top bunk of my broken bunk bed can be taken down and placed on the floor for push ups and sit ups.

The two ONE GALLON water jugs comprise the free weights section.

The wall becomes the inverse squat machine.

The cardio section features a jump rope and running shoes and well, if we ever find a way to fix the house bicycle the real life spinning class will be up and running. And as for the juice bar, compliments of my mother, we have the best Lemon Lime powdered Gatorade a man can find!

Oh, and God place Santiago for being a somewhat progressive city, because this much I have to be thankful for: running trails. Now mind you, they are in the midst of heavy traffic and incredible smog, but nonetheless, it is space to run, which, if you remember anything about my experience running in Bolivia (think dog bites and cows), is a blessing indeed!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What It´s Like To Be a Teacher

I don’t know. It’s those three little words I have repeated again and again since beginning to teach English. The students I work with are absolutely great, almost too great. When I was in high school, I loathed Spanish. Perhaps it is something in our culture, but I could not wait until my two year requirement passed and I could at last stop taking foreign language classes. But these kids are in my class because, in addition to the required English classes, they want more English.

And so day by day, their fascination creates both wonder and confusion in my own struggling mind. Often, as perhaps anyone who has taught a second language might identify with, knowing how to speak it is one thing- teaching, quite a different thing.

Day after day, questions like this come in. “Profe, would I say he is a person that is nice OR he is a person who is nice?” Usually my answer leaves them looking confused, the smarter ones on to the game I am playing... Either works I tell them. Then I quickly scramble to a computer to review English language laws.

But perhaps the greatest trick the English language has played on me as a professor comes in the textbook I have to use.

On my first day of class when I had yet to even see the book we were using (I got thrown right in), I wrote an example sentence on the board. “It is an honor to meet you Mr...” and before I could finish, one of my most intelligent students interrupted me. “Profe, you spelled honor wrong.” I did a double take, spelled it in my head, and disagreed. “No, profe, really, you spelled it wrong. If you don’t believe me, look at page 20 in the book.” I flipped open the book to see the word honor spelled HONOUR. Reading on, academe and other flippant words popped out at me. I was horrified.

I befriended a wonderful priest named Martin Hardy during my time in Bolivia, and we used to go back and forth between the languages, English vs. American as he might say. I have to believe this is God’s way of siding with Martin.

It is a struggle to teach your own language because what comes so natural for one is so hard for the other. But day by day goes by and more and more I get comfortable in the classroom, sensing when my students understand and when, in the universal world of high school culture, they are utterly lost but much too afraid to raise their hand and admit it.

The questions ring on, the answers come stuttering out, and I find myself learning as much about English as I am Spanish anymore. (=

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Loneliest Bus Stop

This is a bus stop close to my house. It was built in February with the exciting prospect of the new public transportation, called Transantiago. Unfortunately, some planner in their infinite genius neglected to realize that not a single bus runs by this stop. And so, amidst over crowded bus stops, I present to you, the Loneliest Bus Stop in All of Santiago. Or, for a more realistic portal into the day to day life of someone without a car, you might wish to see Ryan´s photo of just a normal day at the metro.

Monday, June 25, 2007

I Am Addicted and Going Through Withdrawl

I’m addicted. There is no other way to explain it. I never fully realized it, but now, being here in Chile, I am reminded of it. You see, I am going crazy, and it isn’t for booze or drugs or sex. No, for me it’s baseball, a pure and simple love for baseball.

At first I thought, it’s gonna be OK. Life can still go on as normal. I was wrong. I am slowly going crazy. When I talk to my dad, I suck all the baseball info out of him I can. Whenever anyone else calls, I ask for info too. I have given up with my mother, a wonderful woman but one that couldn’t tell me the difference between short stop and middle relief.

And really, it seems the stars are aligned against me. Baseball is the sign of all signs that spring is upon us. It blossoms in the summer and closes shop in the winter. Here in Chile winter is upon us and I feel tricked. “But my God, my God” I cry out huddled in my sleeping bag, hugging a hot water bottle trying to stay warm in our un-insolated and unheated house “don’t you understand... it’s baseball season?

Sadly, God rotates around soccer season here, which, as far as I can tell, is a 365 day year a sport without what we call an off-season. And as for soccer, the last stab I took at playing I scored a total of -1 goals. Work on that for a minute. I have not returned to the pitch since.

And last of all, I am a Cubs fan. My father has never seen them win a world series. My grandfather died never knowing what it would be like. Anyone born after 1908 for that matter has never seen it happen. And OK, OK, I know, in true Cubbie fan fashion (even in spite of their pitiful bullpen) I am buying into the “this year is a different year stuff” that has tortured Cubs fans for generations. But can you imagine the horrible irony if they were to go to the World Series and win it, the first time in 99 years, and they did it for one of the two years I would be away from baseball?

And so for now, we get by how we can. I am reading a great book called Carrying Jackie’s Torch: The Player´s Who Integrated Baseball and America by Steve Jacobson. It is a story about the guys after Robinson, many whom we seldom here of but who were great ballplayers and even more so, incredibly noble men. Larry Doby, Curt Flood, Dusty Baker, etc... these are the names that will mark my experience with baseball in South America. And you know, the more I read about these men, their sacrifices, and their gifts, the more I realize, there ain’t a better way to miss baseball.

So from a hapless baseball fan, I wish you all a very happy baseball season... unless you are a White Sox or Cardinals fan. Sox fans, como se dice SWEEP in Español? (=

“It's designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything is new again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains comes, it stops, and leaves you to face the fall alone.” A. Bartlett Giametti

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Dirty Hippie

It’s not that we are dirty hippies, it’s just that it hurts to shower.

I know, it sounds crazy, but consider our living situation.

It’s cold, and when I say it’s cold, yes, I am talking about life in 30 to 40 degree weather. Big deal, right? That’s what I once thought too. But consider this. We live in a house void of insulation, built like a dungeon so the minimum amount of sunlight possible enters, and without heat. And so, when it is 40 degrees outside, it is 40 degrees inside.

Central heating has been redefined as follows:
1. A tiny heating mechanism that sits in the corner of our living room called an estufita. If you stand directly in front of it, you are warm. Otherwise, it serves little purpose.

2. Guatero. Think of a hot water bottle wrapped in a cloth. Put steaming water in it, hug it like you’d hug your girlfriend, and pray you fall asleep before the warmth fades away. Unfortunately, these things apparently have been known to explode on people… I am praying to return with a body free of scalding, because I think the story that I fell asleep hugging a water bottle and that´s why I have these burns might not be too cool.

3. Sleeping bag. Sittin on the couch, or going to bed at night, also sleep in your sleeping bag, with another blanket or two on top as well as sweatpants, a hoodie (with the hood up covering your head of course).

4. Yelling obscenities while doing rapid movement. I’m convinced this one works the best.

5. Tea. Drinking it could be consolation enough, but some of the best moments of my day come from standing in front of the stove with my hands over the kettle, taking in the excess heat.

6. Laying on the couch with Jack. He might be dirty, but man is he warm!

7. Showers. And this my friends, is wear the pain comes in. First, we don’t even turn the cold water handle. Purely hot. And it feels like needles hitting your skin, especially your toes, as the steaming water makes contact with your body. And just as the pain wears away, and it starts to feel good, your shower is done. You turn the water off and step onto the cold tile, and instantly re-enter a cold world.

And so that brings me back to my opening. It’s not that we are dirty hippies. True, I change my clothes only every three or four days now (you trying getting naked in this weather) and true, I shower at about the same interval (ok, actually a little less). It’s not that we are earth children, it really is, that it is too friggin cold!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

I know you understand me

Chile, like the United States, can be a racist country. Last week, my Catholic Chilean co-workers couldn’t shut up about how horrible Peruvians are. If you were to listen to many Chileans, Peruvians are the scum of the earth. Having a good friend who grew up in Peru, the constant barrage of racial slurs towards Peruvians has, over time, worn me down.

In March, a man came up to me in the downtown area and asked me, in broken English, if I was from the United States. After I replied yes, he handed me a flier and spat at me, “go home Yankee. You not wanted here.” The flier said the same thing (but with better English).

Weeks later I placed a simple food order when I was out with my friend Emily. I spoke clearly and correctly, and the woman turned to her co-worker and as if I were not there, and said “I can’t understand him. You talk to him.”

And if it is not that, it’s a postal worker pretending I can’t understand Spanish, a store owner pretending they can’t understand my simple questions. It’s being called gringo and hearing choppy English phrases shouted at you when you are out and about. Right now, a popular one in my neighborhood is “what up nigger.” Bienvenido a Chile, disfrute su tiempo.

You think you can escape some of the things you shunned in your life in the United States, and sometimes it takes traveling half way across the world to realize the more things change; the more they stay the same. I have received but a tiny taste of what so many of my own friends have experienced in their own lives in the United States. From the United States to Chile to Europe, there will also be racist people. I guess then, the real challenge is learning to address it, and try to change it. There are racist Chileans and non racist ones, just like racist U.S. citizens and non. I guess I just wanted to write this, to dispel that idea so popular in my own liberal circles in the United States, that racism and bigotry is somehow unique to the United States.

“If you don’t have the courage to speak up for human beings, you don’t have the right to speak up for God.” Luis Espinal, S.J.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Multiplication of the Loaves

Catholics are not really known for being Biblical scholars but I am gonna go out on a ledge here and say most of you can follow me if I ask you to recall the story about Jesus going to a town called Bethsaida where a crowd of 5,000 follows him. He speaks with them, heals them, and at the end of the day, the Apostles come, asking Jesus to send them away so they might find food, as they are growing hungry. “Feed them” Jesus instructs. To which the Apostles reply, “but we have only 5 loaves of bread and two fish.” Remember it? Here’s a hint, it was the Gospel reading on Sunday, Luke chapter 9, verses 11-17.

The multiplication of the loaves, it is often referred to as. And like the falsehood that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, this important story of the Bible is so often misread, and misinterpreted.

If you read the passage yourself, you will come to see, like I was taught a couple years ago, that no where in the Gospel does it mention a multiplication of anything. It only says they sat and they shared what they had and left full. The Peasants of Solentiname note that “The miracle was to persuade the owners of the bread to share it, that it was absurd for them to keep it all while the people were going hungry.”

I was blessed to hear a wonderful homily yesterday to remind me about the powerful truth behind this Gospel message. I often wonder why I grew up, never having this truth revealed to me. Perhaps it was too much a temptation towards liberation theology for the mainstream Church, to emphasize not only charity, but solidarity. To share a penny if a penny is all you have.

The priest in my poor parish yesterday tried to imagine the story in our own context. Perhaps, he said, the people came together and pulled out their empanadas or what other little food they had, and together experienced the blessed and broken bread of Christ in ways we might struggle to imagine. It was a powerful idea to fill the Church hall with that day.

I just finished a book called Blood Brothers the other day. It deals with Iraqi veterans, amputated in the war, who come back to rebuild their lives. And it mentioned how everyday, one of the men had a tradition on his way to work to buy a coffee and sandwich for a homeless man he would see day after day. The symbolism is so powerful. It’s the idea that each of us has an obligation when our car stops under that underpass or we walk by the man in the shaggy clothes shaking a cup of change, to help. I came across this quote below while reading about Dorothy Day, an ordinary woman whose ordinary vision has created inspiration for millions of Catholics like myself. It gets to the true multiplication of the bread: us.

“Bread and truth, truth and bread, making the rounds. Today’s food would yield short of death (the death of the soul), to tomorrow’s hunger; the task would never end. But let tomorrow take care of itself; it was today’s hunger that must be met. Let us meet it. Let us multiply ourselves, in the youth, the workers, the poor, the street people, the excluded. All have the truth to offer; all can multiply bread, bake it, break it, pass it on.” Daniel Berrigan, S.J.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Jack Vs. The Cats

An epic battle has been trudging on for sometime now in 1309 Ictinos. At first, Roy and I felt it best to take a position of neutrality. If history is a lesson to any American, it’s that a position of neutrality only lasts us so long. And well, really, our ally needed help. Our ally was growing helpless, and quite literally hungry. At some point, who were we not to align ourselves with our three legged dog in the battle against the stray cats?

It started out innocent enough. First it was cats on a tin roof, driving the dog nuts. So be it. Then, they started sleeping in his bed right outside our backdoor. This seemed to be pushing it, but again, not enough to cross us over. In March, we discovered traitors in our ranks. Unbeknownst to Roy and me, Natalie and Michelle, had, for lack of better terms, been coddling these young kittens, almost inviting the enemy directly into our house, most likely in the hopes of adopting one someday. Soon thereafter they began multiplying, and then the real battle began, the battle for food.

It wasn’t until April we realized just how dangerous these cute little kittens were. They began eating so much of Jack’s food we nearly doubled the monthly order. Jack appeared to be going beside himself. He was prone to random fits of spinning and yelping, hobbling and falling off the couch in a sprint like attempt to protect his domain. Roy and I watched this, and soon found ourselves, allies in this war.

We created squirt guns out of old water bottles and began charging out the back door, screaming with the force of ban gees while spraying water on anything that moved. Sorry Jack. Again and again the cats would approach the front lines, and every time they were met with a fierce repellant: screaming gringos with malfunctioning water bottles. Oh, and a three legged FIERCE dog.

Unfortunately the battle has been complicated as late. The other day I looked out my bedroom window and noticed two cats in Jack’s bed. Jack, a mere inches away, laying on the cold floor, merely looked up at them with a tranquility in his eyes no dog should ever have when faced with a cat. Roy relayed a story of Jack cornering one of the cats, and getting frightened when the cat hissed.

The battle wages on, but really it feels like a lost cause. The cats seem to be in it for the long haul. Just the other day they left us a warning: on the sunroof above our living room, the shadow of a dead bird sits as a subtle reminder of just what kind of vicious animals we are fighting against. The cats have come to play hardball, and my loveable but helpless three legged dog is losing the battle, and unfortunately, so are we. Roy wants to put a laxative in a decoy food bowl, I will let you know what happens.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cardboard Cutouts... In Shades of Red, White, and Blue

It brought tears to my eyes the night I sat in silence reading the following...

“The night before the helicopter flight, Victor Langarica called home for the last time, certain that he would die the next day. ‘You better make it’ his mother told him. ‘Your kids are waiting here for you.’ She put his 6-year-old daughter, Devina, on the phone to talk with him. When he got back on the line with his mother, he was crying. ‘ I will remember you every second,’ he said.” Devina’s father died in Iraq the next day. Excerpt from “The True Cost of War” by Weston Kosova. Newsweek, Feb 5, 2007

“Never forget that your daddy loves you more than anything and that I will be home soon.” Major Michael Mundell wrote that letter to his young daughter. He died in Iraq on January 5, 2007. Quote is an excerpt from “Our Soldiers Stories: The War in the Words of the Dead” by Jon Meacham. Newsweek, April 7, 2007

Reading “Our Soldiers Stories: The War in the Words of the Dead” in the April 2nd issue of Newsweek, I read the words of Terri Clifton, who lost her son Marine Lance Cpl. Chad Clifton. “It’s become very important to me that these soldiers and Marines are viewed as individuals with lives, dreams, experiences and families. They aren’t cardboard cutouts in shades of red, white, and blue.”

Lance Cpl. Clifton was 19 when he lost his life to a mortar.

If I am to be honest with you then it is important to emphasize I am of the political left.

I do not want this to be political, insofar as that can be avoided. In many ways, it can’t. But I hope you can read this, you too can maybe think of the human cost of war. One thing I have noticed in Chile is the media, is, as some might say, more graphic, others might call it something else: more honest. While watching the international portion of the news, I have seen bloodied corpses dragged out of burning cars, babies dead in rubble, and soldiers, face down, never to rise again. This is the reality I see the war in Iraq from, through the eyes of Chileans who day by day endure the photos and video of lives lost in the most horrendous of ways, ways we, those who should must see it the most, don´t tolerate.

I looked through a list of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and began from the top of the list and worked my way through their ages:

21, 21, 21, 28, 20, 32, 26, 24, 21, 21, 25, 19.

I heard a story the other day about a depressed veteran who went seeking treatment from the Veterans Administration. “I’m depressed, I feel so suicidal” he noted. The clerk, without looking up, informed him they were unable to help. “Come back in a couple months.” This soldier, became another one of American’s fallen when he hung himself four days later. Senseless deaths, and it leaves me feeling anxious and empty inside as I write about them.

As a colective nation, we have never been asked to do anything since this war started, except to shop and shop a lot. And we have, as a nation, collectively done less than that, failing in essence, to see the humanity of the soldier, the humanity of the stranger outside our realm of reality, and the loved ones in our nation and Iraq that have so tragically been left behind.

Men, women, children... Iraqi and American, or that is to say, somebody´s son or daughter, wife or husband, mom or dad... real people, just like me, and just like you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What´s a Kilo to you?

What’s a Kilo to you? Living in Chile my life has switched from Standard Measurements like miles, pounds, etc... and instead been replaced with the horribly confusing Metric system of kilometers, kilograms, etc... Sometimes, the math, no matter how you do it, is astounding.

The first time I realized it was with my dad in town. God bless the man for bringing everything but the Italian Sausage to make us some true Chicago Style Pizza. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts I could not quite convince him that as hard as it was to believe, Chile did not seem to carry Italian Sausage anywhere. We went from store to store to store until finally he seemed to resign to this reality, and finding the closest thing we could to replace it, he told me to order him a pound of Sausage. I knew somewhere in the conversion from pounds to kilos we had a 1 and 2.2 and I took my best guess. “2.2 kilos of sausage please.” When the man handed me 5 pounds of sausage, I had to embarrassingly realize my calculation was wrong, 1 pound does not equal 2.2 kilos, but rather 1 kilo equals 2.2 pounds.

Well, again I ask what’s a kilo to you? This past weekend, on a weekend trip to Pomaire with my housemates Roy and Caitlin, Roy introduced me to quite possibly the most beautiful eating experience I have had in Chile. As some people have noticed in the photos where it looks like a baggy sweatshirt with baggier jeans swallowed me, I have been losing weight. I’d like to say it’s a result of me working out more, but seeing as how I have not ran since March, I must accredit it to our largely vegetarian diet that our volunteer budget affords us. There is a running joke in the house whenever someone asks what’s for dinner to respond “I think a pasta, rice, or beans dish with some tomatoes and zucchini.”

And so, getting back to the story, this weekend introduced me to the pinnacle moment of my eating experience in Chile. In response to what’s a kilo to you, this is what I can tell you: it is a 2.2 pound empanada filled with chicken, beef, onion, and olives stuffed in some of the most delicious dough, and if that were not enough, it was followed by a bajativo (a downer) that made a cold winter day a little warmer with a tasty Apple kick to it. All that for only $3 US.

I came home that night completely full, and, according to Roy, with the biggest smile he’d seen me with since I arrived in Chile. The next night, it was back to lentils and veggies, but for one day, one glorious day, I ate like an empanada king!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Who Knew Free Help Was So Hard to Give Away?

(After the last entry, I thought a balance of finding meaning here might be good. Below is a journal entry from April 22nd, as I rolled into my 4th month of nothing to do for work. I had a job title- volunteer, but no job to do with the title.)

April 22nd, 2007

I am unemployed. And really, if I want to be honest, I have been in this state of unemployment since December. I mean, technically I have a job, in so far that I am a volunteer in a program called the Holy Cross Associates. Today celebrates 9 months of life as an Associate, and I am in no mood for celebration. Perhaps tomorrow will signify my first day of work, and that my friends, would be a reason to celebrate.

I never imagined free help in a supposedly poor country would be so hard to give away. I have tried, at times I really have. Imagine if you will, the humiliation that comes with the worthlessness that defines you when you must answer the most basic of questions, “what is it you do in Chile?” with an even more basic but all the real and honest answer: nothing.

I hope as you read this, the immediate instinct to offer reassuring words trying to speak volumes of the opposite can be quelled. Hear me, really hear me when I tell you of the worthlessness one feels when his days pass again and again without goals or hopes, and end void of successes or even failed attempts.

The program always advertised this experience as a presence with the people, a being rather than doing mentality that emphasized again and again I would not be down here to do a job a Chilean could not do. I wonder if a Chilean could get away without working the way I have the last few months. And so perhaps in the end it is my fault that I find myself in a program in which I often feel I do not fit. Anyone who reads this thinking about volunteering after college, I highly suggest figuring out if it is spiritual formation or service you want the emphasis on. It is something I would have been wise on discerning more carefully myself.

I came to Chile wanting nothing more than to work with the poor, to live amongst them and know them in such a way that this would create the cornerstone of a life of service, not just a two year formation. I came armed with nothing more than an open heart and hands inspired by nothing more than idealistic notions of what I could do, what I mistakenly assumed I would easily do.

And so, I am unemployed. It is humiliating, it is humbling, it is perhaps true solidarity in ways I never imagined and honestly never wanted.

Note: One week after this journal entry I walked into a local school and explained my situation. I am now working, co-teaching English classes to juniors and seniors, as well as working in campus ministry assisting in various aspects. It is still somewhat unfulfilling and I struggle with it, but now, at least, it is something. I might still be going under used, but at least I am no longer being unused. Other than that, I am still visiting the orphanage, and all I can say, is those kids will never know what they have meant to me in this time of difficulty.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Meet Paola

“In this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he’s out of place in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong… he is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room.” Thomas Merton

She’s a twelve year old girl with a smile, a sparkle in her eyes, and a thumb in her mouth. It’s the best way I can understand the quote from Thomas Merton. Everyday I visit this orphanage/foster home (hogar) she is the first one to jump out of her seat, run towards me, and leap into my arms. She gives me the customary Chilean kiss on the cheek, hugs me, and pulls back and looks into my eyes, penetrating all my defenses. I am helpless with this child, she has come to mean the world to me. If you ask me the thing I love the most about Chile, I could answer without hesitation and complete honesty, Paola. At times, it is the only thing I love about Chile.

You find God in humanity. When I work with Paola and the rest of the kids in the hogar, it’s like all the causes and ideals, all that used to motivate me through high school and college, they mean nothing. It sounds heretical, believe me I know, but before you kick me out of the justice league, just try to understand. In place of those causes and ideals, marches and protests and catchy slogans I now have names I can’t forget with memorable faces and unbelievable stories. It’s Paola, twelve years old, who jokingly tells me again and again with a smile and a wink “para ti, baby” (it’s for you baby) in her best Spanglish. It’s Gisella, who writes me little notes telling me how nice I am and how she likes when I visit them, perhaps never knowing how much I love her back, because who knows if she’s ever really been loved before and knows what worldly love feels like.

It’s hard to remind myself these loving children are victims of physical and sexual abuse and now deal with issues of abandonment. Causes and ideals, protests and marches, they are good and needed, but it isn’t until we live amongst what we are fighting for that we really understand: causes and ideals are nothing special in themselves without love and dedication to what lies behind the scenes. In college, I fought the good fight for human rights, but sometimes was able to forget just what I was fighting for.

I wonder as I write this is you can understand what it feels like to truly find God in humanity, to truly believe God isn’t looking down at you from the comfortable heavens but right through you, through the desperate eyes of an orphan.

I might not be able to change the world like I once thought, but yet, changes can be made, for Paola and others like her, one cause, that is to say, one person, at a time. Walking away from the house they live in, a ritual has begun. Paola insists on walking me out with the woman in charge. I say my goodbyes, which in Chilean terms means kisses on the cheek all around, words exchanged, more hugs and cheek kisses, and at last, a long walk, and a final goodbye to the woman in charge as I leave their compound. Then a few feet outside the gate of the house, I hear Paola’s little giggle, and then hear her voice shout,- Tio Pato (tio being anyone in charge, pato, being duck, but also the nickname for Patrick) But anway, “Tio Pato, para ti... BABY!” The neighbors in this quiet neighborhood must think I am crazy, as I turn around, take one last look at her smile, laugh, pray she understands the story my eyes try and communicate to her, and with more meaning then she may ever understand shout back, no, para ti… baby!

Monday, April 30, 2007

In Search of the Soda Gods

It was a pretty risky thing to do. I might be brash, but in the end I like to be as politically correct as possible. But all the indicators told me my best estimates would prove me correct. The group of people sitting there were of a darker complexion. Many Chileans, with their blonde hair, ghostly skin, and blue eyes, are anything but that Andean culture with darker skin and darker hair. They were sitting alongside the chapel, a common hang out for them I have been told many of times. And, a few Chileans walked by, dishing almost unnoticeable glances of disgust at them, and that all but firmed up what I already knew to be true.

“Are you Peruvian?” I asked the group. Their hurried conversation came to a stop; they starred at me blankly for a moment, and hesitantly answered, yes. I don’t blame them for eying me suspiciously, reluctantly admitting their nationality. They are often poor in Santiago, working to feed a family back home, and treated by Chileans, the same way so many Latin American immigrants are treated by “US Citizens” back in the United States.

I suppose when I smiled and said “thank God!” they lightened up a little. When I told them I was dying for a Pisco Sour, a real one, like the ones from Peru, I sealed the deal and we were laughing together. The Pisco Sour, a traditional drink of Chile and Peru, is fought over amongst the two cultures as to who claims the original ownership of it. It’s a good way to win a Chilean or Peruvian over, or permanently frost relationships with them, depending on how you structure your comments about the drink. But anyway…

After a little bit of small talk, I explained I had a Peruvian friend back in the United States that got me hooked on something they might be able to help with. They were all ears. I explained my absolute obsession with the Inca Kola, a yellow cola, the Cola of the Gods! At this everyone laughed and when one man said, “who would have ever guessed a gringo in Chile in search of the Cola of the Gods” they all roared. Eventually laughter subsided and directions were given. It was an import, and so it is pretty expensive by cola standards, but fortunately, I was talking to experts. A left turn here, a right turn over there, there will be a building that looks like a galleria, turn into it. Walk five floors up the circular corridor and look for the nondescript restaurant without a name. There will be a bunch of Peruvians eating away, and it is there, the cola of my dreams will be.

I felt like a detective acting on a hot lead and it made sound cheesy, but I felt the sweet joy of victory when I walked out of this hole in the wall restaurant, the Peruvians looking at me somewhat oddly but also giving me that acknowledging smile. One man as I left smiled particularly big, and I as I was turning the corner, he shouted “Oye, amigo!” I turned around to look at this man with his own bottle of Inca Cola raised up high. “Salud.”

It’s the little victories that make the biggest differences anymore. When I opened the bottle of cola that night I must have made my roommates a little uncomfortable. I felt like I was in that Herbal Essences commercial, because I just kept taking sip after sip of my soda, going “ohhh my God, yeah!” “Ohhhhhh.” “Jeez this is sweeeeet!” I even started to address it as though it was a person. “My God I have missed you!” I’d like to think after my roommates had a taste, they understood, but then again, no one else seemed to react like I did, so who knows. Either way, besame el culo Coca Cola, I got Inca Kola!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Earthquake in Chile

I didn´t even wake up to it. Little by little the house began to come alive with noise until at last I woke. Did you feel the earthquake everyone asked? I was half asleep and I guess in true LA fashion asked if everyone was OK and if anything broke. No, came the unanimous reply, everyone and everything was ok. It´s not a big deal then was my reply and I went right back to sleep.

So for those of you that know, there was an earthquake 800 miles south of Santiago. We felt the aftershocks but nothing big enough to create damage. When we got back to our house in Santiago (we were an hour north at the time) our voicemail was flooded with calls of concern and our email boxes as well.

So all is well for the Associates in Chile. No one was hurt, and some experienced their first earthquake like sensations for the first time!

Hope all is well with everyone else!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Responding to Human Tragedy

Your brain goes into a helpless overdrive. I remember the day when a man on the street in Bolivia identified me as an American, and told me "it´s a tragedy you know, another plane crashing into a building in New York." Immediately my heart begin beating rapidly, as I pressed the man and sadly he could offer no more information. Slipping into an Internet cafe, I was relieved (if there ever is such a way to be relieved) that it was not as I had imagined, a 747 jumbo and instead ended up being a small prop jet.

And again today, it came crashing back. I heard something briefly about the university killings in the United States last night while playing soccer. But as I pressed for specifics, none were made available.

This morning, as I was running around obtaining my VISA, getting finger printed, the woman doing my finger prints commented about the tragedy. A shame she said, 30 some people killed at this university. We spoke for a minute and I asked her if she knew where it happened. Without a hesitation, she told me: Los Angeles. She had seen the news and thought it was Los Angeles, Chile, but no she said, it turned out to be Los Angeles, USA.

I got panicky, frightened, hoping it could not be LMU. I asked her if she was sure, she replied yes, she was. I left the office in a zone and even trembling a little. Surely someone would have called me if it was LA. Wait, I received a call last night, but I missed it. What if, oh God no, what if was all I could think.

I can´t explain to you what it means to be away from a world that is still your own, living in a world yet to embrace you. You hear things about planes crashing, university shootings, and you run to the nearest Internet cafe, trying desperately to get more information.

And a cruel irony of it all is reading about human tragedy, and knowing, despite what you want to believe, your first instinct is relief. Relief the plane wasn´t bigger, relief it was someone else´s friends and family, someone else´s Alma Mata. I go through these emotions, I realize they are not right, and in a way, it gives me insight into how so many in an affluent country like mine can overlook the genocide in Sudan, the nameless child blown apart in Iraq. Not my family, no in my realm, not my problem. While still untolerable, it becomes easy to understand why this was the most searched news items on Google in 2006...

Google News - Top Searches in 2006
1. paris hilton
2. orlando bloom
3. cancer
4. podcasting
5. hurricane katrina
6. bankruptcy
7. martina hingis
8. autism
9. 2006 nfl draft
10. celebrity big brother 2006

My heart goes out to everyone involved in that shooting. I feel great sadness for the students, the family, the community around Virginia Tech, and even the young man who did it, as well as the Korean or Asian community who will now be targets of misdirected hate and confusion from Virginia to California.

People often ask why we do what we do, this social service. Sometimes the answers are hard to come by. If I did not realize it before, after my time here I realize I won´t change the world. My causes, my ideals, as great as they are, they will never be a chapter to be closed. Poverty will persist, senseless death pass by unnoticed.

But it´s moments like these it becomes clear why I do what I do, what hopefully all of us do in our own small ways: you do good acts when possible, to take a shot at balancing out the many evil or indifferent acts that arise again and again, from here to there. You bear witness to the pain knowing you can´t change it, but by acknowledging it, you do more than so many would ever dare. Yeah, we aren´t going to win, but I´d like to think all God asks of us is the desire to erase hate with love, to come together, different as we are, under that which unites us under one canopy: that which brings us anguish, and the dreams we still dream in spite of it all, in spite of the temptation to turn ideological and hateful.

Again, my heartfelt condolensces to the many victims around our world today.

"Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together." Eugene Ionesco