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?


Anonymous said...

Hey Man,

I am a volunteer in South America that found your blog after reading America magazine about it.

I just had to comment and say well put on the last post. As someone working and living abroad in a context of poverty, I could not agree more with what you said. Keep speaking the truth!


Another Volunteer said...

Just read the blog to. Also a volunteer. What more can be said? It's true, if I had a nickel for every time someone has said something like that to me.

Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it and shared it with my friends and family.

Kristin said...

I think you are doing a great work. But I believe there are two kinds of Catholic missionaries/ workers for social justice. Those who believe they can create an utopian world, who view the poor collectively, who believe they can eliminate poverty by the work they do, and those who believe they are serving the person of Jesus Christ in each person, as Mother Theresa did. Such people know that they can not eliminate suffering and poverty, but if they can serve Christ in the poor, one person at a time, Jesus will be pleased with their sacrafice. They understand that the primary role of missionary work is to teach the and reaffirm the faith.

I'm not insinuating that you fit into one category or the other. I don't know you personally. Just providing my thoughts on the role of Catholic missionaries.

God Bless,


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