Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Lesson In Sharing


It confused me. After all, these are poverty stricken kids. I watch everyday as they dramatically duel over whether a goal was a goal and fight over who deserves to be first in line. And here they are with pizza, a rare treat. And they take a bite of it, make a comment about how good it is, and then wrap it up in napkins and put it in their backpacks.

Confused, I asked one kid why. With sincerity that only a child has, he told me his mom has never tasted pizza before. He was saving the slice so they might enjoy it together later. As the kids left I asked why they didn’t eat their pizza then and there. All told the same story but through different words: “I want my sister to try it” said one. “My brother and me will eat it when he gets out of class tonight,” said another. “My dad will miss dinner tonight and I want him to have food when he comes home,” said the last one as he smiled and left.

Just when you think you know it all, these kids do that to you. In one fleeting moment as my time here draws to an end, I saw what I guess I had always hoped I would always see working with people in poverty:

“When it was evening, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away: give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, bring them here to me, and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over- twelve wicker baskets full.” Matthew 14: 15-20

Perhaps the modern day parable would go something like this. As another dark night fell upon the world’s poor, the naysayer’s cried out “you see, we give them this and that and still those Haitians (or Bolivians or Ecuadorians or Sudanese) have nothing to show for it. This land is barren, these people prone to poverty. Let’s stop the aid and have them buy their own food. They don’t need us, so send them on their way. Only then will they eat and be plentiful.

But Jesus saw the falsehood in this and ordered the people to sit before him. As the crowds swarmed around him, he took what food he had, and shared it. “Take what you have and share with others” he pleaded. 15 cents of every $100 isn’t enough for international aid, Mr. US of A. Meanwhile some poor street kids no more than nine years old, took what little they had of their rice and beans or empanadas and paticones, and shared them. And in this utopia, the rich watched with amazement, and instead of making excuses to account for the miraculous generosity they witnessed, they created their own miracle, and slowly began to share as well. Food was not used for E-85, and so corn prices went down. “How great it is this little child no longer has to die for the luxury of my Ford Expedition” cried with joy one soccer mom.

Food prices weren’t marked up for higher profits, and the fuel companies let go of their record breaking 2007 profits to see to it that people could come from all around to share what little they had. And they discovered this: there was enough food to feed everyone. There was no reason to hoard it.

Little poor kids with hungry stomachs took what little they had and saved it to share with precious loved ones. What a world this could be if we’d all follow their example. We can do better, we must do better. There’s some second graders in Ecuador sharing what might be their one slice of pizza all year long that are counting on us matching their generosity and love. Do we hear that story, imagine that moment, and still have the audacity to ignore a world in need? From underneath the 12th street bridge to the ravaged fields of Haiti, the people are crying out. What are we to do? Matthew 14: 15-20

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dropping the S Word on You Today

The other day I was sick. Whether it is a bacterium from food or just another head cold passed through the millions of germs we come in contact with, we always seem to be ill down here. And so, I have become pretty chummy with the medical staff at the Center.

Visiting the doctor here is a pretty straight forward process: checking the charts, taking blood pressure, temp, weight, height (still about a quarter inch under six feet) and explaining the reason for the visit.

The major difference is the financial aspect. Never have I been asked to wait while they call my insurance provider. I’ve never been denied treatment or told to go to another hospital because my insurance doesn’t stack up. I have never had a letter delivered to my mail box that surprises me by saying I owe $500 for whatever lousy treatment they gave me (thanks Mr. Knee Doctor). And never once have I been outrageously overcharged for a simple procedure. In fact, several visits and counting, I’ve yet to pay a single penny to receive care or treatment. Brace yourself for the bad words about to come out my mouth: here at the center I work at, we have socialized medicine.

And today was no different. The doctor spoke with me, did the usual steps of checking my lungs, looking in my throat and ears and nose, and then diagnosed me. We sat at her desk as she wrote out my prescriptions and gave me the typical spiel about do’s and don’ts with the meds I’d receive. As we finished, she transferred me to the nurse who asked me to sign an acknowledgement I was being given the prescriptions and then she handed them to me on the spot.

In the United States I avoid the doctor’s office at all costs; knowing damn well that to enter one might redefine the expression “at all costs.” When it becomes time to return to the United States, the richest nation in the world, I know I will be overwhelmed by the penny pinching application form full of “pre-existing conditions” that insurance refuses to help out with followed by the list of when I will and will not be covered. A wonderful attempt to help make already rich men and women in the health industry that much more wealthy. Hell, even a $10 co-pay will feel like a rip off. And it feels that way, because, maybe in our heart of hearts, we know it is. What portion of my pay check each month will go towards assuring me that co-pay?

Paul Farmer says that “Clean water and health care and school and food and tin roofs and cement floors, all of these things should constitute a set of basics that people should have as birthrights.” From all the personal experiences I’ve compiled in South America, I’d have to agree. And call me a socialist or a communist or whatever else you can spit at me, but I’d venture to say that it’s about damn time every citizen in the United States can receive the type of treatment every one of my impoverished students and their family members receive at the Working Boys Center.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Watching a Bright Star Slowly Fade

Ruined for life. Solidarity with the poor. It’s phrases like these that become so common place in your vernacular at a Jesuit university. Hearing “ruined for life” is almost as frequent as “hey how ya doin?” “Solidarity with the poor” becomes as frequent place as “it sure is beautiful today” and like I say, before you know it, you cease to grasp the power of those phrases. Until something takes it out of the ivory halls and into your own little reality.

You aren’t supposed to have favorites as a teacher, but I’ve been pretty bad at that. Many of you saw the articles in America Magazine or on the Catholic News Service that featured my blog. The authors used a photo of me conversing with my favorite student- 11 year old Evelyn.

One week in October, Evelyn stopped coming to the center. For the weeks that followed, I hoped to run into her on the streets, to better understand what it was that made her family drop out of the center. And it wasn’t until February, I at last saw my favorite student. She was walking the streets, with a bag of candy in her hand. What you fear most usually happens: the candy wasn’t for her or her family. No, instead the ultimate symbol of childhood innocence came to symbolize another childhood destroyed by the cruelty of poverty. Eleven years old, an elementary school drop out whose life had brought her back to the streets, selling nickel candies to help the family get by. Suddenly ruined for life was neither cute nor clich√©.

Not long after that day, another volunteer and I went and hung out with Evelyn, her seven brothers and sisters, and their mother. The entire family shares a one bedroom dwelling in a seedy part of Ecuador, so the family asked if we’d be able to meet at a park instead. We insisted it made no difference to us, but pride is a strong thing, and the family insisted we not see their living conditions. The day at the park was perfect. A rare sunny Day in Quito, shared with my favorite student and her trademark smile. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what the future held for her.

As my time slowly but surely draws to an end in South America poverty is no longer just a cause: it’s deeply personal. It’s plaguing people I love. It forced me to look into the eyes of an 11 year old child that was once my brightest student and not know if the future holds hope for her. Wrap your head around that for a moment. We come from a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” society. Everyone can make something of themselves if they just try hard enough, or so goes the American fairy tale. What happens when you look into the eyes of someone who is poor, and you can’t paint that rosy possibility on their future? You become ruined for life, and again, it’s neither as cute or clich√© as you once naively envisioned it to be.

I ask God why a child must be born into a sufferable living situation not at all their own making? What’s a child do to deserve that I asked myself? What did I do to deserve my lifestyle other than be born on the right longitude and latitude? What makes her mom different from my own? The answer to all those questions is simple enough: nothing. And yet that neither comforts nor pacifies the emotions I am feeling right now. I asked God, with a tinge of anger in my voice. And now I ask you, pleading that you understand what this journey is all about. What’s it means to get ruined for life? It’s to ask life’s hardest questions and fail to find an answer that satisfies or comforts. 11 years old, once my brightest student and now relegated to hustling candy on the streets of Quito. Why?

Evelyn, center.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

I Retract a Previous Blog Statement

I always thought (and have said) Spanish was harder than English. I even vented about it in an earlier post. You have 30,000 plus verb forms compared to our 3,000 some. There are two ways to say the word “for” and nouns and adjectives are assigned to be masculine or feminine and the way you say the word “the” corresponds according to the gender assignment. Clearly then, my line of thought went, Spanish was the harder language.

I have since seen the light. Allow me to explain.

First, pronunciation. In Spanish, pronunciation never changes, what you see is what you get. English, we have words spelled nothing like they look. Letters in English change sounds frequently… soft a, hard a, somewhere in between a. Consider the name Abraham. Three different sounding a’s. In Spanish, Abraham has the same “a” sound across the board.

And while I could go on with many more examples (window v. widow) or the different (there, their or two, too, to, or bear, bare, OK ENOUGH!) I will close my argument with the true deal sealer: the verb get.

Consider this. In English, the verb get can be used as follows:

  1. To obtain (Can I get the list?)
  2. To contact (I got in touch with my friend.)
  3. To leave something like a vehicle (I just got off the train.)
  4. To reach (When you get to the street, turn left.)
  5. To buy (Can I get a cup of coffee?)
  6. To recover (I hope you get better soon!)
  7. To Return (He can’t wait to get back to Albuquerque).
  8. To Receive (I got the fax this morning.)
  9. To Prepare (I need to get ready before I leave.)
  10. To Begin (Let’s get started at seven).
  11. To board (Get on the first bus that passes).

I tried showing it’s complication to a friend here by writing this paragraph…

I need to get in contact with a travel agent so I can get a plane ticket and get back to Ecuador. When I get off the plane, I walk until I get to Customs. I don’t get why it takes so long. But I wait, get my documents ready, and think about the newspaper I will get at the store outside When I read the paper, I always hope the world is getting better. It’s not. I get a taxi, and get ready for my meeting. I get out and see my boss who doesn’t say hello, just asks “Shall we get started?” As soon as I get onto my office floor, I already wish I was somewhere else!

English is hard. You get what I am saying?