Thursday, June 28, 2012

Responsibility is Simply Humility

Imagine for a moment, if you will, being in a third world country working with an organization that uses education as a means to uplift a marginalized community. It is a Christian Organization and believes that all education begins with the Lord so they place you as a teacher of Theology for Men, Women and Youth. You have ample knowledge in Biblical Studies, Theology, Sociology, History, Philosophy, Cultural Anthropology and the like so when you are given the task of developing lesson plans on Biblical Leadership, Eschatology and Postmodernism you rejoice at the intellectual stimulation. You have a week to prepare for each 45 minute lecture and must be ready for questions and dialogue with the people you will be teaching. You must make it biblical and pragmatic.


Well...until you remember the educational discrepancy between you and your audience.
You graduated from one of the best high schools in the United States of America.
Proudly wear your two diplomas.
Proudly speak of your two years in College and many more to come.
Proudly synthesize ideas from your multiple honors programs and apply them to the task at hand.
Then you realize...none of that matters.

The reality is that there are things more important than where you come from, what you've accomplished and what you've been blessed with. What actually matters is what you do with all that. I'm not a doctor, I'm not an engineer but I've been blessed with an excellent education, am good at solving complex problems and have the ability to communicate these things with others. I'm good at helping people learn. The reality is, however, that down here teaching -something that normally has come easy to me- has become my biggest challenge because I've been struck by distorted statuses and perceptions as well as a completely new audience all of which has brought a strong sense of both humility and responsibility.

When I speak about distorted statuses I am making a reference to Bernard Lonergan. I quote him often because his philosophical analysis of the good of order and development of the self has truly changed how I perceive the world around me. In short, Lonergan argues that when there is a good of order there will always be an outcome of statuses. For example, when there is a good business there will be a buyer and seller, a boss and a worker, etc. However, there can be a distortion of status. Following the example, when a boss becomes oppressive and abuses his power the statuses unlawfully shift from boss and worker to dictator/totalitarian and slave. Due to the abuse of power and an unrealistic perception there is a wrong outcome in the good of order. Here in Guatemala the same distortion of status can be seen in the society between those who have education and those that don't. This is especially exacerbated in the churches where education quite literally creates a hierarchy in the church, one that can be easily abused. When I walk into a church and am introduced as a collegian educator from America people tend to automatically place me on a superior level. I am treated better, am always asked questions, have been asked a few times to give the lesson even though someone in the congregation was going to do it, people begin doubting their own abilities and look at me for confirmation, it is almost as if I become the sole arbiter of truth. It is very easy to let this get to your head. The only reason I haven't become arrogant is because this different treatment and distorted status has made me terribly uncomfortable and has forced me to realize the arrogance I hold, both implicitly and explicitly, due to my education and achievements. I have been forced to reexamine what these accomplishments implicate and have been confronted with the fact that I have been caught up in the never ending cycle of self-edifying progress which I so often criticize. Where I've been pushed the most, however, has been reflecting upon what it means to be an educator and what education is all about. All these questions and pressures have made me come to monumental yet simple conclusions. It doesn't matter how much study, experience or wealth an individual has, it matters how they use it. Our statuses become distorted when use them in a way other than they were meant. When a CEO becomes a greedy, selfish tyrant; when a politician becomes a power-hungry dictator; when a pastor sees himself as a demi-god; or when an educator forgets to be a student. What's fascinating about the distortion of statuses is that often, if not always, they happen when we forget the words of Christ who said that the first would be last and the last would be first. His model of servant leadership impresses a sense of humility on each individual that heads his call, restoring and transforming order back into something that is good through the reorientation of right statuses. When confronted with distorted perceptions, relationships and statuses we must seek to rectify them with a good of order established through servant leadership. Under this, education merely becomes a vehicle in which the inclusivity of the gospel is manifest by raising the status of all individuals through those who have more. Thus I continue to be a student though I'm teaching because education is a communal venture in which all individuals use what they have been blessed with to bless others. If it is theology, bless others with knowledge of God; if it is wonder, bless others with the ability to see again as a child; if it is humility, bless others with the ability to see that life can be enjoyed by giving not just by receiving. This concept of everyone being both educator and student rectifies distorted statuses and unifies individuals which would otherwise be divided by the social hierarchy we have created. So I have been forced to be responsible. I am acted upon by these constant pressures and its easy to distort my own status, demean the people who come to learn, place myself on a higher tier, become apathetic because of their "lowly position." But this would only perpetuate the problem of why these churches and groups haven't been reached by organizations and have instead been marginalized for years. Instead, I need to be responsible with the blessings I have of education and teach in such a way that I am edify these individuals but also being humble enough to learn from them. Thus I'm learning that responsibility is this: taking what you have and blessing others without distorting neither your nor their status. Or, in other words, responsibility is simply humility.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Quickly Expanding Horizon

Whenever an individual goes somewhere that isn't their norm they are forced to analyze and re-access their views, opinions and what they consider "reality." Bernard Lonergan calls this the development of the subject due to an expansion of horizon. The subject becomes uncomfortable, their foundation is shaken, what they consider real comes into question, what they know is no longer concrete but at the same time their knowledge base ironically expands. It's interesting because although I knew my perspective on life would change in my time down here I didn't know it would be completely rewired.

This past week I went back to Quiche but this time with Alas de Salud -a partner of AGAPE which provides medical services to the people in this area. While there, I got to spend a lot of time with Dr. Victor, an orthodontist, who shared his story with me. After several years of study, Victor is a successful orthodontist who has his own clinic which he runs with his wife -who is also a dentist. Though having a unique specialty which could place him in a very nice office in a more exclusive part of Guatemala City, Victor has decided to reside in an area where he can serve families. On top of that, once a month Victor goes a week without his family, without working at his clinic and thus without earning a pay check to use his skills in Quiche providing medical services and oral education to this rural populace. What's interesting about Dr. Victor, however, is how thoughtfully he reflects on the world around him.

Victor and I spoke for a very long time and I asked him why he would come out to the country side to provide medical treatment under dismal working conditions for individuals who can't afford the treatment he gives all while losing a week of income at his clinic. He simply responded "Because I firmly believe in the gospel." In a little over thirty years of life Victor has put himself through school, gained a medical degree with a specialty, opened his own clinic, gotten married and has beautiful children and yet he says that he feels fulfilled when he's out, in what many would consider the middle of no where, helping those who have been marginalized by society. He says that he isn't a saint nor a miracle but merely an individual who firmly believes that everyone has a call on their life to love God and love others through what they have been blessed with. He's been blessed with being a dentist and he says that if he comes out to Quiche and can ease the discomfort of even one person he is satisfied.

Something I did notice, however, is that he still charged people for his services. An average consult for him in the city ranges from Q900 to Q4000, but in Quiche he works with each individual and has them pay a fee they can agree on. A procedure which he might charge Q1500 for in the city he merely charges Q20 in Quiche for some individuals. Obviously that won't make him rich or even make much of a dent in his expenses so I asked him why he even bothers charging people and his answer really rattled my brain. Because of Guatemala's history and the Civil War of the latter 20th century many individuals in rural areas were placed in precarious positions. During and after the war, some of these Aldeas (small communities) received support from the government who merely poured out resources into the communities causing what some describe as an apathy for progress and contentment and dependency on receiving. For other Aldeas, the lack of government support created a culture of perpetual progress by the sweat of the people who saw their marginalized position and used it as an impetus to push forward. Though divided by relatively little distance it is not uncommon to have neighboring Aldeas with holistically different histories and thus different cultures ranging from progressive to apathetic and everything in between. When wishing to provide services or help, an individual or organization is faced with the complexity of providing services without demeaning the individuals fighting for their progress or perpetuating the content dependency of the apathetic. It is in these sociological complexities that AGAPE and partnership organizations work. Accessing this, Dr. Victor has decided to charge a much lower fee for his services for two reasons. First, realistically speaking most of the people in Quiche would sadly never be able to afford the services of Dr. Victor considering that many of them live on the equivalent of about $2.00 a day. More importantly, however, Victor considers that merely giving something for free can offend those who fight for what they have and be damaging to those who merely live dependent on others. The amount of money matters very little to Victor, what does matter to him is that he is able to uphold the dignity of each individual -what Lonergan calls Ethical Value, that each individual is treated as a free, autonomous and responsible subject. By upholding this Victor is still serving them but he is also respecting them and not belittling them. He sees each person as a human being no matter their education, resources or status and as such he not only wants to help them, he wants to see them flourish.

This has forced me to re-examine my views on politics, economics, charity, missions, marginalization and so much more. How do we promote the equality of each individual as a contributing member of society, giving them the resources and opportunities necessary for an abundant life without degrading them nor calling them explicitly or implicitly a "charity case?" How do individuals who have an abundance of resources help those who have been marginalized while still allowing them to be the prime contributors to their success? How do we quell a bubbling arrogance which can easily grow from helping others? How do we help the marginalized progress without stepping on their culture, language and views?

I don't know...but for now, asking these questions is good enough.

Friday, June 8, 2012

In Memory of the Beloved Ron Harvill

This past week I made my first trip with AGAPE to the rural Quiche. Since it was my first trip my leaders told me not to teach but instead to merely observe. I was struck by many things: socio-economics, male/female relations, living conditions, law enforcement, the travels, etc. One of the things I was most struck by, however, was how going to these places, that literally no one wants to go to, and helping and educating the people groups there has changed those who work with this organization. All the people I work with have said that being in these places and living with these people has made them grateful of everything they have and in little and in plenty they praise the Lord for His provision and blessing. 
When I got back from my trip on Thursday I checked my email and saw a message from First Baptist Church speaking about a memorial for Ron Harvill. I was very confused and after a few emails and text messages it dawned on me that after a long fight with cancer our Brother Ron Harvill had passed away. The picture above epitomizes Ron, he was an individual who found joy in the simplicity of life, being with Samantha (his Granddaughter), with Chris (his wife) and he truly considered every day a blessing. Here I am thousands of miles away and I'm realizing that everything I'm learning here -praising the Lord in little and in plenty, counting every day a blessing, being grateful for what I have, helping those in need and always encouraging and blessing the people around me- are things that Ron lived out each and every day. Ron viewed life as a blessing and that perspective made him a blessing to others. I met him through my mom years ago because they were in the same Pastor's Class at First Baptist Church of Manchester and ever since we met he was nothing but an encouragement. Whenever he saw me he'd give me a big hug, ask me how I was and say at the end "I'm praying for you brother" and I know those weren't empty words. The last time I saw him was the Wednesday before I left for Guatemala. He had asked the deacons and church leadership to pray for him. I waited outside the door until they finished praying and when Ron came out he didn't say anything at first, just smothered me with one of his bear hugs. After a few seconds he said to me "I know God is going to do great things with you, don't be scared to go off and spread the love of Christ." 

He could have said anything, even complained if he wanted to, but instead he wanted to encourage me. 

I asked him how he felt and he said "I'm a little tired but I'm standing on this solid rock so all is well."
For those who didn't have the blessing and honor to meet Ron Harvill I want you to know that he was an amazing man who loved the Lord and spread His love to everyone he interacted with. For those who did have that honor to meet him, consider it a blessing. I quite literally only interacted with the man at church but when I heard of his passing I wept. Even now as I write this I can help but have tears fill my eyes because in the little time I knew him he was such a blessing in my life. We have sadly lost an amazing man but I hear him even in his absence saying, "Cheer up brother, you're going to see me again some day!"

Rest In Peace Ron, you are dearly loved.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Despues de Unos Dias....

I've been here for three days and so far I really like it. It's been slow for me, the people I'm working with want me to get used to the higher elevation (~5,500 ft.) but I've been spending my time talking, reading, learning Koine Greek (helps to be surrounded by seminarians and Pastors) and being driven around the city. It's beautiful here, reminds me a lot of Puerto Rico. The tropical wild life, mountainous scenery and constant "Buenos Dias" and "Que Tal" bring a nostalgic feeling of my island. It's really nice to be immersed in a culture closer to my own, speak my language, eat good food, and drink amazing coffee. Amidst the similarities to the island and how I was brought up there are differences. To begin with, I'm one of the tallest and biggest people here -needless to say, I stand out. I still get thrown off guard when I see people (body guards and police) walking around with assault rifles. But I think what has impacted me the most is the number of people who come and ask for money and/or food, children specifically. I experienced this almost immediately. Getting off the plane and walking to the car there was a little boy, perhaps 7 years of age, who grabbed my bag and tried to help me asking for money the whole time. I felt guilty because I only had American Currency which isn't good here unless exchanged. I was assured however that I didn't have to give him money but to be prepared because I was going to see that a lot.
In America we speak about poverty and socio-economic differences but rest assured Americans are blessed. In three short days I have seen prosperity and poverty fluidly intermingling. In the city, it isn't uncommon to see a lavished government building on one side of the street and a roofless residence on the other. Yesterday I sat at a Burger King eating dinner and had a little 7 or 8 year old girl run up to my table with her little sister of about 3. "Porfavor unas papitas (Please some Fries)" the older girl said and then the little sister would echo "Si! Unas papitas (Yes! Some fries)!" Then the older said, "O un helado (Or an Ice Cream)" and the younger echo'd "Helado (Ice Cream)!" As I sat frozen, not sure what to do, the person I was with just looked at me and smiled, noting how uncomfortable, distressed and saddened I was. The girls lost interest and moved onto the next table, and the next, and the next till the entire room was checked and then onto the restaurant next door; repeat.
I've asked the people I'm with what wages look like for the average worker and I hear numbers of around Q 2500 a month (Q stands for Quetzel the national currency). That doesn't sound all that bad until you put it into Dollars. For each American Dollar one receives about Q 7.60. So, Q 2500 is about $330 US -give or take. It's easy to say, well, "the cost of living is lower" and you certainly think this...until you actually buy something. On groceries for about ten days I spent Q 500. Let's put it in perspective, that's only about $66 US: it's a bargain...well, unless that's a fifth of your month's wages. What happens for a family of 4, or of 5, or of 6, 7, 8, 9? I went to Burger King and a Burger, Fries and Drink cost Q 38. Not bad for an American bringing US Dollars, it's only about $5 US, but for some people here that's a high luxury.
So I ask, what are people doing about this, what is the Church doing about this?! I'm told the sad reality that a lot of churches exist to make money. Moises is one of my co-workers/bosses and when we spoke yesterday about this the anger and frustration exuded from his pores. Moises was a Pastor and now he works with AGAPE, teaching full time, but he says that the expectation here is for a Pastor to be paid and taken care of and sometimes this translates to Pastor's taking advantage of their position. He said "Pienso que es lo mismo que Luter pelio (I think this is the same thing Matin Luther fought [indulgences])." So Moises and the others here stand together in a mission to edify the people immediately around them as well as those in the places no one reaches, i.e. Quiche, both in the foundations of the gospel and the practicality of stewardship, skills and responsibility. The mission of the gospel is not just spiritual, it's physical, through helping and training they hope to make an impact -one that is desperately needed here.
Yet I stand perplexed.
Perplexed at the Joy.
Perplexed at the Happiness.
Perplexed at the Community.
Perplexed at the Love.
Something I love about being Latino is that "En las pocas y en las malas feliz debemos estar (In the little and in the bad we should remain happy)." I have been accepted here as family and friend and I see a smile on every face. There is a since here that you can do things several times but you only live once. I wish not use this in the same way that it has be popularized in America by modern music and culture which says "Yolo, You only live once, therefore live it up, party, drink, hook up" and the list goes on. These base values obstruct and distract from what I see here. Here it's you only have one life, and it's a blessing to have it, so why get mad, why get sad, why get frustrated, rejoice in the good and bad. Are there criminals here, yes; poverty, yes; corruption, yes; injustice, absolutely; but many here rejoice with what they have and "cojen el provecho (gain the fullest privelage)" of each day. There are people that complain, and people who are apathetic or cynical, but for those who count each day as a blessing there is great joy, and this is something we can all learn from.

If you want to see more photos of my adventure you can go to:

God Bless.

Friday, June 1, 2012

De Que Me Voy, Me Voy!

It's 11:00am on Tuesday May 29, 2012. I just said goodbye to my parents who drove me down to New Haven to Union Station. I am currently on a train -destination: Newark International Airport. It's crazy to think that merely 7 months ago I was joking around about going to a different country and now I'm on a train, on my way to plane, on my way to Guatemala! I'm really excited to be going and look forward to seeing what's ahead.
I also pray for what I've left behind, namely my parents. Though people say "Oh it's just 3 months!" it's more than that for my parents. This is the first summer I'm not home, the first father's day I won't celebrate with my father, the first birthday I don't spend with my family, my first time leaving the country, and the furthest distance I've ever been from my family. Yeah it's just three months, but it's a first experience for my parents and I so if you see them, give them a hug =D.

God Bless.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Guess who's packed!

It feels surreal but I'm packed for my trip! In a little over 72 hours I will be boarding a plane to Texas which will then take me to Guatemala. As the days swiftly approach my excitement and anxiety bubble. I tell people about my trip and only hear two things: 1, "You're going to have such an amazing time!" and 2, "Are you ready?" As I contemplate the statement and question I am forced to look introspectively. My excitement certainly stems from the curiosity of an unknown becoming known. The statement is thus easy to deal with, the question on the other hand is a little more difficult.
Am I ready?
That's a hard question. A compex question. Am I ready to be on a plane for over 7 hours -haven't decided yet. Am I ready to be away from my family for that long -I go away to college, same thing. Am I ready to be in another country for the first time in my life (Puerto Rico kind of counts) -I think I'm ready for that. Am I ready to not only encounter but be completely immersed in a new culture -I think so. Am I ready to do a kind of work and a kind of learning that I've never done before -I'd certainly say so, I love learning! So what am I not ready for -I'm not sure. As with any new experience excitement has to develop alongside anxiety, if it doesn't you're doing it wrong! Engaging in an experience like this one expands one's horizon, as a result one has to become uncomfortable and anxious -amidst excitement- because one's entire self is being reoriented and developed. But the beauty of this somewhat paradoxical anxious excitement is that one can develop as an individual. These are the life experiences that shape one for the better and I know that on my trip I will learn things about myself that I never knew before!
So am I excited -absolutely!
Am I ready -well, are you ever really ready?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Almost done!

And today I bought my camera! Well, my mom bought my camera for my birthday!
While I'm on my trip one of the things I want to do is visually capture my experience so that when I explain the things I see people can actually see them. One of the things I'm most interested in capturing is the difference between the city and mountains. I'm really excited, only a few more days to go but good thing I have a camera that take pretty good pictures if I do say so myself.