Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Diginity for the Poor, Humility for the Christian

This is a personal narrative paper I just wrote for a writing class at school, summing up my summer in a different light:

It is in every “good Christian” Jiminy Cricket conscience that they must serve the poor to please God. In children’s Sunday school on the flannel board, you are taught that Jesus loved the least of these, and he healed the sick and dying, and spent time with the outcasts. Then when you reach youth group as a teenager, you are encouraged strongly by your leaders to go feed the homeless with the group after playing a gross-out game, usually involving raw cow tongues. As you reach adulthood, more and more of your “good Christian” peers start becoming the leaders in the youth group or, even more notably, serving overseas. And then Jiminy really starts nagging.

It is at that point in life when I-- not a youth group leader or Sunday school volunteer or any sort of “good Christian” example-- decided that I should too serve overseas. I mean, “I really love other cultures!” I thought. “I am not afraid to get down and dirty!” I reasoned. “I really love Jesus that much.” So in went my application to a Christian non-profit organization, and up went my feel-good vibes.

Then, in came my acceptance letter and down went my happiness. I had been chosen to intern in the Philippines for 2 months doing photography and videography. The Philippines? But wait, had I not made it clear to them that I am fluent in Spanish, am specializing in Latin American anthropology and really cannot resist little Mexican babies? Apparently not, and apparently I was a little less loving of all other cultures than I thought. I resisted this placement in an unknown land with no Christian credibility stamp (after all, it wasn’t Africa or even Latin America!). I said, “God! I don’t care about the Philippines like I care about Latin America!” And God said, “Hey, that’s rude.” And so off I went in June, excited but uncertain.

After only my first week I started to feel more enthusiastic about my new home. At first I just compared everything I saw or experienced to the Mexico I knew and loved, but eventually, after hours of Tagalog language class and pounds of rice and fish, the Philippines took its own shape in my mind. I stayed with a family in a province outside the capital, but my job allowed me to travel to other communities using just about every transportation method available in the Philippines—tricycle, petty cab, jeepney, bus, train, and taxi.

I enjoyed my work, because I got to do my favorite things-- play with children and take tons of pictures. The economic status of the families was difficult to take in at first, but it had seemingly no affect on the attitudes of the people. I have never encountered such hope and joy amidst an environment that I was trained to view with pity and disgust. I became embarrassed of my pride for serving the poor, when in actuality I was more poor in spirit than my new friends were economically. Who was I, coming in as a stranger to teach these strong and beautiful people to wash their hands correctly, when I had thought I was too cool to serve Filipinos? The term, “the poor” became almost offensive to me, because now “they” were no longer a blob of dirty, raggedy nobody’s, but Sister Neng and Brother Al and Mico and Miggy…

I was always told me to volunteer abroad, always told it would change my life, but I was never told I would learn what it is to give dignity to the impoverished. My former vision of single-handedly saving all the skinny-limbed, plumped belly orphans in Latin America was crushed by the reality of my inability, my arrogance, and my naiveté. I no longer want to serve the poor to mark off a box in my good Christian checklist, but I simply want to help out my dear friends in need of life’s basic necessities. In the depths of a country I once could care less about, I finally discovered the heart of God’s love for the poor as special human beings that extends beyond what I was taught in church.

Now when people ask me how my summer was, I can respond with an honest answer, free of “Christianese” terms I have used all my life without knowing the true meaning of. And I’m pretty sure that overcoming the flannel board-faith of my youth and learning to truly love my poor brothers and sisters has made God very pleased indeed.