But last week I had the pleasure of being tutored by a group of twenty-somethings – that alleged “lost generation” of spoiled, tech-obsessed, everybody-gets-a-trophy Millennials – in the barrios of Guayaquil, Ecuador.
I almost didn’t make the trip. It seemed foolish to travel half the world away to witness poverty and suffering when people are struggling mightily just a few miles from home. The truth is, I’ve used that excuse for years and never once visited any of these communities, regardless of proximity. My life has been about using my advantages: race, education, work ethic, etc. to avoid poverty, and to get as comfortable as possible. I see suffering in the world, lament it sincerely, occasionally throw some money at it, but have no human connection.
I am starting to question this strategy.
My son-in-law Bob leads bi-annual mission trips for Providence College, and many times his students are reluctant to leave their comfort zones for similar reasons. He encourages them to consider the story of Zacchaeus in Luke’s gospel. Zacchaeus is the reviled chief tax collector in Jericho who hears Jesus is coming to town. Described as “vertically challenged” (my translation), he climbs a fig tree so he can see Jesus, who then instructs him to come down so that he may stay in his home. The locals are scandalized that Jesus would reach out to such a sinner, and the encounter changes Zacchaeus; he repents, offers restitution to his neighbors, and by all accounts leads a very different life from that day forward.
The lesson? Sometimes we need to climb a tree. Or in my case, get on a plane.
I went as a guest of Father Jim Ronan, founder of Rostro de Cristo (RdC), The Face of Christ, an organization he started 25 years ago while stationed in Ecuador. The 15 volunteers who staff RdC are freshly minted college graduates who have signed on to live with and serve the poor for a year. Like many communities in the developing world, here in the fringes of Guayaquil life is difficult. If you have been on a mission trip or supported one, you have probably seen this movie. The poverty is grinding, and your heart breaks every day.
For the volunteers it is hard, dirty work, with the moments of sweetness and light few and far between. They wake up early to cold showers and then perspire for pretty much the rest of the day. Everyone has a job in the community supporting a local Ecuadorian initiative, i.e. an after school program, a women’s health initiative, or a local hospital. RdC is expressly not here to “fix” Ecuador, but instead focuses on helping local organizations and cultivating authentic friendships in the community, the kind that can only be developed after many hours, days and months simply sharing in the minutiae of daily life and “being present.” This consists of regular walks to the local market for groceries, long rickety bus rides to work, visits to the lonely and infirm, giggles and hugs with teenagers in the street, Sunday Mass, and impromptu kids games with just about anything that can be found, kicked and/or rolled. They work hard, live in the neighborhood, swallow the same dust, swat the same bugs, and do it (most days) joyfully. They see the loving face of Christ in Ecuadorans who generally welcome them as neighbors, and hope that is what the Ecuadorians see in return. In addition, they host and mentor groups of American high school and college students who come down for 8-10 day immersion experiences.
It is a life of sacrifice, unconditional love, obedience, patience, prayer and endurance. The fact that guys signed up for this surprised me. These are not traditionally our areas of excellence.
This was reinforced when two RdC volunteers took me to visit L, a single mother of three. The kids have grown up and moved away, with L now more or less alone except for her RdC visits. She is in the final stages of divorcing her husband of (technically) 25 years, a fellow she says wasn’t much good for most of them. The breakdown of marriage, and the family unit, is a trend in Ecuador where most of the burden is carried by women. The men leave, and the woman is left to care for the children. Often they find another man out of economic desperation, but eventually he leaves and the cycle repeats itself. There seems to be little cultural bias towards lousy husbands, and in a strange way the longstanding tradition of machismo encourages it.
I told L this trend was not unique to Ecuador, and that in America we too had a problem with commitment and self-sacrifice. She smiled and nodded in agreement. “We need to make better men,” she said.
It got me thinking – regardless of what culture we are brought up in, what exactly is missing from our education as men that would make us “better men”? Fundamentally, I think it’s that we are never expressly taught what love really is. We aren’t likely to get it in school, through sports, the Internet, television, movies, or work. Pornography certainly isn’t helping. And many of us don’t always get it from examples at home. The one place we probably “study” it is Sunday school, but lets face it, I spent most of Sunday school annoyed I was missing Scooby Doo.
Back then, the biblical definition of love as self-denial and sacrifice on behalf of another – this from the God who made me, died for me, and probably knows what He’s talking about, was, well, just words in a book. And as a pastor friend once told me, “reading ain’t doing.”
Paul defined what love is, and isn’t, beautifully in First Corinthians 13:
If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have faith as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
If we are lucky, some of us do learn what love is, painfully, over many years of trial and error. But imagine if we could learn it sooner, before we married? Divorces would diminish, families would be healthier, and perhaps our sons would indeed succeed us in becoming ever “better men.”
I began to understand the incredible, transformative experience this year of service is for the RdC volunteers. They aren’t just reading the gospel, but living it, and the impact will transform them, and at some level everyone they touch, for the rest of their lives. The marketer in me immediately decided that RdC is really a 21st century, counter-cultural “spouse-camp” – imagine if every young man and woman went here prior to committing to a relationship? These young people are learning how to love the hard way, which is the only way, and they will be exponentially better husbands, wives, sons, daughters and co-workers, because of it.
I was excited about “spouse-camp,” but still a little fuzzy about what the Ecuadoreans were getting from the deal.
Me: So you mean you don’t build wells, or houses, or hospitals?
RdC: No. We do temporarily alleviate some suffering by our work in the community, but our primary objective is to build friendships and share in their struggle.
Me: And then after a year you leave?
RdC: Yes, and we are replaced by another RdC volunteer who will pick up where we left off.
Me: So no wells?
RdC: (sigh) No wells.
Apparently I’m not the only one who has difficulty understanding this idea of “friendship” as a deliverable. Virtually all of the RdC volunteers are high achievers, graduating from some of the best universities in America. The notion they are going to spend a year to “be“ with the Ecuadoran people mystifies some, including their parents.
Many have sacrificed much, and worked hard to put their children in this position. It can be difficult to understand what all their efforts have wrought – a beautiful, thoughtful human being less concerned with their material comfort and instead living in the moment for others. For those of us who see all progress measured in some empirical forward motion, “being present in the moment” holds no currency. It makes no sense. But some Millennials have watched our generation chase the material world and are not impressed. They want a different kind of more.
I asked Pat, a longtime friend and in-country partner of RdC to help me understand the impact all this “sharing” was having on the Ecuadorean people. How were they benefitting, exactly?
First, let me clear something up. It’s not true that the RdC kids don’t ‘do’ anything. The work they do here in our school, for example, is real and valuable. But so is the message they are sending by where and how they live. As North Americans they don’t have to share in the daily suffering of the people, but choose to, and it is a powerful message of solidarity, compassion, and empathy. When I first got here, I remember having a conversation with someone about how much I was enjoying living with the people, sharing in their poverty, etc. He corrected me: ‘As an educated North American there are things in your head that you can’t get out of your head, things they will never know. You can share in their poverty but you will never truly understand it.’ The RdC volunteers get this. They are here temporarily but their sacrifice and love is real. For someone on the margins who feels totally unloved and abandoned, these relationships are significant.
I was still having trouble comprehending this, probably because it can’t be viewed on a spreadsheet or a bar graph. Then I realized it was also because my idea of friendship is skewed by the theory of equitable exchange. I give to get. Friendship is a means to an end. This philosophy is quite common in the business world, and it’s who I’ve become. Successful, perhaps, but what a strange and selfish breed of human.
I spent the next day with Father Ronan and a few volunteers dashing from one RdC partner site to another. After a few stops, I started to notice how everywhere we went the locals were glad to see us. Their eyes lit up and the conversations began, usually punctuated by hand signs and laughter. Italians, it seems, are not the only culture that talks with their hands. Around us were the most difficult of circumstances, but at its center people from vastly different backgrounds were genuinely enjoying each other. There was no air of colonial superiority or expectation, these were two groups simply in it together. Seeing each other was the best part of their day. No wells were dug, and no houses built, but it was good.
I went home scratching my head. Millennials, teaching me about love? Friendship as an end in itself? Serving the poor and being part of something bigger, and better, than me?
It sounds like a plan.
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The face of Christ in Guayaquil, and an accurate representation of the RdC model. Volunteers Aly Monteleone and Eric Vicens (to right) work closely with Ecuador native Aide Cuenca (at left) to run an after school program. The children get nutritious snacks, some exercise, a brief talk on citizenship skills, and help with their homework. Aide gets all the tough questions.
RdC Executive Director Evan Cuthbert talks with Sister Fanny at her “Center for Nutrition and Human Promotion.” The Center offers women yoga, aerobics, holistic therapies and soon – in what must be a neighborhood first, a steam bath. The second floor shown here is being built thanks to a grant from the people of Spain, and will allow her to expand her offering to women and the aged. The Center is a relaxing, safe place to re-energize from the considerable stresses of daily life and (often) domestic instability. RdC volunteers help Sister Fanny in a variety of capacities, from leading aerobics and meditation classes to administrative work.