Category Archives: social justice

Nothing gets left out

IPan integralf you’re shopping for bread made from whole-grain flour in Latin America, what you’re looking for will be labeled “pan integral.” “Whole” bread. My favorite is French labeling: “pain complet”, which is like “complete” bread, but looks more like complete pain. If you’re content with just bleached, spongy white-bread and haven’t ever bothered to try the rich wholeness of pan integral, no need to read further. If you’re not interested of taking a taste of life to the full, stay content with where you’re at. Continue reading

Strike 3

Last week I joined some La Carpio neighbors in a protest against a water treatment plant that’s being installed right at the entrance to their community, less than a kilometer away from their homes.

  • Watch a video with images and sounds from the protest

Two computer technicians were scheduled to come into the office to help last Thursday, but they called the day before saying it would be difficult to get in because of a strike the next morning that would block the only entrance (for vehicles) in and out of La Carpio. I called my host family to see what they knew about the strike, and they gave me a few more details they’d gotten from a community meeting organizing the strike. Because I sympathize with La Carpio’s struggle against the high level of environmental contaminants that are dumped into their community, and because I was glad to participate in a protest against something that seems such a clear disregard for people’s health and dignity, I joined them Thursday morning to support the community in their protest.

The “waste treatment plant”, more accurately described by residents as a “craphole” and other similar terms, is only one of the many forms of environmental violence implemented against the La Carpio community. The most infamous is the garbage dump that was built in 2000 by EBI, a Canadian-owned company, which boasts the sanitary treatment of 1200 tons of garbage per day. The “sanitary treatment” of the material waste is disputed not just by La Carpio residents less than a kilometer from its dumping grounds, but by neighboring elite in expensive homes on properties across the valley. Strike one is the garbage dump, causing high incidences of hepatitis and diarrhea. Strike two are the quarries in the valleys on either side of the community, which pump dust into the air causing any number of respiratory problems. Strike three would be the waste plant, but not if La Carpio can strike first.

The people who spend the most amount of time in La Carpio, that being the women and kids who often spend the entire day there, are the ones who suffer the most. The family I lived with suffered from all the above problems, as I described in this blog post and others.

It recently came to light (through government correspondence made public through Wikileaks) that in contrast to Costa Rica’s “green” image it promotes, less than 5% of its blackwater is treated before reaching the ocean. The river that dumps the contaminated water from the central valley (Río Tárcoles) is the most polluted in Central America. The beaches in this area are favorites for foreign tourists because they are the closest en route from the capital city. There is a HUGE need, then, for water treatment of the polluted rivers (both for environmental protection and for tourist money). It is interesting to me, then, that the waste treatment plant is being placed where it is, on a river branch before the union of three different rivers. A water treatment plant is essential; it’s a just a clear case of environmental injustice to place it in an impoverished community that has already unwillingly received the full brunt of metropolitan contamination – it’s garbage, its symbolic rejection, and now its wastewater. To quote Costa Rican sociologist Carlos Sandoval Garcia:  “both in the material domain – garbage and residual water – as well as in the human domain – Nicaraguans and poverty – La Carpio is a site and signifier of abjection” (Narrating Lived Experience in a Binational Community in Costa Rica, 2009:156).

The above video shows some photographs and audio clips from the protest. If you don’t follow the Spanish, most of what is said, or written on the signs, is mentioned above. The main demands are: no water treatment plant [so close to where we live], and instead, build a high school for the community.

Learn more:

Ghetto Superstar

Greetings! I recently added a few interesting articles in my separate blog about living in La Carpio. There’s a lot of writing on there, so if you’re behind or even if you are checking it out for the first time, here are some articles you might want to start with:

If you comment on anything there, I’m the only one that can read it. I’ll continue to add articles as I find time but I won’t always update with a separate announcement on this blog.


Yielo Fieldwork

Please read. Please comment:

Perhaps you’re curious about what life is like in an entire community built on land than no one has legal title to, a stone’s throw away from the largest garbage dump in the country (and a line drive away from the country club’s golf course across the valley). Perhaps you never noticed that in places without paved roads people toss water on the dusty road outside their doorways too keep it from unsettling and coating the insides of their homes and from clogging up their lungs. How are places organized and coordinated where resources are scarce and government can’t keep up with population growth? Or ever wondered how people who don’t get 24-hour running water store up water for the day when they can’t afford sophisticated backup water systems? How many buckets of water does it take to bathe oneself in the morning from a 55-gallon drum?

Continue reading


The Contrast

The plunge into the world of poverty is palpable. You feel it, as sharply as a sudden dousing of cold water or a plunge into a cold pool. The jolt is particularly strong nowadays because most aspects of our lives are arranged in ways so as to exclude or hide away the discomfort of dealing with the strain and injustice that poverty reminds us of.

Entering La Carpio felt that way… like I was, yet again, plunging into a new world. On my first visit to La Carpio you could see the differences, you could smell and hear the differences… but most of all, you could feel a sharp transition between the twisted dirt roads of the shantytown and the straight, mathematically angled neighborhood roads of the middle-class residential area we’d left. Poverty often has a “you know it when you see it” sort of definition, which is actually quite useful given our mind’s ability to identify differences and contrasts. The material differences are quite marked, and are the first things you notice when entering a shantytown. In Costa Rica, unlike the United States, the racial distinctions are not so clearly marked, so to some degree “race” or “ethnicity” is held constant across differing levels of material affluence. This is not the case with nationality nor birthplace, however, as slums will be disproportionately filled with workers from outside the city and from neighboring countries of poverty. I would later discover this nationalistic split and be reminded again of my tight connection with both Haiti and Nicaragua. Nicaragua had always interested me because I had seen it listed as the “second poorest country in the Western hemisphere after Haiti.” After living 10 years in Haiti and seeing the “poorest (and third most corrupt)” country in the Western hemisphere, I had always been curious to see what the “next step up” looked like. It is a stark contrast, but what demarcates it so clearly as “poor” is the jolting difference between the surrounding affluence, especially in Costa Rica.

At first glance and from a rudimentary knowledge of Nicaragua and Costa Rica’s history, the reasons for the contrast are pretty easy to see. The country of Nicaragua has been wracked by civil unrest, foreign interests pursued violently, degradation of the land, instability of the government, and natural disaster. Their “emergence” from violent civil clashes occurred in the 80’s, as opposed to Costa Rica in the late 40’s. This explains a lot of the material inequity between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

What gradually becomes apparent, though, are structural reasons La Carpio appears the way it does, as well as symptoms of political economic injustice. Its plight is a combination of meager material capital from the outset and structural oppression from the surrounding society. This has been documented in various ways through interviews, critical reviews of news sources, environmental justice concerns, and most strongly from issues of unequal education and a growing dual labor market pattern.


Environmental Justice, comma

It is exhilarating to visit the Quetzal Educational Research Center (QERC) because I feel my heart “strangely warmed,” to hear all the lectures and interesting topics they are learning. I pour over the books in the library, too, several different “ology” sections, journals of research, field guides to animal identification – and my favorite, the sections on culture, history, environmental stewardship, and the “care of creation.” Here, actually situated in a tropical cloud forest, these books and topics light a fire of intrigue and curiosity in my heart. Because here, you walk outside and see the birds and plants on the pages of the book, you smell the loamy earth, you experience them. Nothing is a more persuasive argument to me of the need for conservation and care of creation – even reverence – than experiencing the incredible lush eco-smorgasborg of Costa Rican cloud forests. The scientific research only makes it that much more sensational.

When I hear visiting scientists or students talk about species we see I feel like I am a kid making peanut butter and jelly in the kitchen of Chef Ramsey, making macaroni and cheese in a world-famous Italian restaurant. Yet, I am the resident chef… it’s just so humbling that I get to live in this incredible country, this ecological paradise, yet I know and “appreciate” so little, scientifically, about the incredible biological treasures I am seeing.

Coming to QERC restores my soul.

The issues in the city take a steady toll on it.

If technology is so robust and versatile, and can penetrate with a relatively small footprint into places like this, why do so few people actually use or work from contexts like this? If I truly work remotely, why can’t I do it from here?

Why am I so blessed? Every evening I watch a spectacular explosion of color over the western horizon as the sun sets over the mountains. I walk to work in the morning listening to the twirling trills of the Ygirro (clay pigeon), the country’s national bird, and the “Cristo Vive” bird. I see several varieties of tanagers, I even saw a blue morpho butterfly once. I’ve seen howler monkeys from the road (outside the city), as well as a quetzal from the road up at QERC, a sloth in the mountains around San Jose, and a kinkajou from the porch of my hostel. Those all in close proximity to places where humans live and travel – that’s not even mentioning when you hike into the holy of holies, deep into the jungle where there areno roads, no electricity, and few people.

Whether you leave the beaten path or not, Costa Rica has guarded its non-human nature and allowed it to live side-by-side, and sometimes “inside,” where the people are. This is a good thing. I say this coming off the wake of a semester class on environmental anthropology, which, to say the least, is not as optomistic about the relationship of humans to the environment. In fact, for my final projects I covered two sides of the coin in Costa Rica – ecotourism and conservation, which I just described, and the destructive results of increased human traffic and consumption – ie, pollution and deforestation.

I’ll sum up the two reports with an interesting story. While staying at QERC I bought a T-shirt at the gift shop with the silhouette of a quetzal on it. It is not a cheap shirt, as t-shirts go ($20). On the sleeve it boasts that it was made from completely eco-friendly textiles and 0% sweatshop labor. It’s one of my favorite shirts.

I wore it one night when I went to spend the night with one of my favorite families in the La Carpio slum. (I get tired of describing the place as a “slum,” but I will use the word again just as a description of the living standard there). Anyway, while playing “landa” (tag) with the kids in their “yard” (the street) someone grabbed at me and tore a hole in my favorite quetzal shirt. The family was mortified and replaced it immediately with an Abercrombie and Fitch shirt, which has symbolically become another favorite shirt of mine. It fits me perfectly, and is a more discrete, hidden symbol of my concern for social issues.

The point of the story is this – as much as I love the experiences, the restoration, and the beauty of places like the Savegre Valley that strive to balance humans and nature, that reality as a utopian cocoon of conservation is a myth that gets torn straight through the moment you visit a place like La Carpio. Costa Rica claims both the cleanest and most polluted river in Central America. The cleanest flows through the Savegre Valley. The most polluted is fed by several upstream rivers that eventually merge into one – two of these rivers flow straight through the heart of San Jose, untreated, and encircle La Carpio at the end of their route before merging and dumping, untreated, into the ocean. The far end of La Carpio was chosen as an “Environmental Technology Park” (a garbage dump), which gets 1500 tons of the city’s garbage every day (I find out later that people outside these areas actually believe they are “parks”, because when they are filled up they are disguised as lush green hills). This – the material result of urban concentration and overconsumption – is geographically located in the exact same location as the sociological result of greed, prejudice, and stigmitization, where what is “poor,” “illegal,” “foreign,” and “undesirable” to Costa Rica’s national image is swept into.

Sounds quite bleak, as I write about it, but the other side of the coin is this – spending time in La Carpio, with families and kids, is a restorative process as well. The violence and symptoms of social inequity are separated from the home by a thin panel of corregated steel. And, to be fair, the comforts of the hotels in the Savegre Valley are separated from the cold, damp earthiness and complete dependance on survival agriculture by a few flimsy powerlines, a road that sometimes gets buried in landslides or washes out, and a few precarious and invisible economic ties with the city. The reason I am writing this right now is because last night the entire valley lost power and it hasn’t come back on yet. Sort of a forced “Earth Hour.”

So, in each respective world – be it QERC or La Carpio, each comes with its moments of satisfaction and times of difficulty. It’s moving between the two that really gets to you. It’s the contrast between the two that really makes you ask questions. If their fates are linked, why do things look so drastically different? What things are happening from on the big-picture scale that make one side get the goods, and the other side get all the trash? And, I limit my philosophizing to Costa Rica… but do you see this happening where you live? Sometimes these things are best seen by foreign eyes… try seeing things as an outsider, a foreigner for a day, and see “the world behind the Matrix” 🙂


Christmas in the slums, field notes

It’s about 5:45 A.M., morning of Christmas Day, and gray dawn light is starting to illuminate the cracks and holes in the tin walls. The morning is quiet, and I quite enjoy the tranquil afterglow to last night’s ruckus in the streets, the persistent reggeton and club music from across the street punctuated, until I fell asleep at about 1 A.M., with the crack of firecrackers, bottlerockets, and the hiss of roman candles. The persistent noise now is the roosters, like a chorus outside, almost thick with the noise of animals. Thankfully there are none nearby, but you can hear over a dozen throughout the streets crowing in waves like ocean sound on the shore.

I heard people mumbling at about 5:30 A.M., outside or in an adjacent house. The house is quiet here. I can hear the kids through the thin centimeter-thick sheet of wood separating us. I think ME has the nasty-sounding hack-cough (correction, it’s UL). LO is sleep-moaning or something.

The periodic breath of wind outside can be heard strongly in the street, but doesn’t seem to move the house much. As far as I can tell, the strongest structural element of the house is a few 4×4 beams embedded in the cement, running vertically. Most of the other partitions are made from 1-cm thick wood. I see now that some walls are made of thin wood. Some of tin.

I stumble out to find the bathroom. I see that the kitchen has a light on still. It provides some night light through the top of the house, which is not divided. The soft bulb light is quickly drowned out by the dawn. The center section of the house, the part with the running water (washing machine, toilet area, and spicket) is already lit with gray light from outside.

OM is up. He met me as I left the bathroom and asked if I wanted to watch T.V. I told him I wanted to rest more, and by rest I mean enjoy a few more peaceful moments of solitude before everyone comes alive. I can hear that Sis up, and AD is talking softly with her. This home is like some sort of a suite, partitioned off differently with several shared spaces. I am the only one with a single room. AM and AN sleep here, usually, I believe. AM is 17 and her daughter AN is a few months old. She is in Los Chiles with AC and OJ. She was just born when this family homesteaded here from Nicaragua in 1993. They are one of the first five families here. AM-GM, the matriarch, speaks of how much better things are now – with running water and electricity. Back then, times were hard. Once a week the women would go down to some sort of water source past the garbage dump to wash. They now have a spicket delivering water to the center room. I would call it the utility room.

I was quite proud of myself for being able to figure out the bathroom. (People are up now, whispering in the front room. S, M, and D I think). The first rays of sunlight, golden sunlight, slicing into the top of my room.

There are no doors here. The partitions are separated by thin curtains. The bathroom door doesn’t lock. Somehow M knew to wait for me to come out, probably because the door is so rusted and decomposing that you can see into the bathroom. I’m really curious about the protocol for bathroom use. Like in the house with my host family, I feel like a detective putting a puzzle together. I look around for clues as to how to use the commode. What is the wooden hook above the toilet for (it’s the TP holder)? I listen now, from my bedroom to hear how the bathroom is used. I count three bowlfuls for a flush. I only used one. I think I heard 8 bowlfuls for a first washing round. Now I think I hear the big blue plastic barrel being moved. To be refilled? Same as in my host family’s house, I listened from outside the door for clues as to how to bathe and use the toilet.

If I remember correctly, Paul Farmer wrote that poverty is written in the kitchen and the bathroom. That is where you will find the effects of social inequity inscribed. I think that observation is quite astute, as well as the connection to embodiment of the effects of poverty, the link with health and hygiene, clean water, and waste removal, food and cleanliness. That is, where the body is cleaned, purged, the kitchen is where the food that enters the body is prepared. It also seems that men may be involved in the creation and architecture of these key spaces (I’m not sure about that, but I assume it). Women are in charge of its maintenance and use. I also noticed that none of the kids brushed their teeth.

AM-GM mentioned to me she has no clue how to drive. Can’t read, either. She knows her alphabet, though.

The other thing that concerns me is the open containers of standing water. I read about these in an anthropology article about slums in the D.R. Standing water, like those in the huge plastic drums, create problems and higher risk because of mosquito breeding – malaria and dengue, I think, are the two resulting concerns. The mosquito buzzing in my ear this morning more than just annoyed me; it concerned me. It’s actually no different in San Francisco de 2 Rios – an occasional or nightly batch of mosquitos in the room is not uncommon. (Turns out there are several articles about dengue outbreaks in La Carpio). I wonder, though, about the other observation I’ve read about in relation to poor urban settings. It is often the case that for lack of unified organization, lack of knowledge, lack of mobilization, lack of power and influence, and more disturbingly, for deliberate decisions on zoning and city planning, because of prejudice and dehumanization, because of economic pressures implicated in a free-market economy and the need for employment, because of deliberate neglect and oppression of vulnerable, powerless clusters of people not fully recognized as people – for all these reasons and more, it has been observed that lower class sections of the populations are often subjected to the harshest living conditions and most dangerous environmental hazards. They live near rivers, near garbage dumps, on dangerous slopes, in dusty polluted areas, etc.. La Carpio – case in point. All that just to explain… I am more concerned about things like mosquito bite, nail scrapes, coughs, infections, and seemingly benign symptoms here than in a place like San Fran 2 Rios. The concentration of humans and pollution run through worries me as well. All aspect of health and cleanliness seem intensified.

As do pressures on the home and family. I’ll explain in a second. Poverty is a small ax, that can chip away at the strongest, tallest of trees. The religious idea of poverty as a sin, of structural violence, etc… has something important to say here, something people tend to greatly oversimplify and reduce to convenient truths. Poverty may not be the great sin, but it is a sin, a societal sin bringing us all sorts of symptoms of crime, drug use, domestic violence, health issues, depression, work-aholicism, and general issues of societal atrophy that choke the life from sections of our neighbors and fellow believers. All of society is guilty of perpetuating this inequity; it is certainly not a sin centered on the shoulders of the poor. At best they are victims in the situation; at worst they are accomplices, but not likely the main creators of it. Last night we had a worship service in this house. With the booming music outside and cracking of bombas, we sang, read a passage, prayed, and some guy preached. It was the first time I understood the purpose of the mysterious sound equipment in the front room. Which, incidentally, was purposed to either fight the outside ruckus or try and be some sort of testimony to the outside, or sound of joyful noise to heaven in the midst of the chaotic pounding bass.

The house is uncharacteristically void of Christmas ornamentation. Essentially, there is nothing symbolic that points to any trace of the season. Other houses have lights, wreaths, Christmas trees, etc… A friend mentioned to me how fascinating it was to see the myth broken of how the poor are not interested in those sorts of frills, but merely concerned with survival. It’s not true; they are intensely invested in not just survival, but in living well, and particularly in enjoying family time during the holidays. The lack of decorations in the house I’m staying in may have to something to do with a fundamentalist flavor of Christianity, a mentality that I caught a whiff of last night from a comment the visiting preacher voiced regarding the pagan, worldly use of a Christmas tree, which was clearly unrelated to the true meaning of Christmas, but can be tolerated nonetheless. He also talked about how the magi’s visit flip-flopped the normal hierarchy of the day – rich, powerful, learned men kneeling in the home (not stable) of a poor couple in worship and deference and awe of their little, powerless baby. He’d done his homework. Or at least read the passage for what it said.

I have mixed feelings about the presence vs. total absence of traditional Christmas symbols. My view sort of reveals my obsession and preoccupation with commercialism. But it clashes with my enamoration with culture. I like the refreshing lack of commercialist Christmas, and consumerist greed. It is a breath of fresh air. We do not open presents that night nor the next morning (although each child proudly shows me a paper bag of broken second-hand toys they’ve received early on Christmas Eve). But I miss the symbols, the rituals, the customs, the “culture.” I feel like this sort of thinking is what often makes me shut my mouth on my views about things. I feel that to open it, I am bound to say two truths – one that people applaud, and one they will disdain. And, as is the nature of things, they will forget quickly what they agree with me on and remember the differences. I suppose I am ashamed that I also greatly reduce reality to fundamentalist convictions, both socially and morally. I don’t often connect the dots or bother to explain why the commercialist-consumerist-competition-free-market mess angers me. And why I so strongly react to it. I also idealize without appropriate rational critique the fundamental benefit of strong morals, tight families, respect of tradition and custom, and the threat of traditionally feared threats on holy living – addiction, drugs, alcohol, assimilation, etc… And, I love classic Christian practice – prayer, worship fasting, renunciation, discipline, celebration, sharing of things. Anyway, no matter how you look at it, I am bound to offend someone.

Coffee’s brewing. They have an electric coffee maker. At the house I live in with the UR’s, we still use the sock filter. Last week a language student finally bought us an electric one. We haven’t used it yet. RI is still making it in the sock (no filters?)

OM comes into my room through the curtain. The doorways to the rooms inside the house are only divided by a thin curtain. AD is washing clothes. Starting coffee. The kids are mostly still asleep in the room beside me. I hear S, M, and V as well. OM just watches me for a few moments, then runs off. What I’m doing is boring. It is also quite meaningless, I feel, until/unless I ever get a chance to share it with someone else, which I may or may not do.

This morning I reviewed the basic layout of the “complex” we’re in. Like I mentioned, I am in a room by myself, where M and N (and the husband?) normally sleep. Next to me through the thin wooden wall are S, O, E, H, and E. Next to them, the “matriarch” (M), her husband, and L, their (severely) mentally handicapped child. Then, the kitchen. The front room space, with a table and chairs. The rooms are each about 4m squared. The front room shared space, about 4×6 meters squared. The kitchen, 4×2 meters squared. The kitchen is shared. The utility room is in the center of the two living spaces. It has standing water, the spicket with running water, a dirt floor, and is about 4×8 meters squared. It has tools, the sink, the 2m squared bathroom, toilet, and barrel. There is no tubed drainage. From the sink, from the bathroom, from all parts of the house, the drainage goes onto the floor and is sort of channeled out the back of the house. The toilet sewage is not exposed… it goes straight into the ground, and I assume is jetted straight out the back of the house as well. We are not exactly on the brink of the riverbank, like Q’s house. There are about 4 living spaces between us and the edge. Next is the living space of D and her family. The front room has a TV and huge speaker system. It’s about 4×8 meters squared. The kids and parents all sleep in bunks in the back – D and her husband, L(12), V (11), E (9), M (7), S (3), and D’s unborn child (she’s pregnant). All 7 of them live in a segmented portion of the house about 4×8 meters squared.

At about 8 A.M. we have breakfast. Before that, the kids are all in D’s section of the house watching T.V. It amazes me, though, how people are able to watch TV in passing. I can’t. It demands my full attention. It’s really hard for me to ignore when it’s on. But while Toy Story 3 is on and all the toys are about to get incinerated in the dump, they loose interest and start talking. M and S walk across the street to a pulperia to buy a little bag of Dorito knock-offs before breakfast. M gives me a bag of them, but I really do not want it. I am so full, but I accept it and tuck it away for later.

I am struck again by the precarious juxtaposition of childlike innocence and adults with impaired judgment. There are 12 people in the street this morning, with wafts of gunpowder (from the fireworks) in the air, and sewage from the milky white stream at my feet. I actually can’t smell any alcohol at all, which is odd because it was (last night) and still is so pervasive in the streets. Six of the people in the street this morning are kids, playing soccer and talking. Six are adults. The group of four in front of the pulperia is what makes me uneasy. A young boy and three men are joking happily, already (or still) nursing huge bottles of Imperial beer. It’s clear that any sense of judgment and forethought and concern has long since been lost to them. I stay close to the door of the house, watching S and M enter the pulperia. S walks through the group of men, peeking at me and yelling something happily from behind them. I realize that the men make me nervous. I feel safer close to the house. S, however, is totally unconcerned. Something about this “precarious juxtaposition” is disturbing to me, but at the same time more truthful. Sometimes, through zoning and different social clusters that we form, we can isolate ourselves and families from the insecurity of alcoholism, drug abuse, youth delinquency, etc…. Well, we think we can, but really, those issues are quite present for many of us. They are inside the suburban fortresses we’ve constructed. Like that Christmas night, those threats were on the street… and they were in the home. Sometimes I was afraid to stray too far from the house. Sometimes I was afraid to go into it. It is the women and the kids that suffer the most from these precarious juxtapositions, which are often the result of careless or violent behaviors of the males. We have got to shape carefully and patiently the behavior of young males, they often seem to be the ones acting out violently. There are lots of groups doing damage control in places like La Carpio. Very few walking, working, and living with those in the community, befriending and discipling them.

My first inclination was to describe the presence of this “precarious juxtaposition” in the slum as a result of how when we live our living standard, we strategically separate the drunken, the dangerous, the decrepit, the “profane” from what is safe, secure, and sacred. We don’t have the problem of trying to protect our kids from the drug dealer next door or the gangsters on the corner, while simultaneously respecting them. But then again… maybe we do. Those problems are never “out there.” If they are present “out there” they are just as present, albeit possibly in different forms, “in here.”

Breakfast is a choice of Nacatamal or “comida” (rice and chicken). I can only barely get through another plate of rice and chicken, and bread, but I make it. My stomach is tired of starch-food. It’s getting harder to stomach it. It’s good, though.

After that the kids took me to track down Q and F. I’m taking them into San Jose for my birthday party. F’s got his earbuds in… he’s pretty stoked, he finally hit 35 wpm, which means he earned the iPod mini I bought him in the States. Q will hit the target later today, and they will both have what they earned by the end of Christmas Day.


Christmas Eve was the big day, though, though most of my reflections I recorded the next morning. I got to La Carpio at about 3pm. I met D on the main road with M. We put the car into L’s place and continued to the house. M and D wanted to go buy food, though, so we headed into Chepe once again into the thick of the central market. M and H latched onto me, one on each hand, the whole time. We wove through thin passageways, in and out of different carnecerias and fruit stands. The purchase of chicken was mysterious to me; we bought chicken at three different places. I wondered if they were places they knew, and if so, why we didn’t just buy all three chickens at the cheapest place. On our drive back, M explained to me that she couldn’t read or write a single word – all she knew was the alphabet. I should have been double-checking their math – people here don’t usually rip me off, but but they often make major calculation errors or oversights. I suspect that may happen more if they perceive their client to be illiterate or uneducated, but who knows.

Grapes are about $3/kilo. Chicken – I forget, about $8 for the entire chicken. And we bought 3. We bought a huge jug of ketchup, and I cringed at the realization that ketchup would be the base of the sauce for the chicken and rice. They way people use mayonnaise and ketchup as sauces makes me nauseous.

I took out my cell phone at some point discretely to reply to a text message. D warned me later not to take it out in the central market. I never take it out in San Francisco de Dos Rios, either. In La Carpio, I do, though. There is some security dynamic that seems lost to people. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but I can “intuit” a different set of rules for caution. In places like San Francisco de Dos Rios or the central market, I’m at risk because I’m a target (on the street), I’m alone (in SF2Rios), or I’m anonymous. In La Carpio, there is always the possibility that a vagabond youth might mug me, but less likely because there I am not anonymous. They usually hang out on the corners, and will probably only mess with people they don’t know, or don’t respect. Anyway, my point is, it amuses me to think of how many gringo missionary friends I have that walk in fear in their middle-class SF2Rios neighborhood, with good reason, yet, if they were going to some the marginalized places like La Carpio, they very well may be safer. That is, not targeted, if they learn the rules.

We head back at 5pm. We play games and stuff until our little church service at 7pm. There are 15 people total – most of the kids, the three moms and I, Grampa, and a stranger preacher man. The service is uneventful, except that I finally discover the purpose of the mysterious sound equipment in the corner of the room. Of course, I don’t think sound amplification is necessary for a small group of 15 people in a room so small. It helps us compete with the cracks, pops, and incessant dance music from the street. In fact, I think the sound system is a competition thing… or a witness thing, announcing the presence of godliness in an otherwise quite disorderly context.

The service is not long, only about 45 minutes. The chairs are then cleared and the table brought out. The next couple hours we rotate between table games, firecrackers, and games like tag and hide-and-go seek in the street.

At some point right after the service, two of the kids take me over to L’s area so I can find Q. His mom invited me for some cake. That visit got uncomfortable quite quickly, partly because I saw lots of our guys largely wasted in some form or another in or around the pulperia across the street. The larger fireworks continue for a few minutes, but the actual midnight changeover is a bit anticlimactic for me.

We don’t stay up much longer. I can barely keep my eyes open. I’m in bed by about 12:30. The street, separated from my room by merely a thin sheet of deteriorated plywood, is still alive far late into the night; for some, clear through to dawn. But the ruckus doesn’t bother me. Whether it’s sensory overload, or my own internal body clock, or culture shock, or what, I am out by 12:45, and I don’t wake once until dawn.

That was a good Christmas.

The next night, Christmas Day night (25th), I brought Q and F home at 10pm. The streets were vacant. The place was asleep. The lights were off. It was totally silent, except a small group of thug teens up by the public telephones that Q and F told me to avoid.

A last comment – at no point did we “open gifts” or gather around the Christmas tree. Early the day before, the kids shyly showed me some small gifts they’d received – broken dolls and stuff… some looked very nice. And they showed me their new clothes they were “estrenaring” (“presenting” or “breaking in”). But, for example, even the gifts I brought we did not open. I encharged M with them. I had no idea what the protocol was for gift-giving.

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Amazing Grace – The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation

This book (along with the sequel by the same author) was our required reading for an on-line class in Race, Gender, and Class in Education. Quite impacting, to say the least. Here are a few quotes from the book that stuck with me. Some are from the author; most are from people he interviews in the South Bronx or Mott Haven, New York.

On my list of most impacting writers, including Brueggemann, Richard Foster, Dostoyevsky, etc…, now goes Jonathan Kozol. The past four months I’ve been taking classes on multiracial education, which have been largely quite stale except for some alarming statistics and interesting perspectives. The chapter on class was certainly the most moving.

However, the two books we read by Jonathan Kozol were the most impacting. I was totally engrossed in each one, compelled to read from cover to cover. His writing is good, his interviewing technique is of the highest quality, and the themes he explicates throughout his books are deeply impacting. And deeply religious, incidentally. He states his ambivalence to formalized religion repeatedly, however, his two books have undoubtedly been the most intensely religious writings I’ve read in a long, long time. He communicates a sort of subtle spirituality without being preachy.

The themes he deals with probably explain why I am so obsessed with his writing… the way he describes the insights of the children he interviews is eloquent and fascinating. He combines this with social commentary on poverty and racism, and mixes these with a sacred reverence for the teachers and priests working in the South Bronx. The religious theme running through the book about communion, holy water, heaven, etc… is right on, something I’ve striven to describe in my journals in relation to some of the places I’ve worked. So basically, he mixes religion, education, poverty, racism, and the insight of children in a self-reflective way that is poetic, piercing, and as Brueggemann described it, “summoning.”

These two books and his writing have helped me in articulating the complexity, contradiction, hope, and mystery that these themes hold for me. Here are some quotes:

“What is it like for children to grow up here? What do they think the world has done to them? Do they believe that they are being shunned or hidden by society? If so, do they think that they deserve this? What is it that enables some of them to pray? When they pray, what do they say to God?” (5)

“Why do you want to put so many people with small children in a place with so much sickness? this is the last place in New York that they should put poor children. Clumping so many people, all with the same symptoms and same problems, in one crowded place with nothin’ they can grow on?” (11)

“Evil exists…. I believe that what the rich have done to the poor people in this city is something that a preacher could call evil. Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people – that is my idea of evil.” (23)

“We came here in chains and now we buy our own chains and we put them on ourselves. Every little store sells chains. They even have them at check-cashing…” (24)

Maybe once a year they [think of us]. Some of them have parties around Christmas to raise something for the poor…. What’s goin’ to happen on December 26? Who is this charity for? In a way, it’s for themselves so they won’t feel ashamed goin’ to church to pray on Christmas Eve.” (44)

Often during times like these I have to fight off the feeling that I am about to cry. I do fight it off because i do not want to be embarrassed…. When I leave, I sometimes give in to these feelings, which I never can explain because they do not seem connected to the things we talk about. It’s something cumulative that just builds up during a quite time. (46)

If the police are scared to come there, why does the city put small children in the building? (53)

The notion of the ghetto as a ‘sin’ committed by society is not confronted. You will never see this word in the newspapers. (72)

Many here are a great deal more devout than people you would meet in wealthy neighborhoods. Those who have everything they want or need have often the least feeling for religion. (78)

“There’s something wrong. There’s something sticky dripping from the elevator.”

“My mother said, ‘It’s only grease.’ But the woman said, ‘It looks like blood.’ So my mother was afraid and went downstairs to check, and it was blood, and it was coming through the ceiling of the elevator, which was on the second floor. So then my mother came upstairs to make sure that the children were all right. We found the other children but we could not find Bernardo.” (104)

[Fourth grade rapid drill where the children respond in unison]:

“What are these holes in our window?”

“Bullet shots!”

“How do the police patrol our neighborhood?”

“By helicopter!”

“What do we do when we hear shooting?”

“Lie down on the floor!” (122)

“In heaven you don’t pay for things with money. You pay for things you need with smiles.” (Anabelle, 129)

Being treated as a friend this way by children in the neighborhood feels like a special privilege. It seems like something you just wouldn’t have the right to hope for. Why should these children trust a stranger who can come into their world at will and leave it any time he likes? (130)

There is a golden moment here that our society has chosen not to seize. We have not nourished this part of the hearts of children, not in New York, not really anywhere.” (131)

Prisons, schools, and churches, many religious leaders have observed, are probably the three most segregated institutions in our nation, although the schools in New York City are quite frequently more segregated even than the prisons. (147)

I worry about speaking too much of the triumphs that such people and communities achieve without positioning these stories in realistic context. (161)

“Mr. Mongo sells drugs. I don’t feel sorry for him any more. He tried to get my brother.”

“What did he do?”

“There’s an old trick they have,” he says. “It goes like this.” He holds out both hands wrapped into fists. “Choose one.” I pick one hand. He opens it up and looks in his palm and smiles. “It’s your lucky day, my friend!”

“What’s in his hand?”

“White powder. Whichever hand you pick, there’s powder in it.”

“You’ve seen him do it?”

“I was there. He did it twice. I saw it.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Please, God, don’t let him do it to my brother.'” (219)

The Sword, the Sling, and the One True King

The Israelites and Technology

The Sword, the Sling, and the One True King

by Brendan Blowers, Per (S.N.)

When we go to the Bible looking for wisdom on the topic of technology, we first have to redefine our ideas of “technology” to fit the time of the Israelites. We have to roll back our ideas of “technology” about 2500 years, and realize we aren’t talking about iPads, iPods, flat screens, cloud computing, netbooks, fiber optics, frequent flier miles, or search engine optomization. No, the latest fad was not if your plow had 3G technology or not, but whether it had an iron tip. We’re talking iron-age here, people. People were just beginning to realize they could shape and sharpen the elements to create better and more efficient tools. The Israelites, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, had finally settled in the promised land and were beginning to realized that where they lived today… would still be there tomorrow! They didn’t have to live day-to-day any longer! The gift of manna for the day had now been replaced by the gift of a land to call their own, for generations. Now, a people strengthened physically by years of hard living and strengthened spiritually by years of reliance and trust in nothing else but the One True God could now establish homes, farms, and a kingdom.

But… there’s a problem. This trendy new technology – iron – isn’t distributed equally. The Israelites are at a disadvantage… and it’s no accident. There’s a group of people who don’t want the Israelites to learn the mystical science of forging iron tools. Because tools aren’t the only thing you can make. You can make swords.

1 Samuel 13

The Message

There wasn’t a blacksmith to be found anywhere in Israel. The Philistines made sure of that – “Lest those Hebrews start making swords and spears.” That meant that the Israelites had to go down among the Philistines to keep their farm tools – plowshares and mattocks, axes and sickles – sharp and in good repair. They charged a sliver coin for the plowshares and mattocks, and half that for the rest. So when the battle of Micmash was joined, there wasn’t a sword or spear to be found anywhere in Israel – except for Saul and his son Jonathan; they were well-armed.

The Israelites have no blacksmith. They don’t have the training or the place to go to sharpen their own farming tools. They can’t arm or defend themselves. They get charged by foreigners who have a monopoly on iron smelting. They’re dependent on the Philistines, they have to pay them whatever they ask, and they can’t create weapons to protect themselves.

So what do they do with the only weapons they have? Well, in the next passage we see Jonathan go on a Rambo-style killing rampage, single-handedly killing 20 Philistines in a wild, impulsive killing spree. From Israel’s perspective, the insuing chaos showed them God had saved the day.

A few things to note. Did the Philistines have good reason to fear the Israelites getting swords? Looks like their fears were justified, from what Jonathan did. “But if we give them technology, they will use it for bad purposes” the Philistines likely cautioned. Should we be worried that Jonathan went crazy and massacred the Philistines? The writers of Israel’s history like this outcome. But we can be critical of historical mistakes made by the Israelites – was it right for them to use this new technology for warfare rather than to work the land? Were they craving more instead of caring for what God gave them? Or, was Jonathan right in using the technical advantage – the sword – to level the inequity the Philistines had created? Really, that is the heart of the problem… the technological gap was no accident. It was described not as a result of differing development trajectories. No, it was a strategic inequality designed by paranoid, fearful, dominating enemies of the people of God. The Philistines created, and perpetuated this inequality because it served their own interests. They had a monopoly on technology creation and maintenance, making the Israelites dependent on them. They could charge whatever they wanted for the Israelites to sharpen their tools. And they could make sure these new technologies were never turned as a weapon toward them. Why all this trouble to keep the Israelites oppressed? They were afraid. Afraid the Israelites would make weapons. They were likely afraid of aggression that was created by bitter feelings arising from the oppressive stance the Philistines used. If I have a sword and I overcharge you to sharpen your farming tools, I have no reason to worry… until YOU get a sword. Now my edge over you is gone.

So, is technology in the hands of the Israelites the ultimate solution? As Saul and his band of men take on bigger and better armies, it looks like the sword is the newest and best thing around. It’s helping them gain a foothold and proving that God is with the Israelites.

But, is it really God that is with the Israelites, or the sword?

Part II

Is technology in the hands of the Israelites the ultimate solution? Is that the defining factor that will save them?

To answer this, we have to go forward to a reminder David gives us. We’re skipping over the part where Saul disobeys God’s orders and God rejects him as king. We come to the story of David and Goliath in chapter 17. David is sick of Goliath’s taunts and the weak cowardness of the ranks of Israel’s army. So he asks to fight Goliath.

There is no ambiguity in where David’s strength is from. “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (v 37, NIV). Nevertheless, Saul wants to offer the best weapons the army has. He suits David up in his own armor and puts the Sword in his hand. Is this about desperately hoping something he has to offer is relevant and important in David’s situation? Is it about “credit” or branding – will people ascribe some power or significance to the fact that David wears the king’s own tunic and fought with his sword? Will the story become “David killed the giant with King Saul’s very own armor and sword!” instead of “God used a young shepherd boy to defy the enemies of his people!”?

But the armor and heavy weapons are not suited for David’s needs. They are inappropriate technologies for him – he is not used to them and they are cumbersome and confining. We already know the story, and it is quite likely that using the king’s armor would have prevented him from fighting and winning the way he did. He takes off the armor and sword, and instead goes armed with his staff, 5 smooth stones, and his sling. Not impressed with the spectacle of modern warfare strategies, David goes with what he is familiar with and a relentless faith in God as the determiner of the final victor. His message is clear.. “the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel,” (vs 46) and “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give all of you into our hands” (vs 47).

We all know what happens next… David runs forward to meet Goliath head-on and nails him in the noggin with a rock slung from his sling.

The author of this event records the army’s proccupation with David’s youth and inexperience. Yet, the writer repeats another important truth, articulated in David’s statement… “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s” (vs 47). And again, we are reminded… “So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him” (vs 50). Perhaps the writer emphasizes this repeatedly because God as the ultimate victor and determiner of the battle is an idea that extends beyond David and Goliath and covers the whole of Israel. The establishment of the nation of Israel upon the land is put in perspective in Psalm 44 – “It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them” (Psalm 44:3). It is not by Sword that the victory is won, but by God’s love.

Something to note… Goliath’s sword is, in fact, finally used by David to cut off Goliath’s own head. Goliath’s sword shows up again, when David eats the consecrated bread in the temple, deceives the priests and the Philistines, and desperately pleads for a sword or spear. He is given Goliath’s old sword (1 Samuel 21). What might that mean?

Part III

Is the tendency any different today, to ascribe the victory to something other than the one true God? Do we attribute to technology, smarts, some clever business model, a specific missions strategy, the latest developmental trend, money, our government, the military… whatever… do we attribute to these things the source of victory, when God was the ultimate victor? God is pretty clear about how he feels about praise he deserves being given to other gods.

Do we come against the Goliath problems we face in the world today – poverty, sickness, natural disasters, human disasters, immorality, sin, defiance of God… do we come against these giants armed with the latest, greatest, and best the world has to offer? Or do we come armed with a relentless faith in God the Creator and appropriate technology that we are familiar and comfortable using?

And, perhaps, do we sometimes attribute to God a victory that was in fact a victory he takes no claim in – one that a false god made possible? Do we attribute a successful project to God, when in fact it was a project not ordained by him but forced into being by our clever technologies and missions strategies?

We should be aware of this technology gap when we see it, and we should denouce the human element that makes structural inequity like that possible. We should advocate for accessible, natively designed, sustainable uses and designs of technology, that do not subject or enslave certain groups who do not have these technologies themselves. Computers should be designed robustly for environments that are not dust-free, cool, and climate-controlled. If we follow the Philistine strategy of using progressive technologies as tools of enslavement and oppression, we can expect to receive the violent backlash they experienced when the Israelites finally started using the Sword.

And above all, we should attribute the victory to God, not whatever product, brand, denomination, or sponsor organization we’re toting. The battle belongs to the Lord, and it is so the world will come to know the one true loving God of us all that the victory over these giants is won.

We should use the solution that fits the context, and draw from the diverse strengths that are brought to the table. We should be careful not to dress shepherds up in cumbersome, restrictive armor and put a sword in their hands to show off the greatest technology has to offer. We should learn from the shepherd how to launch stones from afar, we should learn what strategies have worked for him and use those as a starting point for new solutions. All he needs, after all, is a slingshot, five smooth stones, and the blessing of God to take on the giants.

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Cross-cultural Urban Monasticism

I’m not really sure what this term means, but I think it’s supposed to be part of the emergent church movement or something. Anyway it doesn’t really matter, because I’m forming some ideas on what it might mean in a cross-cultural context.

I have, in my mind, the image of a traditional “monk,” someone that commits himself to celibacy and being set apart from the world for an extended period of time, in order to devote himself to the study of Scripture, prayer, fasting, works of mercy, service to the poor, etc… Traditionally, this happened in a monastery, and with a community of other like-minded folk.

Things seem a little more different nowadays. This type of experience might happen to some degree during college or seminary, or a few months or years on permafarm. There are some approximations we have. Let me combine a few of these to incorporate ideas of “urban monasticism,” “cross-cultural experience,” “study of scripture,” and most uniquely “simplicity.”

The idea is simple. I’ve been designing in my head a “plan” for living in an urban slum. Let me first throw out a few explanations as to why this would work, and also… ways in which it could not be pretentious. Continue reading