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Gratitude is the central virtue of a missionary

Shortly after moving out of La Carpio in December 2011, a friend suggested that I read a book called ¡Gracias!, by Henri Nouwen. The book is a collection of his journal entries from 1981-1982, during a six-month period when he attended language school in Bolivia and then moved into a “young town” on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. It includes a lot of commentary on missionary work, the state of the Latin American Church at that time, cross-cultural service, and liberation theology.

The book was helpful for me because it crystalized some of the lessons I carried with me when I left La Carpio. The principle lesson being the inspiration for the title: ¡Gracias! – Thanks! On page 16 he states it most directly –

“Gratitude… becomes the central virtue of a missionary.”

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Spiritual Inspirations

My personal spiritual development was part of what compelled me to move into La Carpio to learn. Where I was at spiritually greatly influenced my decisions and the sense of peace I had in deciding to move to live in La Carpio for several months. There was certainly a spiritual process that led me to the point where I realized this move was going to happen, and should happen. Much of this occurred before I ever went, and peaked intensively in the few weeks before and after the move. Many of the rituals of everyday life took on a deeper spiritual significance, such as eating with others, washing in the morning, and sitting in silence as a downpour roared on the tin roof above. Continue reading

Camera Obscura

If you’ve ever gotten the chance to sleep inside a “tin shack”, or a structure with walls and a roof of corrugated steel, you may have learned pretty quickly how the thin walls don’t separate you very well from what’s going on outside. In this case, immediately outside the room I’m describing is a dusty street, and although I am inside the room I can hear conversations from people outside my room talking late into the night. I can smell the frying foods from Coyol’s taco shack on weekends, the odor of exhaust when the neighbor leaves in the morning, or catch wafts of rancid smoke if someone has ducked into the alley to light up. There are lots of noises, too, like the tinkling giggles from kids jumping rope or playing “landa” (tag). The mornings are particularly noisy, with the fighting cocks crowing anywhere from 3 A.M. onward, dogs barking, and cars revving up. On weekends, a woman and child walk by selling “nacatamales,” singing-songing the word out shrilly as they walk the streets, drawing out each syllable in an unmistakable rhythm, each progressive syllable shorter than the one before it – “naaaaaaaaaacaaaaataaaamaaales.”

However, corrugated steel walls are completely light-proof, and there are no windows in the room. The only light that peeps into my room in the early morning is the bright golden circles of light irregularly pocking the wall furthest from the street. These perfectly circular bubbles of light are created by the morning sunlight piercing through the nailholes in the patchwork of steel sheets making up my wall. I lay awake in the mornings sometimes, fascinated by the bright spots of light on my wall. Part of my fascination is the thin sliver of light the sunbeam forms through the glittering fibers of dust in the air. Each pinprick of light where a removed nail has left a hole leaks an unnaturally straight beam of sunlight across my room to form small yellow bubbles of light on the far wall, about two inches in diameter.

Today, however, it dawned on me exactly what each of those little spots of light really is. It is the sun. Not just sunlight, forming a nondescript blob of light on my wall. It is an exact image of the sun itself… and, if you look a little bit closer, you discover that the entire scene outside my room is also projected on my wall, not just the sun. You can see clouds, blades of grass, walls, cars, and sometimes even people! Each spot of light, then, is a sun in the center of a perfect, inverted image of the scene outside my room.

I’ll explain. I pieced this together one bit at a time, and when it finally dawned on me what I was seeing, I spent the whole morning giddy with fascination, realizing that I had just discovered that I am seeing before my eyes a “camera obscura,” a dark room with a pinhole that projects an inverted image of the outside world on the opposite wall. After a month of looking curiously at the light spots on my wall each morning, I finally pieced everything together. Part of the fun was discovering that a childhood science experiment and a lifelong hobby (photography) has been plastered on my wall each morning, but I didn’t put all the pieces together until now.

It helps if you understand how a camera works, or better yet, a “camera obscura.” My entire room is a camera obscura, a “dark chamber” upon which the dawning sun is photographed every morning. This is a bit difficult to explain, I realize as I write this, but absolutely fascinating to see unfold before my eyes. A camera works because the shutter opens a small hole of light that chemically burns an inverted replica of the outside world onto the film that walls the back of the camera. Without that “film freeze,” the inverted image is dynamic and moving, like the way our eyeball works.

I finally drew all the links together when I suddenly noticed that the small circles of light were changing ghostily, with random patterns creating cloudy patterns over the circles. I looked more closely, and suddenly saw that I was seeing an inverted version of the clouds in the sky pass in front of the sun. In some of the projections, the sun was sliced in half by thin black lines, or the top of it had what looked like a spiky “hairdo.” I realized that what I was seeing was the orb of the sun, blocked by powerlines, trees, or clouds. That “hairdo” was the waving grass blocking the bottom of the sun… in the inverted image it looked like waving hair on top.

Each of these pinpricks, then, is projecting the entire scene outside my window onto the walls of my darkened room. Some splay the outside scene across my floor. Because there are ten nailholes letting light through, there are ten projections hitting the wall, all blending together and making it hard to distinguish any specific shapes or images.

To single one image out, I picked up a piece of paper and held it about 6 inches from a single nailhole. That’s when the outside scene really came into focus. I could see a perfect, but somewhat blurry, replication of the world outside my room. It was in color – the sky was blue, and the plants looked green! It was detailed… I could see my upside down car parked outside, and the top of Coyol’s taco shack. From time to time I could even catch a person walking by upside down.

I hear what sounds like sand being thrown across the sheets of steel. I touch one of the nailholes and realize it is wet. Coyol has woken up and he is tossing water on the outside of my room… I don’t know why, but he’s watering down the side of the house.

The images in this post are photographs of a dynamic projection of light. They are taken of the piece of paper I held up to the nailholes of light. The sun and sky are pretty easy to pick out. If you look closely you can see some details – like the tires and frame of my trooper. You can make out some tall grass and shacks on the hill, too.

Three weeks in

My third week has finished up and I’m starting up my fourth here. By Thursday I’ll have completed a month here in La Carpio.

In just this short month I already have enough “stories” and crazy adventures to write a book. In the first month pops gets kicked out of the house on father’s day and moves back within a few days, there’s shooting in front of my house related to the major gang conflict, the kids do their mid-term exams for their short break, and the government launches a full-blown operative 7 months in the planning on the delinquents on our block.

Most recently I’ve felt really disillusioned about my role here. I don’t feel I’m doing anything useful or helpful. I wish I knew what to do. I wish I knew how to “fix” the social problems I see and the looming pitfalls for the kids in the family approaching the 15-year mark in their lives. I wish I was documenting some profound anthropological insights that would be useful to others in the future. I wish I was making some headway on my practicum. I wish I was recording some of the conversation and fun times we’re having in a lighter sense, like the Amazing Grace book. I wish I was compiling all these things in a journal more in a more orderly manner. I wish I had these things published more regularly on-line.

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Where I lived, and what I lived for

I went into the slums because I wanted to live deliberately, to front what for me is one of the most disturbing essential facts of life, the drastically increasing gap between the rich and the poor. I wanted to see if I could learn what they had to teach me, and not, when I kneel before God in prayer, discover that religion and spirituality had nothing to speak into this reality. I am no longer satisfied to live the unexamined life that accepts inequality blindly, nor do I wish to practise resignation, except as a method of deferring to the teaching authority of those that will guide me. I am no longer satisfied, nor have ever been, with what feels to be a shallow level of superficial concession of religion and culture in general to this problem of exploitation and injustice. I want them to meet it head on, not just in theology or social gospel but in flesh and blood, not just by me in this temporary immersion, but by all people in body and spirit and mind. I go into the slums, as an act of deliberate decision to force all the Western training and tools and religious thought to confront this problem head-on, and to see if in actuality we are able to equip ourselves for true social mobility. I wish to put that expertise and training at the service of the slums and the people there, to test these tools in the context of poverty and informality, and to see where their arrogance and self-ascribed authority needs reshaping and refinement by reality.

I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, but especially not just those aspects of life brought to me simply and freely, but drive the comfortable life into the niche where it belongs, and experience the grand scale of life as it exists today, and, if it proves to mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; if it be sublime, to know it by experience, and give a true testimony of it as best I can when I emerge. For most people, it seems to me, have far too hastily concluded that the chief end of man is to glorify God with a false sense of security and comfort, without any authenticity or concern for their fellow neighbor, and enjoy him forever while being completely isolated from the beautiful and somewhat terrifying complexity and multiplicity of the world he has created.

I go to learn, I go to ask what the good news of Jesus Christ means in this new context, one so close geographically but so far socioeconomically. I seek reconciliation.

Remixed from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, Ch. 2

(I move in the next day, on the 9th).

Missionary Manifesto

Love the cheap comforts, the privileged position, the fame without sacrifice.

Put price tags on their misery and reap your rewards on earth.
Enter their world briefly then retreat to your castle of safety.

Fear thieves and birthday parties outside your gates.

And you will breath from your feet and not your lungs.
Your love will be mechanical and strategic.
The gifts from your heart will be numbered in their books, and charted on tables and graphs.
When they need publicity photos they will call you.
When they need someone to suffer for their cause, they will let you know.

And so, friends, every day do something in secret they won’t ever discover.
Give your heart to the people before learning to quote the company’s mission statement.
Love the Lord your God; do not be afraid to talk to theirs.
Give when no one sees. Take all you have and be poor.
Walk places. Take the bus. Seek sunsets. Enjoy the free show.

Look beggars in the eye and don’t be afraid to talk to sex workers. Make it your life’s goal to love them like Jesus did.
Confess your sins to homeless priests in the street corners. Your salvation depends on it.
Treasure these sacred moments in your heart, and report no trace of them to deaf and mute forms.

Praise mystery. Fear simple answers.
Seek out what they warned you to avoid.
Take heart, for one has overcome the world,
and nothing can separate us from his love.

Look for her in the darkened places
where the world has hidden her away.
Give yourself to her when invitation is free, and the perfumed sheets they assign you will become a stench in your nostrils.
The drinks they pump into you will taste like bile in your mouth.
Be prepared to carry the fiery debt of love from the encounter on your face the next day.

Return to this mystery again and again.
Do not let the fascination wear off.
Do not insult her with an offer to pay.
Watch who she gives to and do the same.
Settle for nothing less than the One who forgave her sins,
and seek him in place of the gods who traffick in certitudes.

Carry her with you in your heart to every conference you attend.
Radiate her light from every podium you step behind.
Never confess her secrets to anyone who will sell them.
Do not repeat what she whispered in your ear.
Savor the secrets with your eyes closed.

In this way you will lose your life.
In this way you will find it.

Remixed from Wendell Berry’s “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”