Friday, July 23, 2010

Some new comments

Hello everyone, apologizing for the long delay in posts, but when you're busy out in the countryside away from reliable internet service, it can be a little tough. I wanted to draw your attention to a few new comments on the "The Gospel vs. Human Trafficking" post and invite you to make some comments as well if you feel so moved.

In the meantime, adios and God bless!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Gospel vs. Human Trafficking

A few times recently, people have asked me to share more of my personal philosophy on this blog. Almost exactly one year ago (April 30, 2009), I gave a speech to about 40 people at Brown University to finish an event raising awareness about human trafficking and giving the Christian perspective on this atrocity that unfortunately occurs in many parts of the U.S. and world. It, I think, is the best explanation that I have of the personal philosophy that motivated me to join the Peace Corps. I should mention that it is only that - my personal philosophy - and has absolutely nothing to do with the Peace Corps as an institution, nor necessarily with the form of my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer. You will note that the invitations at the end have been stricken in order to avoid any confusion.


So I’m going to speak from the heart tonight, and it’s my hope that what I say be challenging to all of us that are here, and for that reason I’m going to invite us all at the end to take the next step in our spiritual journey and in our journey for social justice.

We know that the issue of human trafficking is gaining traction in our state. At the rally last week we hearda testimony from Tina Frundt:

Tina grew up in Chicago, and when she was fourteen she met a man twice her age who hung out by her corner store and kept buying her candy. She had some family problems…you know how young teenagers are, so she ran away from home with this man, her new boyfriend. They talked settling down together, of buying a house, but after a little while the man said, “If you love me, you will make some money for us.” And then he took her to Cleveland, introduced her to some of his friends, and told her to have sex with one of them. She said absolutely not, but he didn’t care, and so they raped her. She was convinced it was her fault. Then her “boyfriend” put her in a house with other women that he was pimping out. He put her on the streets at night, and she was forced to make $500 a night, and when she didn’t he would hit her. Fear, isolation and kept her like this for two years, enslaved.

How can a relationship turn so bad? She, like all of us, was just looking for an authentic relationship – was looking for love. She, in fact, was in love with the pimp. But he misused that love horribly. There’s something so insidious about this that it just makes you shudder, isn’t there? Love cuts to the center of who we are.

Our misplaced search for love in fact can leave us not only victims of human trafficking, but it can implicate us in it as well. You don’t even have to order up an enslaved prostitute, your porn subscription might feed money straight to sex traffickers.

The truth is, this is a problem which is fed by dollars, and by technology, and by government policies, and by geopolitical realities, but it goes beyond even those things. This is a problem of the human heart – a spiritual problem.

So what does God have to say about this?

Well, Scripture says God is love. Just like love has been misused, God has been misused. And usually for reasons of power – people seeking to justify their own power by invoking the name of God.

And in the Christian story, it was this thirst for power which spoiled the relationship between God and humans. It was so bad that God put rules into place to check humans’ power against each other. One of these rules was called the jubilee year. Every fifty years, the Israelites were to return all property to its original owners, free all indentured servants and forgive all debts. Think about that! That means every 50 years all wealth - and power - would be equalized!

The sad story, of course, is that world history doesn’t reflect that jubilee year. Even the Israelites, just like everyone else, never really practiced it. And slavery is quite possibly the worst incarnation of this thirst for power. It destroys the other person’s identity, destroys their spirit.

It’s one of the saddest occurrences of history that Christians defended slavery through the Civil War. Another example of religion defending the powerful. Defending the status quo. James Cone says from the perspective of the black freedom struggle in the ‘60s that “if God is not for us, if God is not against white racists, then God is a murderer and we had better kill God.” Okay, admittedly, the language is a little intense, but I want to show you tonight that God is a God of liberation, a God who understands and sides with the oppressed, with the enslaved, with women and men who are caught in human trafficking.

And to do that, I’m going to read from the account of Jesus written by the doctor Luke. Jesus says this just as he’s beginning his ministry. It’s sort of his inaugural address or his statement of purpose. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is Jesus’ purpose – to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, which is Guess what? The jubilee year. To those in captivity, in slavery, Jesus seeks to set them free. To the oppressed everywhere – the poor, the racial minorities, the untouchables, women in abusive relationships, Jesus says things are going to be different now. I’m starting a new movement to liberate you. And it’s not even just them. Jesus also proclaims recovery of sight to the blind. That includes those of us who are blind to what is going on around us, like the human trafficking that’s going on a few minutes away. This is the meaning of Jesus’ “good news to the poor.” This is the meaning of the Christian gospel.

And Jesus did other things to let us know that he wasn’t just for the oppressed, but with the oppressed too. He was constantly eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, the scum of the earth as far as the outside society and the religious authorities were concerned. Makes you think – I’m sure that if he were here today he would be hanging out with trafficked persons as well. Let’s think about who he even was! Christians say that Jesus was the essence of God – high and mighty and all of that, but he was born in a pig’s feeding trough to a single mom in a barn. During his ministry, he angered all the authorities – Jewish and Roman. That’s why they conspired to kill him. The very essence of God Almighty entered into a person who cried, who was homeless, beaten, betrayed, persecuted for his beliefs, and executed. In the story of his death, Jesus identified with our suffering and the suffering of the oppressed and enslaved. And that’s a great thing to know. Thing is though – the story doesn’t end there. In death, he confronted the insurmountable oppression. And on the third day he improbably rose from the dead, proclaiming victory over that oppression which killed him, and setting the precedent for all the rest of us to experience and be agents of liberation today.

The great thing about Brown students is that we get it, by and large, we get it. We all want to do what we can to stop slavery. Look at all the student groups we have here to advocate on social justice issues. That’s part of the reason I love this place.

Over the past four years, I’ve had the great pleasure of being able to serve in STAND, formerly the Darfur Action Network. Of late we had been struggling to do meaningful things, and so a few weeks ago, I tried to give the group a motivational speech to cheer us up. You know, blah blah blah, we can do this, we have to believe in ourselves, et cetera, et cetera. But as I was giving this speech, I looked out at the members of our group and I realized something – these people aren’t burnt out like me, they are actually trying incredibly hard. Struggling, and struggling, and coming to frustration with this new, this ugly reality - We have few places to go on Darfur. There aren’t really any small victories to be won. The problem just seems too big, we seem too small. We are coming to grips with our limits.

We do have to face the facts that when we try to love others, try to serve them, it isn’t always what we wish it could be. You know, a couple of years ago I was in a serious relationship that was ending. I had loved this girl very much. And yet as things began to worsen, I found that I just couldn’t love her as much anymore. I tried and tried, but instead of love, all that was filling my heart was fear. And one day I went out to Prospect Park and I just cried. Sorrow just overcame me as I realized that I couldn’t, that I didn’t have it in me, I wasn’t strong enough to love her like she deserved.

When we are weak, when our relationships falter, when we cannot stop human trafficking in a house a ten-minute walk from here, let alone in Cambodia, it is a sign that all is not right with the cosmic relationship, that our relationship with God is broken too, that we are not the people God intends for us to be. Luckily for us, Jesus came to repair that relationship, to bring us back to God. And he did it with a love that is infinite, much greater than our loves. So great that he would even die for us.

And so giving that motivational speech, a feeling just came on me. I really wanted to just tell them, “You are loved!” And this is a message that we should all take home tonight – no matter what we accomplish or don’t, we have a giving father, a compassionate mother who loves us. The apostle Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

How powerful is that! What does that say to the trafficked woman, sitting in a brothel with some mattresses strewn about the floor? Even though many men may come through the door and quote-unquote “make love” with you, even though your pimp, like Tina’s, may pretend to be your boyfriend, even though this “Land of Opportunity” is the worst you’ve ever known, you have an eternal father who does really loves you, who even knows the struggles you are going through.

So how does that help us who want to be world changers, who want to affect this issue of human trafficking here in Rhode Island? Well, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Not learn about the change, not even do the change or enact the change, but be the change. More than intellectual, more than volitional, it’s spiritual. Our spiritual problem demands a holistic solution – a spiritual solution. What does it really mean to be a change?

To the Christian, Jesus WAS that change. Jesus inaugurated a whole new humanity Instead of being a power-hungry person, Jesus actually relinquished his power in order to be in radical solidarity with us, with the oppressed. Up on the cross, the soldiers yelled to him, “Save yourself!” But he didn’t – not until later, anyway. To have power, we must relinquish some of our own power.

I want to tell you a story about a man who did just that in the face of all that seemed good and sensible. (and I apologize to those of you who have heard this many times.) Mariano Puga was born to a family in Chile which owned what is today the third-largest vineyard in the world. Go to any liquor store, you’ll find a wine from the Viña Concha y Toro. That’s his family’s old vineyard. Obviously, he grew up with great wealth and attended the best schools, the best university. He was at the Catholic University, the same school I studied at while I was abroad, studying architecture and there he met a priest who became a mentor to him. He said, Mariano, I know you’re a religious guy and all, but you really need to forget all that you ever knew about Catholicism, or Christianity, and just start reading about Jesus. So he did. One day he set out to read all of the Gospels and he later told me, in his words, “I fell in love with Jesus that day and I’ve never fallen out of love with him since then.” So he decided to become a priest. His father knew that Mariano had a real heart for Jesus’ message of social justice, and he was a very good man, but he didn’t want Mariano to be a priest. Obviously he was a very rich man and so he told Mariano, “Please, please just remain an architect. If you do that, I will build you, I will pay for, affordable housing for the poor if you design it.” Incredibly, Mariano said no. He became a priest in the north of the country in a mining town. Up there none of the miners would really come to mass, so he decided to go to them. He went and worked in the mines himself. Fourteen hour days, six days a week, then gave mass on Sunday. Later, he moved back to the city of Santiago and instead of moving back into his parents’ neighborhood, he moved to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, living in a little dumpy shack and refusing to accept money from the church. He worked as a painter to offset his meager costs. In that neighborhood he served as parish priest, advocating for the people there. And during this period there was a military dictatorship in Chile – the Pinochet dictatorship – that was very hard on the poor. Father Mariano spoke out against them, one of the few opposition leaders known in the city, and for that he was thrown in jail seven times, and tortured once for a month and a half. Yet I knew that at the same time, despite this hardship he was having incredible impact. Because I had been led by God to go to that church – he had actually moved on by this point – but all the parishoners would tell me, “If it wasn’t for Mariano, I wouldn’t still be with my husband,” “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have started our organization” or like my friend Pato “Before I met Mariano, I was a materialist, atheist leftist, and after I met Mariano I was a Christian leftist.” In any case, you can see what this guy meant to them. He trusted God and gave up his power, like Jesus he moved from the very top of the totem pole to the very bottom, aligned himself with the poor and with Jesus’ message of liberation, and allowed God’s power to work through him. As Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (For more on the story of Mariano: Off on a Spiritual Journey

It is my prayer tonight that we would be like Mariano, be like Jesus in spreading his gospel of liberation to those who are kept in inexcusable bondage here in Rhode Island and around the world. It is my prayer that a movement would arise, that this movement would strengthen, not from a paternalistic position but from a position that says to today’s slaves we are here with you and we love you, just as God loves you. And it is my prayer that we let go of whatever is holding us back, let go of our own desires for power and let God take them, let God, who has the power, turn us into world changers for the good of the world.

I want to create a space for you to respond to what you’ve experienced tonight. Let these things that you’ve seen, felt and heard about human trafficking and about the Christian story dwell within you. Over the next little while, see what you think: do you agree with me? Disagree? And come tell me about it. But I also have three invitations for those who feel moved to commit themselves to something. In just a moment, we will pray and you will have an opportunity to respond, but first let me say what the three invitations are...

Reconnect Speech

Two months have passed since Reconnect, our meeting in the Peace Corps office. I’ve been meaning to put up some of my thoughts which I shared with the Volunteers on that day, but time has been very short, especially at night, so it’s been tough to update this blog.

As the designated speech-giver of our training class (class that arrived in August ’09), I was given the opportunity to share a few thoughts during Reconnect. Below you can find the text of my speech at swearing-in on October 29th, 2009, but this speech was a lot different. Very informal, just taking experiences that I’ve had and trying to make sense of them and give my fellow Volunteers a bit of a shot in the arm in a tough period of one’s service. These words are probably just as relevant or even more relevant now as the novelty of being a Peace Corps Volunteer has surely worn off and we are confronted with the daily reality of being a development professional in rural Guatemala while trying to integrate with the community.

The Municipal Development team! (We are all wearing ridiculous-looking T-shirts that we found in stores that sell used American clothes.)

I’ll just put these thoughts in a list:
1. Do a personal diagnostic. How do you feel on a scale of one to ten? (Most people responded that, quite well, thank you, 6-8.)
2. Congratulations for having made it to Reconnect. At the time of Reconnect, we were officially 6 months, 5 days in country – that is, 23% of our time in country complete. As Volunteers, we had completed only 14% of our service. In this moment, we are 8 months, 10 days in country; 5 months, 22 days in site; 31% done with our time in country and 24% done with our service as Volunteers in site. What could we realistically have hoped to accomplish in 14% of our time? Or even 24%? Even though it’s scary, and feels like it’s fading fast, there’s still 76% of our service left to try to make an impact if we feel like we haven’t made one so far. What was a realistic goal for the first quarter of service? Just integrate into the community. I know that personally, I was expecting to work on only integration in my first year of service.
3. If you can’t measure success in terms of projects accomplished, or lives changed, let’s look at ourselves.
a. Are you more patient than you were 8 months ago?
b. Are you less self-absorbed?
c. Do you appreciate the relationships you have?
d. Have you made any progress on the five value transitions I have been trying to cultivate: from self-centered to other-centered, from task-focused to relationship-focused, from dependence on material and physical pleasures to independence from them, from accomplishment-focused to being-focused, from independence to dependence on God.
Gandhi spent his early life mucking around as a mediocre lawyer in India, trying to study and integrate in England, but failing, and going to South Africa. Without much outward success, but upon further inspection, he was forming himself for the amazing things which would come afterward. If we mold ourselves into the people we want to be, hasn’t that made these two years worth it?
4. Nobody around us understands our philosophy of development, especially if you’re in a site, like me, that has had very few Peace Corps Volunteers, the last one having been in an outlying community of my municipio and having left in 2001. I’ve been asked many times to just send down $500 from my or my parents’ bank account to buy all the things that the office needs. But that’s not the way that we want to make our presence known as Peace Corps in Guatemala. We are not about showing up with tons of money, a.k.a. power, and starting to give things away to build for ourselves power and create dependence. It’s easy enough to be called creído (arrogant – I get this a lot, unfortunately), we don’t need to go around flaunting our own power. I already get called creído every time I refuse to pay for someone else’s snack, or telephone bill, etc.
5. Even though nobody else understands our philosophy of development, why we don’t just come in bearing our own very firm ideas of what we want to accomplish and with loads of money to accomplish it in foreign shores, we have powerful examples in world history of people who were with us. The example that I know best, and the example best-known in Guatemala (these thoughts surged in me as I was in a Posada, a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s going to knock on the doors of the inns in Bethlehem), is that of Jesus. Jesus was born to a 14- or 15-year-old mother, who wasn’t married at the time of (immaculate) conception, who was forced by a foreign power to travel many hours at the time of her labor in order to complete some legal documents, who was denied room in the hotel for lack of money or social standing. Jesus was born in a pig’s feeding trough in the company of animals. Not suitable for a king, but suitable for him. He was executed as a criminal, in the style reserved for the worst criminals, humiliated, by the same foreign power. To be a change agent, as Jesus was, from a perspective of being with the people instead of above the people is a radical idea, but one that he lived out. Finally, on the same topic, there is a beautiful quote from the Tao Te Ching (the collected sayings of Taoism):
Go to the people.
Live with them,
Learn from them,
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build with what they have.
But of the best leaders,
When the job is done,
The task accomplished,
The people will all say,
“We have done this ourselves.”
-Lao Tse, China, 700 B.C.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reconnect Visit to Antigua

On Feb. 16th, we PCVs had our first gathering as a training class since our swearing-in ceremony on October 30th when we officially became Volunteers. The gathering was called “Reconnect,” to tie in with the idea of connecting with our fellow PCV’s after the first 3 ½ months in site which are usually spent very highly in site without much contact with other Volunteers. So we marched back up to the office in Santa Lucia Milpas Altas, taking advantage of the excuse to spend a few days in Antigua. It was very strange to go to Antigua; when I moved from the old training town just outside Antigua to my site, I didn’t notice so much the difference between the regions. But coming back, I realized just how strange Antigua is on a national scale – its level of development and wealth, its cosmopolitan culture, and its focus on the arts.

I took advantage of the opportunity to be in Antigua to spend a day and two nights with my old host family. It was nice to be back in the same old town which I know so well, see the corte (indigenous skirt) on all the women, and enjoy the beautiful climate. But the best thing, of course, was to be with the family which I had missed dearly (even if not living with them had made my life easier and saner). I returned to my old ways of playing with the kids all day, staying up into the late hours talking, and not getting anything related to work done. It was fun. My old host mother has gotten (mostly) over my departure, which was very rough for her for a number of reasons, and she started studying nursing in the afternoons. This is very exciting for her because it’s giving her another whole life experience of her own, away from the gentle, but nevertheless domineering presence of her husband, something that helps quench her always-present thirst to leave, get out of the house, get out of her town, etc. At the same time, there was a certain sadness about her. After I left the house, she was somewhat depressed and vowed that she would never invest so much time, energy and emotional wherewithal in another person that would leave. She did decide to host another Trainee, but hasn’t pursued the same kind of extremely close relationship with him as she did with me. I had tried to make a lot of contributions to the family (see “A Beautiful End to Training”), and though I always told them, “Anything that I did while I was here you can do too; there was nothing special about me,” they didn’t believe me. Many of the things which I tried to impart and teach were lost when I left, and instead of leaving improved self-esteem to tackle their problems, at times it seemed like my departure took the wind out of their sails.

The story goes to illustrate just how hard it is to effect meaningful change in people’s lives. It also illustrates how doing a lot of things or providing care for others isn’t necessarily a sustainable solution. How do you create real behavior change? It’s tough to imagine. Surely, part of it is modeling the change you want to be. Part of it, though, is building the capacities of institutions and people who will be in the community long-term and are already allies. Another part is working on self-esteem so that they know that they can reach the goals that the development worker outlines. And finally, change has to come by the light of the Word and the Holy Spirit. Our efforts alone are are OK, but aren’t strong enough to overcome many intractable problems, whether in individuals or institutions. In the Spirit is where we have both the strength to stand up to problems that seem too strong or too embedded to fix and the endurance to keep fighting despite what seem like setbacks from a worldly point of view.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I wanted to write one blog entry about one of the values which I have been seeking to cultivate: other-centeredness. At Brown, I sometimes was a little frustrated by the underlying self-centeredness of the experience. Despite the students’ dedication to causes, student groups or what have you, in the end, you’re there to get a degree to get you where you want to go. Or you’re there to have experiences and build yourself up for the future world. Sometimes I thought that this underlying self-centeredness prevented true community life from really growing up. In Peace Corps, on the other hand, we are charged with the development of others. (Depending on your motives, you’re also here to develop yourself, like I am.) Part of being a PCV, in any case, should be holding the interests of others to be paramount.

In what does other-centeredness consist? One part, certainly, is working for the development of others, directing one’s energies toward others. Another part is when an opportunity comes up in everyday life to serve others, you take it. This would include common courtesies, giving little gifts, accompanying people when they have to go somewhere, etc. The third part, I think, surpasses the level of action and gets to the level of consciousness. This is actually having your thoughts centered on other people. And not in the way which someone who is in love has his thoughts centered on the object of his desire. But if one is other-centered in this way, he lives in a world which is not dominated by him, which does not revolve around him, but rather around others.

Over the last four years, I too have been quite self-centered: in the first aspect, to a certain extent. I lacked will to invest heavily in a lot of relationships. But at least during college I usually made the decisions to serve the Christian fellowship despite what other opportunities there might have been. And I took steps toward orienting my life toward vocations of service. With the second and third aspects of other-centeredness, I wasn’t too good. These aspects have to do with one’s disposition, and I was busy and therefore self-involved.

So how am I doing up until now? Well, on the first count, good. Since leaving training, I’ve been working in the muni for the development of my municipio. And that’s pretty much a given in Peace Corps. As long as you get here, try hard and orient your activities toward things the people want (OK, it’s not that easy!), you’ll be fulfilling that goal. On the second count, taking up random opportunities to serve people, I’m accompanying people when they need to go somewhere, for instance, but it’s hard to overcome two self-imposed limits: my schedule (though I’m not as busy as in college, I’m still fairly busy, and I always feel the need to get home by 7:30 or 8:00 to eat dinner, or though you may not believe it, write e-mails or blog entries) and money, not because I’m struggling for money, but more for how to spend it.

Here I’ll permit myself a small detour to talk a little bit about spending money: Peace Corps gives me a living allowance to pay for my food, rent, vacations, transport, incidentals, etc. I’m currently living with a host family and am paying them for my food and rent, which comes to only about 40% of that living allowance. So I’m not scraping by, I have enough money to pay my expenses. The people I know best here in site are not extremely poor either, especially in comparison to the overall population (in 2001, the poverty rate in our municipio was 94% and the extreme poverty rate 57%). Most are muni workers, professionals though they lack college degrees, and make about the same amount as I do. Others are young people from in town, who may not have any money but certainly aren’t starving. On the other hand, those who have jobs aren’t just providing for themselves, generally. One of my co-workers’ fathers passed away two years ago when a tree he was cutting down fell on him, leaving his wife and nine children without any income. Now my co-worker, who is 21, and his sister, 19, work to cover the family’s expenses. Anyway, all of this is to say that I still have somewhat more money than the majority of people I spend time with, even though they’re not extremely poor.

In Guatemala, property is not really private in the way it is in the U.S. People who have money are to some extent expected to buy things for other people. A simple example is cell phone calls. Cell phone service is done here by buying minutes (prepaid), and a lot of people are usually without minutes on their phone. So they are always asking for you to lend them their phone to make a few calls. And the question people ask is not, “Would you be willing to lend me your phone?” but rather, “Do you have minutes?” as if one’s having minutes obligates them to give up their phone. Another example would be people who have gone to the U.S. – they always come back from El norte (the north) bearing many gifts for family and friends. They like to share their new riches. A final example might be buying food, especially the customary midmorning snack. It is rare that each person goes to buy their own snack. One person generally has to invite and pay for everybody else’s snack, and that will more than likely be the person who has the most money at the time. As I’ve explained above, that person often is me. But it’s not fun to buy snack for everybody every day, so I rarely do it. Though I’ve spouted a lot of rhetoric about communal ownership and sharing of resources, I find it very hard to actually do it – to buy things for people once is fine, but establishing the pattern of buying people things, I feel, will just lead them to take advantage of me a lot. And for that thought pattern, possibly others feel like I am hoarding money and I am selfish, so maybe in this way I’m not fulfilling the second facet of other-centeredness.

The level of consciousness is the most difficult level to achieve other-centeredness, I think, perhaps unless you were raised in a culture which seriously cultivated other-centeredness. And unfortunately in the majority of situations where a culture encourages a certain group of people to be other-centered (think women), it follows that that group is forced into servant status in the society. So how do you cultivate other-centeredness, in which the joys of servanthood, or better said, servant leadership, are experienced, but without being socially excluded?

In training, I actually reached a high level of other-centeredness in my consciousness for me. I was spending so much time with my host family, and was so wrapped up in their issues, that my life actually began to revolve around them, possibly more than around me. I actually wanted to orient all of my activities toward them, and I primarily thought about how my activities would affect them, how they would perceive my actions. In contrast to today, my journal entries from that period primarily describe their lives and the issues they faced. And the period was very intense – it was very fulfilling to reach that level of other-centeredness, but the part of me that was self-focused got pretty tired at times. There were many times when I really didn’t want to go play with the kids and I just wanted to sit by myself, but I went with them. And it was rewarding and those kids love me dearly for it, but at the same time it was very tiring.

And so getting to site, I’ve become more self-centered again in this aspect. My family life is great, but not consuming. My work is focused on building others up, but in no way do I know the people I’m serving in the COCODES of my town as well as I knew my old host family. And it’s very hard to be other-conscious of people with whom you don’t have an intimate relationship. Also, I’ve been mostly focusing on myself trying to best position myself for life and work in site for the next two years. Though it seems that much has happened, I’m still only about 10% into my service as a full-blown Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ve felt that it’s more important to discover on who I’m going to be in site right now so that in the future I can help others. And maybe in that future, I can reach this level of other-consciousness again.

A Beautiful End to Training

This has been a blog entry that is a long time in coming, and I apologize to all the readers that it is so late. I have wanted to relate the events that happened at the end of my pre-service training during the month of October, 2009. Training, though meant to ease the transition between life in America and life in rural Guatemala, is still always a difficult time in many ways; many volunteers who finish their service say that training was more difficult than any other stage of the process. It is the beginning of the cultural adjustment, when the culture shock is strongest, a stage with a very hectic schedule, a very integrated family living situation, and a tight leash from the administration. All of these challenges did make training very hard for me, but I’d like to present the following vignettes which made me feel like it was all worth it. Few and far between as they may be, the following are the wages of the Peace Corps Volunteer:

1. In the post of September 19, 2009 I mentioned that during training one other trainee and I were working with a COCODE (community development council) on an ecological park in the training town. We had three meetings with the COCODE: in the first, we tried to assign each member of the COCODE a specific area of responsibility based on the group’s needs and the individual’s interests and talents; second, we tried to define a short-term work plan for the group; and third, we accompanied the group in a meeting following up on the work plan. The group had had a 50-page strategic plan for the park done by the group Asociación Sotz’il, an indigenous-rights group, but Don Edy, president of the group, remarked at the end of our final meeting, “Asociación Sotz’il came and wrote us a plan. But they never sat at the table with us to plan together. And that’s why I think that your presence has been more helpful for us than theirs.” There, I hope, is the essence of Peace Corps – not doing work for others, but sitting down with others to work together toward development.

2. My swearing-in speech was very well-received, by Peace Corps and Embassy administration, by my fellow Volunteers, and by the Guatemalan families present. The speech brought me a little bit of fame, and it was fun to be the center of attention for a while.

3. Despite often not wanting to, I spent a lot of time during training playing with the two boys of the house, aged six and ten. I established a lot of trust with them, always tried to give them advice and even scolded them occasionally. On the last day, the ten-year-old gave me a card in which he apologized for doing all the things which I had scolded him for, proclaimed his brotherly love for me and told me that I was his best friend.

4. My host father, with whom I spoke very little, on my last night in the house knocked my socks off when he came up to me asking forgiveness for not pursuing a better relationship with me (at which time I also asked forgiveness from him for at times not wanting to speak to him), and then thanked me for all the time I spent with his kids.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Confianza: Giving It and Receiving It

As many of my fellow Volunteers have mentioned, probably the central teaching of training was that one must gain confianza, or trust, in one’s community in order to be able to do anything. Peace Corps is about building capacities of people and organizations in host countries in order that they can meet their development needs. This means that host country people, service providers and organizations are indispensable to the work of Peace Corps. In the end, they are doing the work, not us. Therefore, anything that we do as PCV’s needs to be carried out within a relationship of trust with our host country agencies. Building that trust is an indispensable step to achieving any lasting change in country. And so I set my primary goal for the first year in site to be to build that trust, and to do that through integrating into my community. Cool, I’ve set about that task. But the practice of building trust brings with itself some additional issues which I’d like to comment on.

In Guatemala, so we were warned by our cultural adaptation handbooks, the personal comes before the professional – in other words, any work relationship has to be first founded on a personal relationship if it is going to lead to anything. Good, that goes along with the necessity to establish trust that Peace Corps is always talking about. At first, then, when I arrived at work, I set about getting to know my co-workers before anything else. But for me, work has picked up pretty fast, and that emphasis on getting to know co-workers has shifted to getting things done and transforming the time at work from relationship-building to action-based conversations (oriented toward a specific outcome). Others, however, spend more time in relationship, to put it nicely. There have been plenty of times when some people in the office sit around just looking at pictures or “molestando,” flirting/bothering our coworkers of the opposite sex, and I pass by walking quickly, because I’m working on something that is needed in a hurry. It makes me think – am I missing opportunities to gain confianza? Am I, in contrast with my original goals-values statement, privileging tasks over relationships? My initial reaction is yes; I’m not in keeping with my own goals. But then, sometimes, I think, “How better to gain trust than to do a good job?” If I work hard and get things done, then people in the office will know that they can count on me. That is the definition of trust in the work environment, isn’t it? And I know that my primary counterpart, the coordinator of the Municipal Planning Office, trusts me in large part because of the way I work and complete tasks that need to get done. In reality, it can rarely be a good idea to not work hard, and so I have sided more with the second option, to build trust in work through the work itself, leaving it to down moments, to weekends and special events to have pure relationship time. This, however, has led to the problem of being called “creído” – more about that later.

Another issue with gaining trust in the community is that some actions will gain you trust with some within the community and cause you to fall out of favor with others. The biggest example of this is drinking. The action of going out drinking with a few people across cultures tends to build relationships between those people if it’s done in a safe manner. Going out with a counterpart that drinks, with architecture interns, with directors of other offices in the muni, all of these things will help you become friends and, therefore, better co-workers with them. However, in this part of Guatemala opposition to drinking is very strong, especially among Evangelicals, who make up the majority of my town. (There are also Mormons who oppose drinking strongly, just as they do in the States.) Gaining a reputation as a drinker can be very damaging to one, I imagine, as I hear the way that people take a little breath before they say the word “drink” or the inflection in their voices when they say the same. This same divide could also be said for dancing, only that the Mormons would then fall on the side of those in favor of dancing. But the point is that differences within the society seriously hinder one’s ability to build trust with “the community” in general; in such situations, you have to think of getting in with one group or another.

There’s another side to the equation, too. We are concerned with gaining trust in our towns. But what is the role of giving trust, or trusting others? Surely, trusting others helps others to trust you. But does that mean that you can, or should trust everybody? I received the following advice from a friend from a church here in town: Don’t tell people the majority of things about yourself. People should have to earn the kind of trust with you that would allow you to tell stories about yourself.

This is hard for me; over the few years of college, I developed a lot of self-confidence and a real desire to share myself and my story with other people. And I wanted lots of people to know about me. I was proud about the things that made me different from other people, primarily my religion, and for me, all the better that other people know about my religion and religious journeys. My old host mother in Chile was one of those people who inspired me to be very open about myself; to her, not being honest or not being forthcoming with truths about oneself was a form of hypocrisy. Here, however, as recommends my friend, maybe it’s better that one not share that information. Gossip is one concern, another is this whole process of gaining confianza in community, and third is working for an organization that has a reputation to keep up. With confianza as the goal, sometimes you position yourself as something you’re not – or at least you play up some aspects of yourself and play down others. Or at least you should. For me, it is very hard to break this mold of speaking my mind, doing what I want to do or feel to be right, etc. We’ll see how it goes in the future.