Hand that Hangs Down

Yesterday my friends and I went to Ranchito and Cihuatlan to deliver dispensas to the needy. In spite of the extreme heat of the day and the fact that it was my time to relax and read my favorite book, I went along, subduing my spiritually rebellious self that nourishes the things my heart struggles to combat: laziness, selfishness, intolerance. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

I’d been talking to my friends about their ‘dispensa ministry’, questioning them about its effectiveness because I believe that establishing relationships should be the goal of the ministry and how to empower people to earn material things through their own labor. But the goal my friends shared was not about fixing them by feeding them but more about restoring them to health and well-being. And this is made possible because they have people skills and an adequate command of the Spanish language. Their unique presence has become the method by which inroads have been made into the lives of these extraordinarily poor Mexicans.

The first family we visited had a father who was dying and a paraplegic who paints with her mouth. Poverty, hardship and misfortune have pressed many a life into heroism: such has happened to her. A broad smile never left her face. It’s as though she has snatched victory from the very jaws of defeat. The second family was happy too in spite of obvious material difficulties. The woman my friends know is paralyzed from the waist down, but there she was, chopping tomatillos for salsa and planning to make tacos for sale, smiling broadly with tooth-gapped joy. A discouraged soul is hopeless, but these women were triumphing over adversity with a power that made them victors. The third family we visited made me realize the immense good that comes from the dispensa ministry. It also made me resolve to strike the phrase “I’m starved” from my vocabulary, and reserve the word for the real thing. Although the bare, earthen floor had been swept clean and everything was in its place, I don’t think there was any food for them to eat. And the man was skeleton-thin.

My friends leave for Canada this week; they’ll be gone for 4 months. I’m not sure I could pick up and do what they do in their place. And that makes me realize how often we come up against something we find distasteful and we evade the issue with an excuse: ‘I’m not quite ready for that right now.’ But one thing I know – a life among our Mexican neighbors demands a re-orientation of our values. To value our neighbor doesn’t put us in the headlines. To visit them is the stuff of service to our neighbor – driving them to an appointment, paying for a prescription or giving them a fish for comida. Just consider the cost of time and the weight of commitment. It was the weights on my grandfather clock that kept it going.

This morning I woke up to a rainstorm. The wind was blowing and the rain fell as if heaven had opened its windows. But there was faint music in my heart. It was a voice singing across the storm, gradually sweetening its melody and deepening its cords, reminding me that the gentle people we visited yesterday all had a unique part in that universal song. I went back to sleep as it rained tenderness, compassion and patience on me.


For the Joy Set Before Us

Japanese proverb: We can never see the sun rise by looking into the west.

It’s amazing how clear the vision becomes when you apply the right set of lenses!

Ed Silvoso in his book “Transformation” tells a great story about three masons, or albaƱiles, working side by side in the heat of the day, their backs aching and their shirts soaked with sweat. A by-stander asks the first mason what he’s doing and the worker responds, “I’m sticking bricks together, can’t you see?” The questioner proceeds to the second mason with the same question and he answers, “I’m building a wall.” Not satisfied, the man approaches the third mason with the same question. The mason pauses, wipes his brow, and looking up to take in the sight of something yet unseen, he replies, ” I’m building a cathedral.”

Silvoso’s point is that only the third mason possesses vision, essential in any project or serious undertaking, because he saw each brick with the eyes of his imagination. His vision allowed him to picture the grandeur of a cathedral: he had his eyes on the ultimate design instead of the task.

This analogy comes at a good time for me as I continue living my life in Mexico. I have a ‘project’, Cornerstone Idiomas, a language school. I attend more than one church, one Spanish-speaking and the other English-speaking, and both have projects; the latter gives out ‘dispensas’ for the poor. There’s Dra. Rosa’s project at Pinal Villa where I go weekly, as well as the unusual project in Barra de Navidad in which the sand on the beaches is being restored, stone walls along the coastline are being constructed and a walkway is being built for tourists, making straight paths for our feet.

I’m excited about them all, but my restless heart beats against the prison bars of circumstance and the innocence of habit, yearning for a wider sphere of usefulness and effectiveness. Let’s look then at three of these projects ( school, church, Pinal Villa ), each of them unique, in terms of vision.

If developing empowering relationships is the goal of some then I have reservations about our success. If employing a ‘learning process’ approach to development where the recipient participates in some or all aspects of the project then I think we’re on the right track. It depends on the project and on the goals. At least we aren’t using a blueprint approach to develop a standardized project! Each is entirely unique.
Goals can be tricky if we don’t want to see cultures collide. Maybe we should be more concerned with the process and methodology than the goals.

We gringos, for example, have a very different attitude towards good stewardship of time – it means getting the most out of every second. Time is money. This attitude accentuates our idols of speed, quantification, money, achievement and success. Our projects become more important than people. Development in a language, for example, can be a life-long project. For Mexicans, time is a somewhat unlimited resource – there’s always more time. Getting the job done is less important than being together, just hanging out. Sometimes their initiative can be squelched by well- meaning outsiders: our power silences them. In Mexico, time takes a backseat to forming and deepening relationships, but how many of us are conscious of this much less use this in terms of empowerment? If our goal is to develop people’s initiative or restore people to fullness of being – bodily, culturally, educationally, spiritually – then we need to understand Mexican culture much better, and, achieving that, use a more participatory approach in our methods. Do we gringos even know our Mexican neighbors? We don’t need to go very far in this country to find materially poor people. Do we know how to talk to them? Do we know what questions to ask? I would suggest that, being as complex as they are and not very well understood by us, it would do well to have them onside and thus make things work well and be sustained over the long haul. I would even suggest projects involving people include basic information for newcomers, specific information about the people and the culture, and even some basic language skills. The ‘go-help-and-save’ needs to be replaced by a ‘go-as-a-learner’, and even, as the author of “When Helping Hurts” suggests, a ‘go-learn-return-respond’ could be implemented with success. And for those lucky ones who are always in attendance? Evaluate how things are working and determine the appropriate modifications.

The colored sunsets and shining seas here in Barra are not nearly as beautiful as a soul who serves. Humility is as elusive as it is desirable, yet some people serve here all the time. They must be indwelt by the power of good, you say, because love is not a faucet to be turned on and off. And you’d be right. Their ‘calling’, if you will, is almost hidden, even secluded. They’re like the polyps which construct our coral reefs, working away under water, but dreaming of building the foundation of a new reef or island, on which, given time, plants and animals will abound. These wee polyps will break the mighty Pacific waves that lash our beaches and give depth and beauty to our coastline again as they work away out of the sight of people but in full view of heaven.

Attitude determines altitude.

Can you imagine what that third mason would have seen if he’d been wearing 3-D glasses?

Does Not Seek Its Own

I’d just been reading an interesting book called “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett on my return from vacation when I realized it was my afternoon to visit the kids at Pinal Villa. I felt more enthusiastic than ever before – the book had prepared me to examine mistakes we make in helping the poor. Sometimes, for example, our attitudes undermine those whom we seek to help, employing a subtle and often unconscious sense of superiority towards them and communicating that we are here to fix them. What are our real motives in helping? After examining my heart to see if a ‘god-complex’ resided there, a feeling that since I’d ‘mastered the universe’ I could use my superior skills and intelligence to save the poor, I considered myself barely equipped for the job, that of helping the teacher with the older kids. After all, we who have everything offer to those who have nothing – isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Is there love there, or is it more that we earnestly want not to be left out of what is going on? I hadn’t seen those kids in a month. And while I realized life in the Barra/Melaque area had slowed down with the departure of the snow birds back north, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw that first week in May: one small girl playing outside the gate, searching a box for hidden treasures among the refuge. And there was little life inside the albergue.

In certain aspects the project at Pinal Villa is outstanding for its cohesion and stability. Aid workers are devoted to doing what is good and right; Dra. Rosa has vision – she originates things and events that would not otherwise be or occur, and because she lacks paternalistic attitudes towards the indigenous people, she makes it possible to do long-lasting development there. And development is more important than giving material aid. The question, “are we there yet?” Is irrelevant because the project is process-focused and relational – the goal is to see people restored. Not easily done as the indigenous people have internalized the message of centuries of colonialism, racism and slavery.

I didn’t see people that day because some families were in the fields and others had moved on – hopefully we have empowered them to meet new challenges. Or maybe they’ll be back next year. In any case, because the project has solid support structures and ongoing programs, a transformational frontier has been crossed….it won’t disintegrate as soon as members leave town.