July 28, 2015

Bricks in the Wall: On the time that my very privileged white American self stood toe to toe with real poverty


I had a solidly middle-class childhood. No, money wasn't dropping like manna, but we were pretty secure. There was a time when I was very, very young--too young to even remember--that things were not secure, but for the majority of my memories, life was good.

We had a home, with enough bedrooms that when I was ten, I was allowed to have my own room (my little sisters had to share). We had food on the table every day. We had cable, and I was an elementary schooler when we found space in our home for such brave new technology as a home computer, the Internet, and a Playstation. Each of my parents had a vehicle of their own. My sisters and I each had our own bicycles, and more toys than we could keep track of. The electricity and water were always on. We never went without heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. It was safe and comfortable to play outside for hours on end, and there was plenty of room to run while we were at it.

We lived in a very poor town for many years, until my adolescence, but all of my friends were from families doing well enough that I never had actual poor people in my circle. My mom taught them. My dad worked with them. I just never experienced it.

It was, in the ultimate example of the word, an actual privileged childhood.

When I was fifteen, I began eagerly raising funds to attend a mission trip that our youth group had planned for the next summer. With the support of the various churches that my family members attended, I easily raised the funds, with a little help from spaghetti dinners, bake sales, and calendar sales along the way, and just a handful of days after my sixteenth birthday, I was headed to Costa Rica.

We left from Charlotte, flew to Newark, and then to San Jose. It was my first plane trip; my first time in the Northeast; my first time out of the country. There were a ton of memories from the trip that I absolutely treasure--I saw the Pacific Ocean, watched a volcano erupt, and hiked in the rainforest.

The overarching goal of the mission was to convert Catholics to our independent fundamentalist Baptist view and save them from hell. To this effect, we went into schools and taught "English". Using pictures of various items--a ferris wheel, a book, and several others--we would lead up to and eventually introduce a picture of a large church, opening the conversation to talk about church.

We also visited various sites of import to the Catholics in the area. For instance, we visited a large cathedral in San Jose, where people crawled in on their knees and waited in line for hours to get some holy water. I will never forget our youth pastor joking that the water seemed to run a little faster when the toilets flushed--it stuck out at the time as mean-spirited, because this was obviously a sincerely held belief for these people.

The event that shattered my entire worldview, and to a certain extent my own self-image, however, was our visit to a Nicaraguan refugee shantytown.

Before leaving on this aspect of the trip, we were warned: Don't take your cameras. They'll steal them. Pull your hair back. They have lice.

What we weren't warned about was just how bad the conditions were.

In this shantytown, like I mentioned, the people were mostly Nicaraguan. The "homes" they lived in where a matter of five pieces of thin metal--maybe tin--propped against each other and loosely held together by cables or screws, with a hole cut in the front piece so people could enter and exit. The floors were dirt. There was no running water. No electricity. And entire families--men, and women, and their children--lived in these one room shacks. Some of them had mattresses; others, only blankets strewn on the floor. Buckets for waste.

The roads weren't paved. There was clearly no trash collection. Stray dogs wound their ways in and out of the town. Children ran beside our van with no shoes. It truly looked like I had walked into a late night commercial for the Children's Miracle Network.

We were there to serve food. The Costa Rican church ministry we were partnered with for the trip put on a performance, gave a sermon, and ended with a call to salvation. The children eagerly lined up for a meal that my little sisters back home would have turned up their noses at (hell, so would I), just a spoonful of beans, a spoonful of rice, a piece of bread, and a small slice of watermelon. When we ran out, children cried.

There are many moments that I can point to and say, "I doubted." This is the place that I can point to and say, "I doubted, and I questioned, and I was angry with God." When I looked into the big brown eyes of a little girl, eight or nine, who just wanted another piece of bread, and I had none to give her, I asked God, "Why?"

Why, God, do they have nothing? I have so much. Why do they have nothing? What did they do to deserve this? What did I do to deserve anything more?

It was at that point that I began to struggle with a central question, a question that dogged me long past that afternoon: the question of fairness.

You see, in my youthful mind it made no sense that no one I knew lived like this. No one. It seemed like the balance was so weighted in our favor--in my favor--and yet we--I-- had done nothing to earn it. It was the luck of my birth. I was fortunate to have been born in the United States, to have been born to parents who had gone to college, to have had favorable privileges conferred through out my existence that I had done NOTHING to earn.

Every explanation that I ran through in my mind fell short. When I voiced these questions to my youth pastor's wife, she simply said that we lived in a fallen world, a world corrupted by sin. But it failed to explain the central aspect of fairness. If we had been in similar circumstances--if all of us were living in such extreme poverty--I felt that explanation would make sense. But for the simple stroke of luck of being born a few degrees of latitude to the north, I was immeasurably blessed? It was entirely illogical to me--and entirely unfair.

Even in the years since, there's still never been an explanation that satisfied that gaping dissonance between how I lived my daily life and how those people lived theirs--and the seeming randomness of it.

At the time, that dissonance felt like the beginning of a crack, and I fervently attempted to fill it with the scriptures, with youth activities, with sermons, with contemporary christian music...with so many spiritual things.

Looking back now, I can see it for what it was. Another brick in the structure that was taking shape, the structure that was me. You can't stand toe to toe with poverty like that, coming from a privileged existence like I'd led, and walk away unchanged.

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