Friday, May 14, 2010

What was the point? Part 1. (subtitle: an apologetics of short-term immersion trips)

So, I've been back in the States for 9 months now, and havent blogged in almost a year. Do I have any readers left? Either way, this is the first in a two-part (maybe more?) series of my reflecting on my experience as a Rostro de Cristo volunteer in Duran, Ecuador.

FYI: I'm currently working as the RdC Assistant Director in our offices in Boston, until August (no, I don't know what I'm doing you?). Most of my energy is/was spent preparing the short-term immersion retreat groups, recruiting and selecting year-long volunteers, and preparing to send them off to Ecuador...among other administrative things. Today, my energy went to writing the following email to the adult leaders of a high school retreat group that visited Duran in February 2010:

I am glad to hear that the experience is taking root in your students and is bearing fruit. This calls me to reflect on a sentiment/struggle that both you and your co-leader articulated in the evaluations that you completed upon your return. You both bring up the questions of 'doing more harm than good' and the trip being 'more selfish than selfless...who were we helping more, us or them? was hard to see how we were helping others at was difficult to understand our long-term influence.'

It is important to recognize and embrace the unique dual and mutual mission and vision of the Rostro de Cristo program. As you read our mission and vision, you will see that our mission begins with the "young people from the United States" and is lived "together with the people of Ecuador". RdC's impact is aimed at the young North Americans and the Ecuadorian community alike--and in that, the whole global community. Yes, it helps 'us' (the gringos) tremendously. Call this the 'selfish' part. The truth is, we (gringos, society, Church, and world) are desperately in need of that transformation. This is truly Fr Jim's vision of arriving at social justice--that the RdC experience radically impact the lives of these students in such a way that as they move through their lives into positions of influence and power (in corporate america, hospitals, high schools, parishes, family life, and relationships), the balance is gradually tipped toward using these positions justly, with a preferential option for the poor, building up the Reign of God. Obviously, we all may not be around to see "our long-term influence" on the students. To use the often-quoted Romero prayer, "we may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own". In the Ecuadorian communities, the long-term influence is seen when you zoom out and remember that we now host 26 retreat groups and 12-16 year-long volunteers each year, and have been doing this for 20 years (and God-willing, many more to come).

Yes, it is difficult to see how we are 'helping others', and I think that's precisely the point, to challenge our U.S. notions of 'helping' and 'serving'. RdC offers a way of 'helping' and 'serving' that can be painfully unfulfilling for our American appetites for progress and results. This moves us to understand that "we cannot do everything...this enables us to do may be incomplete, but it is a beginning" (again, Romero). Call this the 'selfless' part. We are left unsatisfied. It is a dissatisfaction that will hopefully provide the energy and resolve to make "life-long commitments to service, social justice, and solidarity" (our vision)---commitments that cannot be reached by simply donating money to Damien House or Nuevo Mundo rather than flying to Guayaquil to encounter Truth in relationships.

So, how then does our mission serve ("help") the Ecuadorian communities as well? We provide human resources to our partner foundations--mentors to boys fighting to stay off the streets, English teachers to schools struggling to stay fully staffed, loving companionship to lonely Damien patients, after-school programs (necessary school supplies, homework help, value-based education, critical thinking skills, conflict resolution, a safe space, etc...) for dozens of desperate families and their children. At these after-school programs, our retreatants offer one-on-one attention to kids who (if lucky enough to attend school) sit in classrooms with 60 other students. Crafts bought at Damien House and in the neighborhoods add to families' meager monthly income. RdC gainfully employs a number of Ecuadorians from these neighborhoods.

At the end of the day, the most important benefits, and the true value of the program, is found in the intangible and the unquantifiable--the transformation of individual hearts and minds that eventually leads to the transformation of our world. It is seen in the lives of alumni volunteers who work for non-profits seeking to improve public education in U.S. urban schools, or are opthalmologists serving the poor in clinics in Honduras, or work on the USCCB Justice for Immigrants Campaign, or represent individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay, or serve with the American Red Cross in overseas disaster relief. It is heard in the countless stories of retreatants who are ignited with a passion for service and justice, eagerly seek post-graduate service opportunities, fundraise thousands upon thousands of dollars for RdC programs and partners, recall their experiences in Duran when considering extracurricular activities or employment opportunities, and seek Christ-like relationships with friends, family, and whomever they encounter in their daily lives.

The tension you feel is real, and is one that all RdC participants (retreatants, volunteers, and directors) wrestle with. Ours is not a perfect program, nor is it an end in itself. It is a mission that is living its way into becoming an effective means of bringing about justice, transformation, and the Kingdom of God.


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