Yet again bummed that my sermon today wasn’t recorded. This time I just flat-out forgot to put in a CD and so did my sound guy. For the record I also flat-out forgot to put on makeup (and, in case you were wondering, so did my sound guy).
So I’ll do my best from-memory reconstruction.
“Perchance to Dream”
I began with an overview of the history of Mi Cometa and Adopta Una Familia, which I will do in list form.
– began as a twofold vision from people on two continents. what would become the Mi Cometa community center started as a program nearly two decades ago to attempt to provide services to Guasmo Sur, the 400,000-person barrio.
– most of the residents are squatters; they came from the country and found a square of land and built what passes for a home on that land.
– what would become Adopta Una Familia began ten years ago, when a young woman did a little stint in the peace corps in Guasmo. The people on the plane with her bet she wouldn’t last a week in the roughest part of the city. Ten years have passed and she’s been back every year.
At the dedication of Mi Cometa, the community center, César Cardenas, the president of Mi Cometa (and the only man on staff, since the program seeks to empower young women by providing examples of women in leadership positions), said: “The dreams of the poor are the most powerful dreams, because we have the world to gain and nothing to lose.”
The dreams of the poor. That’s what these programs are about. The dream of providing education and medicine to a community. The dream of building bathrooms and houses, of helping people live with privacy, dignity, hope, and peace. They are dreams that have been years– decades– in the making, but this year, on the tenth anniversary of Adopta Una Familia, the community center was completed. We fit about three hundred people in the large community room for the dedication. Downstairs, there’s a computer lab, a kitchen, a library, dormitories for volunteers, space used by a tutoring program, a music program, what we hope will be a health clinic and a local radio station.The fulfillment of a dream a decade old.
After ten years of involvement in the community as well, the local residents and the North American volunteers had been putting pressure on InterAgua, the water company (here I shared about the building of the sewers and the paving of the streets, described in an earlier post). Along with large scale changes like the community center, advocating for paved streets, and witnessing (as I did last week) the first garbage pick up rather than burning trash in the streets, the project is about the little things, or at least big things in little places, making the world of difference in the life of one person or family. I told the story of Luis, also mentioned in that previous entry, and the house that allows him to live and die in dignity.
But, I said, the true story of Adopta Una Familia is the people. I want you to meet Andres. He’s my brother, or the brother in my host family. Andres met me off my bus when we pulled into the barrio, and greeted me with all the love and affection of a brother as if I’d been gone a couple of days rather than a year. Andres insists on calling me “sister” in English, and in Spanish, “hermanita” a diminutive, affectionate form akin to “little sis,” although I’ve got at least a decade on him. In this photo, Andres is flashing his muscles for a young North American woman who attended last year, in the hopes that she might come back next year. He was sad not to see her. He carries a torch for her, you might say. In the way that, for example, Berlin is burning a torch just now.
Last year, I think I shared with you how my heart broke for the little girls in my family, Raysa and Alba, now eleven and ten. Every woman in their family has been a mother by the age of fifteen– it’s just what happens there– and last year I was overcome with the desire to take them home with me, to somehow rectify the disparity between the opportunities and education and nutrition and choice about when and how they become mothers that will face these girls, compared to the opportunities my own daughter will have. What broke my heart into a million pieces was the realization that I was not there to save them, that we are not meant to ride in on our valiant chargers and deliver people from their circumstances as if we were the saviors of the world when that position has already been filled.
I’d forgotten that. The deep helplessness. The true heartbreak of being utterly unable to do anything about it. A bit of emotional amnesia on my part. I wasn’t quite prepared.
I expected to still be broken-hearted about my girls, but the one who broke my heart this year is Andres.
Andres is nineteen, and, as his father died five years or so ago, he’s the man of the house. When he’s not acting macho to impress a North American chica, he’s actually incredibly shy, very sensitive, sweet, devoted to his family, and I know because he considers me part of it. He’s a tender soul, an artist. He makes jewelry. He draws. He expresses himself in words that seem beautiful and carefully chosen and that I might recognize, if my Spanish were better, as poetry.
Men in Guasmo Sur do two things. They work in construction, and they work at the shipping port. Noble professions, but purely physical ones, and the only dreams, the only opportunities available. At nineteen, Andres tried his hand at construction and at the work of the ship yard.
It didn’t take.
He’s not a wimp; he’s a strong young man as you can see. But he’s not a carpenter. He’s a different sort of craftsman. If he could just get in to the city, perhaps, he could sell jewelry or cook or study some more, but then he’d be using part of what he earned to buy bus fare and that would sort of defeat the purpose. So he doesn’t work right now.
But the part that breaks my heart is that this is not a long term solution. Sooner or later, the man of the house with six other children still living at home, Andres will have to face the music. He will have to work. He will have to work in construction or at the port. And it will break him. That beautiful boy. That gentle soul. My dear brother.
Now, I’ve been showing this picture to every single girl I know, hoping one of them would want to bring Andres to the states with them– just marry the kid and get him to a better place and a better set of opportunities. I know INS tends to frown on that, but look at him! What a sweetheart! I’d do it myself, but Benji already told me no (husband, from the audience, amid the laughter of the congregation: “no. no. no.”).
But the thing is, that’s not necessarily his dream. He loves his family, and I bet it’d break him just as surely to be ripped from them as it would to devote himself to hard physical labor. It’s not for me to fix Andres or his life or his dreams. The dreams of the poor are the most powerful dreams in the world– not ours– because they– not us, they– have the world to gain and nothing to lose.
I’m always convicted by the Beatitudes as they appear in Luke. You know that they’re in the Gospels more than once, right? They’re in Matthew, too, but they read differently. In Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…” Luke is far more blunt. In Luke, Jesus says “blessed are the Poor. Blessed are the Hungry. Blessed are those who Mourn.” None of these lofty theological ideas. Jesus in Luke gives the kingdom to the poor. To Andres, to Raysa, to Luis, not to you and I.
Now of course there’s a great theological and biblical debate about which one Jesus actually said, whether Matthew tones it down or Luke ratchets it up, whether Matthew decided that Jesus’ preference for the poor would mean the Gospel would never translate to the wealthy, or Luke decided that the movement should address physical hunger before spiritual hunger, or whether Jesus in fact said both on two separate days. The fact remains that if we take Luke’s Gospel seriously, then it becomes clear that the Gospel is not for us. It is not for us in the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. It is not for us in our middle class privilege– we who don’t see ourselves as wealthy, and yet we certainly are, in body and often in spirit. The Gospel, the kingdom, belongs to the poor, not the poor in spirit, to those who hunger not for righteousness, but for good solid food, to those who thirst not for justice but for potable water, to those who mourn not with the large and small suffering that we all must face, but with the deep despair of helplessness and broken or un-dreamed dreams.
And our question becomes, what is the Gospel for us then? What is our role, our place in a kingdom that is for the poor and the hungry, when we are neither? Andres knows poverty in a way I have never and will never know it. He knows hunger like I never will– I bought him and his family lunch one day, and watched as he finished everything on his plate, and mine, and his sisters’ plates, and his brothers’ plates. He is hungry. And he mourns– at least here, I feel like I can stand in solidarity with him, since I am a pretty big crier! But my grief, even for his experience, is not as far-reaching as his, I bet.
How do I participate in God’s blessing for Andres and his community? How do I dream his dream? How do we, from our place of privilege, truly bear witness to the dreams of the poor? What is the role of the church, steeped as it is in American middle class privilege, when it comes to God blessing the poor and the hungry and the thirsty?
I confess that I don’t know. That’s the power of this experience, the humility of being broken and powerless to do anything and not even knowing how to think about who we are and what God is calling us to do. All I know is that I love Andres and Raysa and Luis and their families and the community. I grieve with them and try to hear their dreams. I may never be able to find a young woman to marry Andres, and even if I could, I don’t know that I would, since that might not be his dream, and might not be the way to let God bless him. Instead, we bear witness, we mourn together, we hunger and thirst as best we can together. We pray that we can be somehow part of the dream coming true, somehow part of God’s blessing for the poor and the hungry and the broken, unfolding in the world.