SAN FÉLIX AND PUERTO ORDAZ, VENEZUELA – Standing on the church roof my final night in Venezuela, I can see the skyline of the twin cities of San Félix and Puerto Ordaz spilling over the banks of the Caroní River.
Lights from thousands of houses crowd the view, and popping noises can be heard from the street below. It is unclear if these are the homes of the wellfed or hungry, or if the “pops” come from firecrackers or guns.
For the last three weeks, our group has seen much of the city from the bed of a white Ford pick-up as we get towed to various neighborhoods and work sites. We are now accustomed to that view. Our days are spent scooping rice at the soup kitchen in the barrio next to us, painting for the nuns across the river and playing UNO with kids in the church courtyard.
From atop the roof I can see these neighborhoods which have seemed disjointed and unrelated when we drive through on our daily trips to work. But from the roof I can see the streets, homes and people in unity. I see how close the daycare center is to the food shelf, and I sense how far away I am from Minnesota’s own twin cities.
On this last night in Venezuela, I think about my VISION experiences and try to find some clarity about this confusing world – about what I have seen and what I have felt during these life-changing trips.
Three years ago, the only thing I felt about VISION was how hard the tile in Murray-Herrick was. By 4 a.m., a line of VISION hopefuls had formed, each ready to turn in their application. I was sprawled on the floor trying to sleep while still clutching my eight-page application. The freshman who had filled those pages could not have known the impact that first trip would have on this recent graduate, former trip leader and program student director.
I was thrilled when I received my acceptance letter, though I was unsure of what to expect of the trip. I entered VISION as many students do: hungry to understand everything about the world and the people “over there.” I wanted answers to the Why?; how I could change it; what was I obligated to do; what was right and wrong; and who could I hold accountable.
One week later, after our group’s first orientation, I distanced myself from the idea of going on the trip. The people going on my trip to the border town of El Paso, Texas, were weird: a Buddhist, a girl in pigtails, a business major, and a guy who wore flip-flops in November. I nearly backed out. I was supposed to spend 30 hours in a van with these people?
What kept me in the van headed for Mexico was the hope that I could learn something about the United States-Mexico border. More than 30 hours driving, lots of bathroom stops and a few awkward conversations later, we finally arrived at our site.
I remember walking up a set of rickety stairs to a second floor bunkroom in Annunciation House (A-House), a hospitality house normally reserved for guests. The pillow given to me was dirty. We were asked not to run the water as we brushed our teeth, and I could feel dirt on the floor. I was glad to have brought my own sleeping bag.
I spent the next week reveling in my exposure to the injustices of the border: the fence, border patrol, NAFTA and maquilas. I was amazed by the migrant stories, and saw them as proof that immigration policy was flawed and must be rectified.
This was why I had done the trip. One day, while walking to my room at A-House, I passed a bedroom with a family of four inside. I saw the clutter in the room and thought, “What a political mess. I can’t wait to get home and do something about it.”
On the same day, we met with one of the founders of AHouse. In his 20 years there he had met with many college groups and had seen their desire for policy change. I was one of those eager college students. I was so dismayed by what I had witnessed at the border that I was startled by what he would ask of us.
In his conversation, the founder didn’t mention guest worker programs, NAFTA, Republicans or Democrats. Instead, he implored us to stop just making policy connections and start making personal connections with the faces we saw. The barriers we had put up between “them” and “us” would not be taken down by policy. We had to change how we saw ourselves in relation to the people whose lives we were politicizing.
We were told that using our relationship with people on the border for political importance rather than personal importance was short-sighted. We were asked to let “those people” change more than our immigration laws – to let them change our hearts and to consider the priority of their lives within our own.
The stories we heard and the people we met had served only to reinforce political theory. I hadn’t yet received the message of spending time at the border. It was only after that conversation that I began to understand that the lives of the people I encountered – including those of my own group members – could be as real to me as political issues.
A year after my conversation along the border, I was on another VISION trip, this time in Honduras.
I was downtown waiting to board a bus. As I watched goats, chickens and people being loaded and unloaded I saw printed on the side of one bus the familiar words, “New London-Spicer School district.” Jarred by the reminder of home, I boarded the bus sure that I had seen a true example of cultural exchange.
Despite the familiar words, this would prove to be an unfamiliar ride back to the mission. In addition to the animals squeezed into crates, there were many people doubling up next to strangers. An old man slid into the seat next to me. His head rattled against the filmy window as he tried to sleep. In true VISION spirit, I offered my sweater as a pillow. The man kindly accepted and gently tucked the sweater between his head and shoulder and fell asleep.
When the bus came to our stop I tried, using a little Spanish and a lot of masterful gestures, to ask for the sweater back. The man was, understandably, confused. Hadn’t he been given the sweater? I took the sweater from the man’s hand, and I’m sure I too, looked confused. After giving the sweater to someone clearly more in need of it, why was I taking it back? I turned to a friend who was watching my exchange, and as if to justify the interaction explained, “I just got it from my mom for Christmas.”
Walking away I wondered, Was it enough to loan the sweater to the man on the bus, only to take it back later? And is it enough then, to offer up three weeks of our time to volunteer, and keep the rest of our time for ourselves? When and where does our obligation end?
When I left Honduras, I didn’t take the injustices of the country with me; I hadn’t solved anything. I saw the bus pull away and felt the insufficiency of my actions overwhelm me in a way that was nearly paralyzing. Even if I had given the sweater away, it wouldn’t have been enough to remedy this man’s struggles. But there is no doubt in my mind that I should have let him keep my sweater.
Now, when I think of that moment on the bus, I remember a prayer attributed to Archbishop Romero, whose message I did not heed that day, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.”
In so many moments of VISION trips thereafter – when a project was left incomplete, when a day was spent peeling carrots, or when my actions felt miniscule – I have tried to focus not on what couldn’t be done, but always on what could.
For two years the bus ride in Honduras and Romero’s prayer had stayed with me. When I led my next J-term trip to Venezuela in 2007, my Spanish was better, the sweater had come and gone, and I was still pondering my place in the midst of it all.
It wasn’t long after we landed in San Félix that we met Emmanuel, an altar boy for the parish of Jesus Cristo Resucitado. It was hard to believe he was 15, with his short stature and scrawny arms. Each afternoon his big grin and growing English vocabulary welcomed us from our work sites.
“Crazy monkeys!” he’d say, trying to get the hard “r” sound out, and making us wonder who had been slipping him funny English slang words to use around the gringas. We played cards, talked about girls and quizzed him on English.
Our conversations with Emmanuel generally skirted around the question of parents, homes or the violence in the neighborhood. What we knew of him had been gleaned from brief conversations interrupted by “UNO” screams or Frisbee tosses.
Emmanuel lived just a couple of blocks from the church, but on the nights that we hung around the courtyard after dark, Father Greg would still drive him and the other boys home. With the suspect nighttime activities on the street, it was obvious why. Cars either drove too fast or too slow for anything good to be going on in them.
On one of the final days of our trip, the fragments of Emmanuel’s life were put together for us by Father Greg. On the way home from our work site we sat in the truck bed while Father Greg drove us by Emmanuel’s house. Like many homes in the area, it was made mostly of tin. On the hot, muggy days, the corrugated walls and ceiling acted as heat conductors and offered little ventilation, Father Greg explained. Emmanuel ate only arepas – fried corn cakes with little nutritional value – since other food was too expensive. His mother lived close but didn’t see him or his brother often because of a jealous boyfriend. The brothers lived with their grandmother. Put together, computer-savvy, the head of the altar boys and so confident, Emmanuel was the poster child of involvement and determination.
Father Greg’s knowledge gave us a better understanding of Emmanuel’s life, without which we wouldn’t have known half of his story. Three weeks was not enough time to really comprehend the complexities of Emmanuel or of any of the situations in San Félix. We had to rely on Father Greg’s time there to fill in the gaps between the truck rides, Emmanuel’s stories and the city.
On our last night in Venezuela we hugged all of the kids and said our goodbyes after one last UNO game. When they left, I looked out on the lights of these twin cities and thought about my VISION trip experiences. At times those experiences seemed fragmented and separate, but they have come to be inextricably linked: the struggle with my own personal borders in El Paso; an old sleeping man in Honduras; and the pick-up ride to a tin shack in Venezuela.
Sometimes I think that after three weeks in a country I should be able to leave knowing what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. But VISION trips don’t dwell in absolutes. The trips are about trying to understand how people struggle in difficult situations – and in a small way, joining them in their trials, tribulations and joys.
Three weeks are not enough to change the world. We need lifetimes of commitment. But we can only understand the need for change by experiencing deeper relationships with others. I have learned to make personal connections to global issues and to make more than a theoretical or academic case for changing the world.
Six trips later, the naive freshman sleeping on the hard, tile floor of Murray-Herrick has learned to accept that she will never fully understand the Why? I will never know all the fruits of my efforts, never understand the full extent of my responsibility, and never see in black and white. In the end, we have to let ourselves be taken from place-to-place, experience-to-experience, sometimes in the back of a pick-up truck. But we also have to take time to look at life from the rooftops as we try to piece it all together and fill in the gaps.