Saturday, June 30, 2007

why i carry my bible

On Monday I'll start my fourth week of CPE. Clinical Pastoral Education, that is, a kind of hospital chaplaincy internship. It's a funny job. I tell people it's like getting the entire spectrum of human existence in an hour. Every hour.

Tonight I was carrying my Bible around as I got called to rooms, or as I was just walking the hall. It's kind of a funny thing to do. When I'm doing an 'on-call' shift, and I don't have a list of patients to try to visit, it's generally all I carry as I walk around.

Here's why I carry my Bible:

-It feels appropriate in its ambivalence. Sometimes when I walk into a room, I get sheer joy. Other times, it's sheer despair. The Bible has both of these, and has been both of these to me. It's like carrying around the aformentioned 'entire spectrum of human existence.' Maybe I'll encounter something tremendously liberating when I walk in that room. Maybe something tremendously oppressive. Probably some combination of the two. Similarly with opening the Bible.

-It's a way to carry my churches. Someone suggested that I say, "I'm from the hospital," when folks ask what church I'm from. I've decided I don't like that answer, though I tell folks I work for the hospital. But I also tell folks which church I go to. My tradition supports a ministry that is authorized and empowered by a local congregation. So it feels really good to carry a Bible that was given to me as a gift by Hurlbut Church when I graduated from the third grade. It reminds me that my authority, my ability, my grace comes from God, but comes through them, and through my other churches.

-It's a good identifier. I don't always have a clipboard, and I don't wear a uniform or a stethescope. But to be that guy, the one who carries that crazy, enfuriating, transformative, stupid old wonderful book- that's a good way to be known, a good way to be identified.

-I visited a woman while I was doing my rounds. She was worried and confused, and didn't really know where she was or what was going on. She was just really anxious, and nothing I said could console her. I asked if I could read to her. I read her the 23rd Psalm, and she repeated every line as I read it. I could see her whole self relax to those familiar words.

Sing them over again to me indeed.

Coming soon

So, some of you may or may not have heard that I was planning to teach English in France this coming school year. Well, I am planning to teach English in France this coming school year, so none of you can say you didn't hear. I just got my assignment today. I'm going to the Lycée général et téchnologique Pierre Bayle (Pierre Bayle Technical High School) in Sedan, which is about ten km south of the Belgian border in the Ardenne region. So, by the beginning of October my contributions to this blog might just get interesting.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Guatemala #8: On the bus and off

I've been wanting to do an entry about buses, so was glad to see David's entry about buses in Nicaragua. It says pretty much all I wanted to say and more, plus it has pictures, so I recommend his post (titled David in Nicaragua #2: Transitastic) if you're interested. However, I do have these three transportation-related quotes that I'd like to share with you....enjoy!

1. "¡Mañana eche margarina, por favor!"
"Tomorrow, let's put margarine on ourselves, please!"

You should all try to imagine a context for this quote before reading on. In fact, I'll go on to the next quote and put the explanations later to give you time to imagine.

2. "¿Me puedes enseñar a desarmar el carro?"
"Can you teach me how to dismantle the car?"

3. "¡Esta bien vacio!"
"It's real empty!"

Flower on the patio outside my apartment

Numbers 1 and 3 are bus quotes, the point not being that the buses are packed extraordinarily full of people (which they are) but that these two quotes provided a way to enter into a small but important human connection with other people on the bus. This is a rare thing, as people ride the buses tired, zoned out, concerned with their safety, and above all putting up wih the uncomfortable physical situation until they can get off, often after a 40 minute to hour and a half trip.

The first quote was said by one woman to another as they were both trying to squeeze in between the 2 1/2 rows of people standing in the middle aisle, to get to the front of the bus. I had to laugh, as I'm guessing all three of us imagined everyone in the bus with margarine slathered over them in order to slip between the rows of people more easily!

Quote #3 was spoken by a bus assistant trying to cram more people in the bus. This was perhaps the most crowded bus I've been on so far; it definitely felt like we were defying the law of nature that says that no two objects of matter can occupy the same space at the same time! So I'm crouched against the side wall, squatting or half sitting on a bit of a ledge that's about one inch wide. The bus assistant says "Move on to the back of the bus, it's real empty!" I had to chuckle out loud at the absurdity of the statement - plus he sounded like he really believed it! The two women sitting near me began to laugh too...just one little chuckle opened the space to interact with them on a human level. The one woman took my arm and to help me keep steady for the rest of the ride, as I didn't really have anything to grasp on to in the position I was in. I was grateful to her, and to the bus assistant for insisting that the bus was empty, allowing us to laugh a little bit during the long ride home.

Quote #2 was uttered by a certain Beth Peachey...and before you think I've gotten interested in mechanics, I was attempting to ask Antony if he could teach me to disactivate the alarm on the car, but ended up asking about how to completely take it apart!

View from the bus that I see every day, going to and from work.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Nicaragua Videos

This might not work. There's lots of better things to read farther down the page if it doesn't. But they are some pretty cute videos.

Also, this post is interesting in this context:

David in Nicaragua #7: 'introduction' and 'on armor'

This is the last in a series of posts about my recent two week trip to Nicaragua. You'll probably read it first, though, since it's a blog. Each post is accompanied by a few photos, some of which have to do with the post topic, some of which don't. I wrote these over the past couple of days, while being a little sick in bed and playing a lot of Final Fantasy III. Anyway, here they are, and sorry to post so many at once. I knocked a great post by Megan Highfill off the front page; be sure to click on the June Archives so you don't miss it.
Look! Now we're a blog with lots of recent posts!

'on armor':
One night I went to bed worrying about scorpions; Rachael found one on a skirt she was putting on. It turns out that I shouldn’t be so afraid of them; they don’t hurt you any more than a bee sting. But boy, are they scary! Anyway, I woke up in the middle of the night to a mouse chewing on some food I had accidentally left in my bag, which was beside me on the bed. He was a bold one, that mouse. I emptied out the bag and chased him away, but it just got me thinking. The whole flow of life in Nicaragua as I experienced it is a little less hectic than in the US, but it also seems more dangerous. There’s less concern for safety in most things; and nobody but the gringos gets to take malaria medicine.
There were a lot of moments on the trip when I was really worried about something or other, and there was often nothing to be done about it. I ended up having to take in on faith. Putting it in God’s hands, to acknowledge that it was out of my hands, and to have some sense of peace about it all.

I think these moments happened to me more in Nicaragua than in my normal scorpion-free, first-world existence because of a choice. I think you can either have the armor of God or the armor of privilege. You can be protected by your race, class, gender, citizenship, or not. Now, obviously, for many folks, this is not a choice. But for the privileged folks, which I say includes most of the readers here, we get to choose. I think that the more I give up/undermine my social and economic privileges, the things which I imagine protect me from pain and injury, the more I am forced to rely on God. I can’t fit the armor of God over my armor of privilege; it’s got to come off first.

David in Nicaragua #6: Summary of the Universe

Every morning we took the 6am sweatshop bus to begin our commute from Sabana Grande to Chaucocente. It has that name because pretty much everybody else on that bus is going to the ‘Zona Franca’ by the airport; the largest “free trade zone” (sweatshop) in Nicaragua.

Everyone would turn to go in these huge gates while we kept walking to catch our next bus. There were people streaming from all directions to get to work at the Zona. All of this led to a daily moment, during which thousands and thousands of Nicaraguans walked down a narrow street, and Rachael and I, the only two north americans in sight, walked against the stream.

That’s a pretty eloquent summary of global conditions, don’t you think? The whole mass of the world moving solidly in one world, and the elite few moving against them. Maybe it’s not counter-cultural to be in solidarity with the poor. Maybe it’s just about realizing which way the tide of humanity is going, and trying to walk with them instead of against them.

David in Nicaragua #5: why i didn't go to the dump

On my second day, someone invited me to go with their group to La Churreca, the dump outside Managua where current Chaucocente residents used to live. I’ve heard a lot about it; it’s a polluted and terrible place, and at least a hundred people still live there, forced to carve out a life amidst the danger and the smoke.

I didn’t go.

Part of it is because, it was my second day, and it felt like too much. But there was another, more significant reason, and I could have gone later if I wanted to. But I didn’t go.

I think it’s because of this: these days I’m feeling pretty in tune with the suffering of the world. Especially with CPE coming up this summer, I don’t feel like I’m going to need my eyes farther opened to the inhumanities of our world and our economic, political, and social systems. Is this legitimate: to feel like I don’t need to see more of the suffering? I think it’s important for lots of folks to see that suffering; I wonder if I’m just being self-righteous. Something like, “I’ve already reached this higher moral plane; I’ve already learned that lesson.”
But I think for me it’s more about, I don’t know, compassion fatigue. So instead of being in a place right now that demands I hear more of the suffering of the world, I think I’m in a place that is most appropriately served by signs of hopefulness. So instead of going to the dump, I hung out at Project Chaucocente, with kids who used to live in the dump. And now they don’t.

And I went to visit some Mennonites.

David in Nicaragua #4: theoillogical

Three things about the Purple Church and its pastor, accompanied by photos that are not of either of these things: I really admire Rachael’s host dad. I knew the first day I met him that he was a great guy, and he continued to impress me with his warmth and gentle faith. We also get similarly excited about worship; we shared some giddiness as we discussed how best to celebrate Pentecost. (He doesn’t usually celebrate Pentecost in his church, but decided it would be cool since we do it in my tradition.) He also let me preach in his church.

So, I feel like the theology that I most often heard preached in this particular church is pretty simple. The words of comfort are powerful in their neatness: God will get you through the hard times, when you are sad, buck up and have faith.
This is very different from my faith life, at least lately. It’s not about that kind of certainty for me, though it is clearly sustaining and life-giving for many of those folks. I was talking to Rachael about it, as she talked about the difficulty of doing such difficult work and having so few resources to fall back on. I talked about sitting in front of the White House waiting to be arrested, and I talked about praying through the Good Friday Walk for Justice in downtown Chicago. Both times I was really cold, and in both of those, I felt something in the depths of that cold emptiness and mourning. People who study mystics talk about kataphatics and apophatics; mystics that seek a fullness in union with God, an overflowing overwhelming totality of God, and mystics who seek to empty themselves utterly, and meet God their in that bareness. This second part is the kind of faith I have lately been running with. The God who lives uniquely in the coldness of shivering despair and a pleading world. It seems like a much more difficult God. It doesn’t feel simple at all; usually it feels stupid. But that’s what I’ve got now.

Also, I preached. At this lovely purple church. Rachael translated for me. It was Pentecost, and a preached a liberationist, post-colonial Pentecost sermon. I talked about cicadas. I talked about the threat of people being able to understand each other, in their native languages. I talked about the dangerousness of it all. I felt a little ridiculous- me, a white guy from the US, coming to Latin America to preach liberation theology? That’s a little absurd. But afterwards a woman came up and said that she had heard a lot of sermons about Pentecost, but none that named that reason for the importance of Pentecost. (That Pentecost would enable the oppressed Jews living under Empire to united, to be in solidarity with each other.) So, there’s that. Huh.

David in Nicaragua #3: Missiology

I had an interesting purpose in coming to Nicaragua. I was sharing my appreciation for it with my friend Carolyn, who agreed that it was a pretty nice situation to be in. Basically, I was there to visit Rachael, and so I could set aside any pretense of helpfulness. That took away a lot of the awkwardness that often accompanies “missions,” in which one group is arriving from afar in order to “help,” and the other is at home, “receiving help.” I feel like at least some of the problematic US Citizen/ Nicaraguan citizen were downplayed by my purpose in going to Nicaragua.

Moreover, (though this might negate some of the first paragraph) it felt really good to go there in part to support Rachael. I really admire what she’s doing with this year, and I was really glad that my presence there was helpful. I mean, it’s obviously a blast to hang out with Rachael Wylie; I wasn’t much worried about that. But I came down with a pack full of books, many of which were designed to augment her loads of practice with a few scoops from my seminary-fueled loads of theory. I brought down some pedagogy books, (bell hooks’ teaching to transgress, paulo friere’s pedagogy of the oppressed) some books specifically about Latin America, (henri nouwen’s ‘gracias’) and some books about appropriate relations across culture. (‘beyond white noise,’ and susan thistlethwaite’s ‘beyond theological tourism’, which includes writings from a few of my cts profs.) It was great to be able to use the gift of my seminary learnings to sustain the gift of her year of on-the-ground, in-the-dust service. I expect her learnings there to help sustain my future practice, and I believe that her experiences are already informing my ministries and theories, so it’s only fair.

I also brought her science fiction novels, and Anne of Green Gables.
So, if anyone’s thinking about a good excuse to visit a different culture, consider convincing your significant other to move there for a year.

David in Nicaragua #2: Transitastic

I love Managua buses. They’re cheap, elaborately-decorated and loud. They play “Eye of the Tiger” an average of once per bus ride. One of the most interesting things about them is their iconography; each bus is emblazoned with at least one icon, usually above the windshield. Often it’s religious, but just as often it’s an American cartoon character or corporate logo. Disney and Warner Brothers figure prominently, and we drove past a Spider-Man bus. It’s easy to find the right bus to get from the sweatshop to Sabana Grande, you just take the one with two Nike swooshes and a Pooh Bear in the back.

I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it’s quite creepy to see such corporate imagery next to a shrine to Mary, or Jesus’ face. However, it’s interesting that none of the corporations who “own” these images are profiting from the buses. In fact, the buses operate as a worker-owned cooperative. It’s interesting that US Corporate imagery has been appropriated by Nicaraguans in order to decorate their buses; it’s a kind of indigenous, unauthorized use of this otherwise-colonizing phenomenon. Over and over in Nicaragua, I saw the widespread import of US commercial culture, but at least on the bus, it was imported against the terms of the corporations.
This is particularly fascinating when you view these icons alongside the religious iconography. It seems to be an exact parallel with the way that colonized people all over the world have taken Christianity, the religion of the colonizers, and appropriated it for themselves, adapting it and hybridizing it, finding resources for joy and liberation in what is so often an instrument of oppression.
I suppose there’s a paper there, somewhere. Or at least a blog post.

David in Nicaragua #1: Leaving home/coming home

I arrived in Nicaragua on Tuesday, May 23rd. It was a somewhat-hectic travel day punctuated by airline antics at O’Hare and possibly the most exciting landing I’ve ever experienced, landing hard in the driving rain in the Managua Airport. I was pretty sure there was no way I was going to get to see Rachael, but then there she was, just standing there at the airport. She introduced me to her host family, and we drove through more pouring rain to Sabana Grande, Rachael’s neighberhood, and her house there.
I felt two things upon walking into the Tellez house, which is across from Pablo Tellez’s Purple Church (if you ever get lost in Managua, ask a taxi driver to take you to Sabana Grande, and then to “La iglesia de Pablo Tellez,” and someone will help you out.) First, I felt completely bizarre. It was weird to be in Central America, it was weird to be in a huge rainstorm, it was weird to have been traveling all day, it was weird to see Rachael after all this not seeing her, it was weird to be in a roller coaster of a landing. But all of those weirdnesses mostly cancelled each other out, so I was just rolling it.

The second, and more remarkable feeling, was being completely at home. As soon as I walked in, I started feeling an old familiar place, and it took me a while to place it, but it turns out that the Tellez house is a lot like the Porch, the storied communal ramshack where I lived when I worked at scout camp. They will share whatever they have with you. If you walk in, somebody will give probably give you food or something to drink. The occupancy fluctuates between three and eleven. About forty people stop by at least once a day. It’s like Ted’s porch; pretty much whoever wants to can stop by and hang out for a while. Moreover, it’s pretty open; the breeze comes in between the walls and the roof, and there’s no reason to ever shut the doors during the day. It has its own little ecosystem of various critters, none of whom seem to bother the people too much.

And I found this kind of atmosphere, this beloved space of my formative years, pretty much everywhere I went in Nicaragua. A little ramshackle, and a little rough by norteamericano standards, but really totally lovely. Hospitality, sufficiency, rugged holiness. How about that. My first night, Rachael got out her guitar and I got out my mandolin, and we sang from Rise Up Singing as folks wandered in to meet me and the rain pounded on the tin roof. (This was interesting too; like the environment, I was expecting interacting with Rachael to be initially jarring, unfamiliar; but it was similarly instantly familiar.) Lizards strolled up and down the walls. I was not looking forward to returning to my apartment.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

In Five Years

Five years ago today. June 7, 2002:
I just graduated high school and I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I still have a job teaching, 22 students, a full studio for a high schooler…or, I guess, a former high-schooler. I’m looking forward to a trip to Spain with 9 seniors, the popular kind. I’ve never hung around with them but I know it’s going to be a great trip.

And then, I’ll have brain surgery. A thing that both scares and bewilders me. Something has been going wrong with my brain for a long time and finally this should fix it. I’m just not sure what to do with myself in the meantime.

But there is Oberlin waiting for me at the end of this summer. A school that, in my father’s mind, has awaited a Highfill presence for years. I know, though, that I have waited for Oberlin more than Oberlin has waited for me.

Last year has been powerful for me. In my senior year, I finally found a group of friends on newspaper staff. I worked my butt off in AP classes, newspaper and auditioning for Oberlin. I didn’t make it into the conservatory, by the way, but I am going to try again once I get there. I also started going to church again. I never thought this would happen, but my whole family is going to church again. I know everyone thinks his or her church is one of a kind. This church IS one of a kind and it changed my life and has brought my family very close. I can’t imagine my life without it.

June 7, 2007:

This is my last official day of teaching at my first teaching job. After five years in school and one semester teaching experience under my belt, I thought I was ready for anything. I wasn’t ready for this, though. I wasn’t ready for the violence, the language, the blatant horror and lack of support. I’m not sure what to do with myself.

I still have to go to work for three more days to sit around and wait for all the other teachers to pack up their rooms. We aren’t allowed to leave until the 12th. I’m thinking of leaving sooner. I’m so unhappy all the time and I’ve fulfilled my obligation to the students. Now, I just have to figure out what I owe to myself.

This last year was a powerful one for me. I learned to survive without my best friends, a task that I will work on for years and that I know I will never conquer. I graduated college. I got a teaching license in Ohio. And then one in Missouri. And then one in Kansas. I moved home. I came back to my wonderful church.

It’s all leaving me frustrated now. I work two jobs, I have a busy summer, and yet I still feel like my eyes are glazed over with boredom. Or maybe it’s some sort of mild depression. Regardless, church politics and district policy have overshadowed two things I love in my life: teaching and God.

The difference is, now I’m feeling lonely in a way I can handle. When I cry, I know I’ll get over it. I can see an end and sometimes, I can even see a solution. But the lack of drama in my emotion is almost more depressing. Before, I let myself be immersed in emotion…I would say things like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Now, I do know what I’m going to do. I am in no way lost or so lonely I can’t handle it. I’m just in this odd state of mediocrity and there is a severe lack of direction. The things I know I love are jaded or missing from my life. I know exactly where they are but I don’t quite know how to get there.