A few weeks ago, a group of students and I traveled to El Salvador from Yale University. We were a part of an immersion program sponsored by International Partners in Mission (IPM) whose mission is to work across borders of faith and culture on behalf of children, women and youth to create partnerships in an attempt to connect with our brothers and sisters facing a myriad of humanitarian calamities through story-telling and story listening.
As a child growing up amidst poverty and dreadful conditions in the rural south, my parents always pressed upon me that if one really desired to learn of someone else's story or plight, one must be willing to walk in that person's shoes. They also taught me to appreciate the things around me, and encouraged me to attend college and to take advantage of any international trips being offered by the school. Some fifteen years later, I heeded my parent's advice. To date, I have been fortunate enough to travel to well over thirteen different countries and nations.
While I have witnessed various degrees of poverty in many of the places that I have traveled around the world, those particular experiences pale in comparison to the level of poverty that I experienced in El Salvador. For the first time in a long time, I cried and lamented for my brothers and sisters who are confronted with the daily realities of poverty, gang violence, poor health care, limited access to clean water, and marginal education. As an American, though triply oppressed by issues of race, gender and economics, to a large extent, I don't have to necessarily worry about access to clean water in the same the way as my El Salvadorian brothers and sisters.
As a person of faith, much like different human authors in history, I wrestled with God. I wondered about God's fidelity to the people of El Salvador. I experienced abject poverty pretty much everywhere around me. I witnessed young girls walking barefoot, and whose feet were swollen and pricked by sticks and other hazardous material. I witnessed older ladies using unsanitary water to cook, clean and flush the commode. I witnessed girls and boys as young as eight and nine years old selling candy and other homemade items just to feed themselves, or to pay their school's tuition. I witnessed a society that looked as if it was at war with its own people.
Everywhere I went felt as if I was in combat zone. Everyone was strapped with huge machine guns from the police, private security, all the way down to regular civilians. It appeared as if a war could break out at any moment. Lastly, I witnessed malnourished animals whose rib cages were sunken in as if they hadn't eaten for months. Seeing all of this broke my heart in a million pieces. I grieved for the people, the animals, the environment, and the apathy with which most folks have regarding the life of those who live beyond the veil of opportunity.
However, in the midst of all of this, it was clear to me from at least the people I spoke with that there was this recognition of a relational God whose actions required a faithful response. The people seemed very faithful and committed to God. But, God seemed to be late to the party. I continued to struggle with this seemingly "serviceable orthodoxy," but I walked away with a new and profound recognition that just because God might be silent, doesn't mean God is not active and present to the realities of suffering. The women and men that I met taught me lessons and gave me insights beyond what I learned in divinity school. They were truly the real theologians and organic intellectuals and I was merely a student. An El Salvadorian woman from the village by the name of Fatima said something deeply philosophical that stood out to me. She said, "We cannot prove the rationality of Jesus without first meeting Jesus and in this meeting we come in closer proximity to the one who lived a life on the margins, and who has a preferential option to stand on the side of the poor."
Hearing this statement of hope and liberation from a woman who've lived an entire life of suffering, grief and loss of various kinds, truly helped me to embrace life's realities of suffering, violence, and grief and the importance of allowing suffering to speak. I believe when we allow suffering to speak, it should move us towards a place of compassion and moral outrage to the point that we become angry enough to push the boundaries and to overthrow systems that inhibits human flourishing.
These last few days back in the U.S. has allowed me to deeply reflect on my experience abroad. I was reminded of the epicenter of Christ's ministry, and if Christ were here today, I think Christ would be found on the margins. Considering this fact, I know that I was in good company. Hearing the stories of these brave men and women of El Salvador reminded me of the prophetic call from Isaiah 58:1-2 which reads, "Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins."
This prophetic call is an invitation for those who are committed to justice-seeking to continue to lend a voice to the voiceless, and to stand on the right side of justice that promotes human thriving in all aspects of the human experience.
If this experience has taught me anything, it taught me that we are one human family. It helped me to realize that the world is a complex mixture of cultures, beliefs, traditions, experiences and perspectives. And, although, we may have distinguishable and distinct characteristics as human beings, we all share this planet together, and we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to see after each other. As Dr. King so eloquently put it, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."Therefore, as a human family, we must not put the interest of politics over the interest of people. Rather, we must be moved towards compassion and empathy in helping to alleviate suffering of our brothers and sisters, and to walk in solidarity and accompaniment with them in achieving justice.