Thursday, December 3, 2009

Immersion and pilgrimage: Setting my face toward Mexico City

Part two of this pilgrimage grant takes us to Mexico City, one of the world's largest cities. With six other students from Chicago and Berkeley, we'll be involved in a sixteen-day immersion in another culture. We'll learn a lot about Mexican culture, but the dominant culture we'll be immersed in is the culture of poverty.

I've been to Mexico City before several times. My initial visit was to an academic conference on "Justice and Justification" in 1985, and the dominant culture was the culture of the academy. To our cost, we had very little to do with our surroundings. I was in Mexico City again several years later, taking a break from language school in Cuernavaca. Then I was immersed in the culture of Polanco, a beautiful, upscale urban neighborhood bordering Chapultepec Park. I was immersed in the culture of some of the best art museums in the world.

This time will be different: we will be immersed in the culture of the poor.

Immersion and pilgrimage are alike in some ways -- and very different in others. I'm trying to count the ways.

1. Happily, we won't be walking! My feet are glad about that. Yet, because of the City's danger, our movement will be restricted. We'll reside in a gated community. It won't be safe to simply get up early and run around the stadium of the nearby uniersity, as I did during the academic conference. We'll have to watch out for one another. And that prompts me to wonder: how will I "watch out" for the people we'll be meeting, particularly when I return to El Norte? They live in the daily danger of poverty and hunger.

2. "You walk your own Camino," a fellow pilgrim counseled. He was right. Pilgrimage is solitary. In contrast, immersion happens in and with a group. Indeed, our first experience of immersion will be in the group with whom we're traveling. Scout camp was the last time any of us were herded around like we will be in Mexico City. Our behavior will revert to that chronological age: I'll be fifty-something going on fourteen! On the Camino you can act fifty-something going on fourteen -- and no one would be around to notice!

3. Pilgrims carry everything they need on their backs: each carries her own. Immersion, in contrast, creates a situation of interdependence. Between us, we'll need to cover our bases. For the fiercely independent among us, that will be hard. Interdependence, even dependence, though, is far more the reality of a global world, where what I buy, what I eat, what I wear affects people far away whose lives and livelihoods depend on unthinking habits of First Sorld consumers.

4. Like on the Camino, we'll be dependent upon the kindness of strangers, and like the Camino, they'll all be speaking Spanish. There the similarity ends. Our hosts this time will be sharing from scarcity, not abundance. They'll share what little they have -- and like the widow's cruse of oil, it will be enough.

5. As with pilgrimage, we'll need to prepare. But we'll need more than great, lightweight gear for this trek. We'll need openness, sensitivity, and simplicity in our backpacks. Indeed, for our next immersion trip in March to Santa Clara University's Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador, these three traits as listed as requirements. They come right after a qualifying GPA, language skills, and maturity. (

6. Finally, as with pilgrimage, we'll go as beggars. There's nothing we can do or fix or change. We will simply need to be -- and be present. Like pilgrimage, immersion is about receptivity, not productivity. We'll go with empty hands -- and return with full hearts.

I don't expect this to be easy, but it needs to be done. Poverty is the reality of the majority of the world's population. We need to be there to experience it.

Then we need to let it change our lives in ways we cannot yet fathom.

Then comes the doing.

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