Monday, March 29, 2010

Re-entry: Immersion -- or Theological Tourism?

The sign shows you the way out -- the way out of the Jesuit University where we spent much of our time, the way out of the SuperSelect where we shopped, the way out of customs and immigration, even the way out of the airplane as it took off from El Salvador's Comalapa Airport on Friday morning and circled out over the country's fabled surf breaks on the Pacific.

It's easy to exit airports and supermarkets; it's not so easy to exit the experience. Everything reminds me of where I've been. The birds here are quieter and more subdued, not the loud squawking parrots of San Salvador. Here the sun comes up and goes down more slowly, leaving grainy hours of dusk and dawn. There, because of proximity to the equator, the sun pops out of the horizon in the morning, making things suddenly bright; there, night falls in minutes. Here air breathes in more easily, unencumbered by diesel fumes. There, I had a sour throat after four days. All of this I mark.

It's not so easy to exit the experience. Nor would I want to. Marking the differences between "there" and "here" is common to both pilgrimage and immersion. Also similar is a deepening awareness that the differences mark me, in ways I can't yet imagine.

Since I'm still unpacking my bags, let me unpack this thought -- at least a little --
by way of a story. The last day we spent at the Casa, we overlapped with a delegation from another Jesuit university. Some members in the group seemed eager to partake of the Casa experience; others were not so sure. Was this not one more way of exploiting the Salvadoran people, learning personal and social transformation at their expense? Was this just tourism -- with a different thrust and even less benefit to the natives?

The latter group pressed their case. After all, to do an immersion anywhere, you need money, means, and time. Students in the Casa program were largely white, middle- to upper-middle-class students -- whose parents could afford to come down and visit. Although scholarships were available, and some of the Casa students had them, my interlocutors were not swayed. Sullenly, they climbed into a bus -- and were gone.

Here's how I would want to have continued the conversation:

First, the experience of other peoples and cultures prompts change: you simply can't see the world in the same way any more. Particularly if the dislocation is intentional, as it is in both pilgrimage and immersion, people don't expect to return to their familiar. They seek that expanded vision. Immersions are a first step toward that new vision.

Second, I do think the Salvadoran people with whom students work in praxis sites should weigh in -- and judge whether they are being "exploited" or not. The directors of this program work closely with the people in-country to keep a pulse on their needs and their perspectives. Indeed, Kevin Yonkers-Talz, director of the Casa program, spoke very pointedly about the praxis communities being "educators," giving them title and a key role in the pedagogy at Casa. Is this exploitation or theological tourism? It's a question for people in-country to address, not for a delegation from the outside to judge.

So I posed the question to some Salvadorans. "Tell our stories," one woman said, "so that people will never forget." A man judged the accompaniment to be crucial: "You can't fix it, because your country is part of the problem. But being with us means everything."

Finally, yes, there is a danger of what colleague Kevin Burke SJ called "theological tourism," once again taking from the poor to benefit the rich -- this time for insight. But the change that immersion prompts mitigates that danger. Participants will live their lives differently, some in greater and lesser daily solidarity with the people they've encountered in El Salvador. But all will be changed -- "if they have eyes to see, ears to hear."

Intentional action plans, covenants, plans for the future: all these are part of the final retreat in the Casa program. This was certainly how we spent the last day in Mexico City in January. And in equally powerful, but more implicit ways, this is how we exited the pilgrimage to Santiago -- following the exit signs, even as we knew the experience had marked us for life.

In the end, all "exit" signs point to an irony. They mark the boundary between "there" and "here." They get you out, but they can't make you free. You'll carry that place with you forever.

"There" will always be right here, marked on the body like a bold tattoo.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Theoretical Musing

[Warning! Ethical Methodological Material Ahead! Beware of Soporific Content!]

In virtue ethics, we talk a lot about virtues as perfections of human capacities. Virtues perfect our character the same way exercise perfects our muscles--they tone and strengthen us for specific contexts. A virtue ethics generally speaking focuses on the cardinal virtues (classically: Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage, or, in one contemporary spin, Prudence, Justice, Fidelity and Self-care.) All other virtues "fit" into one of the cardinal virtues, which are like a sorting system for the general way virtues function. (E.g., temperance classically restrains us from grabbing too much of something that's good.The opposite vice, which Thomas calls "insensibility," happens, but is much less common than the urge to have too much of a good thing. Humility fits into the temperance category, since we're to be restrained from grabbing too much honor.) To have lots of various virtues is not to be super-human, it's to be excellent as a human being, to be living in tune with one's nature. It's "being all you can be," morally fit like an elite athlete is physically fit.

But particular endeavors like the practice of medicine or ministry, have particular virtues attributed to them, in light of the goal or end or telos of the activity. Doctors are to work on physical or psychological well-being, so what is required of them includes all the regular virtues, but also "professional" spins on each of them. For a doctor, e.g., fidelity to patients requires a devotion to their thriving, (as the Kaiser-Permanente people say.) So a plastic surgeon who's in it just for the bucks is failing in fidelity, while a plastic surgeon who looks to the patient's well-being overall is being professionally virtuous. (Somewhere along the line, some plastic surgeon should have said "no" to Michael Jackson. Maybe not at first, perhaps, but somewhere along the line.) I add to the cardinal virtues for professionals the virtue of trustworthiness. Trustworthiness includes things like being assiduous about your work. Ministers whose theological education ends with seminary are not being trustworthy. Courage for a lawyer might include defending a notorious client in the face of public outrage--consider the ACLU defending white supremacist speech, e.g.

To become a professional is to be formed in the work and ideals of the profession. It is to engage oneself in the process of acquiring the virtues specific to the work. This also involves dealing with profession-specific temptations--MD's are scheduled for appointments every 15 or 20 minutes, yet are expected to deal thoroughly with each patient. The temptation is to keep the schedule, while sometimes you need to stop and listen more deeply. K. Lebacqz (I think--sorry no citation) has written movingly about this. Sometimes what a patient needs more than medicine is to be listened to.

The Casa speaks of "planting seeds," helping people become "their best selves." Of course, the seeds they seek to plant include virtues like compassion, trust, devotion. They don't want to encourage avarice, hard-heartedness, etc. So there's an implicit anthropology at work--what makes a "best self"?

They aren't seeking to form professionals, but to help each person grow in the cardinal virtues. Each of us can be said to start with a certain baseline level of a given virtue. Some people are naturally bold, others naturally more temperate than others. Each of us develops our virtues (or not) toward an ideal that is universal yet personal, just as fingerprints or DNA are universal yet unique. They resist speaking of "formation," perhaps, because that term implies formation for a particular role or profession. They want to help people be just, compassionate accountants, or whatever they do.

Traditional religious formation engages, on a good day, both. A young Benedictine learns the routines of the monastery, finds out that whatever work they're doing stops when the bell rings for prayer. Prayer is the "opus Dei," the proper works of monks. The floor that needs sweeping can wait until after lauds. Priorities indicate meaning. Yet insofar as religious formation is engaged with service of God who desires our flourishing, in the infinite variety in which we're created, a person who seeks to subsume his or her humanity, or ANY aspect of it, in the "mold" of a monk, is making a fundamental error. (Some have suggested that the reason there seem to be more pedophiles in the Roman Catholic priesthood than the rest of the male population is that some pedophiles--not all of them--entered priesthood seeking to escape their sexuality through celibacy. As the newspapers show, it doesn't work that way.) A Benedictine monk is to be his or her "best self" as a Benedictine. If the life doesn't complement and enhance his or her ability to "praise, love and serve" God and neighbor, then the monk doesn't have a vocation to that life. Complicating this statement is the fact that one can grow into a vocation--but not always.

Professional formation these days, in all three professions, tends to downplay "human" formation in the cardinal virtues in favor of formation in the practices and techniques of the profession. Partly that's appropriate, partly not.

Sometimes the virtues of a profession are attended to, but too often not. But absent formation in the professional virtues, medicine, law and ministry are just careers, not professions. When Roman Catholic priestly formation documents speak of "human" formation, they tend to mean formation in celibacy. Too bad--the category is much broader than that, and needs attention for all professionals. We all arrive in the process of becoming "our best selves." Training for professions changes our image of our best selves.

I argue that the process of integrating the "best self" of the cardinal virtues and the professional virtues is more significant for ministers than for doctors or lawyers because of the nature of the work as involving spiritual growth--but that's another topic.

Students in Solidarity: Who comes on an immersion to El Salvador...

...when they could be pub-crawling in London? Or bistro-hopping in Florence? As we close out our time in El Salvador, we've been asking that question of students. They have ready answers.

One of them rephrased it for us: "You mean why did I choose to Study Abroad, rather than Party Abroad?" He laughed: "Here we learn whether we want to or not." He identified very precisely how his perspective had changed: he'd come as a proponent of neo-liberal, free-market capitalism. He's learned how that economic philosophy cripples countries like El Salvador. He's learned that "place makes a difference," where you are located in the global market makes a huge difference in what you see. He's learned "never to be complacent again."

Then he began to tell stories about working with the children in the praxis site to which he's been assigned. The conversation turned to a series of verbal snapshots of "my kids."

Another student observed: "Most of us have been involved in protests at the School of the Americas. It's a common thread." Of course, most of the students come from Jesuit universities -- but not all. "Students already come with an awareness of the world," she said. This experience deepens it. As an undergraduate, she first participated in, then led Alternative Spring Breaks. "AB's" count as another kind of immersion that involves three components: direct service, education, and reflection. Each component is crucial: "Without education, everything gets mushy; without reflection, it gets meaningless; without service, it gets heady."

What would she carry with her when she left El Salvador? "Community," and as she unpacked that, it's clear community is multi-dimensional. Living in an intentional community with other students, working in the praxis sites or Salvadoran communities, learning with the Romero scholars -- and seeing this country through their eyes: all these components of the Casa program take her experience of Alternative Break to a new and deeper level. She's looking for ways to re-create that kind of community back in the States.

She too left us with a bunch of verbal snapshots of a mother in her praxis site, the family who hosted her for a week's visit early on. As with her colleague, these stories told more than any book or article on the country. She'll carry these people with her.

As we gather our things for tomorrow's return to the States, I'm thinking about these new colleagues in El Salvador. Theirs are the faces in my mental photo gallery. Theirs are the stories I'll carry with me.

I wonder what re-entry will be like for all of us? How will these students live out what they've learned here in El Norte, on campuses where everyone arrives in class plugged into their own individual soundtrack? Where texts and cells provide easy access to friends, but block contact with the people sitting right next to you? Where meaning is measured out in salary scales, consumer goods, and material success? What will re-entry be like for them?

What will re-entry be like for us? What's our calling, even after this brief visit? We haven't been here long; still, we have been here. How has the experience claimed us? Or, to borrow language that threads through every dimension of this program, how can we accompany this program, our gracious hosts Kevin and Trena Yonkers-Talz, and the students here?

I know that's the right question. We'll keep searching for the answer.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Things I was wrong about, Part IV (or whatever...)

We are now in day 5 of the third leg of our pilgrimage grant. We have been talking and listening, marching and resting. We have enjoyed hot tortillas right off the grill, scarfed with salt and a nice cool glass of white wine at the end of the day. We have walked, because that's what we do--we process, we imagine, we wonder.

This is a much more reflective trip than our previous trip to Mexico City or than my previous trip to El Salvador, when I came with students from my schools as a delegation to mark the anniversary of the killing of 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter. This feels to me more a summation than a new leg, likely because of my previous time here.

I thought, before we came, that perhaps what is accomplished in immersion here could be done as well in the US. After all, there is no shortage of poor communities one might accompany in the US. It would be much easier to integrate that kind of learning into the seminary curriculum. We could integrate adult learners (i.e., folks with families) much more easily. We could be a more continuous presence in the communities we'd be present to. And, over time we might make a difference, a contribution more than is possible in a short trip.

But I think now that there are three facets of this kind of program, each with its own particular dynamism. The three are: dislocation, integration, and accompaniment.

Dislocation: Marty has posted about dislocation, and I agree. Being out of one's own context is de-centering. it throws the person into the particular group of immersers the new community. Matriculating in a school in a new town can do this, but in the US we're all pretty good at staying connected to "home." We're not easily dislocated in-country. Here, working in a language that isn't one's native tongue helps this dynamic.

Integration: In a well-run immersion, classes can build on students' experiences in local communities and also be connected to their spiritual and group formation. Classes can be interwoven to speak to each other because of the common context. The whole person is educated, not just the left brain.

Accompaniment: The word "accompany" is related to the word "companion," one with whom one shares bread. To accompany is not reducible to charitable acts--it is a true and mutual sharing of the vicissitudes of one's situation. Students here accompany people in local villages.

A local immersion (i.e., an immersion near school in the US,) can achieve two of the three ends, and perhaps three, given VERY intense community formation, which would be tough to achieve.

I think there's another factor involved, though. By dropping people into a culture other than their own, they are encouraged to "read" the culture, to see what's different, what's the same, with their own. This is true to some extent in the US, where communal cultural norms and attitudes in the inner cities are very different from those of the wealthy and/or white folks. "Reading" a culture is a skill that can best be practiced by experiencing another from inside. Related to this: asking hard questions like "what can I do?" might be easier when, as in most immersion programs, the answer is, "ultimately, nothing." Like pilgrims, people on immersion are useless. Their job is to notice, to be transformed, and to return home different. But there's a comfort in distance. I cannot fix El Salvador. I cannot contribute anything much in the space of a week. But when I notice something I might be able to do in, e.g., West Oakland, my continuing to be useless is wrong. I would then be implicated in the dysfunction by inaction. I hope that people who begin to learn deeper compassion in immersion trips come home more willing to enter into the particular situations of injustice that confront them in ministry. Injustice is everywhere--it involves poverty, sexism, class-ism, homophobia, clericalism, age-ism, and any number of situations where people of faith, especially leaders in faith communities, really need to wade in. We need to be prepared to engage injustice where we find it, rather than having our skills-building processes determine the contours of the injustices we will take on ourselves.

So--not to rule out local immersions. Far from it! It'd be great if we take on a local situation with a real commitment to accompany the community over time. But getting people out of their own land has a pedagogical value that really can't be replaced.

Formation or Germination? Higher Education, Theological Education -- and the Difference

In February our grant took us to Pittsburgh. Not so exotic as Mexico or El Salvador or Spain. Walking the bridges of a city in transition, I realized: I'm in transition too. This would be my last meeting of theological educators, the title given to those of us in graduate theological education. In July I move to Augsburg College and focus on undergraduate education, known in the biz as "higher ed."

Outside the academy, perhaps, such nomenclature matters little. But I ran into a big difference here in El Salvador, where my colleague and I, two theological educators teaching at grad schools, met with a group of educators involved in undergraduate education, or higher ed.

I was trying to get a handle on what goes on at this immersion program, an endeavor that has three components: intentional dislocation in another culture, accompaniment through all levels of the program, and -- "formation."

The word "formation" clattered to the floor, and I knew immediately it was the wrong one. But, in the moment, I couldn't think of a better one. "What do you think we're trying to form?" asked one of professors in the immersion program. I responded, "You tell me: citizens of the world?" He replied, "We're just planting seeds, trying to help people be their very best selves."

The conversation haunts me still, but let me offer some provisional thoughts. Formation comes straight out of the context of theological education, i.e., graduate education directed toward shaping leaders for the church. I'll speak as a theological educator here: seminaries do have a "form" or mold we're trying to shape students into. We aim to produce certain kinds of leaders. Candidacy committees demand them; my institutional website describes them (hyperlink to -- and click on "Dimensions of Ministry Excellence"); the church needs them. Formation is appropriate for theological education: it's what educators aim at.

Undergraduate education is more about planting seeds: germination. E.g., Santa Clara University names them pretty clearly: competence, conscience, and compassion. Augsburg College, my new calling, puts it differently: "We believe we are called to serve the neighbor." Germination is more appropriate for higher ed: it's what educators plant -- and hope students will grow from.

Depending on where they are called to serve, students will be formed in any number of different ways. They'll receive professional formation as lawyers and nurses, teachers and organizers: the soil will be different, but all flowers will bloom.

We spoke yesterday with a business major from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He chose the program intentionally: "I didn't want a party abroad program, I wanted a study abroad program. And this has been fantastic. How could I ever be complacent again?" Raised by a poor family in the Philippines, he found in this program a way to reconnect to his roots and reposition himself to do business with a conscience. A global conscience. He'll enroll in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps before pursuing an MBA.

Germination pushes from behind -- or better, below, like a sprout pushing up through moist earth. Formation draws from ahead -- or better, above, like the sun drawing all the heliotropic energies of a new shoot into the air.

Even as they are different in thrust, we need both for healthy growth.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Location and Dislocation: Thoughts on Immersion and Pilgrimage

When selling a house, the realtors are right: it's all about location, location, location. On immersion trips, however, the pilgrims are right: it's all about dislocation.

Pilgrims pack up for a destination as yet unseen through a terrain thoroughly unknown. Pilgrims take maps, but, as historian of religion J.Z. Smith observed, map is not territory. Our guidebook for the Camino made no mention of what became our highlights: lunch at that golf course clubhouse that welcomed pilgrims, even though our packs were full of gear -- and theirs full of clubs; the perfect cafe con leche on a rainy day in Galicia; the mysterious geometry of the Knights Templar church in Rioja.

Nor are maps peopled. No map could have introduced us to Linda and Nancy, whom we ran into so often I finally said: "Seeing you makes me feel I'm on the right track." They located me.

I need location -- and so I relish the challenge of both pilgrimage and immersion. Both aim at an intentional dislocation, cutting all connection with the familiar.

I watch the students taking their parents around neighborhoods that two months ago were equally foreign to them. I watch their vigilance with their parents, as they point out landmarks and caution against curbs -- truly perilous with their ever-changing height. To the students the neighborhood has become familiar, even "theirs." They greet the locals; they walks the streets as if they belong here, at least for the time being.

It brings back memories of the Camino, except that the pilgrim never stays long enough to make a single place "home." Anything and everything familiar to me, I carried in my backpack. I grew familiar with dislocation, if that's possible. I knew how to make a place home, if only for a night or a coffee break. More important, I knew how to leave it the next morning -- and without looking back.

What's the impact of such dislocation? Surely it invites introspection. When everything is foreign, the individual psyche becomes "the still point of the turning world," (T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"). This prompts a dimension of introspection not possible in the midst of quotidian distractions.

Dislocation also forges connection, particularly with people who are similarly situated. Or un-situated. Students who might never have noticed one another on the Gonzaga or Boston College campus now depend on each other to navigate the newness.

Finally, this particular immersion in El Salvador opens a window into the experience of people who have experienced similar dislocation. From one of the community coordinators of the Romero scholars, Gris, we heard the story of a family during the civil war who fled its home in the middle of the night, because the military were coming. In an instant, they had to figure out what they could not bear to leave behind -- and could actually manage to carry and run with. For days they traveled moving only at night and sleeping every day in a different location. Years later, a little girl who fled with her doll returned to her village as an adult -- and tried to find that doll.

Dislocation became a way of life. Forcibly evicted from their homes, these people had to find a center of gravity within. And they did. They returned with an internal compass that provides location in the midst of dislocation, celebration in the midst of death, and a still point in the turning world.

Through the experience of dislocation, immersion and pilgrimage alike sow the seeds of gravitas.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Parents in Solidarity with Salvador -- and their Children

We overlapped with Parents' Weekend at Santa Clara University's Casa de la Solidaridad. That means we simultaneously overlapped with different families -- and different solidarities.

What kind of parents send their kids to a semester abroad program in El Salvador, when they could be pub-crawling in London? Or tapas-hopping in Madrid? We heard a variety of responses.

A couple from the Bay Area said their daughter had spent the fall in Florence before signing on to this spring semester in El Salvador. "We could only afford to visit one of the sites," her mother said. "This is the one we chose." We heard later that the father was of Armenian descent. Stories from families who experienced the civil war here evoked stories of the Armenian genocide. Immediately, he had something in common with the people his daughter had been working with.

We talked to another couple from Maryland as they were packing to go home. "I wish schools were doing this when I was in college," the mother said wistfully. She seemed reluctant to go home. They'd attended classes with their daughter, visited her praxis site, and spent the week interacting with other parents. "This is our youngest of four," the father said. "The rest of the kids have jobs that serve others -- and don't pay. Two of them came home to live with us." He was proud of the fact.

Another mother addressed our question directly: "My daughter knew we weren't always like her friends' parents. We made certain choices. She knew they weren't the same choices that her friends' parents made. I guess she noticed. It was a very powerful lesson for her."

I walked much of the Romero procession with another couple. I realized that all three of us were "herding" the rest of the group like border collies. We kept a lookout for where everyone was. Later I found out they were evangelicals who'd sent their daughter to a Jesuit university. I must have looked puzzled, because the mother immediately explained: "Go figure -- we liked their values."

What are those values? For sure, one of them is simple solidarity. Parents show solidarity with their chidlren, when they find time and money to spend a week with them attending their classes, sharing in their reflection groups, and visiting their praxis sites. Not surprisingly, their children show solidarity with the people accompanying them in their daily lives and work.

I had a feeling that showing up for their children in El Salvador wasn't an isolated event, but just another expression of being there -- at soccer games, recitals, and basketball games. Solidarity becomes a habit, that then gets hard-wired into the next generation. It's wonderful to behold.

We've deeply appreciated being here during Parents' Weekend. Meeting these families has been both a witness and a grace.

And what kind of student chooses this semester abroad program? We'll find out. We're camping out at Pop's, the ice cream joint outside the university, for the next several afternoons to meet with students.

More to come!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pilgrimage Salvadoran-Style

In September we hiked in a procession thousands strong and centuries old to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. Last night we joined a candlelight procession to the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador in honor of Archbishop Oscar Romero. His sainthood by the Vatican is pending, and people here hope the process of beatification will be announced this week, the thirtieth anniversary of his assassination.

But in the eyes of the thousands who walked last night, Romero has already become a saint.

Over and over the loudspeakers announce our procession as a "pilgrimage." That would make us pilgrims, if only for a night. There are similarities between our prior treks and this one-night pilgrimage, and they are both trivial and profound. As with the final summit at Kilimanjaro, we carried light against night's darkness. There we wore headlamps; here we bear candles, lighting and relighting them in the early evening breezes. But as the pilgrims dip under a bridge, I can see lights from the crowd in front of and behind us, just as we saw headlamps snaking up the face of the summit at Kilimanjaro. Now, as then, it gives me hope.

Like pilgrims on the Camino to Santiago, the way is long. A man in our party makes his way on crutches, and his face pours sweat even in the cool night air. His wife wears a neckbrace. She is sweating with the rest of us. We can't carry each other, but we cheer each other on, dropping in and out of conversation along the way.

As on the Camino, there is the frequent boisterous outburst. Last night a group of young people do the "wave" along the way. Every few blocks, they crouch in the middle of their chant, then leap into the air with the word "resuscitado." We join in -- though, for some of us, leaping is a little out of the question.

Along the way, loudspeakers broadcast readings from Scripture, but mostly from Romero. Banners carry sentences from his writings. His words are the people's bibles. Then, when intercessions end at the Cathedral Mass, dozens of white and red balloons are released into the night air. Many carry hand-written prayers aloft, attached to their strings, and a tiny flotilla of balloons elevated a picture of Romero himself. All ascend slowly into the night air.

Who is this man for whom the crowd gathers? To Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who spoke at the beginning of the procession, Romero's agenda is his own, a platform of justice and human rights.

Who is Romero for the thousands of young people in the procession? They are too young to have known him. Yet he stands for them as a hero, political as much as spiritual, who sided with the people and fought for their dignity.

Who is Romero to the many North Americans who came down for these anniversary celebrations? Clearly some have had a long history with Latin America, El Salvador in particular. They accompanied people being repatriated to villages ravaged by war.

Who is Romero to us? Because we are here too. Is Romero the hero we long for, but cannot summon the courage to be? Is he holy on our behalf, relieving us of the burden of discipleship? What does solidarity with this man, these people, and their history mean for us? For me?

I don't know the answer to this question. I only know that my perspective will be altered irrevocably by this pilgrimage. And that's what pilgrimage does, sometimes subtly. You think you're headed for a destination, then discover your vision has changed. Travel has "corrected" it in ways that a prescription could not.

I know something else in addition: Romero was right. Shortly before his martyrdom and knowing that his time had run out, he promised he would rise again in the Salvadoran people. "Resuscitado" was the word he used.

He certainly did last night. And the resurrection continues.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Always coming home: San Salvador

Even though I've never been here before, the city feels familiar. I spent hours yesterday studying maps of the various neighborhoods and rolling the names around on my tongue: the Zona Rosa, the Centro, Parque Cuscatlan, and of course the Jesuit university, the UCA or the Universitario de Centro America.

In the Jesuit circles in which my late husband Bill moved, the UCA was ground zero. One of the Jesuit martyrs was at the University of Chicago the same time we were there, and another, American-born Dean Brackley SJ, now teaches on the faculty. I've heard much about the work of the Casa de la Solidaridad that Santa Clara University runs, its unique combination of study and service learning, its emphasis on formation for justice.

I've listened to stories from other delegations. In the 1980s SHARE delegates accompanied displaced villagers to their homes. Bill came with a Santa Clara group ten years later, shortly after the civil war ended. My sister-in-law and a dear friend came on another delegation, and her group visited the rough chapel built on the site where the American nuns were raped and killed. As the group sat in the pews listening to a presentation, blossoms from a flowering tree drifted in the open windows, covering the group in a mantle of purple and blessing. Lisa was here in the fall of this past year to commemorate the martyrdom of the Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter.

All these stories, all these connections, all these maps: I feel like I know the city.

Still, nothing could have prepared me for the volcanoes that preside over the city, casting shadow and capturing clouds. Nor could I have supplied from a flat map the slope of the Alameda Araujo as it rolls into the center of town. Or told where the sun would rise as we barreled in from the airport at dawn dodging trucks spewing diesel fumes and laden with sugar cane. Or understood the impact of seeing where the Jesuits and the two women were assassinated.

It's all familiar -- and yet so different than I imagined. Yet being here makes something deep click into place. Like shifting into a gear I hadn't known was there. Only now that it's fully engaged can things move forward.

I hadn't realized I'd been standing still.

Maybe that's a telling resonance between immersion and pilgrimage, necessary next steps to a place that's been beckoning.

Maps, stories, relationships only point in the right direction.

Educating for justice: How? Where? Why?

Educating for justice: how does it happen?

Not by accident!

It's the intentional focus of educators like the people at Santa Clara University's Casa de la Solidaridad. Their semester-long program involves specially designed courses in sociology, politics, economics, and philosophy. In addition, there are be-weekly "praxis sites," where students "accompany" Salvadorans in their daily lives. Students are cautioned against thinking of these assignments as "service learning," as there is often no service they provide. They listen; they experience; they receive. Nothing more than accompaniment. And nothing less.

Courses then use the stuff of this experience as "text" for the classroom. Mark Ravizza SJ described his "Philosophy of Suffering" course: "When I taught in the States, I never knew where my students were coming from. They came to and left class in their own little bubbles. They arrived texting and they left texting."

Here's it's different. Mark continued: "Because I've visited their 'praxis sites,' I know very concretely where my students are coming from. I know the communities. I know how the experience impacts them. That's where we begin."

In his class, Annie Dillard's "Holy the Firm" prompts a reflection on the stages of the students' encounter with another culture: first, elation and embrace; then, despair; and finally, a hope tempered by realism and fueled by resurrection.

For better and for worse, San Salvador is not a good place to go walking around at night. Students in this "semester abroad" program don't get to know local pub culture. Evenings are spent in reflection, processing the events of the day. Or doing homework. "That's my chief problem with the program," a student confided. "There so much going on, I can't turn in the caliber of work I'm used to at home." She's learning how to complete the "good-enough" assignment. Not the perfect one.

By deliberate intention, though, a lot of homework is interior. How does this experience in a third world country impact the whole sense of work and calling?

That question is at the core of this experience. Spiritual direction -- even for the "spiritual, but not religious" -- is readily available. "I learned here that I am loved. Unconditionally. And for who I am," said one alumna of the program. "It's enabled me to love others." She's back in El Salvador leading a delegation from Seattle University.

How does all this relate to pilgrimage?

Like pilgrimage, this program educates citizens of the world, an allegiance it sorely needs. Maybe Hugo of St. Victor's insight applies to both students and pilgrims:

"The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land."

If foreign, the world needs to be explored, known -- and loved.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Packing as if....

We're in the final approach to departure: mail withheld, newspapers suspended, shuttles ordered, bags -- well, bags almost packed. As I manage the last bit of stuff, I calculate the difference between this and the first leg of our pilgrimages: the trek to Santiago de Compostela.

First, we're not walking to El Salvador -- and that's a big difference. Most of my anxiety focused on whether in fact we actually could walk that far. The rest riveted on gear: did I have the right stuff? It was as if Spain were alien territory, and the people there had never heard of things I depended on daily.

Of course, they did. What I needed I could either buy or discover wasn't really that important after all. With no small embarrassment, I remember all the shrines I left in B&B's in the early part of the trip: gear I was leaving behind. I simply wasn't willing to carry it any longer. I wish I had taken pictures of all those altars.

This time, I'm traveling light: I know how little I need, and more stuff will only get in the way of being there.

Then, on the first trip, I needed an itinerary: where we would be and when. I plotted out the entire trek, adjusting for our poor feet, until I registered what seasoned Caminista Jan Ruud told me months ago: "You walk your own Camino." He was right. My passion for itineraries meant I wasn't walking my Camino; I was walking the one in the guidebook by John Brierley. It's a great book, but it covered his Camino. Not mine.

This time, I don't have an itinerary -- and opportunity abounds. Thanks to Kim Erno, director of the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, Phil Anderson, director of the Central American desk of the LWF, Cesar Acevedo, director of Augsburg's Central American wing of their Center for Global Education, and our incomparable hosts at Santa Clara University's Casa de la Solidaridad, Kevin and Trena Yonkers-Talz, we'll have plenty to do.

Though I couldn't have told you a year ago, this trip is about Romero, his witness, and his dedication to the people of El Salvador.

Finally, I'm packing as if -- I won't return. It's advice fellow traveler Kathy Gower passed on: "Pack as if you were never coming back." Of course, I have appointments scheduled and trips planned, classes to prepare and articles to write after our return on the 26th. The calendar is full of concerts, dinners, and dear, dear friends.

This time, though, I'm closing things down. I finished one article and submitted edits on another, both of which could have waited until my return. I read and graded a fine set of papers before leaving. All of those could have waited. And in a larger way, I find myself trying to leave behind as more peace and less clutter.

Not a bad way to travel -- even if you're not going anywhere.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Last leg of pilgrimage: What are we looking for?

On Friday, March 19th, we leave for the final leg of our pilgrimage grant: El Salvador. We visit Santa Clara University's semester-long immersion program at the Casa de la Solidaridad located at the Jesuit-run University of Central America. Students in the program have been studying, living, and working in the community since January, and we arrive just after a visit from their parents.

"What are you looking for?" asked one of our hosts.

I'd just given a retreat that considered that question. It's the way we meet Jesus in John's gospel, literally the first words out of his mouth. It's a rather extraordinary introduction.

Disciples of John the Baptist have been tailgating him, and Jesus suddenly wheels around and confronts them: "What are you looking for?" As is so often the case in John's gospel, that question only prompts another. In response, the disciples ask: "Where are you staying?"

Crowded into a single verse (1:38), both questions prompt responses that range from the superficial to the profound. Jesus could have given them directions to his current digs -- or a map like the one above. The disciples are looking for the Messiah, an identity their master, John the Baptizer, has steadfastly refused to claim. So they have a very specific and overt agenda.

But the questions also expose their own deepest longings, complex and unstated in this text --or any text. What are they really looking for? Safety? Comfort? Meaning? An end to Roman occupation of the promised land?

The response to the second question is simple, evocative: "Come and see." As as is always the case in John's gospel -- and possibly in life as well, the action unfolds from questions left hanging in the air. Perhaps action is the best response.

So what are we looking for? Like the disciples, our responses have a broad range.

On the surface, we seek conversation with students and directors of this program: what have they been looking for and what have they found? How have they structured the program to meet these goals?

Further down, we're looking for how immersion compares to pilgrimage, its similarities and differences. We've got some ideas, and we want to see how close they are to the reality on the ground.

Finally, though, I suspect we seek something that pushes every pilgrim out of her familiar surroundings. Walter Burghardt SJ calls it "a long, loving look at what is real." What does that look like in this setting?

Like Mexico El Salvador's economy is deeply impacted by the United States', more so because they use US dollars, having abandoned the colon as their common currency. We'll see effects of globalization and trade agreements that favor our own country and dis-favor our host's. We'll survey the impact of a civil war in which the United States sided against the majority will, lending arms and training to the opposition. We'll see more "collateral damage" from a military trained at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. All of this we will see.

There will be lots to look at: here's hoping we keep focused.

"A long loving look at what is real" demands a steady gaze -- and an open heart.

We're also hoping for announcement of the beatification process for Archbishop Oscar Romero, rumored to be announced by Rome on the thirtieth anniversary marking his assassination, March 24, 2010.

He took "a long, loving look at what is real" -- and sided with his people.