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.

1 comment:

  1. maybe one question is that of the "frame" with which we view reality. If reality itself is a zero-sum game of winners and losers, then any human interaction is exploitive. But if it's not...