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.