The Bridge

Miami, Florida. 4:25 p.m. January 12, 2014

Now glory and honor be to God. By his mighty power at work within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope. Ephesians 3:20

Same notebook. Same airport. Same Bible quotes slipped into my luggage by my mom. Different colors and different people, though. People at all are an improvement I guess. Peru—from the start—was greyscale. This time it’s brighter everywhere; the windows are clean and, even though I’ve been inside all day, I can still feel the warmth building up under my sweatshirt. I hope I see sunshine in the form of people this week. I hope I sleep easy, excited both to dream and to wake up.

There are so many people here, wheeling suitcases, holding the hands of babies who toddle alongside them. Spanish families are already letting English abandon their tongues, unmissed. Old men are sitting alone, and all I can do is hope they’re flying somewhere colorful where clean windows keep the greyscale away.

I’ve been thinking about what I want to get out of this trip, trying to be realistic with the list that’s beginning to form in my head. Maybe that’s why Peru was dark—I polluted it with wishes for a trip too meaningful to be real. I’m just hoping to smile everyday and leave with confidence in myself this time. I hope I come back with stories I want to tell and with a better perspective.

Durán, Ecuador. 5:30 p.m. January 13, 2014.

Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper.
Psalm 37

Seventy percent of Ecuadorians live at or below the poverty line. For a relatable comparison, the 2012 U.S. Census found that more than 16 percent of Americans lived in poverty. With the U.S. economy as bad as it is, 16 percent is, understandably, too big of a number for a country where people deserve to live in dignity. Sixteen percent of people struggling to put food on the table isn’t acceptable by any standards. So when I read that 70 percent of Ecuador—a country, like all countries, where the people deserve dignity and stability—lives in poverty, I didn’t believe it. But then I thought about the dirt roads that left mud caked on my shoes today. I thought about the barefoot children I saw on my ride here from the airport yesterday, about the stray dogs that seem to be more plentiful than people, about the padlock on the gate of Rostro’s housing complex. And then I thought about Lupé.

Rostro de Cristo is a Catholic volunteer immersion program in Guayaquil, Ecuador. It has two work sites—Arbolito and Mt. Sinai—where groups can stay during their time in the country. For one week every year, Assumption sends a group of students, faculty, and staff to the Arbolito location, where we stay in a house next door to seven full-time RDC volunteers. Yesterday our plane touched down and a van bounced over the roads, eventually dumping us out, sleepy but quietly aware, at the house. Today after morning prayer, we slathered sun block onto our skin and ventured out into the community for our first neighborhood visit.

Lupé is a woman in her forties with a soft body and a kind smile that reaches her eyes. She greeted each of us with a kiss on the cheek as she welcomed us into her living room, a square space that just manages to fit two couches and a handful of small kitchen chairs. We all took a seat as she closed the door and began to tell us about herself and show us her home, a subtle sense of pride overflowing from her frame. A single woman living alone, she appeared to be financially comfortable and happy with her life. We all laughed as one of the RDC volunteers raved about Lupé’s cooking and poked fun at her insistence that he was too thin when a loud car horn sounded.

¡Ay, un minuto, lo siento!” Lupé said as she quickly threw open the front door and ran outside.

Confused, we looked to our RDC volunteer for an explanation.

“In Arbolito,” he explained, “there is no running water. Did you see the big blue barrel on Lupé’s front porch as we came in? A truck comes through the streets once in a while and fills those up for a dollar, and that’s their water until the truck comes back.”

Lupé, we found out, had been without any water for three days.

During our visit to Lupé’s house, I sipped from my own Nalgene water bottle almost constantly, feeling faint from the extreme heat that had me sweating and missing the cold New England air I had left behind. As I rose to say goodbye to Lupé and begin the humid walk home, I thought of my house in the United States and its multiple faucets that never run dry. I thought of how my roommates and I constantly complain about the taste of Worcester tap water, insisting every drop we consume be filtered through a Brita pitcher.

I kissed her on the cheek with a solemn smile as I left and stepped out into the Ecuadorian sun, passing the blue barrel on my way to the street.

Gracias, Lupé. Gracias.

Durán, Ecuador. 6:46 p.m. January 14, 2014.

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. Matthew 10:8

Today is different than yesterday in a lot of ways. Yesterday morning we started the day with a visit to Lupé’s house, a woman who was kind, grateful, and enjoyable. Then we spent the afternoon at Semillas de Mostaza, an afterschool program for children, and I loved every minute of it. Today, though, we attended a different afterschool program and I left with a heavy heart and full eyes. The children were still beautiful, still playing soccer, and still happy—for the most part. Their clothes were all ripped, and one boy even left without a sandal, and I just don’t know how to help these sandal-less, dirty, and angry children.

I didn’t know her name at first. She was the first child to approach me today at the afterschool program, tiny and tan-skinned with eyes wide and sunken in like she was tired all of the time. She climbed onto my lap and for the rest of the afternoon, the top of her head brushed my kneecap as we walked across the makeshift playground together. Her clothes were torn in a few places and hung off of her bony body. She was attached to my hip until they brought out the free bread and bananas. She ran towards the crates of food with a smile spreading out, never turning around to wave goodbye to me before she walked home by herself. I couldn’t get her face out of my head as I ate dinner tonight.

Durán, Ecuador. 8:13 p.m. January 15, 2014.

Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. Mark 10:21

Today we left Arbolito and Durán for the main part of Guayaquil. Our van twisted and turned through the roads and, eventually, we crossed a bridge. As if a switch had been flipped, the poverty stricken houses and neighborhoods faded as high rises and malls popped up. Gated communities lined the roads of a city that, well, looked like a real city. The bridge, I quickly realized, acted as a definitive separation of rich and poor. I stared out of the van’s window in silence, not believing how rich the rich were and how utterly poor the poor were.

“Who lives in these mansions?” someone asked.

“Oh, richer Ecuadorians,” the RDC volunteer answered casually. “The people that live in this part of the city have a lot of money. Some of them will fly to Miami just to go shopping on the weekends.”

Suddenly I felt a little nauseous as I thought of a statistic that I’d learned in Peru: of the top 15 countries with the worst income distribution inequality, Latin American countries account for 10 of them.

Our van eventually turned into Nuevo Mundo, a school where two of the Rostro volunteers teach English and, after learning more about the dynamics there, I’m not sure a more perfect example of uneven wealth distribution has existed.

The school sits on grounds more beautiful, picturesque, and equipped than Assumption’s. Lush soccer fields and immaculate buildings are spread out as students spend their free time outside in the warm Ecuadorian sun. If they’re hungry for something other than the cafeteria, they can visit one of the “snack bars” that sell pizza and ice cream. Well, if the morning students are hungry, they have the snack bar option. Because God knows the afternoon kids can’t afford it.

Nuevo Mundo, like many South American schools, runs on a half-day schedule. The “morning school” is for paying students—most of them come from the gated communities near the high rises and the malls over the bridge. School for these students extends to the 12th grade, and they are all fluent in English by the time they graduate. Their tuition funds the “afternoon school,” a program that buses kids in from communities on the far side of the bridge like Arbolito. These children do not buy pizza and ice cream from the snack bars. They do not fly to Miami on weekends. After grade 10, afternoon students that have high enough academic standing are given a scholarship to the morning school. The rest of them must finish their last two years before university elsewhere. Or nowhere.

A bridge and a 15-minute drive are all that separates these students physically. Two different worlds on two different sides of town.

Durán, Ecuador. 1:33 p.m. January 16, 2014.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Matthew 25:35

Today we went back to Manos Habiertos, the afterschool program from Tuesday. The same little girl ran up to me again, smiling as she situated herself on my lap. Her name, I discovered, is Jobella. Even though she’s only three, she’s allowed to come to the program with the older kids because she’s so well behaved. Her clothes seemed to be in better shape today, but she still had too skinny with arms thinner than my wrists and jutting out cheekbones.

We played horsey by ourselves as the other kids played soccer; I jostled her on my back as I ran whinnying and neighing around the playground, a giggle the only hint of her voice I’d heard all week. We found stickers in the dusty room that housed a crafts cabinet. She stuck small circular ones on like earrings, gesturing for me to take a picture of her new jewels.

When the bread and bananas were brought out, she untangled her hands from mine and walked away slowly, returning to my lap with her snacks this time. The other children were dismissed and everyone began to clean up, but Jobella stayed on my lap, nibbling on her roll happily, not caring that the crate it came from minutes before had been crawling with flies. As we all got up to leave, she followed me out to the van. I hesitated to climb in, swinging our intertwined hands back and forth gently.

“Jobella, time to go home!” one of the RDC volunteers said gently in Spanish.

Still quiet, she let go of my hand and took a step back. I picked her up with ease, squeezing her as I kissed her cheek.

Te amo, Jobella,” I said. She smiled back and took another bite of her bread.

I climbed into the van and slid the heavy door shut behind me, waving to her from behind the window. The engine started loudly and as we began to roll down the bumpy road, I looked back.

Jobella, nibbling and walking, had her eyes trained on us as she slowly followed the van. I held her gaze until tears clouded her from my vision.

Durán, Ecuador. 9:32 p.m. January 18, 2014.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. Acts 4:32

I think it’s oftentimes the tendency on trips like this to live in the moment, to swear off all “first world problems” and privileges in one breath, to ride back to the U.S. on our high (and admittedly well-intentioned) horses preaching solidarity for an average of three to five days before we park ourselves in front of a Netflix marathon with our constantly buzzing iPhones and fourteenth snack of the day. A year ago, I would have already saddled my horse and prepared my sermons, but today I refuse. I won’t lie—as soon as I’m back on U.S. soil my fingers will be scrolling through my neglected Twitter feed while the rest are shoving fries into my mouth. So no, in all honesty, this trip hasn’t opened my eyes to the beauty of three-minute showers or converted me to a composter. But what it has done is pry my eyes open to a wider view than just my Twitter feed.

Every fall right around Thanksgiving, I volunteer at soup kitchens. I’ve participated in clothing drives and collected cans of food to donate to the hungry. During my seven days here in Ecuador, however, I did not serve a single person a single morsel of food. In fact, I was served, and I learned and grew. It was me who was nourished and given friendship that will last a lifetime. And the only reason my relationships have been allowed to form is because of one, simple factor: awareness. Without true awareness, understanding, and education, I would have none of the gifts that I’ve acquired in the past week, and these gifts should be shared.

In reflection this morning, an RDC volunteer asked us who the poor are in our society. As I chewed on the top of my pen, deep in thought, I finally understood. According to Catholic Social Teaching, the poor are those treated as insignificant, as well as those who are materially poor. But if you ask me, the poor are those who treat others insignificantly. I have met “the poor” this week surely. Children with dirty hands and feet, ripped clothes and bony arms. Children who live on the wrong side of the bridge. But on the other hand, I feel as though before this week, before these people, I was the poor one. Poor for not knowing who or what joys this world houses in its ugliest corners. Poor for not having my life enriched by my experiences here. Today’s morning prayer included a quote from Rainier Maria Rilke, and it answered, for now, all the questions I’ve had this week, the ones that have kept me awake with the roosters next door.

“Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

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