In both a recent interview published in CONNECTING POINT (Autumn 2009) and a story posted on the SMM oblate blog/facebook (October 2009) I discussed my business trip to Nigeria this summer, during which I spoke to Nigerian business executives and attorneys about corporate criminal laws in the U.S. My reflections on this trip brought to mind something Richard Rohr observed about “liminal experiences,” that is, those events that tend to induce a type of “inner crisis to help us make a needed transformation”–sort of a displacement in hope of a new point of view. Though these events are often difficult and dramatic (birth of a child, death of a loved one, an addiction intervention), Rohr notes that they don’t always have to be. For example, he states that “a visit to another culture can jar us awake, if it is truly a visit to another culture. If we go and stay at an American hotel, eat at McDonald’s, and complain because things are not like they are in Chicago, we haven’t really left home. We have to see that others don’t see things the way we do. We need to have our fundamental assumptions questioned… No wonder Jesus called it turning around.” I’m still not certain that my Nigerian trip, fascinating and challenging as it was, had that effect on me–after all, I stayed in a Hilton Inn, without question the poshest hotel in the country–but I would be interested in hearing about liminal experiences SMM oblate blog readers may have had in foreign lands.
Thanks for drawing our attention to the issue. Several years ago I went with a group to the Community of Taizé in France. At Taizé, everyone is a refugee. We all stayed in very basic dorms. We all lined up at every meal for very basic subsistence food–absolutely no meat. (I remember the huge gob of cooked carrots that appeared on my plate several times.) We all prayed together twice daily and met in small discussion groups. The whole experience was formative in that the goal of our lives that week was not comfort, material satisfaction, or any kind of success or accomplishment; it was prayer and community.
Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world flock to Taizé every year for just that experience. We seem to know at some level that we WANT to know how dependent we are on God and that we can indeed survive living, for at least a few days, like most of the rest of the world lives all the time.
In 1990 I had a set of experiences in El Salvador and Guatemala that made me profoundly aware how much it matters to speak up about particular human rights violations. In Guatemala, in Chichicastanaga, I sat with a delegation of Chicago-area religious leaders, listening to a woman tell about an abduction or disappearance of a family member–often just in the past few days or weeks. We’d hear it incomprehendingly in Mayan, then hear it translated in Spanish, and finally in English. The slowness of the process of hearing gave us time to absorb each story we heard. It was hard to bear witness to such earnest stories, as if we–being from the US–could personally make a difference in their cases. In El Salvador, we visited with a newly created village of former refugees who were returning from 10 years in Honduras; we stood in the spot in San Salvador where just a few months ago 6 Jesuit priests connected with liberation theology and their maid and her daughter were murdered (roses growing abundantly over their blood). Our conversation in San Salvador with Bishop Medardo Gomez crystallized the shift in sensibility emerging in us. Bishop Gomez is a Lutheran bishop who’d also had death threats and had been in hiding, but was now perpetually accompanied by an international person (for one month by John Hoffmeyer, a Lutheran seminary professor with whom I spoke often in a trip last week to Montreal). Bishop Gomez told us that before international attention to human rights violations began to happen, paramilitaries could abduct, torture, and kill with impunity–priests, nuns, and many many lay people–anyone seen as a possible community organizer or with sympathies for land reform and other social changes. While disappearances and politically -motivated assassinations still occur, more people are kept alive by people who protest–in letters to foreign leaders, paid ads about particular human rights violations in foreign newspapers, and lobbying their own government to condition foreign aid on improved human rights. He made it clear that this solidarity effort mattered most–giving local people space to do their own work. Charity mattered less than international eyes and pressure that gave a bit more political freedom.
Several experiences come to mind for me from my visit in 2005 to the Philippines and Taiwan. In the Philippines many people are quite poor, some living under the highway overpasses. One day we went to visit a housing project which a Couples to Couples group has sponsored. The families who formerly were homeless or lived in extremely poor conditions were given a new home of their own. The homes were painted in bright colors which was a difference from the drab gray cement structures which are common. What struck me most, however, was the small rooms. Dining room, kitchen, living room, and bedroom could have fit easily in some of our living rooms. But the people were so proud of having their own homes. What a lesson in how to live simply and be grateful.
In Taiwan one of the Sisters had a relative who was in a Buddhist community, and we went to see the Temple and have short visit with her. We had lunch there – a thin soup with vegetables eaten in silence in this large dining room. Then we had dessert, and I thought this will be great. But dessert was another type of thin soup with different vegetables. What a surprise I got!
But once again there was a spirit of joy and gratefulness!
The whole experience was life-changing, and I am called back to it often as I make choices of how to live simply. It is a daunting task in a culture whose message is “more, better” all of the time. Thanksgiving is certainly a time to look at this once again.