Thursday, December 10, 2015

Meeting a spiritual descendent of a woman Jesus praised

In Satipo, Peru, I met the spiritual descendent of a woman famous in Christian history. One story of Jesus describes him watching people give donations at a church. Various wealthy people give huge sums, and one impoverished woman goes to the box and donates 2 cents, the sum total of her wealth. As I learned in Sunday School, Jesus says that though others gave more, they gave a small proportion of their wealth and gave so that they could be seen as generous, while this woman had given everything and with no thoughts for appearances. Jesus said he appreciated her offering far more than the others'.

I met a man just like this woman.

Here's the story: I got it in my head, with a week to go before entering an indigenous community, to try my hand at social / political organizing. Perhaps I'll share the whole story another time, but in short: many local Peruvians had expressed frustration with their society and said they felt helpless to respond to its problems like crime, trash on the roads, pollution, and especially corruption. I organized a gathering one Sunday morning with breakfast and lunch freely donated by local restaurants where locals could come, eat together, do a work project together to clean trash from their roads, eat again for free with more donated food and drinks, and hopefully make connections with other caring citizens so they could begin to address their common concerns about their community.

I went all over the town with fliers (designed by me and donated by printing shops) and received a huge outpouring of gratitude and excitement. As I went through the market inviting people and their families, I was given so many gifts: coconuts, many bananas, apples, whole lunches w/soup, mangoes, drinks, and more - I kept a list of my gifts, and it ended up quite long! And almost everyone excitedly promised to come and bring their family, as well as put up my flier in their market stall.

Tired after pitching the event for several hours one afternoon, I walked back to the hostel along the main road and stopped at a roadside juice cart. I recognized the man who ran it, having walked past him many times. About 5'6", he had a thin scraggly beard and his wrinkled brown skin showed he received a lot of sun. I knew this also because he only had one large faded umbrella for cover, and this covered the customer's stools so that when the hot jungle sun really beat down, he would be completely exposed. Only the customers could have shade. And he sold frozen fruit drinks with ice he kept in a cooler for 50 Peruvian cents per drink: the equivalent of about 15 US cents each.

Asking for a drink and sitting down, and I started sharing my project with him and invited him to participate. He said he really liked the event idea, and wanted to participate, but he could not leave his drink cart. Sunday morning, the day of the event, was a big sales period for him, and he could not afford to miss it.

While inviting people, I remained sensitive to how incredibly long hours these folks worked, and for how little money each day. It seemed common to assume tall white foreigners were rich, and so all afternoon, while inviting others, I had been searching for a graceful way of replying to this objection that acknowledged the other person's needs and circumstances while avoiding any potential triggers or offensive assumptions.

I responded, "I appreciate that. However, many neighbors here who work long hours also deeply desire to find other caring people with whom they can improve their community, and I know they would love to meet you and become friends. Then you could bring real change, rather than wait for politicians."

I'll never forget his response. He looked me in the eye and said, "I am a slave to this cart. I cannot leave it."

No one else had explicitly acknowledged that level of economic destitution to me. I looked back at him, smiled, and nodded my head. After a minute, I said thank you as I got up to go. I don't know whether I was thanking him for his openness or the drink. Maybe both. I pulled out 50 cents and handed it to him.

And he wouldn't take it.

The man who acknowledged being a slave to his drink cart insisted on gifting me the drink.

I felt short of breath and said, "Sir -," and he turned away to serve someone else who'd just driven up to his cart.

When he turned back a moment later, he glanced at me, and I just said thanks and walked away. I received his proverbial 2 cents, maybe in thanks for what I tried to do for his community, or maybe just for connecting with him.

I don't think I've ever received such a humbling gift.