Benevolent Invasions

It is quite possible that this hypocrisy is unconscious in most of you. Intellectually, you are ready to see that the motivations which could legitimate volunteer action overseas in 1963 cannot be invoked for the same action in 1968. “Mission-vacations” among poor Mexicans were “the thing” to do for well-off U.S. students earlier in this decade: sentimental concern for newly-discovered poverty south of the border combined with total blindness to much worse poverty at home justified such benevolent excursions. Intellectual insight into the difficulties of fruitful volunteer action had not sobered the spirit of Peace Corps Papal-and-Self-Styled Volunteers.

Today, the existence of organizations like yours is offensive to Mexico. I wanted to make this statement in order to explain why I feel sick about it all and in order to make you aware that good intentions have not much to do with what we are discussing here. To hell with good intentions. This is a theological statement. You will not help anybody by your good intentions. There is an Irish saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; this sums up the same theological insight.

– Father Ivan Illich, April 20, 1968, Cuernavaca, Mexico

I remember the first time I read this excerpt from Ivan Illich’s venomous denunciation of idealistic Americans’ “benevolent invasions” of Mexico. I recoiled, first of all because I find that infamous Irish saying to be next to worthless. It is easy and popular to justify all of our selfishness, insensitivity, banality, and vulgarity by pretending that we are well intentioned, that we’re basically “good people,” when at heart we are not well intentioned, when in fact our existence is fundamentally closed to any thought of the demands of the Other and to the call of any higher moral awareness. The road to hell is surely paved with pretenses and excuses — whereas I cannot imagine a good God damning any poor soul for having genuinely tried her best.

Addressing the meat of Illich’s complaint, though: I understand what this cantankerous social critic is talking about, especially when he charges youthful volunteers of unwittingly propagandizing for the shallow, materialistic impulses of the developed West. This does not mean that privilege doesn’t also run the risk of closing in on itself, or that what the poor want is simply to be left alone by those fated by birth never to understand them entirely. So many ethical situations are fraught because they require us to chart a path between Scylla and Charybdis, between one danger and another; and I find Illich’s hyperbolic rhetoric, at least in this instance, unhelpful in the attempt to locate some middle ground.

But who knows? Maybe I’m just being defensive, because as it happens, three of my JV friends and I just went on a weekend-long service trip to Acuña, Mexico, in the days after Thanksgiving. We went with a woman named Christine, who works for a non-profit which brings food and financial aid to the underdeveloped colonias ranged along the Mexican-American border. There were moments over the course of the trip when I couldn’t help but feel that Illich’s tirades against American pretension were well founded: when, playing arts and crafts with some impossibly adorable snot-nosed and dirty street children, I could hear Christine over my shoulder counseling, “Good…good…just move your right arm a little bit, just a little bit lower” — so that she could take just the right impossibly adorable photograph to post on her website. Or when she gave a little girl selling fifty-cent bead bracelets a pat on the back, dropped a peso in the girl’s palm, and called her, as white anglophones probably never should, “mi hija.”

It’s a good question: what is the proper attitude to take towards the unalterable disparity between our worlds? Of course, these anecdotes are all instances of an unavoidable problem which does not reflect at all upon Christine’s extraordinary moral character. I don’t have the space to convey how impressed I was by the humility and reasonableness that underlay her every decision and comportment. She did tell us one story in particular that’s stuck with me — actually, two stories, which a Mexican priest had told her. First of all, she said, let me tell you about a young Mexican boy who stepped into a Catholic chapel in his colonia and, taken aback by the artistic care with which this structure had been created, asked his father how the chapel had come to be. “Well,” explained the boy’s father. “My great-grandfather wanted a church in our neighborhood so that all the people could worship God. And so he erected a makeshift tent out of a swath of burlap, he used an old broken table for an altar, and he strung together a bunch of logs to make some pews. Later on, my grandfather built some walls, collecting cinderblocks over many years; added rafters for a ceiling when wood became available; replaced the log pews with hand-sanded wooden benches; and supported all this with a poured concrete floor. As for me, when you were just a baby, I painted the walls with whatever paint I could scrounge up, carved a Crucifix by hand, bought some lace with several months’ worth of saved allowance and lay it over the altar.” The man looked at his son meaningfully. “And that’s how this chapel came to be.”

The Mexican priest, Christine recounted, then told his second story: A young boy wandered into a Catholic chapel in his neighborhood, and asked his father, “Father, how did this chapel come to be?”

“Well,” explained his father. “A few years ago, a wealthy group of Americans paid for all the materials and sent some college kids for the weekend to come and build it for us.”

The point to these two stories was clear.

Now. If a sensitivity to world poverty can teach us the extent of our responsibility towards the poor, and if a sensitivity to local history and culture can teach us the limitations of our power to touch lives, I wonder what sense we can glean from the contribution that encounters with underdeveloped regions can make to our lives. This was, I gather, Illich’s ultimate conclusion in his years supervising Church-led mission groups’ forays into Latin America: that we must at all costs identify ourselves as guests of, rather than as gifts to, host countries, and consider our collaboration a two-way street. Also, what are the deeper strata of encounters such as our visit, bearing food and toys, to a few colonia families in Acuña?

Flashback: one of my jobs here at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in San Antonio is to assist the director of faith formation with the youth group, the catechism class, and other such endeavors. Recently, a private Catholic high school in the affluent suburb of Kerrville, Texas, contacted our parish to inaugurate a community service program here in the projects for their students, and I took the reins of that initiative. In reflecting on the tasks we had at hand, and in asking myself what experiences might benefit these students, it occurred to me to have them bringThanksgiving food to the twenty-five homebound clients to whom I deliver monthly groceries. They’re delightful people, and I thought they’d appreciate meeting our young visitors as much as the youth would appreciate meeting them. And so I set about orchestrating a benevolent invasion of the West Side by thirty purportedly well-intentioned young men and women.

My work with youth this year has taught me two things: what deep reserves of wisdom and resilience young people carry within them, and at the same time, how much more immature high schoolers actually are than I remembered, or imagined, them being. I would like to be kind, but I also have to be honest: the Kerrville kids who came to us were spoiled rotten. They would much rather have spent their time goofing off in supermarket aisles while buying groceries to be shipped off to some anonymous recipients than doling them out; even their principal’s idea was for them to spend a couple hours after school decorating the boxes of food and only ten minutes or so (“or however long it would take”) “swinging by” the recipients’ homes to drop them off. I don’t know whether such a vanilla vision of “service” should have surprised me, but I was definitely astounded by how impolite some of the students were upon disembarkation. When I handed out the names of the senior citizens each sub-group of students would be visiting, the kids read them out to each other with exaggerated delight as though they’d never heard an Hispanic name before: “I have…Mar-I-a Hhhhher-NAN-dez,” proclaimed one, rolling his shoulders like a matador. “Oh yeah?” exclaimed another. “Well, I have….Grrrrraci-AY-uh Rrrrrodrrrr-EEE-guez” — as she arched her back like a mariachi. When we rolled our enormous yellow school bus through one of the narrow back alleys behind the church and a rooster ran clucking out of its path, the event was not to go unremarked upon (“Oh my God, did you see that? There’s f***ing roosters running around in the street!”); and as we walked through the Alazan-Apache Courts that I’ve gotten to know rather well, their principal’s babbling about “the liabilities involved when white kids wander aimlessly [aimlessly?] around the ‘hood” formed a continual background noise. If this is their reaction to a neighborhood in San Antonio, I may have wondered to myself, what would these kids think of Acuña? Of houses made of tin without running water, or streets paved partly with garbage? Why did I, of all sheltered people, all of a sudden feel like the worldly one?

Indeed, what would they think of Acuña? I thought that I was overprivileged when I arrived in San Antonio, and yet seeing these rich kids’ encounter with this comparatively minor form of poverty seemed to provide a direct retort to Illich’s qualms about cultural imperialism. Would it really be better for these two worlds never to collide?

I do think that the students (many? some? a few?) took something meaningful from their experience here. One of my homebound clients is very ill and very depressive, secluding herself in an old armchair in the back of her apartment from which I’ve never seen her move, and the students assigned to visit her returned markedly somber. Another of my clients, a true saint if I’ve ever met one, is also always ill, but doesn’t let it sink her. She radiates serenity and love. She doesn’t speak any English, and we communicate through half-understood phrases and deeply understood smiles and vague gestures towards the rows of photographs and images of the Virgin that ring her little two-room flat. She always greets me by wobbling over to the refrigerator to get me a banana or a Sprite, and bids me farewell by thanking a joven like me for spending time with a vieja like her – the only trace of melancholy her gentle demeanor will disclose. I knew that she would enjoy meeting a few other jovenes, so I especially looked forward to introducing some of the Kerrville kids to her. Unexpectedly, the encounter proved almost too much for her. Tears welled up in her eyes and her body shook as she wavered in the middle of her tiny floor, halfway between standing up to greet us and shuffling back over to the sofa where she might sit down out of a kind of unnecessary reverence. “I am so old, I am so old,” she whispered in Spanish, the words sticking in her throat and only emerging with difficulty. “Thank you, Lord, for sending such young people to bring hope to the home of an old lady.” I invited one of the stunned young girls, who earlier had prided herself on her ability to speak Spanish, to say something. “I wouldn’t know what to say,” she answered me out of the corner of her mouth, almost coldly — as she had every reason to. I didn’t know what to say, exactly, either, so I said awkwardly in English what I always say to this woman when she tells me how old she is: “Catalina, Catalina, I hope to God that I might live to be eighty-four, too.”

Anyway, I would like to think that moments like these contributed meaningfully to our high school visitors’ lives.

Flash forward again: Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. Christine and her two sons, whom she took along for the ride, brought my three JV friends and me to an orphanage set up at the end of a remote and unpaved access road behind an old metalworks and a newer technical college on the fringe of the city. Twenty kids, ages four to about fourteen, of both genders, swarmed our car when we pulled up. The religious sister in charge of the place watched beneficently from a few paces back. (I loved this woman: her large round eyeglasses, her graying hair, her small wooden cross resting on her gray woolen sweater, her silent, compassionate gaze: a woman whom it was clear the children loved — how delicately they modeled for her the masterpieces they made with our gifts of arts and crafts! — without her ever coddling them or, alternately, scolding them, or even raising her voice above a gentle murmur.) But I can’t delude myself: as happy as the kids were to see us, it was clear how much they loved each other already, how well they got along, and how graceful their little existence on the periphery of everything was. Whether jumping rope (and counting hops in English) or trying to pop wheelies on wobbly-wheeled plastic tricycles that could barely even drive in a straight line, the undoubtable sadness of an orphaned existence did not show through their smiles. I think that when my friends and I left the place hours later, we were the ones who had been touched, become overjoyed; ours, too, was the slight sadness that the children would probably return to their games and forget about our brief visit long before we ever forgot about them. Suddenly, I felt rather old.

Putting these two experiences — our visitation of the orphanage, and the students’ visitation of the senior citizens — together, it occurs to me that perhaps the most surprising encounters do not occur between cultures but between generations. What separates us may not be as great as everything we hold in common, and we share nothing more profound than our invariable habit of growing old. It therefore makes some sense that the same wellsprings of hope which those orphaned children awakened in me, making me want to hold and protect them from anything wicked in the world as though they were my own beautiful children or those of all humanity, were awakened by me in my friend Catalina, who saw something true in the high schoolers while I unforgivingly saw only crude manners: that life is good and precious, that the earth needs to be replenished and rejuvenated.

Or perhaps these conclusions are merely the result of a chance comparison. It could easily have been two different moments I set against each other. At any rate, these experiments are enough to compel me to say: Come, let us spread good intentions for each other…let us invade each other’s existences, benevolently.

3 thoughts on “Benevolent Invasions

  1. What bothers me about some of these benevolent invaders is that they push their religion on other people and cultures. So many of these do-gooders are from church groups who send missionaries, which is fine as long as they don’t give their time and donations in exchange for the conversion of new recruits. Come pray with us and we will give you a bowl of soup.

    I think it would be better if people wanted to help others because it’s the right thing to do, not because they think this is what their God wants them to do.

  2. In response to Cindy, I would say that in my experience missionary groups no longer focus on conversion. Rather, missionary groups now go and help out “sister” churches, and the events are coordinated so that there is time for help and prayer.

    I would say that what bothers me about mission groups, especially affluent groups going into areas of poverty, is the lack of cultural IQ and the lack of respect they show to the local populations. I was recounted a story by a Salvadoran Evangelical friend of mine how the community mobilized to raise funds and make a huge (expensive) lunch for the “extranjero” guests. In the end, the extranjeros brought aid but refused to eat any of the food offered to them. Needless to say, my friend expressed the great sorrow that rejection brought to her and to the rest of the community. It was like the extranjeros were saying, “You and your gifts are dirty and not good enough to eat.” Now, I know things such as parasites exist, but really, when a meal is hot, there is no danger.

    Needless to say, missionaries need to be given the talk on how to respect.

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