January 29, 2012

Book of James

The barber finishes one man, and the chair opens. Another man, young, too young to be here, too young to have hit bottom, has been sitting impatiently, bouncing his knees, tapping his feet, and elbows another man out of the way to get into the chair first. The barber shrugs and dutifully, carefully buzzes away while The Dentist on the microphone welcomes them, announces birthdays, thanks volunteers, shares prayer requests. When the barber finishes, the young man gets up and pulls a women's compact from his pocket while another guy sits down in the barber chair. He looks at himself in the tiny mirror, turning his head back and forth, checking the fade in front of his ears, furrowing his brow, noticing something isn't quite right. He still has his vanity. There's pride, intensity, don't-mess-with-me in his eyes.

The Dentist prays, and the barber has his head bowed, but the young man starts to elbow him. He looks at the barber, tries to get his attention, then looks at his fresh do in the tiny mirror, then at the man trying to get him to shut up while The Dentist prays, then back at the barber, then back at the man trying to get him to shut up. The Dentist finishes and the barber silently makes an imperceptible fix on the young man's sideburns. He whips out the compact again, and nods approvingly.

Volunteers hand out meals to all the men and women at the tables. The rule is, you don't get clothes until you've eaten. No more clothes at seven. But the young man with the fresh haircut comes, stakes a claim on a pair of shoes before he's had his meal.

Don't give it to him, Jose. Because soon, they'll all be up here.

Jose hands him the shoes he wants.


Soon, there's a crowd. Clothes start flying, in all shapes, shades, sizes, just like the addicts here.

Big ones, with beer on their breath. Size 38 waist please.

No tenemos 38.

I shuffle through the pile of pants.  

Aqui, 40. Pero no hay 38.

The words I'm most comfortable with come out in that lispy, cut-off Puerto Rican accent that I'm trying not to pick up. He rejects the pants for now, but comes back for them later.

Another one, with no voice, no teeth, lips curling over his gums, holds up nine fingers and points to his feet. This is a language I can understand. I dig for size nines in a shopping cart. They're already gone.  

Lo siento, seƱor, no hay nueves.

Another one, so very skinny, asks for size 30 pants, makes his request with gravel in his voice, it's rough and jagged like volcanic rock, the roughest I've ever heard. It's a wonder he can still use it. I fish him out some 29s.  

Size 29 jeans?

There are women, too. One was up front, for her birthday, they sang her at least three variations of the birthday song, as Puerto Ricans like to do. Big bandages on her arms in three places, three places where there was pain, and then escape, and now healing. Someone told me the puncture wounds get infected and they often leave them untreated and the skin rots away, down to the muscle, to the bone.

For some of the people here the symptoms are obvious. You can smell them on their breath, hear them in their voice, see them in the wounds on their arms, on their face, so clearly struggling, sitting on the bottom of society, providing examples of "At least I'm not..."

For some of them, the symptoms are not clear. They're clean, they're getting by with clean clothes and fresh haircuts, you wouldn't know it by looking at them.

Here, they're fed, they're clothed. Their wounds are treated, they're bandaged, welcomed back whenever they want.

Christ is followed here.

January 11, 2012

Enlightening the American Teenager

Every class has that one kid who makes everyone else groan when he raises his hand to ask a question or speak.

I was Skyping with my friend Kendra's Spanish class last week when that kid raised his hand to ask a question.

"What's the technology like there?" he asked.

 "Ohhh my God!" escaped from the lips of some poor, embarrassed girl in the second row. No doubt she was vastly more culturally aware and knew the obvious ridiculousness of the question. She was probably a few social rungs higher than the kid who asked it, and he had clearly violated some protocol asking about technology. But Middle and High school social hierarchy aside, this scene underscored the divide between our cultures, and the value of what we were doing.

I appreciated the question and I didn't laugh at him, like I did to the kid who asked if there was anything to do here. At least he asked something.

"Well," I said, "Technology here is really similar to what you guys have there. I'm Skyping with you over the internet, most people here have the internet in their houses. A lot of kids have PS3s and Xboxes like you guys. There's a Gamestop in pretty much every strip mall. Kids have cell phones and iPads like you guys."

A few times now, I've had the privilege of using Skype to talk to a class of kids thousands of miles away in Michigan. I probably don't make for a great Spanish language lesson, but I hope they at least enjoy the chance to talk to someone in a far away place and learn a little bit more about a different culture. There's always a little bit of nervousness on my part because a kid in an advanced high school class just might have a better grasp of some grammatical rules than I do, or they may ask a question I don't have a good answer for. Luckily, nuanced rules of Spanish never come up.

Instead, it's typically a variation on the same set of softball questions. What's the weather like? What do kids do for fun there? What kind of fast food do they have?

That last one always comes up, and I think there's a quintessentially American perspective behind it. I've asked it too. Our love for greasy, cheap fast food aside, it's a pretty good gauge for a place's standard of living. Or at least we think it is.

I've had a number of conversations with Puerto Ricans who've met Stateside Americans who always ask the same dumb questions, and it annoys them.

I understand their offense. Many of those questions come across as, "do you have what I have?" If you can imagine an annoying kid from down the street coming over to compare toys and being shocked when yours are just as nice, it's kind of like that.

Don't get me wrong, Americans are terribly blessed. The United States enjoys a great standard of living and a great deal of freedom, but they're not the only ones with nice toys. Or the internet, or PS3, or movie theaters. Or fast food joints. Besides, having McDonald's in your country is hardly an indicator of economic stability.

Puerto Rico, like much of the world, has a middle class with some disposable income. In Puerto Rico, like much of the world, there are lots of people who can speak flawless English or another second language. And Puerto Rico, just like the rest of the United States, has a large lower class that has embraced a potentially unsustainable and unhealthy consumer culture. Kids here may have iPads and XBoxes, but that doesn't mean they need them or can afford them comfortably. It's no different in the States.

That was something I discovered myself telling the high school kids over and over again, and I hope they got the point - kids here are just like you. The biggest divide between the States and Puerto Rico isn't how different they appear, but how little one side realizes they're the same.

January 2, 2012

Time to go back

Okay. Power blog. It's getting late and I need to go to bed because

I'm flying back to Puerto Rico tomorrow.

This was my third trip home, and it will be my fourth flight to Puerto Rico. It never gets easy to say good bye, but I think I do understand them a little better.

It's good to come home. Good to be around family and friends and snow, and separate from the pace of life and work in Puerto Rico, from salty air and daily routine, so I can go back and approach it anew, refreshed. I saw lots of people here. I missed many more. When you have finite time (and it's all finite, isn't it?) you just can't plan it all. That's no break. That's no vacation. That's not refreshing. So - sorry if I missed you.

The inevitable question people ask is - how much longer will you be there? If you've read this blog in the last few months, you may have sensed that I won't have a very specific or concrete answer. There are times when I'm sure I'll be finished there this fall, and there are others when I think - I'm doing good work, I feel useful, I'm growing, why ever leave?

It's a tough decision to make. It's almost certainly tougher than the decision to go there in the first place. It's not one I've got my mind fully made up on. I know I'll be there at least through this fall. Maybe longer. Maybe not. Professionally, I should stay. Personally, I'd like very much to return here, to normal.

But of course, "normal" is gone.

The decision to stay or go (or what to do or where to move or when to go or what to wear), in my unprofessional, non-seminary-trained opinion, is not the same as following or abandoning the will of God. To stay there, I can see where He would use me. To go home, I can see where he would use me.

It would be easy to obsess over it. Regardless, It is good that I have been there, and it is good that I am going back now. There's a lot to do.
Lots of camps to plan
Staff to train
Kids to reach
Places to explore
Stuff to learn
Advice to follow.

Let's go back.