I used to like the idea of placing all people into one of two groups: the brave or the fainthearted. I willingly put myself in the latter category and therefore felt justified in not doing many things that only “brave” people do: being a missionary, going to jail to protest some injustice, or even traveling to a third world country. When I was invited to visit our sisters who had begun a mission in Santo Domingo, I did not want to go. It wasn’t that I did not want to see the work our community was doing there, but rather that I fit so well into category two! I was afraid I would get sick on the food, embarrass myself by my fear of rats, not know what to say to or how to help people in need. I was especially concerned about the images of poverty that I knew would remain with me after my visit.
Pictures of such scenes from movies, television, and magazines continually haunt me and leave me with feelings of impotence and a vague guilt. I was worried that, after seeing so much misery in person, I would have an even heavier sense of helplessness and be plagued by greater guilt for not doing more to relieve the burdens of the people in the Dominican Republic and other third world countries.
It was, in many ways, as I had feared. On the first day of my visit, the sisters took me down a long, steep dirt hill that wound in and out of dilapidated shacks and led to a school for little children that one of the sisters administers. It was impossible not to notice the river down there, polluted with garbage and raw sewage, the naked children with distended stomachs and orange hair from malnutrition, the rats. I could not escape the smells; it was difficult not to retch. In a way that mattered most, however, it was not at all as I had expected. I was unprepared for the people! I had steeled myself to witness heart-rending scenes of poverty, but I was not ready for the people!
We went to Mass the first evening I was in Santo Domingo, and they were there—in their church clothes, their one good dress or shirt, perhaps with a hole or two, but spotlessly clean. They were there rushing to welcome us, the strangers, with warm embraces as if they knew us. They were there praying and singing with the fervor of those who believe that God is truly listening. They were there with their children, smiling as the little ones roamed in and out of the makeshift benches, pausing often to climb onto the laps of those who welcomed them. They were there as we left the little church, thanking us for coming and begging us to return. And they are there still, unaware of how little I was prepared to meet them.
It was not until I was back home, still thinking about them, that I understood why they had caught me so off guard. It was the awareness that came to me almost as a shock when I saw them together in church: they are people just like us. Of course I have always known intellectually that people are basically the same everywhere, but I had never experienced it in such a dramatic way. It was clear to me in that little church building that these people think, feel and believe in much the same way we do, in their affection for one another, in their hospitality to strangers, in their love of children, in the value they place on cleanliness, in their desire to worship together.
What makes them different from us is none of those basic human characteristics; it is rather that we have many options in our lives, and they have very few. They cannot decide, as I could, if they are “brave” enough to visit a third world country; they live in one. They cannot choose which type of washing machine to buy; they have only plastic buckets with cold water from rusty pipes sticking out of the ground. For them, there is no decision about whether or not to go to Weight Watchers to take off a few pounds; they spend much of their time trying to find enough food to keep themselves and their children alive. They have few options about where they live, what they wear, how much they eat or what their future will be.
My heightened awareness of the choices I have in my life, choices denied to many people in the world, ought to have increased my feelings of helplessness and guilt. It has, instead, become a potent reminder that what is mine is not so by right. It has motivated me to use the many options I am given with a greater awareness of those who have fewer. Because that consciousness tends to wane with time, I have an opportunity to remember those who have no choice about which flavor of ice cream to eat, for example, by having none myself.
My memory of those families who live in one small sweltering room stays more alive when I occasionally choose not to put on the air conditioning in the car on a hot day. I do not think such choices make the lives of those with limited options any better; I do them for me, so that I won’t forget. I want to remember.
I want to remember so that from now on I make wiser, more compassionate choices in my life. When I returned from Santo Domingo, a friend said she was concerned that I would never be the same. I told her that my fear was that I would be. I pray daily that I am not.