I work with college students. Anytime people throw out a dismissive judgement about “youth these days” I am always quick to interject: You’re wrong. You just don’t see them in the capacity I do because if you did, I think like me, you’d be incredibly hopeful about what the future holds. But instead, too many stick to their limited view of a generation they don’t understand, and miss out on incredible love and potential just waiting for it’s chance to lead.
Long ago I learned that the best story tellers know how to get out of the way of a good story and let it tell itself. So I’ll conclude my part of this blog with this: The post below originally appeared on JonTribe, a blog started by Jon Beach, one of the students I worked with last year for a program I manage at LMU. De Colores is a service and immersion program that works with a nonprofit called Build a Miracle in El Florido (a small community just east of Tijuana). Jon, is like 99% of the students I have come to know through this program: Smart and loving, and just itching to combine these two realities in such a way as to improve the world the only way we all know how, poco a poco. I hope you enjoy his storytelling as much as I do and who knows, maybe like me you’ll come to believe that the future looks bright with loving leaders like Jon on the horizon. And with that, I give you Jon’s post…
The sun, the soccer, the work, the faces: Beauty.
The tacos, the tears, the reflection, the embraces: Clarity.
The rubble, the strays, the police, the poverty: Harshness.
The Wall of Ignorance which keeps which side in Darkness?
“Hola! Como estas?”
The words come at me through the sludgy haze of my wax-filled ears. My mind is lazy and indifferent to the shades of cool morning dirt around me. After a moment I comprehend that the question is for me and dig for the mental information I need to respond. When I find it, I thrust the words out of the hole I use for communication.
“Estoy bien, y tu?” I say with as much enthusiasm as I can muster.
It is a woman who talks to me. She wears long brown hair and a smile that radiates exuberance. Past her thirties, the signs of motherhood can be seen in her stride and her eyes. She is in tune with the air around her.
But I haven’t realized that part yet.
Instead, I’m thinking about the inconvenience of speaking in another language and how much effort and energy it takes to be where my feet are. Energy I don’t seem to possess. Part of me wishes she wasn’t talking to me at all so I could sit with my thoughts and observe. But she seems intent on talking and, after all, I have come to her community. I try to force myself into consciousness as she asks for my name.
“Me llamo, Jonathan. Como te llamas?”
“Jonathan? Me llamo Cecilia y mi hijo se llama Abraham. Él tiene autismo.”
I look at Abraham. He wears a hat and stares into the distance. There is no sign that he comprehends his own existence, much less mine. Abraham’s eyes are in perpetual space. Some part of me is envious of his state of mind before I realize the ridiculousness of that idea. But I don’t know how to respond to Cecilia’s explanation and so I look back at her and simply nod my head in acknowledgement.
As my eyes return to hers, Cecilia begins bombarding me with questions in Spanish.
I took 4 years of Spanish, but I rarely had the opportunity to speak in real-life situations. The Achilles heel of modern education: How often are we denied those real-life situations in favor of a few choice words in a book? Now I wish I had practiced with the owner of the taquería at home who knows me by name and still remembers the first time I came in for food.
Cecilia cannot find the right words and I cannot find the right ears, but instead of giving up on this poor gringo who has lost too much of his own heritage, she goes and grabs Patrick — our De Colores leader — as a translator so that we might continue our budding conversation. Through Patrick, Cecilia resumes the questioning. She asks if I have a job lined up after graduation.
“No,” I say apologetically. Nearly shameful. I know that having a job is the ‘right’ answer to the question, but I’ve yet to apply to a single one. The job I want doesn’t exist yet and I’m picky when it comes to commitment. Luckily, I at least have something to say.
“I don’t have a job, but after I graduate I’m travelling to Southeast Asia.”
As Patrick relays the message, Cecilia bursts with excitement. She touches my arm, looking at Patrick with wide eyes. Advice, demands, and goodwill cascade from her lips like Niagra. She’s talking so fast, poor Patrick can’t keep up, but he does his best.
“She says your experiences will shape who you become if they haven’t already. She says you will meet all kinds of people on all kinds of paths with all kinds of versions of Truth. She says some days will be hard, but that she will be praying for you and to think of her prayers for support. She wants you to know that they all care and love you and for that to give you strength.”
I sit there, nodding my head; humbled and in awe. My milky mental fog melts under the heat of her attention and care. A smile is plastered on my face.
“She says you need to write a book of your travels and bring it back so she can read it.”
I have never met Cecilia before. On either of the previous two trips. I never spoke to her before this encounter and I hardly speak here either. She didn’t know me at all, yet she seemed to know me anyways. Or at least knew what words I needed to hear.
As if to confirm that fact, she reaches her arm out and places her hand against my heart. Her other hand rests against her own heart. She points to the sky.
Patrick translates, but I don’t listen. Her gestures say more to me than any words could. They convey a feeling. Something both loudly spiritual and deeply natural.
After many hugs, Cecilia walks away with Abraham in tow leaving Patrick and I to speak about the encounter.
“Well, that was really deep,” Patrick says laughing.
“Yeah…,” I say, still mostly speechless.
“You know, I think mother’s with special needs children…they just have a really strong intuition. Really strong feeling.”
“Yeah, I could see that. Having to communicate without words all the time. Maybe something to do with being away from so much technology and everything, too.”
“Yeah,” Patrick says somewhat absently as his mind drifts into memory. “There used to be a nun at LMU named Sister Peg. Everybody loved her. She passed not too long ago. Anyway, a few years back we had a gathering in remembrance of her and this lady came in and shared a story with us that blew us away.
This former LMU student said when she attended LMU she had decided she was going to commit suicide. She had researched it all out, she knew how she was going to go about doing it, and had decided she was going to that night.”
“This lady had a class that same night and for some reason decided to go to her last class. (Which doesn’t make any sense considering she had just decided to kill herself, you know?) But she’s walking to class and Sister Peg sees her and comes walking towards her. When she saw the girl, Sister Peg immediately approached her and said‘I need to see you tonight.’ The girl tried to make an excuse about what she had later that day, but Sister Peg put out her hands, cupped her face, and said ‘I need to see you. You know why.’ And then she walked away.”
“The girl went back to Sister Peg to thank her. She asked Sister Peg if she’d known about her plans for committing suicide and Sister Peg said, ‘Yes, of course I knew. I didn’t know what it was exactly, but I knew something was wrong. You can call it whatever you want — God, energy, intuition, or whatever — but I’m a nun so I call it God. God spoke to me and said I needed to talk to you so I did.’“
In my last semester at LMU, I went to Tijuana three times. Twice with the De Colores program, and once with the same group, but as part of the graduation party for Selina — a former De Colores leader herself. On that final trip is when I met Cecilia.
“A bunch of people backed out,” Caroline said. “You should come.”
“When are you going?”
“In three hours.”
I’m surprised as the words come out, but neither do I stop them: “Umm, OK well I’m down.”
“Yes!” says Caroline in her endearing hysterics. “Oh my god, yes. I’m crying. Stop. This is going to be so awesome!”
I only laugh in response.
“Let me call Patrick,” says Caroline.
After a quick phone call in which Patrick seems excited to fill the vacated spots, we are on our way to San Diego. Tijuana the next morning.
On that trip, I met a man named Ricardo. Him and I stood on the edge of the soccer field, watching as both Mexicans and Americans played in the dirt field below us. I asked him about his life.
He told me a couple years ago he moved from the Mexican coast to Florido — the community we work with in Tijuana. Day-to-day, he works to provide for his wife and son all the while trying to learn English. I tried speaking in Spanish out of respect and for my own practice, but he wouldn’t have it.
I tried to learn as much as I could about him in our conversation, but the truth is most of that information is lost now or misunderstood from the get go. It was a largely broken conversation. But Ricardo did ask me a question I was not prepared for and will never forget:
“Will you come back?”
He asks it innocently, but I don’t know what to say. I immediately feel guilty for the selfish desire not to return. To let this be my one experience and feel like I’ve done enough. Coming back? That sounds like a big commitment.
“I’m graduating and the De Colores program is only for LMU students,” I say. “I might not have another opportunity to come back.”
Ricardo nods solemnly and turns away. We stand in silence for a while.
The second trip I made to Tijuana wasn’t spur of the moment so I had plenty of time to talk myself out of it. I wavered for a while, but in the end I decided to go. Partly because of Ricardo and partly because I loved it the first time…why not a second helping?
On the first trip we poured cement for an elementary school. This time we painted the walls of a house that had been built for a family of five previously living in a small, one room shack. Ricardo is on the waiting list for a similar house.
After we finish painting, we pour cement around the building before taking a break for lunch. I get my food, sit down, and attempt to speak Spanish with a small, quiet boy, when I spot Ricardo and his son in line. His wife Christina is with them.
We embrace, talking over the food. Never ceasing to smile.
When the De Colores volunteers finish eating, we walk back along the trash littered streets to the house we just worked on. We pass a doll, its eyes wide and in shock. As if it cannot comprehend the horrors it has seen through it’s short lifespan. Does this doll mirror the child that once held it?
We walk into the house.
Inside, we find bunk beds for the kids, a full bed for the parents, a refrigerator, a sink, a stove, and a dinner set placed in the home. My friend Andrew and I stand at the windows with newspapers blocking neighbors from sneaking a peak (though some still attempt a glimpse). When everyone arrives we open the door and let the new family and whole community view what we all had a hand in creating.
I saw their young, excited son walk around and hug as many people as he could, thanking them for the gift of a safe and beautiful home. I saw the mother address her community with pride and strength. I saw a tribe band together in support of a deserving family.
At that moment I began to get an idea of what this work meant for those on both sides of the Wall.
It wasn’t a concept, theory, nor an idea in a book. It wasn’t a standardized test. It was a feeling that ran chills up my spine and through my arms. A feeling that watered my eyes and made me want to hug the world. A feeling. That’s all it was and yet, like Cecilia’s touch to my heart/hand to the sky, it held an eternity of meaning. A feeling that defines the explanatory gap.
A few minutes later, Ricardo and I find ourselves again at the side of the dirt soccer field speaking in English. Despite my reservations, I have returned. This time Ricardo turns to me with a smile and says:
“I want you to be here when it’s my turn. I want you to be here when we build my home.”
Cecilia, Sister Peg, the members of the Florido and De Colores community: they don’t “help” others. They are present with others. There’s a big difference. One implies a hierarchy: I am helping you. The other implies equality: We are heretogether. Because no matter how you slice it, the manual labor I brought to Florido was nothing compared to the perspective and love they provided me. I gained so much, yet I was supposed to be the one “helping”?
In Patrick’s words:
Think about that. We all have wealth and poverty. To me, that means we complete one another. All of us. But we only complete one another if we are a community. Alone, we are incomplete.
We need each other because we are social animals. Tribal. Wolves are, too. Built to survive as a group. But in the same way that we pulled individual wolves from their packs to create the domestic dog and the lonely stray, I know I sometimes pull myself away from my tribe in pursuit of my own desires.
There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, but there’s a catch.
I felt that catch at LMU as I began finishing up my college career. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was missing something. I had the critical thinking down. No problems in those areas. I had the answers professors wanted. No problems there either. I was even part of the McNair Scholars Program and working on an Honors Thesis.
But as I continued working on my mind, I was losing touch with my heart. I was dismantling the string that connects me to others. I was losing feeling.
You can call it anything you want — God, energy, intuition, whatever — but I like to think of it as a function of my body so I call it intuition. My intuition spoke to me and told me I needed to experience something rather than read about it. Told me I was losing a sense I had in surplus as a child. It told me I was an incomplete human being.
My intuition told me to go to Florido. So I did.
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