So much has happened this summer that it is difficult to process. Despite my intentions to write about my experiences and thoughts sequentially, my external communication has been stifled. Perhaps this stifling has been the result of a feeling I have experienced that, having worked both on the national and international level for ten years in the areas of homelessness, trauma/violence and resource distribution, I can no longer compartmentalize what I witness both nationally and internationally. However, expressing this synthesis becomes difficult in words and conceptually, as – especially as Americans – we tend to struggle with the question of “Who is my neighbor?” and we are very protective of the boundaries we form in answering this question.
Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation was born at a time when, as Americans, we felt vulnerable. Yet, in the vulnerability of 9/11, some Americans felt compelled to reinvigorate conversations about authentic and just relationships internationally. We recognized that, despite our best efforts, we cannot exist without others. We are (like others in the world) also at risk, but in this recognition comes the hope of partnership and relationship, an acknowledgement of our humanity.
No where has our vulnerability as a nation been more plain to me than in my trip to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The reality of New Orleans is that while the risk we experienced from 9/11 was “external”, the errors in New Orleans were human and domestic. New Orleans has been most affected not by the natural effects of Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita, but by miscalculation, by ignoring the levee weaknesses prior to the hurricanes. And, if we seek to quibble about whether this was in fact “error”, there can be no mistake that true neglect has affected residents since then. Here in the United States, it is important to honestly know that it was only three months ago that electricity and water was restored to parts the Lower Ninth, and the local public school is scheduled to open in August - two years after the levees broke! In working with an area summer camp, it was apparent that in spite of the care and concern and investment of their parents and community, the kids are behind - at crucial development periods educationally. Many of the local men actively seek work but are not finding work, and overall people seek shelter, food, comfort - the most basic and Biblical needs! The scar and badge of the area is signified by the mark upon house after house by the Guardsmen who, after the searches, marked the house as searched with the number found dead. This image - which is actually a Cross on its side - is a reminder that as a nation and people, we are not far removed from two years ago, and we are all commended to invest in our neighbor in the Coastal region.
Some may debate the priority of investing in vulnerable communities locally or donating to projects globally. However, in reality, there is no “either-or.” As Americans, we must realize that our commitments lie with our brothers and sisters in the Gulf Coast just as they do in the Philippines, or Tanzania. If 9/11 or the levees breaking has taught us anything, it is that we must disregard artificial boundaries and see the common thread which weaves us together. Having worked alongside students in Southern Africa through the Anglican Students Federation, I can honestly say that many of the concerns of the students there were similar to those of the residents of Louisiana currently – economic investment, just resource distribution, and recognition of the collective strength and capital of those who have been disenfranchised. This national experience can help provide us with a small window into the daily experiences of others in other countries and their challenges for basic needs.
After returning from my trip to New Orleans, I participated in a class offered at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific taught by Dr. Sheila Andrus. Again, I witnessed many connections forming which replace some of these either-or divides, especially in regards to the environment. The air people breathe is literally influenced by the practices of adjoining countries. So, as we affect the health of people in Canada through our practices, we also breathe the air from China and are affected by their practices. We share air, we share water, and ultimately we all share responsibility. Along the lines of health care practices, the most effective measures employed in countries such as Haiti to administer medication –such as providing people transportation to their medical appointments and training peers in the community to teach about the medications – are very similar to assertive practices employed in community mental health settings to aid homeless people with mental illness and people with HIV in the United States. Sharing these models is also part of our collective responsibility.
My entrance into this conversation, admittedly, straddles this local-global connection in a vivid way. My father was drafted in the Vietnam War and suffered trauma as a result of his service. At one period, he was homeless on the street like many Vietnam War veterans. This is a story of local-global misconnection – a story which exemplifies a distorted relationship based upon violence, violence in which no one wins. Through my own vulnerability and the struggles which ensued from this experience, I seek to identify and form models of hope and partnership, rather than those based upon violence and power misused.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn as Americans is to offer non-intrusive support to our international neighbors. In 2001, I had the privilege of attending the Anglican Students’ Federation of Southern Africa’s yearly conference. I was inspired by the work of then student organizer Francisco Zandamela in his conviction that international ties must be formed around concerns such as viable economic solutions and HIV. The conference title was “Transforming Victims into Victors” and the point was that our call in our histories – personal, interpersonal, communal, even international – is not to be victimized by the past or what we may see as “failures." Instead, the process of identifying both the stones and seeds in our own hearts provides us with the potential for how we ALL can engage in the process of transforming our histories, through the promise of Christ, into victories.Francisco almost single-handedly organized a conference for young adults on HIV, a very important conference for this very at risk population in Southern Africa. Through the conference, many young people were inspired to get tested and to change behaviors that may put them at risk. Another inspiring piece of the conference for me was seeing connections formed from people from very different parts of the world. For me, Francisco’s life, which ended tragically in a car crash six-months later, was a testament to John’s truth: Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Our relationship to others and ourselves is a reflection upon our relationship to the Divine. I expect there are local leaders like Francisco emerging to engage the issues confronting the Gulf Coast.
I learned from Francisco in Southern Africa, I learned from residents in the Lower Ninth Ward, and I learn from those confronting homeless daily in the United States. Simply put, we all breathe the same air, we are each other’s neighbor, and we all through our actions have the capacity to transform the crosses of suffering to those of resurrection. The ripple effects of our own everyday actions prove that our choices and the choices of others can no longer be considered in isolation. From what we buy, to what we breathe, our impact, OUR COMMUNITY, and OUR NEIGHBOR, extends from ourselves - globally. There is no longer a separation.