From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Death, Life, Him, You, Me

He remembers the way his stomach and esophagus vacuumed sharp nothing after four days--four days--of no food, when you vomit even your own saliva. He remembers falling asleep sucking his finger. Not for comfort. For necessity. The salty lining on your skin keeps your digestive system from shutting down after four days--four days--of no food. His baba told him, Keep that finger in your mouth and suck it. Suck it so that you are alive when God provides.

Though thinking is difficult when you're dying from starvation, he remembers this thought. Perhaps someone will remember us.

There are a few people in this world, one in eight, to be precise, who have sucked their fingers to keep from dying.

Here is the face of one of them.

Another Kenyan entered my life recently. Peter Kimeu. The smile is no exaggeration. He is alive, survived, thriving. He has seen life triumph over death for 34 years as a Senior Adviser for Catholic Relief Services, thanks to the support of people he'll never meet. CRS entered his community and accompanied him and his underweight children as they found sustainability, education, liberation. In gratitude and responsibility, he dedicates his life to exposing the flimsy gap between starving and comfortable, closed communities. When he is a guest speaker in the latter, he stakes his livelihood on responding to the question, "What does 'all that' have to do with me? What can I do?" with a personally tailored cheek-grasping jolt-of-an-answer. Everything!

Remember your greatest shame. For Peter, this is being five years old, pulling banana peels and half-crushed sugar stalks from the roadside, and carrying them collapsing through your holed shirt to your younger sisters, so that they can chew, and survive another day. Then imagine crossing two continents and an ocean to retell that shame, to the Purple Hat Society and techno-teens and soccer dads and briefcase moms, people who, logic would conclude, have no reason to care or understand. Over and over you regurgitate your deepest pain, with pictures, without judgment on their lives that suffocate yours, in the hopes that they might realize you are one human family. That they in their mini-vans might remember your children in their thatched huts, just as their parents remembered you.

And now imagine doing all of that, while smiling.

This is the life of Peter Kimeu. He is the first to admit that he is flawed, as is international aid, as is this world, divided by jagged, seemingly impenetrable bubbles. In fact, as we left a Catholic youth gathering and passed Jack-in-the-Box, WinCo and AutoZone, his smile broke, his head dropped into his snug trench coat, and he sighed, "Why does an average family of four in this country throw away $2,000 of food a year? Why are people in my country dying from diabetes, contracted through US-import processed food, while others in the brush die from starvation? Why is everything so big here? Why don't I see any people, only cars? I tell you, Heather, it's amazing. It's amazing and I just don't know."

Though he takes some time to cry alone every day, praying for his loved ones affected by climate change, violence, apathy, and other viciously curable diseases, he begins his presentation to faith groups with a simple, electric powerpoint slide that says, "Africa will smile."

Almost a year after leaving Nicaragua, I am still angry, impatient with my own limitations, and tempted to judge people who haven't had my experience, who don't yet know that everything is what 'all that' has to do with me.

But while I brood, Peter dances. He sways like savannah grass on his compact frame while he coos about Catholic Social Teaching, subsidiarity, a just world. He bounces from soul to soul cackling with love for God, sister, world. His very existence is evidence that we are alive only with and in one another, and so it takes very little to get him dancing.

"If I can open one heart, if I can get one person to do something, then there is reason for joy."

Oh, American friends. We have a lot to learn.