Monday, November 5, 2007

Disturb the comfortable, Comfort the disturbed

On Saturday, I went with a group from the Collectiva des Mujeres to Monte Plata - a region to the north east of the Capital -who were delivering aid: chlorine for water purification, milk, toilet paper, saltines, and vaccinations against typhoid, whooping cough, and diptheria. This region was not particularly hard hit but the Collectiva has an outreach clinic there and there was one community of 500 people who had been completely cut off.

I wish I could describe the scene to you but the truck that I was in got lost and spent two hours driving in a seemingly endless circle amidst a stunningly beautiful African palm tree plantation whose fruit is used to make palm oil. We did arrive in time to greet the 40 other workers, mostly women, almost 25 of them volunteers, who had spent the day in the little pueblo. Ah well, I was there in solidarity, at least!

Among them were two Norwegian volunteers who were overcome by the experience, never having seen this level of poverty. Indeed, most people in the "developed" world have never seen this level of poverty - except when it finally reaches the TV screens at the level of Darfur. I doubt that there is any poverty in Norway that could compete even with the poverty in the United States. Nor does the poverty there compare with the poverty here. Nor can here compare with Haiti.

My first exposure to the sight and smell of poverty came when I was 17 and set out to help the North Student Movement, operating safely on the outskirts of Harlem from Morningside Heights, which was helping organize rent strikes. At our Quaker school the most competitive thing that we did was raise money for the annual school charity drive. Juniors were allowed to chose a non-profit and present their work to the student body which then voted to select the one the funds would go to. Mine lost to the American Friends Service Committee which then "imported" a bright Black student from Florida -- "why not from Harlem, I cried?" -- he later went on to become a major general in the Army. His two years with the Quakers had not been enough not catch the Quaker peace testimony. Yet by our actions we students integrated the heretofore all -white school.

The second day in the North Student Movement office, I was taken across town to Harlem by one of the staff to see some of the apartments. I was the only white face walking down the street, feeling self conscious and awkward and out of place for the first time in my life. The doors of the first five apartments that my guide knocked on slammed quickly shut as soon as they saw the color of my skin. Ah Ha -- so this is what it feels like.......

I held back my tears. "But it wasn't me" I wanted to cry out. "I want to help" "Please let me in." But I remained silent.

By the sixth apartment, my guide had learned a new approach: "She is young. She wants to help. She needs to be educated. Please let her in. She needs to see this."

So I was allowed inside the little two room apartment, with the peeling paint, with three holes that the rats had made in the walls of the bathroom, with the three children, hiding close behind their mother's skirt, looking up at me in fear.

I close my eyes and I am there once again.

I know how those young women from Norway felt yesterday.

Everyone should be required to have this experience.

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