Several weeks ago I was asked to speak at a fund raising gathering for a group of high school students who will be traveling to Nicaragua on their Spring Break. “Say something inspirational…” I was told. This is what I shared with the students and their parents at their gathering last night.
Thank you for the invitation to be here with you this evening.
As we exchanged emails, Mr. Albano asked if I would take a few minutes to say something inspirational.
The truth is what is inspirational this evening is you…
All of you…
When others will be going to Florida or Mexico or to Europe on their Spring Break…
Or just staying home and sleeping until noon and staying out until Midnight or later…
You are going to going to Nicaragua to wake up at 6:00 am to the sound of the dogs barking (which they have been doing all night) and the roosters crowing (which they have been doing all night) and to the buses honking (which they do beginning about 5:00 each morning).
And you are not going to San Juan del Sur to play in the ocean, but to Siuna to mix cement and to bend steel and to sleep on cots underneath mosquito netting.
I know the trip is something of an adventure…
And, I know you will work hard and have fun and build new relationships and strengthen existing friendships, but I also know the experience is is so much more.
And that, I think, is inspiring.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA.
For my family, at that time I was growing up, international travel consisted of going from the US side of Niagara Falls to the Canadian side and then back again. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine going to a place like Nicaragua. I applied for my first passport in 1996 when we were preparing for our first Bridges trip. That trip was not to Nicaragua, but to El Salvador. We were told we going to help with the construction of a chicken coop. OK, I thought, if that is what they need. The picture in my mind’s eye was a wooden building shaped like a big box with chicken wire sides and some type of roof. When we arrived in San Simon I discovered that the chicken coop they were building was for 400 chickens, and was a cement block building 30’x60’. And, like you will be doing in Siuna, we spent the week carrying block and mixing cement.
Toward the end of the week, the leader of our group arranged a meeting with a woman named Rufina Amaya, who lived in a neighboring community. She was the sole survivor of the El Mozote massacre, a horrific event that happened during El Salvador’s civil war. Salvadoran troops were helicoptered into El Mozote where they massacred all the men, women and children, including Rufina’s husband and children. We stood under a tree in a dirt front yard that was just like any dirt yard in which you have stood or worked in Nicaragua and listened to this humble woman speak about what had happened and how she had survived by stumbling unseen into a dithch and what it was like to lie hidden listening to her husband and children and neighbors being massacred. And then speaking also about forgiveness. I stood towards the back of our group looking at the high school students who were with me in that front yard and thought, “If parents knew where their children were right now hearing what they were hearing, would they have ever let them come?”
And, so parents…
You, too, are an inspiration because you are taking the risk of allowing your children to be exposed to the world which is much different and much larger than Bedford or Pound Ridge or Mt. Kisco. You are making it possible for them to see it the way it really is and the way it really looks to most of the human family..
All I can tell you for sure is this.
Your children will return different from who they were when you drop them off to leave.
Some of that you may see pretty quickly.
Some of that may take weeks or months and sometimes even years to bubble to the surface;
But, that is what will happen.
And, so from the deepest and best part of me, “Thank you.”
I believe the world in front of us that is emerging needs young adults like the ones whose hands you are letting go of and sending to Nicaragua this spring.
As I thought about this evening I realized that the request to speak this evening is turning the tables on me. In preparing for or leading trips, I am usually the one asking the questions.
And, encouraging learning.
And, pushing young adults to consider the next question and not just the one that lies close to the surface. Your invitation forced me to ask myself…
“What have these trips meant to me?”
“Why do I do them?”
“What have I learned?”
“And, what do I still need to learn?”
So, in response to the questions I found myself asking let me tell you two stories.
In one way they are my stories, but change the names of the people and the name of the community and they may be your stories as well.
A number of years ago I worked in the community of La Borgonia in the municipality of Ticuantepe. We were helping to build a home for Victor, his wife and his two daughters.
With very limited income and in a community in which education is not nearly as valued as it is here, Victor and his wife made sure both of their daughters attended high school which in and of itself is a real accomplishment. Each day when we were there, as soon as school was over for the day both girls would rush home to help us with the construction of their new home. They loved sifting sand and flipping the stones off the screen. I was, and still am, lousy at it. I could never quite get that motion down. So, they would take turns sifting sand with me and laughing at me and with me each time I messed up. At the end of the week all of us gathered inside the walls of Victor’s new home, and with tears in his eyes he told us what his new home meant to him and to his family and how grateful he was to all of us. In moments like that I stand in the presence of humility and gratitude that is often foreign to me in my day-in, day-out life in Bedford.
But, that is not the point I want to make.
A couple of years after working on Victor’s home, my youngest son put together a trip to Nicaragua of college and high school friends and asked if I would be interested in joining them. How could I say no? We ended up living and working in a community across the road from La Borgonia. In the whirlwind of working and playing with children and interacting with the group, it wasn’t until the end of the week that I walked across the road to visit Victor and his family. When I walked up to their house it was like they had been waiting for me all week which maybe they had. After hugs and greetings they said to me, “Te perdista.”
We thought we lost you.
What they were telling me is not that it had been two or three years since I had worked on their house, but that I had been close by for several days and had not stopped in to see them.
Here is what I realized…
I was not just another person to them.
Not just someone who had helped them build their home.
I was some mixture of friend and family…literally welcome in their home at any time.
My son tells of a similar experience.
On one trip he lived and worked in the community of Las Pilas de Orientales.
Several years after he had worked on the home of a family there, he and several friends had a chance to go back. As he tells the story, as they drove up in the truck, he was uncertain if the family with whom he had worked would remember them. But before he and the others could get out of the back of the truck, the mom had come out of her home not just to say hello, but also with a picture that had been taken several years before of the people who had helped her build her home. She called those whom she knew by name, and asked about those in the picture who had not been able to return for a visit.
Here is what I wonder about…
Is a part of what we are doing less about building homes or schools or clinics, as important as that work is, and more about making our neighborhood larger? About strangers becoming friends, and foreigners, family? And then figuring out how to remember that and live like that not just when we are in Nicaragua, but more importantly, when we return home?
Four or five years ago I worked in the community of Papayal in the municipality of Nindiri.
At the end of the day of working we were riding back to where we were staying in the back of the pickup truck. When we got there, two of the girls, covered with dirt and cement, said to each other and to me, “We really look beautiful, don’t we?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Maybe never more beautiful than you are right now.”
And, you know what? I meant it.
Too often we equate beauty with things…
With how popular you are or you feel…
With a house or a car or vacation destinations.
What if all of that is wrong?
What if beauty has to with service or compassion or commitment to making the communities of which we are apart better not just for us, but for all?
What if beauty is being dirty in the back of a truck after you have mixed more cement than you could ever have imagined or sitting with a child and helping her or him to learn to read or standing up for and stading with those who are pushed to the very edges of your school?
That is the kind of beauty I think really matters.
Which brings me to this…one of my favorite quotes.
“If they get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”
As you get ready to go to Nicaragua…
And while you are there…
And when you come home…
Do your best to “ask the right questions.”
Maybe questions like…
- What does the world really look like? This? Like Bedford or FLHS?
Or, does it look more like the what is depicted in that snapshot of the world as a community of 100 people where 80 of the 100 live in poverty, and 70 in 100 are illiterate, and where only one would have a computer, and where if you have money in the bank or in your wallet you are only one of 8 out of the 100.
- And, not just what does the world look like, but what should or might the world look like?
And, what, if any, is my responsibility?
Our responsibility to help go from what is to what might be?
- What are we losing when a child who loves learning stops going to school after the 5th grade? And, should we care?
Those are some of the “right questions” that occur to me?
What are the “right questions” that will occur to you?
So, you have listened politely long enough…
So, as I end, back to where I began with a Thank you.
Thank you, not only for inviting me and taking a couple of minutes to listen to me,
But thank you for what you are doing.
Sometimes I hear people say, “Only two houses or a classroom….”
Out of a billion homes or classrooms that are needed, but for those two families it changes their world forever. Mother Theresa, the Roman Catholic nun who lived and worked among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India said, “We cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”
Do what you are able to do with all of the love and energy and compassion and intelligence that you have, and it will make a difference.