This February school break, I will be leading a group of Brandeis University students on a service trip to Belize. Together with the help of non-profit Hand in Hand Ministries, we will build a home for a family in need. I love being able to facilitate these trips. My most powerful and formative experiences in life -- personally, spiritually, and vocationally -- were times that I crossed borders.
Borders can be geographical, but also be cultural, religious, ethnic, political, and economic. The most powerful border-crossing experience of my life was when I served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Belize and Haiti between 2001 and 2004. The Jesuit Volunteers half-joke that those who enter into this immersion program of community, spirituality, simple-living, and justice seeking (the four Jesuit Volunteer components) are "ruined for life."
In high school and college, I travelled annually to a work camp in West Virginia with the goal of making homes warm, safe, and dry. This camp opened my young, naïve mind to new realities of life, culture, religion, and poverty. One of my most powerful learning experiences in those young years was: "Wow, these people have so little, yet they are so grateful." In the years that I lived as a Jesuit Volunteer and spoke to volunteer groups who travelled to Belize City, this was one of the most common sentiments echoed.
Coming from one of the most privileged societies in the world, this realization is powerful for many Americans. Immersion trips can help us see that money and material success don't equal happiness as we've believed. Youth and adults who cross borders experience firsthand how those with little material wealth often have abundant spiritual wealth.
This learning is the tip of the iceberg when crossing borders. When I was in college, my college chaplain took a group of students and I on an "Urban Immersion Trip" and a "Rural Immersion Trip." We volunteered at various non-profits in Boston and rural Pennsylvania. Our small group of thoughtful college students volunteered in charity work, but also asked deeper questions of social justice.
"Why do these realities exist?"
"I'm glad we can provide a meal for those in need, but what would it take to eliminate hunger, extreme poverty, and homelessness?"
"What are the changes that need to happen -- personally, communally, institutionally, attitudinally- to truly achieve justice and equality for all?"
These questions, conversations, and experiences in college got me excited to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. As a Jesuit Volunteer, I signed up to teach and coach at an all girls high school in Belize City, Belize. I lived in intentional community. Every week, our group of volunteers prayed, reflected, and discerned together at community and spirituality nights. Four times a year we retreated with other Jesuit Volunteers across Belize to process how we were living into community, simplicity, spirituality, and social justice in our experience.
One learning I have committed my life and vocation to since Belize and Haiti is border crossing. In whatever form it takes, border-crossing is an act of risk-taking, courage, and stepping out of one's comfort zone. So important is the ability to cross borders that Andover Newton Theological School -- the seminary I went to -- now has border crossing as a required part of its curriculum.
In public and political discourse today, I wonder how things would change if our public servants were required to have experiences in border crossing. With the public misconceptions and fears about Muslims and immigrants, I wonder how many voices speaking against Muslims or immigrants have had real relationships with either.
After coming back from Belize and Haiti, for years I staffed a border crossing program called "Interfaith Youth Initiative", IFYI, a program of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries. The eight-day overnight IFYI program was a powerful experience for high school and college participants, and the graduate school mentors serving as staff. The IFYI community was among the most diverse groups of youth I'd ever been a part of. The most powerful border crossing of the IFYI experience were the relationships built as we visited each other's houses of worship; as we engaged in service together; as we dialogued and prayed together; as we sought to be beloved community and live out social justice together.
Those experiences bring me back to a quote by Thomas Merton from his Letter to a Young Activist: "You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything."
At a time when fear and misunderstanding dominate much of our current political discourse, and the voice of faith and conscience are silenced amidst crushing societal phobias, I need to be reminded of this regularly. A core principle from my time in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps was accompaniment- walking with; working with; standing alongside. It is the opposite of "we have the answer", "we are your saviors", or "listen to us." It is opening ourselves to completely reciprocal relationships where we have just as much to learn as our partners do. It is breaking down any sense of an "Other." It is committing to live difficult questions of social justice and equality for which there are no easy answers. In this way, we may effect change by our work, but paradoxically we are the ones most changed and "ruined" for life.
Being "ruined" is not someplace we "get" to. It is an inner transformation that manifests in our outward actions and life choices. Being ruined means committing every day to an alternative, border-crossing life amidst a society that often teaches us just the opposite- to stay inside our comfortable lives; inside the contractive boxes we've constructed.
From a faith perspective, God's love is always expansive, never contractive. With God, there is no "Other." Crossing borders, we seek to live into the way of God's ever-expansive, unconditional love. We may fall short and make mistakes, but in the words of Thomas Merton: "you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."