Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

23 March 2006

Spring can really hang you up the most

My situation is not unlike waiting for spring, when all kinds of things are happening under the surface before there is any outward evidence that the plants and trees will be coming to life again. I'm hoping that things are happening with my visa application and that I will soon be able to return to Brazil, but thus far I have no concrete evidence of any progress. Actually, I do love spring, so maybe this is a gift--getting to see the cherry blossoms, daffodils, tulips and other elements of the spectacular change of season.

Staying in one place for the past two weeks, I have developed a routine, but like reading a good book or seeing a good film more than once, each day I'm trying to notice something new. One of my favorite things is going to the U Street Metro Station where the mural "Community Rhythms" by Alfred J. Smith adorns both sides of the hallway. As a music and dance fan, I love picking out some new detail each time I pass this vibrant work of art.

I think I'm currently learning about hospitality by being the recipient of so much of it. Each of my hosts has been so generous and kind, making me feel at home. For someone who really enjoyed living alone for many years and didn't like to share my space, this is significant. I can imagine that I might be a grouchy host if the same guest was coming back to my house every month for a week or more, but they all have been very warm and inviting. The Bible has a lot to say about hospitality, and I think it's because it's one of the major ways that we share a part of who we are. There's no better way to get to know somebody better than to live with them.

I've experienced a tension here that seems to run just beneath the surface of American society. Several times on the subway system, I've heard people snap at innocuous comments made by strangers. It's like people are waiting to have a legitimate reason to argue or start a fight with somebody. In Brazil, I had the feeling that strangers are usually friends until proven otherwise, but here, the opposite seems to be true.

In all walks of everyday life, I've noticed that so many people talk to their loved ones in such angry or aggravated ways. They may think that it doesn't mean anything, but I can't believe that after speaking at each other in such aggravated tones for years, you don't begin to feel aggravated with each other most of the time. I know that's what happened in my teenage/young adult relationship with one of my brothers. I don't understand why when we have a choice in what we say and how we say it, we often chose the less-than-kind path. And I say we because I do the same thing...

I'm curious about the difference between people that follow the rules (I am usually a zealous rule-follower in most things) and those that don't feel that they need to. What goes on in the mind of people that break the rules? Do they believe that they are so special it doesn't matter? Do most people break only rules in certain areas of their life (e.g. driving, taxes, etc.), following the other rules, or do they break rules all across the board?

Last Sunday, I attended worship in a huge church that I passed by several times when I lived in Washington DC but never noticed. It was quite a jump to come from my home church that doesn't have a building and rents space to worshiping in something similar to great churches I've visited in Europe as a tourist. I realized that I should be a tourist also in my own country, to go into unfamiliar churches, to see the museums, to appreciate the architecture, and most of all, to appreciate the people.

I feel like a tourist as I visit the various neighborhoods of DC, seeing so much economic development that has taken place over the past five years. Places that used to be dangerous and filthy are now trendy places to live with sky-high rents and home prices. In a way, it's nice to see neighborhoods revitalized, but I worry about the people who can no longer afford to live there and have been displaced. There is clearly a boom in the upper-end of the housing market, but I'm not seeing any new affordable housing to take in the displaced.

This is a country rich in resources, and I wonder how much further society can get sucked into and hung up on money and things. Will there be a reckoning for straying so far from what we are called to do and be?

06 March 2006

Limbo, limbo

I was hoping to already receive my visa in February and be able to return to Brazil by now, but this has not happened. It's now March, and according to my conversation with the Brazilian consulate a few days ago, there is still no word from the office in Brasilia (the capital) on my visa application. I feel like my application was sent into a black hole, never to return. Although I am relying on a God who is greater than any government's bureaucracy, I don't have the luxury of knowing exactly when and how this will all end. I've noticed, over the course of my adult life especially, that the things that seem interminable and even unbearable while I'm experiencing them are, in retrospect, only drops in the bucket.

I am, as I've previously mentioned, very blessed to have a good interim job, a reliable car loaned by a friend, and several places where I can live while I wait. I am just getting weary of living out of a suitcase, moving every week or two, and trying not to slip into the American routine of constantly spending money to occupy my free time, whether it be eating in a restaurant, going to the movies or shopping. Looking back at my limbo period from Christmas until now, the things I've enjoyed the most have been the fellowship activities with friends and family that did not involve any financial cost--playing dominoes, having stimulating discussions, hanging out with precocious children, sharing photos and impressions of my experience thus far in Brazil.

I am concerned for my friends in Brazil because I've been told via e-mail that one or two of the community centers where I've volunteered might be closing due to financial difficulties. I wish that I had the means to write a check and fix it, but as I've learned along the way, God rarely works through my Superman "save everyone and fix everything" complex.

I figured I should mention some specific highlights to balance out the bemoaning. One highlight was going to an "International Night" at a local elementary school with my friends to watch their son perform traditional Indian dance as part of a group and then squeeze through the crowded hallways to collect stamps from each country's table in his "passport." As much as I love children, I wonder how today's parents can survive, let alone thrive. After 30 minutes in that crowded school, I was ready to run screaming from the building to escape the turmoil. On the flip side, though, it's something indescribable when a small child spontaneously comes up to you and makes him- or herself at home in your lap. I've also enjoyed having deep discussions with my friends about the U.S., race, immigrants, life choices and eating home-cooked meals. One of the funniest things was visiting briefly with my 18-month-old niece yesterday, who is currently learning to jump. She is a jolly little soul anyway, but it was pretty hilarious to see her bending with such determination and then trying to spring-launch herself into the air, only to get up to her tiptoes and never really leave the ground, nevertheless squealing with delight each time.

I'm glad to be back at a place where I can walk and catch the subway to work. I definitely see how much more my American lifestyle revolves around food than my Brazilian lifestyle did, and I'm already seeing the repercussions in clothes that have gotten a bit too snug.

A theory I've been tossing around for a little while now is that comparison is the root of all misery. That is not to say that all comparison results in misery, because, as my mother emphasized to my siblings and me, you can always find somebody in a better position but also in a worse position than you are. So if you're comparing yourself to someone less fortunate, you might feel blessed, for example. What I mean is that when you are unhappy, it almost always seems to be related to expectations of yourself based on what you see others doing. So much of unhappiness is looking at a part of somebody else's situation and saying, "I'll be happy when I have what they have, am as thin/rich/smart/beautiful/popular as they are," etc. One thing I am struggling with is learning that several acquaintances in Washington DC have gotten married and/or had children during the time I worked in North Carolina. I have to constantly remind myself that it's not a contest, I see very few marriages I would like to imitate, and I would rather wait on the person God is choosing for me than settle for a relationship that is less than amazing. It's a constant challenge to savor each day, whether or not anything special happens, and not to fall into a mindless routine, thinking, "I'll be really happy if/when I find a husband, have a family, etc."

Some special blessings have been looking for reassurance, and finding it in Proverbs 23:18 "Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off" because I looked up "envy," which led me to 23:17. Then I finally got to the religious bookstore to buy a devotional book (something I've been meaning to do for months) and the first devotion I read is about time in the desert and how much life there is in the desert that is not immediately obvious to the observer.

Finally, I've noticed more than ever before how much the U.S. is built on the backs of immigrants. It started that way from its inception with the indentured servants and the slaves, and has continued in the same fashion throughout the country's history, with the ethnicities of the immigrant groups periodically shifting. The interesting thing is that you see it on both ends of the job spectrum--the manual laborers but also the scientists and engineers. I am not of the camp that says "they are taking our jobs" because it's clear to me that these immigrants are performing work that many Americans are not willing or qualified to do. I've had some discussions with friends about the formation of mini-communities that intersect very little with the American mainstream and yet are crucial to the current economic state of affairs. The questions is how to notice these growing communities and not develop prejudices, resentments, etc. This is particularly difficult with respect to communities that purposely segregate themselves from the mainstream culture. It's also interesting to notice how certain immigrant groups seem to have established foundations in certain industries, whether it be drycleaning, motels or parking garages. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with Cousin Abe, who arrived first from country X and was able to establish one successful drycleaning business/motel/parking garage, and he then helped his friends and relatives to establish their own.

And I'm sure you might ask yourself--what does all of this have to do with Brazil? When I get to go back, I'll be sure to let you know...