Saturday, January 26, 2013

Life is precious...Serve the world

Here's an email I wrote in response to a question from youth in Delaware and Maryland. Their pastor reached out to the YAGMs for reflections on our service.

What experiences have you had in South Africa while serving, and how do you plan to bring back what you have learned?

The experiences that have impacted me most in South Africa have been my encounters with life and death. Within a couple months of coming here, I was settling in to my role as a Home Based Caregiver visiting all elderly folks with different afflictions. It was hard seeing the suffering and depression of some, uplifting to see others recover, and heart warming to be universally welcomed with open arms into people’s homes. Then one day we got a new patient, and I was surprised to greet a young man one month older than myself crippled in bed with tuberculosis. Every breath was a struggle, every movement agony, and his feet were inexplicably swollen to three times their normal size. After a couple weeks, his condition deteriorated and he was brought by his family to the biggest hospital in Africa: Chris Hani Baragwanath. I find its size and location indicative of the myriad health problems here as it’s on the outskirts of Soweto, a 20 minute taxi ride from my house. My partner and I visited him in the hospital and did our best to offer encouragement, but he was visibly fading. We hoped that the doctors could help him, but his liver failed a few days later and he passed on. His name was Bongani.

The only person close to me I’ve lost is my grandmother, and while Bongani and I weren’t more than acquaintances, I was shaken. From his age and the hip-hop posters on his walls, I could see myself in his bed. Watching life carry on in his absence was disorienting. The hardest part was seeing other TB and HIV patients in his ward, all frail and trapped in their disease addled bodies while family members tried to feed them, or brush their teeth, or change their clothes. Unfortunately, life sometimes feels cheap here. The people are strong, but the pulse of hope is weak. Every weekend I hear of a funeral, and I’m told it was worse at the height of the AIDS epidemic. In Soweto, seventy percent of people are unemployed, over a quarter are HIV positive, and the education system is failing the children trying to escape from the cycle of poverty. These are harsh realities that I’ve learned not to talk around because Sowetans don’t beat around the bush.

In light of all this, it’s even more painful to hear stories from mothers and wives of their children and husbands shot over some cash in a wallet. It’s even more painful to read in the newspapers that over 1,500 South Africans died in automobile accidents during the month of December (many because of alcohol). It’s even more painful to watch people my age self-medicate with drugs and alcohol because their talents are squandered by poverty and lack of opportunity. The violence people inflict on themselves and others in my community is heartbreaking.

So the first part of my message is this: life is precious. There’s already so much disease, poverty, and suffering in the world, that the evils we enact on our friends and family are inexcusable. Every person encountered on a daily basis is a person worthy of love, and dignity, and respect. Those closest to us deserve the deepest of love and care. We are all neighbors, and the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. From love for our neighbors, we must name our failures, and then act. The poverty created by our global economic structure leads to armed robbery, drunk driving leads to fatal accidents, experimenting with addictive substances will not lead to true peace and happiness. I feel called to speak as widely as possible to this effect upon my return to the US because in spite of my bleak presentation, Soweto has a beautiful spirit, a character that gives me hope. I see it when I tutor children who have memorized multiplication tables on their own initiative. I see it when HIV infected and affected people work at DAM to make a difference in the community. I see it in the dancing and singing of people in the streets. This year has allowed my empathetic side to flourish, which means that as much as I feel the pain of my community, I get to share equally in their joys. My course of action will be to speak about YAGM, but not to sugar coat it. International service is a wonderful thing which can change the world in the following manner:

Travel changes the lens through which we experience the world in a way that makes the seemingly trivial events of life more magical. This sense of magic and wonder creates gratitude in the heart for things such as coffee, sunsets, and understanding greetings in foreign languages. These are quotidian situations in which there is beauty and connection to our shared humanity. But the beauty can so often be swept under the rug when in a familiar setting. Through the simple gratitude travel fosters, respect for life, specifically empathy, is cultivated. Empathy is one of the most important qualities in people. It allows us to release attachment to the greed which creates the current global situation of growing inequality and mass impoverishment. It does this because we can begin to truly see each new person we meet as our brother, sister, mother, or neighbor and identify with their suffering. It breeds global communion. How could the US endlessly bomb and destroy nations such as Iraq if our citizens had traveled there and met the “insurgents”? If they saw the children who are collateral damage? How could the death penalty be legal if we truly cherished the lives of our brothers and sisters? I think it’s telling that peace makers such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Thich Nhat Hanh have been increasingly global travelers with the progression of technology. Thus programs such as YAGM are the start of a chain reaction which I believe is crucial for all people, but especially for people in a position of privilege to experience. It is a cure for one of the most important things I’ve learned in YAGM: “The benefactors of structural inequality have the hardest time recognizing it”. US policies reach so far that we must become increasingly conscious of acting with empathy.

In short, (that’s a joke) the second part of my message is this: get out and serve the world. I want to encourage travel and service to people of all nations so that we know our global neighbors and can act from empathy instead of ignorance. Life must be viewed universally so that we don’t forget the downtrodden and voiceless. I also plan to join efforts to pass an amendment against the death penalty, because a government enacting or even allowing violence against its own citizens in a legal framework is deplorable. I also believe that it has a negative impact on the psyche of the public to live under such governance, and portrays us negatively to the world. One of the first three comments I get from people when I tell them I’m from Texas is...”you put people to death there don’t you?” Talk about holding up a painful mirror of how we are viewed internationally. Laws are a human invention, but the sanctity of life is fundamental. Violence does not solve or deter violence. I plan to bring this back with my words, and with my actions. As much suffering as I’ve witnessed here, I’ve also shared daily in the joy of waking up and living life. I choose to hold on to the joy while I work to alleviate the suffering.


  1. Thanks for your always inspiring words! I pray that God continues to let His light shine through you.

  2. Thanks for sharing such a raw post. This is a story that needs to be shared. Yes to empathy!