Wide awake

Woman Asleep at a TableMy father swears he doesn’t snore. I can’t tell if he’s lying—not because he doesn’t snore. He does. I know. For years I slept in the room next to my parents, and we shared a hotel room a few weeks ago at my cousin’s wedding. But I don’t know if he knows that. I have tried to convince him. But he’s never awake for it. He goes on snoring in an epistemological slumber, denying awake his crime in sleep. If only I could wake him up to him snoring.

Teaching a class is like being woken up by your own snoring. You slave and slumber away over your syllabus, piecing together a skeletal booklist by some unseen logic. Let’s put Colson first because he’s kind of innocuous, accessible. Ya know he doesn’t have an edge to cut on. And then make sure we have Baldwin after Malcolm X so that we don’t end angry. You shoot from the hip and think from your gut. There we were in Para Coffee, creating a syllabus, when Nathan suggested we read Blue Rage, Black Redemption by Tookie Williams.

I had never heard of Tookie Williams before, much less his autobiography. But I had heard of the Crips, which Tookie started. His is an inglorious story: high-school-drop-out on the crack-ridden streets of LA to the high priest of the “Crippen religion.” With barely a high school degree, he built the nation’s largest crime organization. He fought the systematized racism built to keep him and his kind down. Until, at the height of his career, he was arrested and incarcerated for four murders to which he pled innocent. At the end of his story, he finds, in his words, “redemption.” But that part wasn’t on the syllabus yet.

We split the Tookie readings into two sections so that the class would spend a week with Blue Rage, Black Redemption. The first reading was all about, well, blue rage. It chronicled his life up until his arrest. We isolated the redemption part. It felt right when we were writing the course in Para. But, as Amy Winehouse sang, “I wake up alone.” The day we started discussing Tookie, Nathan was not in class.

I need to get two points across. First, Nathan did not abandon me. This was planned. Nathan had a wedding to go to. Second, I had the wrong idea. For one day, it would be my classroom. No training wheels. This would be my first moment into the long tradition of great teachers. Just like Dr. Simeone and Dr. Matthews and Mr. Evans, just like my favorite professors, I would be theirs. When the discussion went off without a hitch, I would be responsible! I walked the line between confidence and hubris with all the grace of a drunken giraffe. Wrong idea.

When I sat down in East 1, all the students were already assembled and discussing. Discussing might be a generous term: venting maybe, calmly ranting, anxiously ironing their intellectual creases. The room was not loud…yet. I had been nervous that they were not going to speak. They were already talking when I arrived.

The first recorded note I have on my legal pad:

Sophocles says “Do you know what Crip rage is?” Every time he repeated the phrase ‘Crip rage’ he hissed out the voiced uvular fricative with deeper anger. He talks about Crrip rrage. Have you ever known Crrrip rrrage? Do you know anything like that? Crrrrip rrrrage.

I asked, “Why don’t we start off with a broader question?” Bad idea. “What are the forces that shaped Tookie Williams as a child? What dynamics are at play in the community?” That was my attempt to control class, to drive this train, without training wheels. To the broader question, I got broader answers. All yelled.

Sophocles: I don’t know what black community this is. This is not my black community.

Mars: It’s the urban black community. That’s THE black community.

Pluto: It’s the poverty, brother. That is the currents that run this place to be all, all dysfunctional, to get stuck in the social downspirals. Because poverty has only one door in and out. The gangs have only one door in and out.

Sophocles: Poor? You don’t know poor! Where are you from? DC? Baltimore? Atlanta? You don’t know poor. I am not from this country. I have seen real poverty.

Famus: I’m telling you. This is the Crips and the Bloods man. This is the truth! My mama told me this! She was in Baltimore when all this when down! It was the government! They put the crack in the hand of the Crips! They were the ones trying to break up the black community! They were the ones, I’m telling you man! This the truth!

Me: Mr. Famus, I can tell that you’re very passionate about this subject. My arms slowly rise like an astronaut tuning an orchestra. But we are not privy to the conversations you’ve had with your mother. All we have in common here is this text. Any of your observations, if not brought back to the text, are over our heads. You’ll be talking right past us. Does that make sense?

Was that the right thing to say?

I have no idea! I had not prepared for this scenario. I had not at all expected the class to react so strongly on the text. I am embarrassed to admit it.

Teaching the class was a rude awakening from the soundless side of the syllabus. You construct this syllabus over two hours of chai lattes in Para coffee and at the end of the afternoon you think, I’ve made class.  But that’s not true. You haven’t made a class. You’ve got the symbol of the skeleton of the class. You don’t have students. You don’t have content. You just have titles and your reading of the texts.

Maybe that was the thing I woke up to—how narcissistic the syllabus was. When I read the texts in preparation for the class, it never crossed my mind that this would be vitriolic, that the autobiography of an ex-gang leader would anger and impassion a classroom made up of jail inmates. Because it did not anger or impassion me. Williams told me a heartbreaking but unrelatable story. And it didn’t occur to me that anything should occur to me beyond what immediately occurred to me: variant readings or, you know, other people.

That class was also a rude awakening to other people, to humans in the full sense of that word. Now, now that I am awake, given the choice between our students—our real human students—and the comfortable dream of contrived characters, I would choose the classroom.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

Woman Asleep at a Table

Pablo Picasso
(Spanish, Malaga 1881–1973 Mougins, France )

Date: 1936
Medium: Oil and charcoal on canvas
Dimensions: 38 1/4 x 51 1/4in. (97.2 x 130.2cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997
Accession Number: 1997.149.3
Rights and Reproduction: © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

A revolution of the heart

“Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” – Nelson Mandela

Limpopo is the poorest province in South Africa. It falls into clear last place for all the areas of the 2011 South African Census, save a few times where it lands is an almost indistinguishable second-to-last place behind the Eastern Cape. These indicators include:

  • The highest proportions of people aged 20 years and older with no schooling with 17.3% (nearly twice the national average).

  • Only 50% of houses have electricity for cooking, heating and lighting

  • The proportion of households with access to refuse removal by local authority/private company at least once a week: 21.8%

  • Highest unemployment rate at 38.9%

  • Lowest average household income of 57000 ZAR a year (the equivalent of ~5700 USD)

Statistics about poverty are shamefully unmoving. In my experience, they manage to obscure our understanding of poverty more than they hone it. Though it is necessary to measure poverty to be able to sustainably address it, they way that we talk about these numbers becomes crucial to their capacity to retain any meaning in people’s lives.

I personally find it very hard to talk about poverty in a genuine way. As well versed as I am in its indicators and its consequences, it is incredibly hard to make poverty relatable. Like the plague, we know it ought to be avoided but we’re unsure whether its so bad that we should do our part to protect everyone from it or if we’re just obliged to take care of ourselves and our loved ones.

The existence of poverty begs the question of what we are entitled to. Is the fact that you own private property more significant than you living in a country where you can own private property? Does the fact that you qualify for medical insurance mean you deserve it more than others? How impressive is your bachelor’s degree if you didn’t have to pay for it?

I can imagine that a quick answer to many of these questions would be something along the lines of “I worked for it.” And you’re right, I believe! Or at least you are partly right.

You are right that it is hugely significant that you could work to gain something that would better your life. The right to work is necessary but not sufficient to eliminating poverty. The right to productive work is.

One of the most important pathways to productive work is education, and the University of Venda represents just that in the lives of their students. In the poorest province in South Africa, UNIVEN offers a way out of poverty to some of the young people in their communities by offering more affordable tuition than almost anywhere else in the country. All of the students that we have worked with this summer belong to the most popular program at the university, the School of Nursing.

If you were to transplant nurses in Limpopo to the States they would be a closer equivalent to Nurse Practitioner-Midwives than to nurses. These young men and women are trained to do everything–and I really mean everything. One of the first conversations I had with our friend Rendani, I asked him what his clinical curriculum had been like.

“Well for starters,” he said, “I’ve already delivered more than thirty babies on my own.” I was floored.

“Thirty?!” I asked, incredulous.

“Thirty,” he answered, amused at my disbelief.

Whether they themselves are religious or not, the nurses and nursing students that I have met in South Africa practice Christianity in the sense I feel it most to be true:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

The only thing that I am sure of is at this point is that the challenge of grappling with poverty is not so much a question of the head as it is of the heart. To borrow again from Dorothy Day:

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?




Home Image“Save me! God, I want to go home,” says Mr. Icarus.

“This is home,” says Mr. Sophocles.

“You just have to accept it, man. The more you think about the outside the harder it gets,” says Mr. Ulysses.

“I go to accept it and then, just when I’m there, something happens that pisses me off and I’m back to square one!” says Mr. Icarus.

I never know how class will begin—usually, because it begins regardless of my presence and preparation. By the time someone lets us into the room, a heated debate about Sophocles’ predictions for the World Cup, or not doing the reading for class, or each man’s children at home is well underway. Today, it was about home.

“Well, Mr. Icarus, let me ask you a question: what is home? What defines or makes home?” Nathan asks.

“Home is where your roots are, where your relations is.” Mr. Levi says.

“Where my cat is.” Mr. Icarus avoids the question.

“Where my lady is.” Mr. Mars sneers. They laugh in a way that makes me think the cat and the lady are synonymous.

“Where I am is home.”

“Wherever you are, you’re there.”

“Is there a way to make a place home?” Nathan is trying to build the conversation. It’s something he’s good at, something I’ve started to learn from watching him.

“I bring things of meaning to me. A picture of Mrs. Sophocles, my cat, my horses. Things of sentimental value.”

“But I’ve also lost so many things, things of sentimental value. Because what’s here today is gone tomorrow. Fttt.”

“It’s all temporary. People are temporary. Everything is temporary. Jail is temporary.”

“Besides things, is there any other way to make a space home?” Sometimes you just need to ask again.

“It’s been hard, coming from a collegiate environment like U.Va.,” from where Mr. Icarus holds a bachelor’s degree, “to this place. It’s been a shock.”

“Relationships can make home. That’s not, you know, about making a space home. But it’s about relationships—even with the space that is home.” Mr. Ulysses. “But you miss a lot of that in here, you know? I found out my best friend died in here, in the obituaries. Found out in the paper.”

They fall silent and they all look like they’re reading obituaries. The room feels momentarily colder. At this point I feel I have a choice of what to say next.

As they’ve been speaking, I’ve begun to reflect on what I think makes home. Moving from dorm to dorm each year, home becomes movable in a small array of objects: my copies of Barth’s Dogmatics and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; my broken pocket watch from Heidelberg; my teddy bear Aloysius; a Jerusalem cross pinned to the wall. And so I begin to think that maybe home is about control in self-expression, or about familiarity, or about repetition. I could share those thoughts but that seems out of place. As much as that sort of sharing has helped me learn over my lengthening education—the facilitating voice—it does not seem to be quite as helpful in the jail. So I choose to talk about something else.

Over the course of the summer, the students never once turned down an opportunity to learn more about me and about where I come from. Lt. Virgil would probably advise me not to give up a single autobiographical inch. But, at various times I have, and without fail the students reacted with a remarkable openness and receptivity. More than any concept, theory or written story that we have shared in class, our own stories—Nathan’s and mine—have woken them up from that classroom stupor. So I read a paragraph.

“So, we didn’t plan on talking about any of this for the lesson today,” I chuckle awkwardly. “But, I brought the autobiography that I wrote when I took this class. And I didn’t plan on reading this or anything, but there’s a section here about home, or what my home was like. So I thought I could read a section from mine and then we could move onto paragraphs from what you all wrote?” Sure seems the best way to characterize my impression of the group. I read a little.

My father, a Pentecostal minister, believed in centering his family around the Christ as best he could. It really was not as bad as most people assume—most misguided by images of fire-breathing televangelists. I would like to dispel the myth that being the son of a minister is like living under the Ayatolla Khomeini. My parents were truly no more or less protective than any others; I saw the Harry Potter movies, went to parties where kids drank and danced at prom with real live girls.

But on the other hand, the factor of Christianity most definitely made my parents different; they never swore or drank—expect for my mother’s annual glass of wine. Mom ate lunch weekly with women who had fallen on hard times and Dad rose early Thursday morning, not for golf, but to lead a men’s Bible study for skeptics at a local ice cream shop. It was hard for many of my friends to understand; even our devout Sunday morning attendance often struck them as inconvenient or rather old fashioned, like having a black and white TV. But the very fabric of our family was centered around religion; Jesus was an everyday and every-night occurrence.

“Come pray for me!” the same call ritualistically echoed down the hallway of our family home as every evening the heavy, familiar drumming of my parents bare feet would rumble through the floor boards in the hallway. With a soft knock on the door, my father would let a creak of light into my bedroom to navigate across the cluttered floor to my bedside and without so much as opening my eyes—if I were already so tired—I would thrust my hand from beneath my covers. “Dear Lord…” he would begin.

Very rarely had my parents not been beckoned like that to stand at my bedside, take my hand and say a short prayer. Having nightly gone through our quick ritual for as long as I can truly remember, any attempt to recollect all those times takes me to a period in my life that I would be tempted to call primordial. I am sure that when I was a baby my parents prayed over me, even as I slept in the white wooden crib, which now gathers dust in my basement. 

I’m not sure that I had looked at that autobiography again since I finished Dr. Warren’s class. So reading it aloud to the inmates felt one step short of sharing my middle school diary—mostly because I did not recall exactly what I wrote. And, of course, I am diseased by the virus that infects all students: a fear of sharing my writing. Because people often react in totally unexpected ways.

When I finished the students were just staring. That really did not help my self-esteem. I finished reading and their faces said nothing and said it very loudly. Free of quality and terribly severe, I could not tell if they were expressions of pity or marvel. Blank and amazed.

“That’s remarkable.” Mr. Sophocles broke the silence.

“What does that mean? I honestly can’t tell from your face. Is that like a look of pity or…” I asked.

“I can’t imagine that kind of structure. You had stability.” Mr. Ulysses.

“I’d pay for that kind of life!” Mr. Sophocles said it with a sort of gasp.

I felt that the class had inverted there, that I was now the object of attention, the subject of study. And to me, there seemed to be a spark of truth in it. That their reception of my story overhauled our position towards the barriers that separated us—the prison line, the class line, the race line, the sacred barrier of individuals—was a shift I suspect I alone could feel. A dialogue appeared that I had never before seen.

At first there was the story as I wrote it four years ago; at that time, the writing was an attempt to draw out of my muddled childhood memories both a sense of order and a coherent aesthetic, a vision that redeemed and organized my fretted recollections of my childhood. Since that time, I have never told the story any other way. Even as I read to the inmates, I saw my childhood by the old glow of tradition, by the wood toned beauty of clergy life, and the liturgical pulse of Christian time.

But I had never considered it as story worth gawking at. It had never occurred to me that my fifteen year-old retelling of my childhood deserved the sort of attention and reception that the students offered in hearing. I never thought it was the kind of story “I’d pay for.” Though I considered it a beautiful story, especially in the forgotteness of religion, I had never considered it amazing. The students empower me to do just that. In academic terms, the class offered me an alternate reading of my own story—which is, of course, to say myself.

I am not sure I was able to communicate my gratefulness. I did not understand it until now, until writing this post. But, in my defense, I was not given much time to think then.

“I’d pay for that kind of life!” Mr. Sophocles said it with a sort of gasp. And then he leaned forward in his plastic chair. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“It’s the last day.” I shrugged.

“When did you lose your virginity?”

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

Purple Woman/Kitchen/Second View

Laurie Simmons
(American, born 1949)

Date: 1978
Medium: Silver dye bleach print
Dimensions: Image: 7.6 x 12.7 cm (3 x 5 in.)
Classification: Photographs
Credit Line: Purchase, Pamela and Arthur Sanders Gift and Kenneth P. Siegel Gift, 2004
Accession Number: 2004.246
Rights and Reproduction: © Laurie Simmons


The call to creativity

The names in this post will be changed to protect students’ privacy.

There was no fog in London until Whistler started painting it. – Oscar Wilde

“Next up we have Claire Constance, from the University of Virginia. Claire, we hear that the thing you do best is spoken word poetry so we would like to invite you up on stage to battle one of our own students, and see who comes out on top.”

I gave Lufuno and Hulisani my you’ve got to be kidding me look. They both laughed, slapped me on the back and started shoving me towards the front stage.

It was a Wednesday afternoon and we were at the University of Venda weekly open mic. Hulisani had made a point to tell the students who ran the open mic that his friends from the US were going to come and participate, so they had planned the setlist so the acts alternated between U.Va. and UNIVEN students. And now it was my turn.

I’m not a very competitive person. I’m all for challenging myself and trying new things, but I’ve never been the person who was going to fight you for the last slice of pizza, let alone go head-to-head against you in front of a crowd to prove which of our poems was better.

I looked out at the sea of tables in the auditorium, then smiled weakly at my opponent.

“Dakalo, you’re first!” The MC roared, “show us what you’ve got!”

My opponent spoke like a dancer: his words were choreographed perfectly. Each line of his poem two-stepped into the other, and when he was all finished, it was clear the crowd was having such a good time they were just about ready to jump up on stage with him.

“Next up, Claire Constance from the University of Virginia!”

I was handed a microphone. I paused to look out at everyone and grinned.

“Hey, everyone, thanks so much for having us here today. Dakalo is going to be a tough act to follow but if you’ll hear me out, this poem is called ‘Rules’.”

As I began to recite my poem, I was overwhelmed with a deep feeling of gratitude. All summer I have felt foreign. I have felt how I would imagine a house plant must feel: both uprooted and walled-in at the same time. Not unhappy, because I still have more than I really need, but out of place all the same.

Finding that place where you belong, brought to you by XKCD comics.

Finding that place where you belong, brought to you by XKCD comics.

But somehow at this open-mic, that all went away. Here was something that we all understood. What’s more, here was something that we all respected: an art that combines storytelling and musicality. For the the first time that summer, I felt like I was a part of the UNIVEN community; that instead of being their guest I was their friend.

* * *

This week I have been reading Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. The book, on the whole, tries to grapples with why art is important to us by offering a variety of different answers to the question, “What is the point of art?” My favorite section of the book begins by asking a compelling question:

Can we get better at love?

Romantic regrets, brought to you by XKCD comics.

Romantic regrets, brought to you by XKCD comics.

For most of my life, I thought of love as something more or less a fixed quality. Love, being one of those universally important things, was good wherever and whenever it arrived. As something that we all both want and need, I saw it as a great equalizer, something which would be hard to edit and potentially impossible to revise, given that it was buried so deep in the archeology of our hearts.

But in the past few years I have begun to understand what Oscar Wilde’s Basil Hallward meant when he said to his friend Lord Henry Wotton “You like everyone; that is to say, you are indifferent to everyone.” Love, it seemed, was not above context but required context. To love everyone or everything was to misappropriate the emotion entirely.

The Bible has plenty of swell things to say about love. However one of my favorites is 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.”

Armstrong and de Botton define art’s mission as “to teach us to be good lovers: lovers of river and lovers of skies, lovers of motorways and lovers of stones. And — very importantly — somewhere along the way, lovers of people” (103). They provide a response to this mission with another age-old question:

What is it like to be a good lover?

True vulnerability, brought to you by XKCD comics.

True vulnerability, brought to you by XKCD comics.

And the answer both to loving art and loving those who are most dear to us, they insist, is in a combination of attention to detail, patience, curiosity, resilience, sensuality, reason and perspective.

The Catholic Church teaches that “we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation.” In other words, we show our love for God at least in part by how we love people and the planet.

* * *

After I finished reciting my poem I came back to my table where Lufuno and Hulisani were still sitting. They both wrapped me in big hugs.

“Wow,” Hulisani said shaking his head, “That was was just…wow.”

I laughed,  “What, Hulisani, you surprised that I write poetry?”

“No, I’m surprised you write poetry well.” I feigned horror.

“What’s that supposed to mean, Hulisani?” Lufuno jumped in.

“What he means is you write poetry like you’re from Venda!” Hulisani nodded his head in agreement. I beamed. Though I was still suspicious that the crowd had voted me the winner of the poetry battle as a gesture of respect to me as a visiting student, I couldn’t hide my delight.

This was the goal after all: for the art and the love to be one and the same.

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

You’ve got to be kind

Live a life of kindness. – Lilly Constance

The names in this post will be changed to protect students’ privacy.

At the end of each week we take turns presenting that week’s progress to the faculty at UNIVEN.  Each presentation is carried out by one U.Va. student and one UNIVEN student and a couple weeks back it was my and Lufuno’s turn. Lufuno didn’t have much experience using PowerPoint so we spent an afternoon familiarizing him with the program. Then we put together a presentation on the work that our child development group had done that week.

The morning of the presentation Lufuno and I met up before everyone else to practice our spiel and go through how we were going to switch off between slides. As we sat on a bench outside our meeting space the following scene unfolded:

Lufuno–earnest, humble, and one of the top nursing students in his class–was sitting rigidly on the bench, facing straight ahead intently focused on memorizing the bullet points on each of the slides. Alternatively, I–enthusiastic and comparatively unconcerned about the task at hand–was trying to make Lufuno relax. I sat facing towards him and every time Lufuno asked a question I would try and make eye contact with him or smile encouragingly to let him know that we were on the right track. But to my growing frustration, every time I tried to make eye contact with Lufuno he would avert his eyes or look the other way. It finally became too much and I just burst out laughing.

“Lufuno, you know, in the States when we’re trying to show someone that we respect or support them, we look them in the eye.”

Lufuno whipped around and this time he did look at me, mouth open, eyes wide.

“Wow!” He just laughed and laughed. “Here, when I want to show some one respect or support I would never look them in the eye.”  The both of us shook our heads and let out sigh of relief as it became apparent that each thought the other had been behaving strangely.

“Alright, out with it Lufuno, what are other things that I do that seem strange or awkward to you?”

He gave me a pained smile.

“Ahhhh well, you see…” He broke into laughter again.

What followed was a long conversation between the two of us about cultural differences in interpersonal interactions. In particular with greetings and farewells, it seemed that there were a lot of subtleties I had missed out on the first time people had been trying to teach me how to greet people of different statuses or genders. In particular, it seemed that when I said my general “Aa” (“hello” for females) to people I had been bowing in the the wrong direction. Instead of bowing slightly to the right–the signature of the female greeting–I have been bowing slightly to the left–the signature of the male greeting. Talk about botching first impressions. Though most of the people that we met were very forgiving of our communication slip-ups since we were foreigners, it suddenly dawned on odd me how my attempts at greeting people must have seemed: “Hello, my name is Claire, and in case you were curious, I swing both ways.” Maybe I exaggerate, but the unrestrained peal of laughter that Lufuno let out when I demonstrated to him how I had been greeting people for those first couple of weeks seemed to imply just that. Yet despite all this, Lufuno was incredibly patient with me, and from that point on in the summer he always went out of his way to offer me small lessons in Venda culture.

This week I read Thirst, a collection of poems by Mary Oliver that she wrote after the death of her partner of over thirty years that chronicles for the first time her discovery of faith. I have always been a fan of Mary Oliver but wanted to read this collection while I was in Limpopo because I felt her literary travels through the landscape of sorrow might offer an interesting parallel to life in a foreign country. One of the poems in Thirst that struck me the most was called “In the Storm.”

"In the Storm" by Mary Oliver

Though one might think that when traveling in a foreign country you would be most startled by the exotic, I found that I have been most moved by the commonplace: the meals people cook for us, conversations we’ve had or any of the many times people spontaneously break into song.

I suppose what I’m really saying is that I continue to be surprised by kindness. I think that more often than we like to admit, we look at kindness as a kind of currency: something that you give to people in exchange for something else. Because of this, we are always somewhat taken aback by kindness that we don’t “deserve.” We’re almost suspicious of it or assume that there must be some kind of ulterior motive. My entire stay here in Thohoyandou has been a continual lesson in the miracle of kindness.

Kindness, to me, seems to be the language of solidarity. The Catholic Church teaches that loving thy neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. Though on one level this means that we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers wherever they may be, I think that this is also just another way of saying that we cannot put limits on when and where kindness is due. Yes, we can prioritize foreign aid; yes, we will always have the opportunity to be systematic about how we invest in developing countries, but we don’t have room to compromise kindness.

I’ll leave you with my favorite lines from God Bless You, Mr. Rose Water by Kurt Vonnegut. It comes as part of a baptismal speech Mr. Rosewater is preparing for his neighbor’s twins:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

Visiting Tiyani Clinic with our UNIVEN Partners.

Visiting Tiyani Clinic with our UNIVEN Partners.

Claire Constance is blogging from Limpopo, South Africa, this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Claire and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Notes from Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail and Limpopo, South Africa

Project on Lived Theology summer interns Claire Constance and Peter Hartwig have been blogging this summer to share stories and theological reflections from their summer work. Claire, a rising third year and Virginia native, has spent the summer in Limpopo, South Africa, working with a team of graduate and undergraduate students to pilot a child development training program for nurses. Peter Hartwig, also a rising third year from Charlottesville, has partnered with graduate student mentor Nathan Walton to teach a course in American religious autobiography at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

Read excerpts from their excellent reflections below, and read much more about their summers here. Learn about the internship program and more about Claire and Peter here. And stay tuned for their continued reflections throughout the month of August.

ThohoyandouClaire ConstanceClaire: “Ultimately, I still believe that the choices that we make are determined by the choices that we have. That spiritual freedom is only a possibility for those who have a concept of the spirit. That even though people like the community health workers that we met in Tiyani this week will always give me hope that people will do good and be good whether or not they have the time to do it, it is our responsibility to not make that choice a burdensome one when we can.”

Peter HartwigPeter: “This is really what our training taught me to do: fear creatively. There was no hand-to-hand combat or issuing of badges and guns. There was no active self-defense. Just figure out how your clothing, your utensils, parts of your own body, can be weaponized before someone else does….With every passerby—guard, prisoner, volunteer—there is a second of paralysis in which I re-arm myself. In the house, you are your only protection: expression, stance, stature. I have to hide behind myself. And I am not much to hide behind. So many Christians think that at the heart of our religion is a binary: faith/doubt….But it seems to me…that the binary is actually one of faith and fear.”

How to be a good ancestor

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.  – Stanislaw Lec

I'm the one in the top left who you can barely see because the sun has made her a blinding shade of white

I’m the one in the top left who you can barely see because her skin is reflecting the sun.

I am embarrassed that we are more than halfway through the summer and I have not yet dedicated a blog post to the University of Venda (UNIVEN) students we have been collaborating with throughout the entirety of this project. Though it is easy to become possessive of the research we have been doing since we spent much of this past academic year in preparation of this project, our ultimate goal is to be able to hand over the reins to people already living in working in Limpopo. Why is this important to us?

In the past couple of decades, Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) has emerged as one of the most prominent public health research frameworks and social change mechanisms in practice. Championed as “a collaborative approach to research that equitably involves all partners in the research process and recognizes the unique strengths that each brings,” it “begins with a research topic of importance to the community with the aim of combining knowledge and action to bring about social change to improve community health.”

"The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate desserts" - C.S. Lewis

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate desserts” – C.S. Lewis

The goal of someone who is doing CBPR is similar to that which C.S. Lewis tasks the modern educator: “not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” Public health and medical research has a terribly long history of taking advantage of people for “the sake of science.” Much of the past half century in public health research has been spent trying to justify this kind of scholarship in the face of the emotional-historical scars left behind by disasters such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Willowbrook Hepatitis Study. With this in mind, the essence of CBPR is probably best summed up echoing the words of George Bernard Shaw: “I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” In other words: CBPR aims to erase the formal lines between the researcher and the researched to empower communities to take charge of ensuring their own well being.

“I'm not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead - ahead of myself as well as you.” - GBS

“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” – GBS

Though my team did not write the procedures for our project using strict CBPR methodology, it is these principles that have guided our collaboration with the University of Venda. Though we have spent plenty of time with our student research partners during the week preparing focus groups, writing curriculum and practicing our lesson plans, we have spent almost an equal amount of time just trying to get to know them better. We’ve had cookouts and performed in talent shows together; we’ve written poetry and sung songs while waiting for our bus to arrive to take us to Tiyani Clinic. We were even given Xitsonga names by the Tiyani clinic staff that our UNIVEN friends starting using. Mine was Topisa meaning “When she speaks, people listen”—a name that had the unfortunate effect of making me stutter much more often in public.

In last week’s post, I discussed the details of dignity–its form and features and what it might look like if we were to encounter it face-to-face. This week, as an extension of that discussion, I want to touch on how and why we must preserve dignity.

In public health, we talk a lot about this idea that “health is a human right.” As intuitive as this principle may sound, its worth was not internationally recognized until September of 1978 at the International Conference on Primary Health Care at Alma-Ata, USSR. The first tenet of the Declaration of Alma Alta is as follows:

The Conference strongly reaffirms that health, which is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, is a fundamental human right and that the attainment of the highest possible level of health is a most important world-wide social goal whose realization requires the action of many other social and economic sectors in addition to the health sector.

The Catholic Church maintains that, “human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met.” So if we assume protecting dignity also ensures the health of communities then the question we must ask is how can we best protect human rights and responsibilities. The answer, I believe, comes to us through the life of Jonas Salk.

"What makes your heart leap?" - Jonas Salk

“What makes your heart leap?” – Jonas Salk

Self-proclaimed bio-philosopher and inventor of the polio vaccine, Salk went down in history not for his biomedical innovation, but for his philosophical outlook.

“Who owns the patent on this vaccine?’

‘Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Salk was raised to believe that each person was responsible for making a difference in the world. However as he aged, he came to believe that we aren’t just responsible for making any kind of positive difference in the world, but one that will outlast our life times. In this 1985 interview with Richard Heffner on The Open Mind, Jonas Salk offered the following framework for how we must live our lives:

The most important question we can ask ourselves is:

“Are we being good ancestors?”

Conversations about ancestry tend to have somewhat of an archaic tinge to them these days. If ancestry comes up at all, it’s in occasional conversations with grandparents or when your friend happens to mention that their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great uncle was a duke or some vaguely important diplomat. If we talk about ancestry at all, it is in the context of who our ancestors were, rather than whose ancestors we will one day be.

What is missing from the majority of modern day discussions on human rights is this question of ancestry. Jonas Salk’s call to good ancestorship asks us to consider what it means to be human. Do our lives just have meaning in the present while we are living them, or can they retain meaning after we have passed? A sense of ancestry tries to get a feeling of inheritance. The opportunities and resources that we are privy to today do not truly belong to us; they have been passed down to us by many generations of our forbearers. And with that in mind, we have a responsibility to protect these opportunities and resources so they are available to generations to come.

It is hard to convince the general public of this. For instance, much of what we have inherited in the field of public health are things that have become such ordinary aspects of our daily scenery that it is hard to imagine people ever got along without them. Storm drains, stop lights, sidewalks and even our view of the night sky have been passed down to us from generations before us who fought to pass laws and start programs that would ensure the public health in a sustainable way. But because we were not involved in safeguarding their existence, it is very easy to take them for granted.

This past week, I have been reading He Leadth Me by Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, a Jesuit Priest who spent 23 years in Soviet prisons and Siberian labor camps. Similarly to Viktor Frankl, through his time in captivity Fr. Ciszek often reflected on the different preconditions of dignity and how one can find meaning in life in devastating circumstances. Not long after arriving in the Siberian work camps, Fr. Ciszek had the following realization:

It suddenly occurred to me how little I had ever had to worry about such things in the past. Even in prison, such things as food, shelter, and clothing–poor as they might have been–had been provided for me…Now, as I watched the thieves and criminals providing for themselves in a universe with its own set of standards and “justice”, I began to wonder about my own survival. The children of this world, surely, were wiser than the children of the light. How would I survive among them? For them, nothing existed beyond this material world and this moment. They survived because they learned how to survive. They were masters of the art of survival. Outside the bounds of civilized behavior or conscience , they preyed upon anyone weaker than themselves and revenged themselves upon society by crimes of violence and theft. In their view, society owed them something. So they took it. It was as simple as that. (Ciszek 86)

What I find most interesting in Fr. Ciszek’s reflection here is the relationship he proposes between time and dignity: that an ability to plan for and live beyond the present moment is the defining difference between the art of survival and the art of living.

Fr. Ciszek one year after his release from the Siberian work camps

Fr. Ciszek one year after his release from the Siberian work camps

Another way of expressing Fr. Ciszek’s point would be to say that to protect human dignity we must protect each other’s sense of ancestorship–our relationship with history and with home. Being a good ancestor calls for a deeper sense of belonging. That our human inheritance does not just consist of honoring the lives of all of those who have come before us, we also must work to honor the lives of those still to come.