Do Be Do Be Do

To be is to do – Socrates
To do is to be – Sartre
Do Be Do Be Do – Sinatra

― Kurt Vonnegut

Christianity, to me, has always been just as much about family as it has been about faith. My religious upbringing consisted of two parts dinner table conversation for each part doctrine, and I don’t have any memories of going to church on Christmas with my family because our Uncle Bud (a.k.a Father McCloskey), a Jesuit priest, would just do mass in the living room for us on holidays. Saints were people that my mom and grandma called up for favors and the Pope was a man kind of like the president: I knew I liked the greater organization that he governed but that didn’t mean that I felt obliged to agree with his every proclamation.

Though certain currents of Catholicism were lost on me growing up, others held me rapt. From a young age, I was captivated by the distinction that Catholics make between social service and social justice: that the former responds to the effects of a problem while the latter responds to the cause of a problem. The idea that you could heal broken people by healing broken systems seemed to me like one of the most true ways to love a person; that when Catholics asked how they could do the most good in someone’s life, they were really asking how they could do the longest (or most sustainable) good.

Studying public health has been in many ways a commitment to asking how I can do the longest good for people in need. Tonight I will be traveling to Limpopo, South Africa with a team of graduates and undergraduates from U.Va. to spend five weeks piloting a child development training program for nurses from the Ministry of Health in Limpopo.

When it comes to offering people a means of ensuring the longest good in their lives, child development programs are public health’s Lionel Messi: slight in their appearance but colossal in their impact. What happens during the early years is of crucial importance for every child’s development. It is a period of great opportunity, but also of vulnerability to negative influences. Efforts to improve early child development are an investment, not a cost. Available cost-benefit ratios of early intervention indicate that for every dollar spent on improving early child development, returns can be on average 4 to 5 times the amount invested, and in some cases, much higher.

The nurses at the Limpopo Health Department in Limpopo, South Africa, currently have no standardized methodology by which they can assess the developmental stage of the children that they care for in their communities and no systematized approach for intervention. This would be a significant problem anywhere, but in Limpopo, this disparity is exacerbated by the fact that 39% of the population is under 15 years of age and it is also the province in South Africa with the highest proportion of children living in poverty (83%). Both of these factors contribute to Limpopo’s concerningly high under-five mortality rate of 55 deaths per 1,000 live births, which is 1.2 times higher than the rest of South Africa.

I am very hopeful that we will have good turnout for our training program this summer and that my team will learn a lot from the nurses about what aspects of our curriculum will be most relevant to their work. But it’s easy to get ahead of myself. Though the public health student in me wants this summer to be about collecting good data so we can conduct a good needs assessment when this is all over, I will have to make a continual effort to be open-minded to the cornucopia of people and perspectives that are coming together to work on this project. And that is where this blog comes in.

The Catholic Church highlights seven main themes of their teaching on social justice: life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation. Throughout the course of my time in Limpopo, I want to study these themes and reflect upon how their meaning comes to life in the context of the people we meet and the places we go.

This week I have been been reading The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. The book is about a young English boy named Peekay who is growing up in South Africa just as the seeds of Apartheid begin to take root. Peekay has dreams of growing up to be “welterweight champion of the world.” A dream which, because of his small size and proclivity for trouble, actually has a good enough chance of occurring, according to the Improbability Principle.

On the road to becoming welterweight champion of the world, Peekay meets Hoppie Groenewald, train conductor and boxing champion who passes on to him what proves to be transformative advice:

Say always to yourself, “first with the head, and then with the heart, that’s how a man stays ahead from the start” (103)

Peekay calls this ‘the power of one’–the power of ”one idea, one heart, one mind, one plan, one determination” (103). As I head off to South Africa in less than ten hours, it’s hard not to be taken with the simple elegance Hoppie’s limericked advice. Why bother spending part of my time abroad studying themes that I’ve learned “with my head” since a young age?

Peekay loves boxing vocabulary because “the words and the terms had a direction, they meant business.” Similarly, I have loved social justice doctrine because to me these are the words in Christianity that can most clearly be turned into action. However, though conceptually I know that “loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world” or that “we are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences,” I have had scant opportunity to live these ideas out in any other context than the socioeconomic environment of Northern Virginia.

I am unspeakably blessed to have grown up with the family, friends, resources and opportunities that I have been given; they are such that they have allowed me to go on trips like this one and write this blog for the Internship in Lived Theology. And though one must not rely on travelling 8,115 miles from home to gain a deeper understanding of values that they hold most dear, to borrow from St. Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.”

And so I am off to South Africa: to read about social justice more deeply and to do so “with the heart.”

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.