Thursday, June 14, 2007

White Woman Working?

A few days ago I unintentionally caused quite a stir. I was up earlier than usual, and decided to enjoy the lovely cool morning, and do a little out-doors work. The short-cut that I walk often, through the overgrown field, and across the ditch, to Phebe compound was getting rather more overgrown than is pleasant to walk through, and the narrow plank which serves as a bridge over the ditch had become tipsy enough that it had almost pitched Mary, Martha, and I into the ditch on more than one occasion. So I got out my cutlass (machete), sharpened it, and headed out to do a little brushing. My students have taught me how to brush, and while my skill at it could be considered deplorable, I can at least reduce an overgrown area to a less overgrown area. I was a bit embarrassed at first, because people laugh at me just for carrying a cutlass or shovel, let alone using one. And I forgot that the shortcut is used by at least a hundred people. So I had to stop every few minutes to let someone pass by. They did laugh a lot, but they thanked me too. It is customary to thank someone who is working. It is a nice tradition. And as a person who was working, it was very encouraging to be appreciated (it counteracted the laughter a bit). It was also a nice change to be greeted with “thank you” instead of the more common “White woman! White woman!”. I also straitened out the bridge and stabilized it a bit. It was a good couple hours work, and I came away with several new blisters, and a cut from sharpening the cutlass (my technique leaves something to be desired). For the rest of the day, people were coming up to me saying “I heard you were working this morning” or “thank you for brushing”. They even stopped to tell friends of mine that I was working. Even days later I’m still getting comments from people who heard about it.

It is interesting to me that of all the projects and things I have been working on here, by far, the most appreciation I have received was for the simple task of clearing a path. Brushing is considered one of the lowliest tasks. College professors would certainly not brush. As “white woman! white woman!” I am automatically put in a different category. People expect us to ride around in air-conditioned cars, and eat “European food” and certainly never engage in manual labor. Mary, Martha, and I tend to challenge their stereotypes. We walk most places or cram ourselves into taxis. We shop for groceries at the local open-air market, and eat Liberian food. I tend to do manual labor from time to time. I think what is most surprising to people is the act of humbling oneself. Apparently by some of the things we do, we are making the statement, “I am not above joining you in this.” The power of that cannot be underestimated. The times when I have felt most connected with Liberians are times when we have worked alongside one another, or just sat together and watched the world go by. In these moments, we have been connected and our differences seem much smaller somehow. I regret that these times have been fewer than I intended.

Mother Teresa said, “The only way to learn humility is through humiliation.” Humility is something I have far from mastered. But I am starting to feel differently about it. I used to feel guilty that I wasn’t humble enough, and I thought that humility had to hurt somehow. But now I think that humility can be joyful. If we are willing to humiliate ourselves, we open ourselves to all sorts of meaningful experiences with other people. Through our humiliation we can connect with, and empower others. Through humiliation we can conquer fear, and barriers that divide people.
What if we did one thing a week, or even one thing a month, that stretched us outside our comfort zone, that made us feel foolish, that opened us up to the experience of another? Last year, on the “Day without Immigrants”, there wasn’t any demonstration scheduled in Atascadero, and I wanted to go downtown and hold a sign in support of immigrants, stage my own demonstration, but I was too afraid. I have wanted to go walk through the north side of Paso Robles, talk to strangers on the street, practice my Spanish, but I was too afraid. How many times have I walked past a person in a wheelchair, or a homeless person and not even looked at them, because I was too afraid. I believe that the more we practice doing things we are afraid of, the less scary things will be! When I was on the plane to Liberia, I was about as scared as I have ever been. I was pretty sure I had made a terrible mistake, that after all my talk, and everyone’s support, I wasn’t actually capable, and it was too late. But Liberia has been wonderful to me. The fear has been dissolved, replaced by love. My heart has been stretched to care about suffering around the world. And my old fears seem feeble in the face of all there is to gain in human relationships.

We don’t have time and energy to waste on fear, let’s get to work and see how it changes us!