Immunosociology: Racism the virus, activism the immune system

As the citizens of Baltimore took to the streets in response to the death of Freddie Gray, I took to the bathroom in response to a nasty virus that had found its way into my stomach. I found myself noticing some similarities regarding root causes that inform my understanding of Baltimore and other sites of conflict in the world.

Let me be upfront with this, I am not comparing my suffering to that felt in Baltimore. There is nothing similar about my awful night and several nights of violence* born out of centuries of even more violent systemic oppression. If anyone needs further clarification, please let me know, because I do not want my metaphor to be lost in miscommunication.

Now that that has been said, I can move forward with a take that I have seen not in other commentaries on Baltimore.

Essentially, I find myself viewing more violent and destructive responses in Baltimore or Ferguson or Madison or Detroit or lots of other cities as symptoms to a disease.

Though I have not formally studied biology since 8th grade, I understand symptoms as side effects of our imprecise immune system. An immune system that is split into two parts, the innate, made up of white blood cells, and the adaptive, made up of learned antibodies that make sure you nip that virus in the bud the next time you encounter.

My innate immune system fought a virus through the complete upheaval of my digestive system. The bathroom was in shambles as I finally stumbled off to sleep at three, with plans to clean up in the morning. I awoke five hours later dehydrated and reeling. My host mother Isis had cleaned up the bathroom while I slept, but shrugged off my thanks and insisted I drink more fluids to recover.

All of those awful experiences were symptoms of my virus, but I did not (seriously) curse my body or my immune system. I cursed the unnamed virus. Just like when I have a cold, I do not condemn my runny nose, my cough, or my fever, I condemn the rhinovirus. After the biological violence is finished, my adaptive immune system remembers the virus should I encounter it again.

Now consider society in place of the human body, racism as the virus, activism and law as our innate and adaptive immune systems, respectively. Racism, as I have come to understand it, hurts society through disenfranchising people of color. Currently that disenfranchisement concretely manifests itself through the systemic and unequal use of force against blacks, which fosters a sense of fear.

Activism responds both nonviolently and violently, when law does not properly resolve an issue. Activism creates social discontent. Perhaps there are marches and people feel shame. Perhaps property is destroyed and cities are left in shambles. Perhaps there are riots and people feel fear. Social communities begin to fracture as we disagree. Sadly, and I think erroneously, people choose to alienate themselves from one another. Of course, these are all symptoms.

The metaphor comes apart in our reaction. Instead of condemning the virus, we condemn our innate immune system. We treat the symptoms by ignoring nonviolent protests and shutting down more violent protest responses instead of adapting to end society’s affliction with racism.

Of course, while this is an apt metaphor, we can aspire to be better than our hive-minded immune system. Medical professionals, or political leaders and scholars, diagnose the diseases of society. We can try preventative treatments like workshops on racism to foster a cultural conscience that rejects racism. We can develop antibodies, through structural legal change, to recognize and prematurely exterminate inevitable encounters with racism. Failing to adapt illustrates how we, largely the white descendants of a racist system, have fallen short.

Though we have fallen short, we can definitely all be more like my host mother and graciously help the recovery, even as we adapt moving forward.

*I struggled with how to characterize these recent nights in Baltimore. Chaos? Fear? Destruction? Each is politically weighted, so I chose the word I hear most often used in other non-shaming commentaries.

Herding Cat

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This Easter Sunday amidst celebrations of the resurrection, I had a totally unrelated experience that challenged long-held scientific theories, solidified stereotypes concerning Peruvian

Let’s start from the beginning.

We arrived for a pre-Easter service breakfast. Moments later David called me over with a “surprise.” The surprise was a tiny, blonde kitty wandering between several parishioners’ legs.

I leapt at the chance to play and cash in on that oh-so-satisfying “purr” that every cat lover enjoys. Everyone marveled at the hilarity at a foreigner playing with a kitty.

“Oh! A gringo with a gringo kitty!”

“It’s like you’re her father!”

“You’re taking her home!”

That last one seemed a bit too assured, as if “No” would not be an acceptable answer. I had no idea if I was playing with a stray, though they were all convinced. More importantly, I have no say in what animals we take on.

I looked up at Isis nodding her head in approval. We would definitely taking this cat home. “Tú vas a llevarla,”* she said transferring all responsibility to me via a pointed finger.

To be fair, we had been discussing the need for a cat, following a month under siege from two poison-resilient rats. I pointed out that cats are relatively low maintenance pets. Plus, I selfishly wanted a cat to play with for my remaining four months.

All that being said, Isis had spent the last month aloofly taking no action. Something kept coming up to get in the way of every possible option she mentioned. It did not matter to me one way or another, so I had mostly abandoned the cause.

Of course, Easter provided the perfect opportunity to say yes while putting all burden on me. If only she had realized how burdensome the journey home would be.

The bus ride from Cristo Rey’s district, Surco, and Magdalena del Mar, where live is about one hour. It also involves numerous abrupt starts and lurching stops, and plenty of passenger-rattling speed bumps. A taxi takes about 30 thirty minutes and offers an overall smoother ride, at four times the price of three bus passes.

To your likely schadenfreude, we brought our new feline amiga home on the bus.

Budgetary concerns stopped a protest in my throat. Let’s do this the Peruvian way, I thought. I’m in Peru. I’m trying to live simply. Do it the cheap way.

Instead, I mentioned that we had nothing in which to carry out Then I brought up the important fact that we had no carrying implement to transport our furry friend in the bus. I was not eager to try and carry her or place her in my bag, alongside my bilingual bible, which would soon be in tatters. I somewhat hoped that this challenge might give David and Isis pause, such that they consider the pros and cons of this commitment.

To my chagrin, someone sporting a victorious grin of pride in their problem-solving skills brought me a 12”x6” cardboard box from the church.

Soon someone lamented that the cat would not be able to breathe in the unsealed cardboard box. Another church member popped up with a knife to cut a square-inch hole in the box, as I thought, Oh no. Oh no. That marks escape waiting to happen. No, no. When in Peru, right? It will be fine.

Another instance when I choked back my protest. Another that I would come to regret within the hour.

Thankfully, I had the good sense to push back against the suggestion that I place the cat in the box as we got on the bus. Tight space or not, I was not about to cross six lanes of a Limeñan traffic with a 5-month old gatito in my arms.

To quote anyone who has ever discovered a shower spider: Nope. Nope. NOPE.

One bus ride of doom and several scratches later, I would come to regret not showing similar decisiveness in the face of other poor suggestions, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As luck would have it, we caught our bus just as we arrived at the stop. Even better there was an open front seat, which meant I would need to balance the box while maintaining my footing.

Balance was still a struggle when seated, as the box shook with growing discontent. Warmth spread to my cheeks and my neck hair rose as stares from fellow bus passengers shot at me from all sides of the bus. Stares of curiosity. Stares of concern. Stares of shock. Stares of amusement. My discontent worsened as a front paw shot out the poorly-chosen air hole at an old woman minding her own business in the seat to my left.

I reminded myself to breathe as I worked to keep the situation under control. Of course, I also contemplated whether or not to abandon the fuzzball as we passed Parque Kennedy, famous for housing a throng of cats.

No, that is too difficult to orchestrate, I thought. Stick to the prime directive.

I spent the rest of the ride playing a game reminiscent of whack-a-mole with feline appendages and working to dislodge cat claws as gingerly as possible from my skin and, with a bit more urgency, my fancy white dress shirt.

Fifteen minutes from home, I realized that the as-yet-unnamed wonder had created several escape options through a combination of chewing and scratching away. So much for the love between cats and boxes, I thought as I shoved my hat over that problematic air hole and tightened my hold on the box’s sides to close the widening gap in its flaps.

I resentfully listened to David’s boisterous laugh traveling from the back of the bus. He was engaged in a conversation, animated as always, with a fellow member of Cristo Rey. How can he be laughing in a world where I am this mortified? I thought.

After what felt like several years, or at least removed that quantity of my lifespan, we arrived at our stop. I ran ahead eager to get home before the inevitable –

RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIP!

–I reached out and caught the lower half of the furry marvel’s body as she burst forward in an explosion of cardboard and liberation. A regular Houdini, I thought. And the name stuck.

I clutched Houdini to my chest as claws nestled into my fancy, but thankfully secondhand Easter wear.

After David and Isis fumbled to unlock the front door, I rushed Houdini to the patio, tore off my mostly unscathed dress shirt, wrenched open my first aid kit, and realized that I could dial back the trauma narrative. A handful of skin deep scratches does not an emergency make. I had just been operating on pure adrenaline.

All in all, it was a hilariously mortifying experience rooted in my attempt to go with the flow instead of challenge a misguided group of Peruvians. Still I approached the bus with apprehensive optimism.  Within the first quarter of the trip, it seemed evident that the mission was doomed to fail and I grew anxious imagining judgmental eyes. About halfway through, I considered cutting my losses and terminating the mission early, but stubbornness and liability held me to my post. Bedraggled though the bus trip left me, I forged ahead into the unknown, realizing my previous errors through 20/20 hindsight.

In many ways this is an apt metaphor for a YAV year. A metaphor that has stayed apt as Houdini settles in, struggling to acclimate to imagined fears, like our dog Paris. Of course, like all metaphors, the similarities stop there, as I do not plan to settle here for the rest of my life.

*You are going to bring her.

If this made you giggle some, enough so that you’d like to consider supporting my year, you can send funds to my personal offering account.

Presbyterian World Mission Shortfall

I have decided to start posting information for those seeking to donate to my YAV fund at the end of each post.

If you have kept with the blog or knew me well before I started writing, you can guess I am not comfortable doing that.  I hate asking people for money to support me, I would rather they just donated when they felt called.

Except I just saw that Presbyterian World Mission, the division of the P(USA) that sponsors the YAV program will likely face a deficit in 2016 and 2017. I have grown this year due to this program’s challenges via this support. I hope and believe that those with whom I have worked have also benefitted, though likely less than me.

Additionally, our YAV group was given the goal to raise $20,000 together beyond the $4,000 expected of each volunteer. I raised $4,000 and stepped off the gas a bit, relieved to be done with an activity that I find so repulsive.

That reason makes me want to reach out again, but more so, I have grown connected to World Mission this year. They do good work. This year, I have met several Mission Co-workers that I admire and the incredible partnership work that they do. These are people I do not want to see pushed out of their call. Nor do I want to see their work come to end.

The money sent to my account is used to fund the YAV program, which frees up the funds allocated by World Mission. In some small way, I hope that contributions to my year might serve as a drop in the bucket. Plus, I hope to start carrying my weight a bit more in seeking funds, even if that means asking others to carry that weight as well.

As always, give or do not give. Know that your money goes to an accountable organization that is intentional in its work against poverty. I will be including the link to give to my fund at the end of each post.

So, here is the link:

https://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E210811/

Definitions of “artisan” and fair trade relationships

Recently, a few of Bridge of Hope’s clients have become increasingly critical of our artisan group members. Their prices are too high. Their work ethic is questionable. Their designs seem uninspired. They just seem to lack drive. They are not really artisans, just people looking for additional income.

Basically, a central question seems to be: “What is an artisan?”

I am not referring to what artisans do. Artisans work in a variety of specified crafts. Our artisans work in a variety of fields from carving, to pottery, to weaving, to sewing. Each of these skill sets are put towards the same goal of the creation and sale of luxury products to higher income consumers.

I would argue that this goal is fairly standard across all artisans, in or outside a fair trade model. I want to talk instead about the ways different fair trade groups define “artisan” within their vision and mission.

It’s a question I have neglected in this blog, as many others in the fair trade world seem to neglect. To use an apt, but crass parallel: much like pornography, each person knows it when they see it. Of course, we each draw the artisan line somewhere different.

I’ll be the first to admit that I often make a bigger deal out of these questions than is really necessary or valuable. It is easy to move from careful consideration to unhelpful existentialism. Even easier to start exploring questions of meaning just as a mental exercise or attempt to look smart. I write this post because some conflicts in the fair trade world start with informing definition work forming amorphous policy.

Are artisans poor? Are they bridges to cultural values from decades past? Are artisans indigenous women?  Are artisans sustainable producers? In my experience an artisan can fall into anywhere from all to none of these categories. Whichever one the organization chooses to focus on will greatly shape its strategies and metric for success.

Organizations that consider poverty as a defining trait of artisans will likely focus on empowering these artisans to overcome cyclical poverty traps. They will provide workshops on various artisan techniques, as well as entrepreneurship. This organization will measure success by the way their artisans improve their economic lives. Like all development programs, they will need enormous patience as results are slow and artisans seem to slow to fully invest.

If an organization defines artisans as carriers of cultural heritage, they will seek to empower established artisans through helping them develop entrepreneurial skills and providing them with new markets. That organization will showcase the artisans’ process to their consumers. There will likely be little patience for artisans that fail to complete orders or lack commitment to artisan work. Success will first be measured in how much cultural traditions are revived and passed along to younger members of a society.

An organization that defines artisans as indigenous women will seek to empower these largely underprivileged members of their society. Similar to a poverty-focused organization, this group will focus on empowerment through training and entrepreneurship. Success is measured in how these women’s lives are changed and gain greater social standing. Tiffani Sharp, who runs one of Bridge of Hope’s client stores, Mama Willow Tree, interviewed our female artisans on how the work has led them to overcome stigma in society and take on new roles. Likewise, they will also need patience with slow progress.

An organization that prioritizes sustainability in their definition of artisans is seeking to offset the negative effects of consumerism. They will seek out artisans that recycle and reuse materials, as well as provide artisans with sustainability workshops. Primary success is reducing waste and the carbon footprint of production.  There will be minimal toleration for non-organic materials or cost efficient, but wasteful techniques.

These definitions are not mutually exclusive nor are they exhaustive.

Not all artisans are poor. Not all are grounded in tradition. Not all artisans focus on sustainability. Not all artisans are downtrodden in their society. When we ignore that complex picture, we get poorer fair trade models.

Admittedly, most organizations do not treat them as mutually exclusive, but when everyone is not on the same page about what an artisan is, it reduces cohesion within the fair trade model.

A fair trade store that focuses on cultural preservation will not want to work with artisans who are still perfecting their craft as means for additional income. They will prefer to work with artisans rooted in tradition, many of whom are not in as great need or poverty.  A sustainability-focused organization that also seeks to empower indigenous women might not work well with an artisan seeking to build a business in the sale of low cost artisan works in high income markets.

These hypothetical, but representative conflicts usually end with artisans meeting clients where they are. In some cases that might result in an overall positive change for the artisan group towards more sustainable production, or more inclusionary practices, or fairer wage payment. In others artisans and fair trade clients will go separate ways and artisans may end up in non-fair trade networks.

I notice a larger problem to all of this. My definitions came from the supporting fair trade organizations. I do not have a concrete idea how artisans define their vocation. Bridge of Hope’s supporters even less so.

We are all just seeking to help and construct a vision for how to help through just trade practices, but we are still rooted in a system wherein the wealthier folks mandate their vision. Sure they listen to a certain degree, but largely, they still seek to sell products and realize a mission.

It is expensive and time-consuming to create and meet that mission mutually with artisans. It means making decisions more slowly. It means pouring money into regular visits. It means putting aside the hours spent researching the perfect recipe for just commerce in your economically privileged home. It means listening, not presenting a plan to artisans who feel obligated to agree with someone who flew thousands of miles to be with them. It means sacrificing your vision in favor of one shared with the artisans. It means failing at working together pretty regularly. It means mutual support for those failures.

It means a better model. Especially in the tough times I have witnessed this year.

Bridge of Hope attempts to work mutually with artisans. It is part of the reason we move slowly, in addition to our endemic short-staffed-ness. Our artisans often move slowly or in a way that seems antithetical to progress. On one hand, I understand if they want to prioritize repairing their homes or improving their communities’ access to basic utilities over paying for and producing a new design. On the other hand, they often forget about deadlines and simultaneously lament the turnaround on an order as well as the lack of orders. Understanding why artisans’ drive might seem low helps us to engage with them to improve that.

While we celebrated together at the artisan gathering, Daniela pointed out the mild hypocrisy in seeking more orders, while not taking advantage of present opportunities. We have encouraged artisans to seek out training workshops and request funding support. Of course, prioritizing artisan-led ideas means advancing more slowly for the reasons I mentioned, but it means advancing more cooperatively.

Slowness should not impede us here. The invaluable give-and-take is completely worth nightmarish logistics. Fair trade artisan markets sell luxuries to middle and upper class consumers. As long as artisans are being lifted out of dire poverty, clients and artisans have the luxury (pun intended) to work things out.

Not every case will result in a positive outcome. Groups may recognize that the gap between their visions is too wide. Most relationships will be strengthened by patient, albeit occasionally mind numbing dialogue.

Theological Reflection: Teamwork

Like I mentioned in another post, I wrote a short theological reflection for the Bridge of Hope Artisan Gathering. It’s short and to the point, as I was looking to save time for group discussion on unity.

Following the theme, “Advancing in Unity,” I pulled Numbers 27:1-11 on the Zepholehad sisters and Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, which work with teamwork and the value of a group over the individual. Of course, I did not intensively research these texts, but I feel I pulled together a coherent message. Likewise, I made the conscious effort to use a story about women acting in teamwork. The majority of Bridge of Hope’s artisans are female and I expect rarely receive a female-driven message from the Bible. Plus, I value offering the few men a vision of women in leadership.

Admittedly, I cut Numbers short, instead of following up with the section of the story where Moses asks the women to marry off because other men complain. As my mother said, those are two steps forward with one step back. Instead of exploring that dynamic, which would have been way off track, I let it go. So without further ado, here are both passages, my short reflection, and a prayer for teamwork that I found and shared.

Numbers 27: 1-11

The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. “Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter. If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan, that he may possess it. This is to have the force of law for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.’”

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Message

When we read this story, we see a group of women that overcome a system against them. During this time, women couldn’t own much of anything. For that, these women lost their wealth because the law prevented their rights.

They went to Moses, presented their ideas, and their opinions, and God agrees. God presents a new inheritance system that improves justice in the world. I want to focus on the teamwork of the women.

They show the importance of unity, as well as the confidence and solidarity to unite and face a problem. A lesson that Ecclesiastes summarizes well. “Two are better than one.” With two, there is support to help one another up when one falls, to overcome obstacles. It is essential to overcome any injustice. Without teamwork, the women would not have motivated that change.

What would happen if one of the sisters said, “Maybe, we should give up. This has never happened before and who are we?” There wouldn’t be support to overcome these obstacles. Even more, others would have said, “One of them does not have problems, so they should all stop causing problems. They would ignore the women.

I think that this is a message for Bridge of Hope. If we unite, we can lift each other up when we fall. We can overcome the obstacles of an economic system that is not fair and create a system of solidarity together. For that, I ask that we continue advancing in unity.

Prayer for Teamwork

We pray for unity and oneness of mind in making our united effort work out successfully.

We pray that we put aside personalities and that our uniqueness as individuals do not clash.

We pray that we respect all ideas and efforts and that our pride does not exalt itself over another.

We pray that we equally can share in the glory of the outcome of our effort.

We pray that this team might all recognize You as head.

We pray that our results might be as rewarding as our hopes are.

We pray that each and every member of this team might realize one another contribution for the whole. Bless this team and effort, Lord. Make us shining examples of the value of working together for good, for the glory of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen

Artisan Gathering: I’m kind of proud of this one

A YAV year features a lot of screw ups. International YAVs do so with more frequency. I could write a pseudo-profound post about why that is, but far better for the purposes of this post is to take it as an established fact: YAVs don’t get it right very often.

That’s not to say we’re collectively inadequate, unmotivated, basic, or altogether horrible. No, no, we just spend most of the year struggling to keep afloat in Not Completely Wrong Ocean and trying to climb into a life boat sent by the S.S. Almost Right This Time.

Of course, my discomfort pales in comparison to how little my floundering improves the lives of those in affected communities, or rather, the unfairness imposed on them on a daily basis by an unjust system that I inevitably patronize.

So I latch onto any moment north of passable. Objectively successful events in a YAV year are like unicorns. Admittedly, I do not know if I have discovered a purebred unicorn quite yet, but the Bridge of Hope Artisan Gathering was arguably sporting a horn.

The March 19-20 gathering was the 12th in as many years, providing a space intended to bring together artisans from Huancayo, Huancavelica, La Oroya, and within Lima to meet, share ideas and support one another.

“Intended” is a key word here because it’s unlikely that all the artisans make it. Maybe it’s stereotypical Peruvian flakiness. Maybe it’s Spain’s fault for transferring that trait via colonialism. Maybe it’s the cocktail of patriarchy and poverty that increases the burden on women to manage the home. Maybe it’s that we didn’t make an official Facebook event. Maybe it’s an inexplicable truth of event planning that sometimes people just don’t show up.

There’s a host of possible reasons that Bridge of Hope struggles to get full attendance. None of them change the objective truth that full attendance is rare and irrelevant to event success.

In the case of the Artisan Gathering, it is more fruitful to focus on overall artisan takeaways, budgetary concerns, and selfishly, my own individual accomplishments. I’ll start with the latter because it’s my blog and I’m a big fan of Matthew 20:16.

I planned a decent amount of the event, though much of it was already in place. The event is always two days long, in celebration of Peruvian Artisan Day on March 19th. The first morning includes a discussion on the state of affairs, followed by some tourism in the afternoon. The following day is dedicated to celebration and sharing new designs and ideas with one another. This year, Daniela suggested I look to house the artisans from the provinces with those in Lima to save on non-refundable sunk costs before the event.

Essentially, I became the head of a factory churning out already-invented wheels and working out 90 percent of the logistics. First, I came up with the event theme, “Advancing in Unity,” inspired by the lack of communication within groups and with Bridge of Hope. I planned a short theological reflection on this matter and formatted a basic discussion on the past year and vision looking forward.

Also, I gave all 15 groups an initial invitation followed by one-month reminders, two-week reminders, one-week reminders, and reminders for days six down to one, you know, just to be sure. With a rough sketch of attendance in mind, I worked out several contingency housing plans balancing the burden across groups in Lima, budgetary concerns, and a need to separate single men from single mothers, which make up the majority of groups in Lima. You just have to accept some systemic issues as the reality when they are not the focus of an event.

I also coordinated an afternoon of sightseeing in Lima. Specifically, I called up a tour company and worked out a deal to get us a bused to the lookout on San Cristobal Mountain and back down to San Francisco Cathedral. At 400 meters above sea level, San Cristobal offers a view of Lima from the Pacific to the surrounding mountains. San Francisco Cathedral offers a view into Lima’s colonial history and a trip into its spooky catacombs.

Additionally, I coordinated a day for the artisans to share pachamanca, a traditional Peruvian dish, together at the home of one artisan member Anita. That’s included in this vdeo!

There were several other tasks that I took on as assigned in preparation including the printing of photos of my visits for each artisan and the production of a DVD of each group’s videos to show. I did a lot and I did it fairly well. Especially with consideration for the fact that I did it all in Spanish, over phone conversations with often shoddy service, and without having much reference for standard business practices (i.e. Keep calling a tourist agency the day before an event until you get a spoke confirmation. Daniela saved me on that one.)

Now, I just did a lot of ego-inflating. Seems about time for a solid dose of reality.

In truth, 11 of 15 groups made it. One group declined two weeks out, having forgotten and scheduled vacations on that date. Two other groups waffled until the day before when one of the 30+ members of all ages needed to take care of their children (my inability to fully believe that is irrelevant) and the other group backed out when one of their two representatives could not attend. Finally, the last group informed us that they had not gotten on the night bus to arrive and would not be attending because of family emergencies.

Each “no” is understandable. Admittedly, it’s kind of a bummer to be on the receiving end of mild disorganization, or last minute answers, or lapses in memory. I’d be lying if I denied that a few choice words were muttered under my breath in frustration, but at the end of the day 11 groups still made it.

Of course, one artisan surprised me, by showing up on Thursday after telling me that he had no idea the event was happening for his third day reminder. While a pleasant surprise this required some last-minute housing adjustments, this time featuring a few frustrated tugs on the curly follicles.

Later that evening, a male artisan informed me that his mother, who he had not told me would be coming, was unwilling to be separated from him. This came after I asked him three times to check with her to ensure that it was okay that I separate them. Smiling as I dug my nails into my palms, I informed him that I had one hotel double open for him and the artisan who had surprised me. Luckily, that double had a queen-sized bed and they graciously agreed to share the room.

Actually, I was quite taken aback at the amount of grace that the artisans offered. Say what you will about frustrations of planning and attendance and logistics, Peruvians let a lot more go.

For example, the bus broke down as it dropped us off at San Francisco Cathedral and the bus driver informed us that they would not be able to offer us a ride back. The tourist company also denied to offer us a refund, to my chagrin, but Daniela’s acceptance. Likewise, the group was happy to walk back through downtown and take the chance to see several landmarks and explore non-fair trade artisan shops.

They modeled something AJ mentioned during the last YAV retreat. Peruvians, he observed, just let a lot of the small stuff go that folks in the U.S. get up in arms about as the greatest injustice, while they get up in arms and protest major injustices like climate change, which those in the U.S. think cannot be swayed. It’s a slight oversimplification, but it certainly explains what I witnessed during the Artisan Gathering.

The artisans joked about the walk, invoking parodies of classic Peruvian protest chants, “Si no llegamos ya, la lucha continua,” meaning “If we don’t arrive already, the fight continues.” Instead of weaving a tapestry of choice words targeted at our tourist company, I focused on their high spirits, conscience of how indignant a typical group of Westerners would be in the same situation.

There were plenty of other miscues. Only seven groups remembered, despite umpteen reminders to bring new designs to share. Likewise, I struggled to wrestle our opening discussion from mansplained monologues one artisans success over his thirty years in the trade.

In both cases though, there were positives. Several groups received much-needed feedback on their new samples. During the discussion, several artisans found their voices to share issues that go unheard.

Likewise, there was clear progress made towards encouraging self-sufficiency among the artisans. Many artisans nodded knowingly as Daniela stated that Bridge of Hope is not there to stand behind each group and hold their hands through the completion of an order or creation of new designs. A message they received through slow deliberation, not accusation. By the end of the 20th, members were brainstorming new ideas for the future of the group.

Of course, Bridge of Hope is not magically better now. Plenty will seem to go unchanged on the surface, yet seeds have been sown on the move towards more self-sufficiency. Maybe next year’s theme should be “Turning Point” with an emphasis on taking advantage of new opportunities.

We took a few steps further than where we were. And even better? We stayed over $400 under budget, in no small part due to my own efforts, Daniela’s strategic budgeting plans, and a few other surprise savings along the way. As an economist, how can I not love shrinking the bottom dollar and increasing the overall benefit to cost ratio?

Honestly though, the artisans inspired me to keep perspective. It’s exactly what they did when we had to walk unexpectedly, though no fault of their own. I know I worked my hardest to pull this together. I also know that miscues are far from my fault and I responded to the best of my ability. With that perspective, and admittedly even without it, this was an objective success and worth noting in an otherwise rocky YAV experience.

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The Personal and the Political: My face in the LGBTQIA+ news

In the last week, I have marched in solidarity against homophobia in Peru, while celebrating a major step against homophobia within the PC(USA), for which I voiced support at the 221st General Assembly.

On Saturday, I marched in the parade following a law allowing civil unions between any two people was archived by the Justice and Human Rights Committee. Several congress members voiced horrifyingly homophobic and uninformed opinions, so the march was entitled “¡Indígnate contra la Homofobía en el Congreso!,” or “Get Indignant against the Homophobia in Congress!”

Homophobia is rampant in Peru. Sometimes it is subtly informing your child that you are glad they are straight and cisgendered before they inform you others. In other cases, churches will blatantly deny the existence of homosexuality and instead infer the presence of a demon.

During the debate, one congressperson blatantly used the Peruvian equivalent of “f***ot,” when explaining to an openly gay congressmen, Carlos Bruce, that the word “gay” is not Spanish. LGBTQIA+ Peruvians are working tirelessly to educate folks that the word used, maricón, which actually means “coward,” has nothing to do with them. The offending congressmen apologized for the remark, but did not recognize the lack of relevance of that statement, regardless of the slur, to the overall discussion.

That was just one of thousands of uninformed statements uttered by conservative leaders and churches in Peru. Evangelical and Catholic churches sent thousands to protest with such fear-based arguments as “Think of the children” and “What’s to stop incest?”

Meanwhile back in the states, the necessary number of presbyteries voted in favor of changing the PC (USA) definition of marriage as “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman” this Tuesday. A change that I personally voiced support for and advised in favor of as a Young Adult Advisory Delegate at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit. A step for progress that makes me proud, though I am hopeful that we quickly remove the latter clause which I feel still reflects an unwelcoming tone.

In conjunction with both events, I have found images of myself spread across the web. I see my face in the background and foreground of articles covering both major events. And not just in those shared by my mother or a friend. In fact, Facebook suggested an article on the presence of the Harvey Milk Foundation in Peru in opposition to homophobia with me in the background of the featured photo. While this visibility strokes my ego some, I also feel exposed and more vulnerable in a way that is totally novel to my life.

For most of my life, I have been able to disconnect myself from the struggles of those in underprivileged places. While it’s allowed me to be a more evenhanded advocate in some cases, it has also distanced me from understanding those struggles.

Of course, I am just tangentially visible. Right now, I’m an unknown face. I could be tracked if necessary, but I am not exactly worried about that. Visible exposure is new for me, but just a small gesture compared to what several others are doing.

Comparatively, I am connected to several people who have taken on even more exposure. My mother and several other Presbyterian pastors around the USA spoke to our local newspaper on the ratification of Amendment 14F. One pastor wrote an article for Cosmo, which puts her in the crosshairs of both congratulations and criticism towards the PC (USA).

Here in Lima, a local news station produced a profile piece on the pastor of the Lutheran Church I attend, Pablo Espinoza, who came out of the closet in his forties and raised three adopted children. He will receive major criticism and possible threats, but he still chose to take that on. Worse, one older member of the church has stopped attending after her children called her and told her not to go back to that church with the “sick pastor.”

If I feel exposed just seeing my face on the news, how must others like my pastor feel?

Of course, this vulnerability is necessary because the politics of identity are inherently personal. Political movements, no matter how large and seemingly autonomous are still made up of people at their core.

What does that mean? It means these movements, like individuals are still fallible. Although movements are formed because humans are stronger when united, they are equally fallible. Likewise, some willingness to be exposed as an individual is essential. Movements are strengthened when that exposure goes hand-in-hand with willingness to challenge oneself and grow.

Years ago the LGBTQIA+ rights movement placed gay white men at the forefront and erased the experiences of lesbians, bisexuals, trans folk, intersexed, asexual, and especially those people of color with similar gender or sexual expressions.

Admittedly, this movement still has issues welcoming all those groups, but that inclusion is now an active part of the conversation. One which successfully challenged me, in my privilege, to recognize the pain of that erasure in others’ lives. One which also led me to openly challenge the inclusion of “traditionally between a man and a woman” on the General Assembly floor in front of 800 commissioners and delegates, 90 percent of whom voted in favor of that additional wording.

Seeing my face attached to a few snippets within the slow march of progress for equal rights has reminded me how important it is to be self-critical. It has also reminded me to enjoy those moments and recognize my value and the value of others, ally or direct beneficiary of the movement, in choosing to show up.

Plus, movements draw their strength from people. People can intercede at the individual level to speak with others. No doubt Pablo feels some sadness that an elderly member’s children are harassing her, but this is exactly why he openly exposed himself: to force people to acknowledge his previously ignored identity.

Members of my church, including Pablo and David, have started visiting her and conversing with her. With patience and an open heart, the hope is she will come around and pass that same message of love and acceptance onto her children who are immersed in the fundamentalist teachings of most churches in Peru.

Admittedly, these realizations are not intellectual epiphanies. You will not see me leaping naked from a bath tub screaming, “Eureka.” I am just connecting personal experience to that intellect. Personal experience steps in when frustration clouds my intellect, which reduces my ability to show compassion.

Compassion allows me to show grace towards those who are slow to recognize LGBTQIA+ rights, those who fail to stand firm against homophobia, and even those who cannot find it in their hearts to accept the LGBTQIA+ community. By showing grace, I model how others like me (read privilege) can open themselves to respect LGBTQIA+ folks and eventually take steps towards breaking down barriers with the community.

Luke 21:1-4 and Matthew 15:21-28: Women-driven stories

During retreat we reflected on two scriptural passages featuring women, which lead me to believe that Paul had a shaky foundation for the claim that, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Cor 14:34-35).

The two passages were, Luke 21:1-4 and Matthew 15: 21-28. In the first passage, Jesus uses a woman as an example of an ideal giver in the name of the Lord. In the second, he directly engages with a Canaanite woman, who challenges him to change his dogma.

Women are in short supply in the Bible. Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman and a group from Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota recently published that 93 women appear in the Bible, 43 have names and they utter 14,000 of 1.1 million words quoted in the entire Bible. That makes passages with women, especially those with women at the heart, worth a very close read.

They were familiar passages to me, but again the Lectio Divina helped me consider new interpretations. My interpretations of these texts are probably not groundbreaking. They are certainly not well-researched. They are instead my gut interpretation based on some armchair interest in critical analysis of scripture. I do believe that they are valuable interpretations and ones that might be helpful to those readers unfamiliar with the passages.

Luke 21: 1-4, sometimes called The Widow’s Offering, finds Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem watching the faithful give their offerings. The rich give vast sums, just a drop in a bucket of their wealth, seeking to display superiority and advance their social standing. Meanwhile, an old widow enters and quietly offers her comparatively small offering.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.

The message is pretty straight-forward. Don’t be a hypocrite and sacrifice for your faith. Sure, you can refine it and I am sure there are other more informed interpretations. Plus, you could spend a great length of time exploring how this message applies to our lives, but at the end of the day, one thing is clear: Jesus valued that widow’s action over anyone else in the temple.

In fact, Jesus wants to make an example of the widow for everyone. She, not these wealthy, outwardly pious men, gave all she could to improve the church. She is the prime example of a good and devout worshiper of God.

She was a widow with little to no economic or social standing. No one pays her any attention and she would not be heard, whether or not she chose to speak.

Underlying the message on sacrifice and hypocrisy, Jesus seems to teach us to look to the downtrodden for a prime example of living faithfully. This woman is to be venerated, not judged for her poor offering. To dismiss her presence ignores that truth.

Of course, this story could still fit within Paul’s advice. This widow does not speak and still shows that her piety. At the same time, I feel women would largely go ignored if they were not allowed to speak.

Fortunately, I do not have to delve into hypotheticals, because of what we find in Matthew 15:21-28, the story of the Canaanite woman, also known as the Syrophoenician woman from Mark. Within the context of Jesus’ story, he is withdrawing for the purposes of getting a little rest. He’s been busy what with preaching giant crowds and communicating a radical new message. What budding champion of a social justice cause does not know similar struggles?

Keep that in mind as we read one of Jesus more disturbingly rude moments.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

In this passage, Jesus is a jerk. As I joked to my father once, I feel he could have used a Snickers, because he starts to act human when he’s hungry. A joke I made following a sermon offered by my mother on this text, or its parallel, which inspires much of my interpretation. She dwelled at great length on Jesus’ human side here.

I know plenty of those who fight for social justice causes who reach their limit and just snap. Without self-care, even the most dedicated and genuine folks can say some things that they regret later. I certainly have.

Likewise, I feel like Jesus is definitely questioning his call in all this. He’s still working out the finer details for who he came to serve and why he was sent to Earth. As a result, he snaps at this woman for seeking something and showing this unexpected faith.

Perhaps he has been struggling with the question of whether or not to include others in his work on Earth. And as many do when forced to take a stance on something they wrestle with, he sticks to his guns and even takes some regrettable shots at this woman.

A woman who is desperate. Her daughter is demon-possessed. The exact meaning of demon-possession is unwell, the narrative is clear that her daughter is unwell.

She is also a foreigner. Whatever the historical relations are, it is clear that Jesus and likely his people deem her worthy of insult. He calls her a dog and undeserving of his healing power.

Most obviously, she is a woman and at the bottom of a patriarchal society. Approaching a group of men in search of their assistance is unusual and requires an overwhelming amount of courage.

And what does she do? She openly challenges Jesus’ insults and better yet, changes his mind. She shows him that even if his characterization of her as a dog is true, she still deserves his healing power. She out-logics Jesus here.

Try and think of another instance where someone bests Jesus in a battle of words. Go.

Time is up. If you thought of one, share it in the comments.

The fact is, Jesus is not often persuaded by humans. He is Jesus. He is perfection walking in an imperfect form. Logical debates of what that means aside, Jesus does not really get it wrong much.

Most sermons I have heard shift their focus back to Jesus at this point and explain that he gave us the perfect example of recognizing an error, changing one’s mind, and moving on. That’s a great direction to take things, but I’ll instead focus still on what this woman did.

After this scene, Jesus opens up to reach out to all people. He serves in areas outside of Israel. He dies for all people’s sins. As a result, the church becomes one that preaches the Good News to all people. Everyone can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ, not just the “lost sheep of Israel.”

That’s a major ideological shift. And it seems to follow from this moment of clarity for Jesus as a result of this conversation with a desperate, foreign woman. She inspires a theology-defining moment for Jesus.

Her voice matters and should be heard. I am floored by her courage to challenge the one who inspired her faith, not just for the safety it provides her daughter, but the change it makes in the Christian story.

With that in mind, how can Paul possibly claim that women should not be permitted to speak and inquire of their husbands? I know there is a lot of love out their Paul, but it just seems like he missed these two stories.

Perhaps, he was blinded by his upbringing in a patriarchal society. Paul is not infallible.

More importantly though is the value women play in the Bible. They may be in short supply, but they matter so much. And on a day like International Women’s Day, let’s just celebrate that.

Feminist editing isn’t good enough

I spend a substantial amount of time trying to privilege female voices in the artisan video interviews. At times, this practice even negatively affects the narrative of the videos, but I still consider it a valuable endeavor.

I do not make this statement seeking congratulations or approval for my work as an ally, but rather to point out how systemic oppression leads to inefficient uses of labor. Likewise, I would argue that my work treats a symptom, and does so insufficiently, instead of going after the root problem.

The root problem is that women, especially lower class, indigenous women, are taught, directly and indirectly, to allow men to do the talking. A group of women will defer to a lone man to answer questions on business, design or fair trade. Such are my experiences in interviews with our artisan partners.

I have interviewed members of 13 out of 16 artisan groups. Of those members, 27 have been women and five have been men. In the three coed group interviews that I conducted, men answered nearly every question, while women stuck to just the basic questions. Of the three coed group interviews, women answered most questions after the men, often leading to answers that fill in the gaps and cannot stand alone in a short video.

This phenomenon intensifies in the more conservative mountains of Peru. In one interview, I pointedly asked the women by name to share their thoughts, but they were still hesitant and consulted the man in Quechua before answering. He may just been clarifying, but it was still highly distressing.

Even when I intentionally interviewed men and women separately with one group, the male president can be heard in the background offering suggestions. Even when he was not present, one of the women was too nervous to string together full sentences, despite speaking near-fluent Spanish.

Of course, Daniela warned me that the women outside of Lima lacked confidence. Especially, those who are more elderly and as a result learned Spanish later in their lives.

There were two situations in which the women seemed to gain confidence. Either they spoke in Quechua for the interview, or they worked in an entirely female group.

Take for example, an artisan from one female group who included in her response on personal growth that “we have all grown in confidence.” When I asked the same question to a member of a coed group, she could not point out any growth in the group. Part of that has to do with the relative economic success of each group, but it is still a notable difference.

These interview patterns are only one manifestation of male-dominance. Men, consciously or not, seek to dominate conversations. In one group, a man answered every question I had with a casual, “Normal!” which is roughly “Fine!” while the women hesitated and gave each other sideways glances. I pushed, somewhat unsuccessfully, to gather majority opinion with that group after I sensed the women’s unspoken discomfort.

I see men given a dominant role and women’s confidence and willingness to engage suffer for it.

I seek to reduce that dominance when I edit my video interviews.

I cut men’s statements short and insert in female voices sharing similar or supporting information that is admittedly superfluous to the central point. At times that slightly derails the narrative or leads to restated information, which I think is a fair tradeoff for more equal representation.

At the same time, this is not truly a solution. I, a man, decides when and where it makes the most sense to include women’s voices. Although my choices always affect the narrative, this is far more frustrating.

I am frustrated because I should be able to pick freely from an equal quantity of voices represented. Instead, I pull everything I can from the small amount that these women do say, knowing that there is much left unsaid in deference to the male voice.

My attempt to balance voices only hides what goes unsaid, which is the truly underlying problem.

Plus, it obscures gender inequity, in an attempt to align with Principle Six of the World Fair Trade Organization: Commitment to Non-Discrimination, Gender Equity and Women’s Economic Empowerment, and Freedom of Association. If men’s voices dominated, our own gender equity practices would be rightfully questioned, but covering that up does not solve the problem.

I have attempted, unsuccessfully, to counter this. I persistently ask women the same question in new ways, hoping to strike whatever nerve will lead to a more comfortable response. Also, I directly ask women by naming them during group interviews. Likewise, I asked one older women to answer in Quechua and found that she did speak at great length.

Through translating Quechua, I am more assured that the words are meaningful. Likewise, I will have the opportunity to more faithfully translate the Quechua, which has proved nearly impossible, during a return visit to Huancavelica this Monday.

Additionally, I will do one of my, if not my final interview with an artisan group. That group is made up of a husband and wife, which is one of the more challenging dynamics to circumvent.

I hope to build on what I have learned in the last 13 interviews to pull as much as I can out of this experience. Likewise, I will be able to dedicate all camera memory and bettery to a single interview, which is a luxury I have not had in the past.

I will ask questions multiple times, but more importantly I will conduct both separate interviews, as well as, a group interview. Likewise, I will ask them to speak in Quechua if it makes them more comfortable. Following that, I will seek a translation into Spanish after the fact while still there. In fact, I really enjoy having the speaker’s influence on the subtitles as they can better ensure that their preferred manner of speaking comes across.

Of course, I am not going to end the patriarchy in one interview. Still I hope by recognizing it in my video editing, and more importantly in my interview process, I can foster a more level and equitable space.

*For the purposes of simplicity in this article I am sticking to a gender binary. I am nearly certain that every artisan I have interviewed identifies as either cismale or cisfemale. The majority reflected on their identity as women. I want to honor that. Also, I believe certain gender-inclusive constructions would unnecessarily distract readers and derail this piece.

Exodus 3:7-10: You’re not God, you’re invited

Following our work with Matthew at the retreat, we explored Exodus 3:7-10, which involves God calling Moses to bring his people out of Egypt.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. They cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.

We reflected on this, and the other passages, using the methodology of Lectio Divina. This involves three readings. After the first, we named words that stuck out. Then we read a second time and name a possible message. Following the third reading we considered the call the text has for us.

Working with Exodus 3:7-10, I learned the value of this methodology through the evolution of my own interpretation.

After the first reading, “I have their cry on account of their taskmasters” stuck out to me. I had never heard it described that way and it seemed such an odd sentence construction. Did God hear “on account of the taskmasters” or is the cry the result of these taskmasters.

Sentence structure and syntax is a fickle thing and this particular case caught my attention. Specifically, it sent my mind into considering how we carry our own preconceptions into how we interpret scripture and discern God’s voice. Before I got to far thinking through that we did the second reading.

In the second reading, we named various messages. It seemed fairly straight-forward to me, so I stated that God has plans to create a world in which people from many nations coexist peacefully. Each of us voiced similar ideas, even considering that God is providing a schematic for identifying the less fortunate.

Something about that interpretation did not sit quite well. Specifically, it seemed that we were claiming equivalence with God, which makes me uncomfortable. We are not God. We cannot begin to interpret that. With that in mind, I listened to the third reading.

In this case, the last verse stuck out more than it had before. That is the only line where God directly commands Moses. God tells Moses to go out, challenge Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt. That is the role Moses is to play and realizing God’s dream. Moses is responding to an invitation, or a call. I identify with that same call, a call to step in and challenge system of oppression.

The value of this is that we know there is a higher plan at work. I know so many incredible people who dedicate themselves to fighting injustices against people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, the poor, other disenfranchised groups, or some intersection of these. I admire each of them and try to be more like them.

At the same time, I have witnessed the slow, oftentimes seemingly nonexistent crawl of progress firsthand and also through listening to those who continue to face said oppression. It feels awful to know that you will not reach all that you envision.

Moses experienced the same thing, dying before reaching the Promised Land. Despite his critical role and involvement in several major steps against injustice, he was unable to witness the realization of God’s promise and arrival to Jerusalem.

This arc with Moses reflects how things work for better or worse. God dreams of a more peaceful world and calls us to make that change. That change does not happen overnight though. “We are workers, not master builders” as Oscar Romero prayed. We must continue working and encouraging others to work with us.

Following from that, we are more likely to reach God’s vision through actively working and taking steps towards realizing that vision.

Of course, this message is not ground-breaking, yet I valued how the Lectio Divina led me there as I prioritized different elements of the text in each step. Questioning the sentence structure opened me up to new possibilities from the text. Following that I was able to explore these possibilities and considered the wider narrative at play in the story of Moses.

I likely did not blow your mind here. In spite of that, I hope you can also see the value in this methodology for understanding and reflecting on scripture, and perhaps other complex passages you come across.