Over Oceans or Not….

I wonder if I should start fresh with blogging. It seems right to start new site, have a blank slate, fresh space – perhaps with a less presumptuous title about traveling the world. After all I have been back in the US since 2014 and I have no upcoming itinerary requiring a passport. Yes, less presumptuous would be best.

In the midst of this wondering I felt a pang of hypocrisy in my definition of travel and my standards for significance.

You see, I regularly preach to my church, family and friends identifying the insanity of our old paradigm missions mindset (an idea that true Christian transformation comes from leaving the country to feed the hungry, care for the poor, hold an orphan or two and then often results in returning to our normal lifestyles of comfort, mediocrity and excess, unable and unwilling to see the hungry, poor and orphaned in our own neighborhoods). I write newsletters and Facebook posts that invite my fellow Christians, charity gurus and do-gooders to put down the telescope and to look into their own backyards – a city buzzing with thousands of lost souls, hundreds of foreigners, dozens of unloved and neglected children and plenty of poor.

And yet I itch for a reason to renew my passport and get out of town.

I crave a calling to leave the US (or at least my native state) and go to a new place with unknown people and no memories.

I long for something, anything that will offer me the satisfaction of selling everything and traversing over the oceans.

I also wish I wasn’t contradicting myself. It’s blatant isn’t it?

Here I am daily in Denver seeing sights, interacting with new worlds and allowing the city to imprint onto me both the depth of my ignorance and the beauty of humankind. The city invites me to lean in and to learn, to sit still and to watch, to pause at the wonders of reality rather than live in the daily disappointment of my yet unfulfilled dreams.

So I admit – I too fell prisoner to the nomadic spirit within me and the “bigger, better, shiny, new” society in which I live.

I happily recount this realization that my “suffering traveler” self has not been left in Argentina, abandoned in the streets of Venezuela nor forgotten in the eight years and 2,500 miles separating me from my first moment abroad in Guatemala. No, my suffering traveler self simply continues to  sojourn in a language that is mine from birth, in the parameters of my home state and country yet in a time and space that is always changing and curious.

I do not dismiss the beautiful and honest desire of my soul – I know not where it came from nor when it will break through the surface into reality. Of course, to be in a place unlike home, in a challenging and fresh context, living a life different and distinct is far from an evil desire. There is exponential growing and learning in such a place. Without dismissal or wholistic rejection I chose to stand in the tension of my contradictions, alive to both the familiar and the future, sensitive to both home and hope.

Hence, I revive this blog and declare to myself that as boring as it looks on paper and as unsatisfying as it is to count up the days I’ve been here (instead of counting down days until the next trip) – I refuse to be bored and I refuse to overlook the value of ever passing moments that comprise the matter of life itself. I declare to be free from a foolishness that places value strictly on the unknown. I will keep my eyes open to the vibrancy of my fellow sojourners and my ears listening for the calling of a ceaselessly changing city.

Over oceans or not… I am still a sojourner.

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The most unjust justice of sweatshop workers and their “saviors”. Real life and undergraduate research.

What is justice?

This was my absurdly large research question during my four month stay in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Early on, knowing an independent study project was the initial purpose of my travel, I started to ponder what my topic would be. My thoughts were heavily mixed, wanting to ask my big philosophical question while wishing I had some clear concrete passion to pursue. I thought to myself, why am I not more angered about environmental issues? Why can’t I just jump on the anti sex-trafficking train or write about Argentina’s recent dictatorship? Nothing seemed to excite me – I felt guilty and directionless. I had high goals of contributing something new to something relevant through something good. (Could we get more vague?) Every professor and peer kindly reminded me: “you’re only an undergrad…” “you need to have a decade of experience to write that sort of paper…” “can we narrow it down? You only have 4 weeks to complete interviews.” Despite being reluctant to these statements and having my undergrad head in the clouds, I landed somewhere concrete. And I am thankful that I did.

Well, if you got past my prelude, here is what became my research project and lead to my new understanding of what justice is.

Despite Argentina recently being one of the five richest countries in the world we are finding a new trend developing in Buenos Aires. In this city of nearly 3 million people a “sweatshop” culture has been emerging to fund fashion for the “Paris of Latin America.” Sure enough, I found myself in a new field, a developing area of research. Check. Also, I could feel the passion swelling and the interest growing. Finally a conflict that I desired to understand, an injustice I wanted to explore and investigate and a field which I could concretely contribute to.

So I began to ask questions, read articles and talk to people – sweatshop workers, owners, professional and academics. I found out quickly of the fiery past of Argentine “sweatshops” – which they refer to as “talleres textiles” (less negative connotation). These talleres are home (literally – they often live in these shops) to a large amount of immigrants from nearby countries seeking to climb the social latter and better the lives of their kids through hard manual labor – think 25,000 undocumented workers putting in over 16 hours a day (that’s the equivalent of the University of Oregon student population working twice the hours of a U.S. full-time employee!) In 2006 we have a taller that catches on fire in Buenos Aires and 6 Bolivians die, locked in, unable to escape the flames. This awakens the city to an underground issue. Cue the nonprofits, specifically one, La Alameda, an organization of Argentines wanting to help Bolivian workers escape “slave-like conditions” and fight for their rights that are clearly theirs under Argentine law. In absence of state action to enforce the wonderfully “ideal” treaties guaranteeing immigrant rights and protecting foreigners, the nonprofit sector has stepped in. for justice. But what is justice? To keep my contextual explanation simple, the Bolivian workers have begun to revolt against the state and against the nonprofits, some have protested their working conditions by lighting themselves on fire while others have sought to burn down La Alameda to state their disapproval with their closure of the talleres “for justice.” Workers don’t want the nonprofits to “save” them. Nonprofits, academics and professionals in the community don’t want workers “exploited” – workers don’t identify as “exploited” and are thankful for the work opportunities they find in this metropolitan material mecca. 

What a web. What a mess. So I stepped in. Studying the situation under two opposing mentors did anything but clarify the situation. One mentor, a social worker in the Bolivian community who believes that it is a part of Bolivian culture to work more hours, to live and labor in community and accepts the injustice of it all– the other, a leading Argentine scholar and researcher in the department of labor, self-proclaimed Marxist who desires to break the logic of “the latter” enforce the laws and inform the workers of the exploitation they unknowingly endure. Working with both of these mentors I constantly felt pressure to “pick a side.” Yet I ended the process with a very neutral approach. “Neutral,” in this case, does not mean apathetic, or indecisive, or uncertain. It really just means real. Realistically frustrated and unwilling to make a sweeping conclusion about what is right, how to execute it and who to believe.

No, don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe there is right and wrong. Truth has a capital “T” for me, and Justice follows suit. Yet, in this ideological battle I can’t claim a stake in the solution. Yet. Probably never (this is probably what they meant about me being an undergrad). But for now I have more questions for the future, I have a deeper desire to observe which ideology will win: will nonprofits enforce their vision of justice? Will workers maintain their system endless workdays, purchasing machines, hiring others and climbing the latter under capitalists and corporations? Will the government physically enforce the standards they agree to in writing? Observing is so passive, yet I wonder with a sincerity and desire to hear the unheard voices and to write their words and their responses to share a dialog of frustration and confusion, of tension and intentional inclusion. But for today, from far away I conclude:

Justice is not so simple.

Justice, in a multitude of ways, comes down to how we help. Personal application out of the intellectual exploration…. So what do I advocate for? Where do I place my activist zeal and energy? Where do donate my resources? Who do I side with in this sweatshop debate, where do I aim my fire and publicly shame on my twitter and facebook accounts?

Justice is not so simple. It is too real for your virtual rebukes and too complicated for your 140 character catchphrases.

I certainly don’t dare give up or leave the conversation as another defeated enthusiast, deflated philanthropist or disappointed do-gooder. I won’t leave this situation without hope. Never. Instead, I desire that you – after following me through a mental circus – will not heave an exhausted sigh and turn to a happy TV show or to your instagram feed to relieve the weight of it all and forget the frustrating facts… but rather, that you will press in deeper. Be unsatisfied. Ask questions. Understand first, maybe you can talk later. Understand people before you talk at them about what is just. Explore, investigate. But avoid doing so disconnected and distant from those you “study” – no, no, don’t study people. Know them. Hear them. Soak in their days, challenges, their “wins” and their “losses” – your assumptions will probably surprise you, they will jump out at you and you will be so embarrassed at your ignorance. But HOLD ON. do not stray far from a standard of justice. Injustice is there. It hunts down the dependent and weak. Do not sink into a postmodern acceptance or allowance of an open definition of “what is right for you” or cultural norms trumping universal values. No, suffering exists, injustice creeps in the shadows of poverty and affliction and it plays in the daylight while the blind enjoy their luxuries. Please…CRAVE JUSTICE. Crave it enough to discover it. Daily. and rediscover. It is a labor of love.

I am not afraid of death.

DISCLAIMER: This is less of a travel post, more of a pondering post. Yet, traveling takes us to places where we experience new views of death and life. There are new rituals, beliefs and questions. So today I write less of the philanthropy and more of the philosophy. The philosophy informs us, it guides us, shapes us and equips us. So forgive the appearance of irrelevance and allow me a moment to get to the root of fear: death.

I am not afraid of death.

And that isn’t because I don’t think about it, nor is it due to ignorance of death’s sting. I am not afraid of death, I hate it.

At times I find myself a cold academic writer: premise one, premise two, conclusion, case and point. It’s a weakness, I like to boil it down to the sheer facts, I argue for truth and rational thinking, I critique the emotional arguments and avoid tears whenever debating. But today I am not debating. I am just writing.

I am writing this, about how I am not afraid of death, because I deeply, passionately and sincerely desire that you too escape the prison of fear. In a heartfelt plead, I write humbly asking you to consider what it would mean to have an authentic hope for the redemption of death. Could death itself be redeemed? Could the “end” actually be restored into life springing forth? A leaf fallen regaining vibrant color. The river bed refilled with fresh rushing water. Dry bones reassembling, ashes dancing… Perhaps that is too surreal or fantastical for you. I find it beautiful. Inspiring. Within reach.

Please do not fear death – Because Death has lost.

(This is a moment when my heart stops my hand from writing what my head is thinking)

My heart pauses… death has lost?! Really? Did it lose when cancer stole my uncle last night? Did it lose when my cousin died in a motorcycle accident today? Did it lose when it seized my grandfather with brain cancer?! My cousin’s suicide! Death lost?! What a daring and almost cruel supposition.

Imagine there is a god. And He said that He beat death. Would YOU believe him?

Well you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t believe that “god beat death” if he created it. If he didn’t create it? He caused it? He allowed it? He did anything but beat it, right? Wrong.

Death lost. If God created death, he is cruel. But he didn’t… we did! We created death! We invited death in by hating one another, when we did not steward the Earth, when we did not trust the one who made us, when we because abusive, men mistreating women and women mistreating men. We wrecked the canvas. God painted, He designed and ordered a world with beautiful relationships, amazing artwork and no death ZERO. Yet… now there is death! Here it is in my face. Ugly. Sickening. Heart shattering. Confusing. And I hate it.

Now, please don’t jump at the proposition that we created death, quickly assuming the role of the grand defender of humanity. Rather, I invite you to sit back and carefully ponder the assertion. If this God exists, the one who gave us the opportunity and ability to love, share, run, relate, care and laugh… if HE exists, how can death also exist? My heart and my brain are now dually begging my hands to keep writing… to solve the puzzle that so deeply affects my heart, my family, my friends and my society. We are all dying.

I was exposed to death at a young age and have always been more aware of funeral protocol than many of my peers. You could psychoanalyze me and conclude that’s why I am not afraid, I am just accustomed. But can’t we all agree that death is wrong, that it is evil? Well let me explain a bit more of my thought journey, arriving in a place where I can now say:
I don’t fear death, but I hate it.

I believe, with all of my intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual abilities and powers that when death entered the world it was a corruption and a perversion of God’s design. He created life. And death was the enemy. Because this creator artistically designed a human population, his greatest dream, his truest artwork, with an ability to say “yes, no, maybe, I feel… I think… etc. etc.” and not just “yes, master” we make choices daily. Today I decided to wear a scarf, I also decided to wash the dishes, I decided to be rude to my roommate within a few hours of selfishness and I decided writing this all down would help me process the death I am encountering today. You also, made a ton of decisions today. So we are wired like God in our ability to think, feel, create and choose. The choice factor allows for ANY aspect of God’s canvas creation to go haywire. I don’t know about you but I usually don’t let anybody touch my school essays or my work projects, certainly not a rampant two year old, let alone an enemy. Well, God has to be serious about this choice thing. He can’t arbitrarily take and give freedom, otherwise, its never really freedom.

All this to say… God created us with a freedom to choose what we do. And we all know that this is the most profound love story: that the lover does not manipulate or articulate the beloved’s words into a self-serving sonnet but instead surrenders certainty and awaits her with open arms.

Here the story is interrupted by death. Not at the creation, not at God’s hands, but at our own. Not puppet hands, not matrix hands but free hands with a free head and body connected.

The thing about this “God” figure, off in the distance, is that in reality He has no distant relationship with us, He has always been near. Which is why death should not imprison us, our near God hears the nervous heartbeat and the uncertain thoughts and offers us the key to life, surrendering certainty and awaiting us with open arms. You see, death wants us to be fixated on his mysterious, shadowy glare, unable to pull back our gaze. Death would love to have us living timid and paranoid. Death always reminds us, whispers to us, “I am coming.” So I ask the cliché question, is that really living? Of course not, a life focused on death is a life crippled and restrained from its deepest purpose and fullness. This God is near to drive out fear. Actually, This God is so very near that He makes it easier to understand what it is that He has always offered us, He opens the door wider and He says, “look, here I AM, the image of the invisible God, the logos, the wisdom, the Truth – THE LIFE.” Those are bold words, Jesus. For some guy walking around Judea 2,000 years ago His words still have some deep relevance. This isn’t the Jesus who holds sweet baby lambs, white-washed with rosy cheeks, he’s not the Jesus of Westboro Baptist nor the angry preachers yelling from my university campus amphitheater. This Jesus is the one who flipped tables of the so-called religious, who gave women relevance and attention, who touched the lepers and welcomed the outcasts, this is the Jesus who healed brokenness and scolded selfishness. The Jewish man who opened eyes of the blind came with a purpose. His purpose and identity cannot be dismissed: THIS JESUS IS THE ONE WHO DEFEATS DEATH.

 

He is the one who replaces our fears of death with hope for life, with restoration and beauty, with wholesome and genuine relationships. I am not afraid of death because death – a product of choice, greed, confusion, pain and pride – has been defeated. We are invited to opt out of the scariest thing we have ever encountered. The question that stumps us, the reality that breaks us, the future that awaits us. We are all dying. We are not destined to be prisoners of death but rather we are beckoned to be victors in life.

Fear is crippling. I couldn’t deny that. Death is arguably the most crippling of them all, the opposite of the design, the corruption of our very being, the end of our understanding and the fullest pain and heartbreak of our dying world. So we search for a solution. (I find that we are either seekers or we are apathetic – I do not grant a third category for a human being.)

In the searching process we run into a wall of ideologies. BAM: Buddha, Bible, Enlightenment, Yoga, Stars, Aliens, Physics, Mohammad, Yahweh, YOLO, Fate, Marx, Maximized Utility, Fulfillment, Health & Wealth etc.

But I must tell you: all religions, all ideologies, all philosophies ARE NOT EQUAL. This is a fallacy repeated in the realm of apathy and ignorance. It avoids deep tensions and reduces reality, but matters of life and death are worth your time and attention. Allow your mind and your heart the experience of earnestly seeking truth. I have given you my honest defense, rather, my appeal, for why I seek and how I find freedom from death in a way that revolutionizes my understanding of my worth, that strips my fears and inspires me to offer you the same relief, the same escape and the same spring of life… Overflowing, bubbling, rushing through a once dry river bed.  

As I have sought I have encountered many solutions for the questions of life and death. But ultimately, I do beg you, in a heartfelt and humble plead, please consider what it would mean to have an authentic hope for the redemption of death through Jesus Christ, the Life.

 

I am not afraid of death. Will you be?

I am….. (tourist.student.human.suffering traveler.)

I wrote a letter about the pain of being a traveler, the way that observing suffering hurts the heart and the mind. The inevitability of the imprint left by these experiences. Today, on the topic of observing, I am attempting to change my own mind, to sharpen my thinking and to do so for a greater purpose.

For years I have hated being a tourist. In the last months in Argentina I have been trying to reconcile, rather deny, the fact that, yes, I am a … a… tourist. (dagger to the heart). I have written three blog drafts, unable to admit this, hoping I could wiggle my auto-definition as something more, bigger, deeper, better. But the reality is, even my passport has a fat “90 day tourist” stamp on the nice bald eagle painted pages. Sure I am studying, doing a cool research project, living as much of my life in Spanish as possible, but the Argentine government, my classmates, friends and the waiter at the cafe all know that I AM A TOURIST.

unhappily so.
thankful.
but discontent.

What’s so wrong with tourism? 

  • “the modern tourist is just a passive onlooker who seeks to enjoy the extravagantly strange from the security of the familiar.” (Daniel Boorstin)
  • “tourists… the very places they patronize are destroyed by their affection.” (Thir Shah)
  • “To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home. You’re able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operation of sound thought. Tourism is the march of stupidity. ” (Don Delillo)

Tourism is destructive as we dehumanize those we capture with our iPhones and our Fujifilm FinePix. We upload them and take them home, nameless, as a display of how “cultured” or “well traveled” we are. Sure, not so poor of intentions, we are excited tourists, curious and easily amazed. But when we stop at this level of tourism (without thinking, relating, staying)  it is destructive. However… when we start at tourism I think we can go somewhere beautiful, meaningful, good. So, with much thought… I propose a progression of possibility:

THE PROGRESSION

  1.  We come: as tourists, blessed to have an opportunity to travel, experience, watch, wander. We do the march of stupidity: lost, helpless, amused. We go to the places we’ve heard of, try new foods, buy strange trinkets and journal our mind-changing, self formative moments.
    It’s easy to get stuck at step 1…. but we MUST continue.

     

  2. We think: as students, as beings who have been given intellect, imagination. We think about what it means. all of it. it’s horrifically overwhelming and uncomfortable to be faced with the implications of what we start to unravel, to recognize the power complexes and historical remnants of what we have “toured.” At this juncture we become engaged tourists
    But thinking more does not absolve me. It prepares me for more….

     

  3. We relate: life itself is designed for relationships. Without relationships we are robotic: trampling earth. we are animals: chasing fleeting fleshly desires. we are tourists: photographing pain without relating to the lives that are unfolding in front of us. Being human means we are also selfish. so we have to very intentionally take the scary step of relating to others outside of our comfort zone: with humility and with open hearts, more open than our camera lenses, more open then our journals or our mouths. Open hearts. We become more than a consumer and that Bolivian man becomes more than a vendor. That child becomes more than a beggar as we become more than a bank. We give humanity to those around us as we relate human to human. letting the reality of the suffering hit us full force. Neglecting to turn away.
    and yet, the real leap comes between being respectful and being risky. long term risky.

     

  4. So we stay: we move in. we become a neighbor. we quit tourism for something greater. we start putting the philosophical  observations into practical problem solving. we trade the distant studying for close care taking. I am reconciling the fact that this is where it’s at. INVESTING. We begin the process of interchanging, interrelating, interwoven lives that heal brokenness and revive locations of death and suffering. In humility we consider others better than ourselves and lay down our lives for our neighbors, friends and family to know the truth. The truth of their worth, the truth of the hope of restoration, the truth of God’s deep love and transformative power. We plant ourselves in a place where we can speak with understanding with awareness because we have observed. We grow in a way of mutual and collaborative living. Giving and receiving. 

I haven’t forgotten. the point still remains. this process is the ideal. It’s not unreachable if we are reliant of the love of Jesus and His power to save and restore at all angles. I am attempting to change my own mind, sharpen my own thinking and live more rightly. I am not satisfied. I AM A TOURIST. But I refuse to stop there.

I write because I found a need.

I don’t like to write without a purpose. without a puzzle to be solved. But today I have that itch… the kind that sticks in your brain, a thought that begs to be unleashed, questioned, investigated. Of course this itch is dangerous if one actually believes that they are capable of unpuzzling this broken world. Yet, I find it even more dangerous to leave the mess behind, ignore the questions and continue on in bliss.

Therefore, to you I write. I write a blog because I found a need. As a 21 year old studying abroad: I am “only an undergrad” an “ignorant idealist” and people are more than happy to remind me of these things. However, today, I find myself in Argentina, living with a family in Buenos Aires. My time here consists of Spanish grammar drills, but the academic focus is “Social Movements and Human Rights.” I have been here for two months, Buenos Aires, Bariloche, Salta and Jujuy… and I have discovered a need, a deep need that itches my brain.

Since I found this need – I write. 

What is this need? Well, the people I walk by daily need food, they are thirsty, struggling to survive and begging for sympathy, for a moment of respect, they want their dignity but they need the basics. My heart crumbles everyday in the subway, on the street, in the bus. I can’t escape it but why should I?

THIS. Is the question of my blog. What can we do as travelers, tourists, observers, students, interns? Who are we to come in and “fix” things? Who are we to walk away, to turn a blind eye? WHO WILL YOU BE when faced with poverty, with popular protests and with the pain of people unloved and dirty?

In these tensions I find myself floating, fighting and fidgeting…
I don’t write to escape them, but rather to share them, to process with you, wherever you may be in the process of traveling, studying, planning, living. 

The need is great: its under your roof, around the block, across the train tracks, in your school and across the globe. It surrounds you and me. I am convinced that we all are in desperate need whether it be physical, emotional, spiritual or social.  

My friends, in this little blog I hope you find a bit of consolation and companionship, a piece of the puzzle you were looking for, but I hope you find a challenge and a deep discomfort: a call to be more and to love deeper. I desire that your dignity is restored as you restore the dignity of those around you. 

Grace and Peace to you, Sincerely,
A fellow traveler, wanderer and wonderer.