Since our arrival in Lima nine days ago, we’ve been immersed in new flavors of chaos: the ever-present hum of combis and buses, cool glasses of chicha morada, glimpses of mountains in the distance catching me by surprise, the taste of a new language on the tongue, soaking in the rapid-fire Spanish while only understanding a quarter of what people share with me. It’s been a whirlwind. I’m grateful for my two fellow YAVs, Catherine and Kristen, who also need space and silence at night to process what we see in the day.
Though the experiences on our path leading us to Peru have been vastly different, we share intentionality in the way that we speak, act, and occupy space in the world. There’s one question we’ve returned to again and again:
“Why am I here?”
My years in Washington DC and Little Rock exposed me to the injustices that exist within my own country. The United States is not some shining model of equality. Our upcoming election is a humbling reminder of all the work that is left to do in the United States. Not all lives matter equally in my country and until they do, there’s work to be done. There are gross injustices that I will continue to fight when I return.
Yet here I am, in Peru. Why?
At our YAV orientation last year (and I’ve been reminded of this many times reading the blogs of the new YAVs), we were told that we are not needed. In fact, with the amount of money the church is investing in me to serve as a YAV, four local Peruvians could be hired. But instead they get me, bumbling along trying to learn two languages. It’s wildly inefficient to have me serve as a YAV here.I know that someone else could do the work I’m doing better and more efficiently. The organizations we’re serving with are doing good work on their own and will continue to do good work when we leave.
I am not needed.
Yet here I am.
I find it’s easier to answer why I’m not here: to “solve” anything, “save” anyone, or to get that awesome new profile picture of me surrounded by children of color. I’ve read a myriad of articles (like this one or this one) that has explained the perils of voluntourism. I am absolutely not a savior, and I will do all I can to lean away from the white savior industrial complex. I cringe thinking that people back home might think of us as missionaries, here to “bring God” to the people of Peru. God is already here. We have the opportunity to bear witness to the movement of her spirit.
Last year in Little Rock, I was far more transformed by Ferncliff, Second Presbyterian Church, and Mercy Church than my presence transformed them. I did not change any of these institutions, yet I was changed while serving with them. In the same way, this year isn’t about changing the people, the culture, or anything else. This year is about opening myself up to the realities of my new context and allowing myself to experience transformation.
But still, the stereotypes linger. I was explaining my concerns with Jed, our site coordinator’s husband and mission co-worker through the PC(USA) here in Peru. After explaining my skepticism of why I’m even here, he shared this quote with me:
“If there is no friendship with [the poor] and no sharing of life with the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love only exists among equals.”
– Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation
He told me that my job this year is to make friends: to engage in authentic relationships with people I would never have come in contact with if it weren’t for this program, to be present with people as they share beautiful and heartbreaking stories, and to know—not just in my mind, but in my heart—that my liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people.
My heart has already been broken since coming here. We spent our first day learning about the beauty of Andean cosmology, which seeks balance in all things and points of union between opposite aspects of life. The next day we discussed Spanish colonization and the subsequent near-destruction of an entire way of life in the name of religion and gold. That afternoon, we visited the San Francisco Cathedral built in the 1600s, where I was struck by the altars lining the main sanctuary built entirely out of gold. This gold, which was supposedly for the glory of God in the building of this cathedral, was acquired through the destruction of the Incan people. I felt sickened. I was left wondering whether Christianity has done more harm than good in the world, especially as an institution. How did the radically nonviolent peace-filled teachings of Jesus become so corrupted? Again, I was left wondering why I’m here and whether, as a North American, I’m participating in the legacy of colonization. I think this is a question I’ll return to all year.
The following day we learned about the political violence and internal armed conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) was a Communist militant group in Peru and modeled themselves primarily after Mao Zedong’s People’s Revolution in China. Other guerilla groups began organizing at the time as well, all with the intention of removing the government and changing the structure of society. Shining Path began by focusing their efforts in the countryside and the mountains, taking advantage of the extreme poverty of its inhabitants. The Peruvian state responded to the armed struggle, but never responded to the systemic issues of poverty that generated the struggle in the first place. Soldiers from the state went into the Andes in the name of defending the indigenous population, but couldn’t communicate with them. The Andean population was caught between two forces: guerillas and other armed groups and the state. Both were horrifying. Shining Path didn’t wear uniforms to identify themselves, so the state relied heavily on profiling anyone who looked “suspicious” and arrested them. Thousands were “disappeared.” “Desaparecidos” are people who were arrested by the state because of their suspected affiliation with communism and then vanished without a trace. In total 62,000 were killed and thousands disappeared, most at the hands of the state. Two-thirds of those killed were indigenous.
To make this more real for folks in the US, there’s a combat training school called the School of the Americas (recently renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) that has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, psychological warfare, military intelligence, and interrogation tactics. Graduates of this school have been high-ranking military officials, responsible for some of the worst atrocities Latin America. It was supported by the United States because of its apparent hatred of communism; these tactics were meant to combat the rise of communism in Latin America. Among those targeted are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced to become a refugee by those trained at this school. One of the graduates of this school was the primary actor in a 1985 massacre of 69 people in Accomarca, Peru. He ordered his unit to separate the children and women of the village from the men so that his unit could rape them, then ordered them into buildings which we set on fire, burning them alive. This is simply one act committed by one person of the 64,000 people who have attended this school.
This school is located in Fort Benning, Georgia, just a five-hour drive from where I grew up. It’s still open.
My liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people.
This is also why I don’t think of my years serving in Washington DC, Little Rock, or this year in Peru as gap years. A gap implies an empty space, an abyss, a hole in between two things, where something is missing. A gap year then is like a year that exists outside of time. I want this year, like my two previous years, to be woven seamlessly into my future. I want what I’ve learned about myself and the world in these three years to inform the person I am becoming. In these years, I have begun doing the internal work of becoming the best, or at least most authentic, version of myself. I’ve left my bubble of privilege and have been exposed to unimaginable realities. Now, I’m searching for how I can integrate, as theologian Frederick Buechner writes, my deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger.
I’m leaving Lima tomorrow morning and heading to Moyobamba, where I’ll be living the rest of the year. I don’t think I’m ready, but I don’t suppose I ever will be.
I’ll leave you all with my favorite Psalm, which also happens to be one of my favorite YAV songs:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go to the heavens you are there,
If I make my bed in the depths you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me.
Your right hand will hold me fast.
(photo cred goes to the amazing photographer and fellow YAV Kristen!)