Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Exodus, Movement of the People

Classes update: Today we watched our 895th documentary on “free” trade and enforced globalization of markets and how much they hurt the world’s poor.

I have about had it with these. Not that I disagree with the argument – I’m just tired of hearing the same things over and over. And I already agree, so it’s like, enough already, I got it! I end up taking devil’s advocate positions just to make things in more interesting…

All of which is rather ironic, as the first part of our orientation to this semester program emphasized a non-hierarchical, critical-thinking-based form of learning, based on experiences followed by communally-formed interpretations of those experiences. I had my doubts about the possibilities of this model, too – it’s just kind of funny to see things turn out to be exactly the opposite.

Maybe the real problem is that our actual experiences have been pretty limited. Most of the week is taken up by reading books and watching documentaries and then having discussions among ourselves in which we all take either leftist or really leftist positions on matters of the day (again, not that I disagree, I’m just tired of the echo chamber).

I suppose that’s what academic classes usually amount to, but I didn’t need to travel to another country to read books and watch documentaries. I want to do something, but I’m stuck in this endless loop. A lot of the time I feel like I am wasting my time.

But this is the trial run of the program, so I should have a little patience, I know. And there have been exceptions – glorious exceptions, really. There was the grito I blogged about a few weeks back. And then there was last weekend.

On Thursday I bought a Latin American Spanish-language Bible (La Biblia Latinoamericana) especially for use in our Bible class, which is taught in Spanish by a local Catholic priest who has over thirty years of parish experience and, lo and behold, did his doctoral work in Brazil under a Lutheran scholar. The class is called “Reading the Bible from the Perspective of the Poor,” and it’s helping me to see things in the Bible that I’ve never seen before. La Palabra de Dios, the Word of God, is coming alive for me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

And it isn’t just Padre Jose Luis who is teaching us. Every weekend (Thursday through Saturday) we stay with host families in Cuernavaca (see “Back in the Barranca” from a few posts ago). Last weekend we learned the history of our host families’ neighborhood.

Thirty years ago the barrio (neighborhood) of San Anton was extremely overcrowded and getting more so every year. Rising rents and low incomes meant that more and more people had to live in each house. Conditions were bad. People wanted out. As our host grandmother told us, “We were the Israelites in Egypt.” And then she read a passage from the book of Exodo (Spanish for Exodus) that she felt described their situation perfectly.

Community leaders went to the government for help, but they were dismissed. (Sound familiar?) Then one day someone looked across the barranca (ravine) and saw as if for the first time that the other side was uninhabited. It wasn’t great land – sloping harshly, of course, as ravines do, totally unfarmable, and full of trees and rocks and wild growth – but it was land.

Problem was, the government owned this land and had its own plans: namely, a new prison. The people petitioned and petitioned for the land, but the government wouldn’t budge. So the people – with the help of Padre Jose Luis, our Bible professor, their parish priest – hatched a plan.

Late one February night hundreds of people left San Anton – an exodus – and carried lumber and tools and lights and food and made their way into the land across the barranca. They came by three different entrances so as to attract less attention on their way, but by morning their late-night land takeover was plain for all to see. The new barrio of La Lagunilla had been founded.

Of course, Pharoah does not let you go that easily. Our storyteller read us another passage from Exodo and then told of how the local government sent police and national guard troops to surround the area immediately. But the people held firm. They appointed lookouts, and sent up fireworks into the air whenever there was the slightest hint of trouble, so that all the people could gather together and thereby maintain their strength. They didn’t have weapons, after all. They had only their faith in the God of the Exodus and their dependence on one another. Padre Jose Luis, for his part, stayed with them, celebrating mass and providing pastoral accompaniment.

The standoff in the barranca lasted months. In the Exodus, the Israelites finally escaped their captors and gained their freedom by miraculously crossing the Red/Reed Sea, but there is no sea in landlocked Cuernavaca. Something else happened instead.

One day the President of Mexico (!) came to visit Cuernavaca, to dedicate a newly built school. The school was near the area of the land takeover, so a large group of people from La Lagunilla marched to the school and demanded to speak with the president. While they were waiting, one of the women marching started crying. She cried, and she cried, and she could not stop crying. She carried flowers in her arms in the hopes of getting the president’s attention, but now she was crying and could not stop. When the president emerged from inside the school, he noticed the woman. He asked his advisors why the woman was crying, but they could not tell him. So he went over to the woman, and asked her. And she told him everything.

By the end of the day the president had ordered the military off the land. The people were free. And the very first thing they built, the first permanent structure after receiving their freedom, was a church, to celebrate, to thank God. (At this point a chill ran down my spine – this was exactly what we had been told in Nebraska, too: that the first thing the new Nebraskan settlers did was to build a church.)

Every year since that day the people of La Lagunilla remember their freedom with a celebration. Like the Passover, the Lagunilla celebration begins at night, at the hour the exodus began. By morning it is full of fireworks and food and festivities, and everything culminates in a worship service.

Then our storyteller read us another passage from Exodus. Liberation, she reminded us, was not the end of the story. For after the Israelites gained their freedom, then the real work began, the long, hard work of building a community, of forming a people. At first, she told us, the community was free of any kind of crime – the community was simply too tight for it. But now, thirty years later, La Lagunilla faces the same problems every community faces. The social fabric frayed. People moved away. New people moved in, people who didn’t know the history, who hadn’t lived the history themselves. So they tell the story again, and retell the story. Such is the work of building and re-building community.

What is an outsider to make of a story like this? At first you just sit in awe. Our storyteller and her husband laughed merrily at us: Didn’t we have any questions?

Questions?, we thought. We are still in shock. We have just heard the story of the Exodus as it happened again in our time. William Faulkner, that great Southern author, once wrote that “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”

Neither, it seems, is the Bible.

1 comment:

Mike and Beth said...

Thanks for this and all of your writing. You make us laugh and smile and think. You both are in our daily prayers!