On December 23 I received a $10 Starbucks gift card. It was handed to me nonchalantly by one of the long-term missionary staff here at the orphanage as I was leaving the house to play some soccer. “It’s just a Christmas present from Rachel and I,” he said, “so… Merry Christmas!”
He was right, of course, it was just a Christmas present. But with it he and his wife had unknowingly given me something greater: they had surprised me with community.
My love of chatting over espresso is no secret – within the first week I had asked/begged/drugged/jedi-mind-tricked this guy into driving me to the nearby Starbucks – but I was blown away by the simple fact that he and his wife would have even thought, “Hey, let’s get Jordan something for Christmas even though he’s only been here for two weeks and we barely know him and he hasn’t really done anything except mess up easy spanish phrases and we have no obligation to get any of the volunteers anything because we’ve been here for almost a decade and have seen thousands of them come and go and he’s no different.” I mean, seriously!
Then, later, they invited me to an impromptu worship session of music and prayer. Five of us sat in a circle, enjoying the acoustic simplicity, the apple-cinnamon scented candles, and each other’s company. We left knowing it wouldn’t be long before we met again.
These are just two examples of a larger phenomenon. As I’ve thought about it, as I’ve marveled at a month devoid of anxiety and loneliness in a context in which I should almost certainly feel both, three things seemed to stand out as essential to the joy of my experiences here:
1) The first and perhaps most obvious observation is that it has taken the efforts of many people for me to feel that I am being included in the community. Yes, one young couple in particular is responsible for a majority of the warm-fuzzy feelings, but almost everyone here has said or done something that has made me know I am welcome. From offering to drive me places to telling me that I had permission to knock on their door at any hour of the night if I needed something, people have gone out of their way to demonstrate an easy self-giving that has been definitive of most of my relationships. Nothing like this is required behavior.
I totally didn’t see it coming, at least not to such an alarmingly generous degree.
But it’s not a unilateral accomplishment. I, too, have had to make an effort to include myself. Even on days when I’m feeling sick or tired (which have been frequent) I have tried to be involved. This is especially important, I think, in the early stages of entering a new context. Granted, if I’m utterly exhausted or dangerously ill, I’m not going to go play soccer or spoons or anything that doesn’t involve sleeping or vomiting as its main activity, but by this point people know that if I turn down an invitation it isn’t because I don’t want to be with them.
2) I’ve needed to grow up. A lot. I have generally suffered from a deep hypocrisy that usually compels me, in my feverish desire to be included, to distance myself from the people I don’t see helping me in my quest for social mobility. Even if I can tell that someone is lonely, if I think they are “weird” or “awkward” it becomes difficult to ever want to include them. They threaten my social stability, and when you are as desperate as I can sometimes be such people easily become burdens and competition rather than brothers and sisters. Such behavior is, honestly, one of the ugliest things about myself.
But I’ve realized it’s impossible to feel fully included in a community, fully rooted in the life-giving grace of belonging, if I am not willing to go out of my way to become the kind of person I so passionately hope everyone else will be to me. It’s simple, biblical logic. My own inhospitality, my haunting hypocrisy, corroded my ability to find peace. I was always worried other people resented my presence, my idiosyncracies and social failures, my struggles, because I knew myself all too well; I knew that if everyone else were like me, all my fears would be realized.
There are, in fact, people here who my sinful selfishness would want me to avoid. I am not. In fact, I spend more time with one of them than anyone else. And you know what? We have fun. I increasingly enjoy his company, and he has taught me some things that, well, I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I am still in many ways an inhospitable person, but by the grace of God and the patience of others I hope to daily put such toxic hypocrisy to death.
3) I am confident that, should it somehow be discovered that I’m gay, there are numerous people who would stand by my side and advocate on my behalf. Latin America is not always the friendliest place to be attracted to the same-sex, and I’ve encountered some astonishingly aggressive homophobia among the teenagers I work with. But even so, I’ve had numerous conversations about homosexuality with some staff members and other volunteers and I’ve been amazed at the kindness and passion that has been displayed, even without anyone knowing I’m gay. These are safe people. I am safe.
Sure, it would be nice to have an hour where I didn’t need to creatively explain why I wasn’t dating one of the numerous single women in the orphanage, but I’ve matured enough to the point where it doesn’t really bother me all that much. And sure, sometimes it’s frustrating to work with an older woman who has a strange and magical ability to materialize whenever romance comes up in conversations, with a twinkle in her eye and a list of eligible women in her hand, but arguing with her (in spanish) has become more of a cheerful game than anything else.
I’ve learned that one community doesn’t have to fulfill all of my needs in order for it to be profoundly good.
I’ve learned that shifting my focus from “How can this community meet my needs” to “How can I meet the needs of this community” allows for surprising manifestations of care and love to flow more freely from myself and those I live with as we seek to encourage and strengthen each other.
These are not comprehensive observations, but rather just some small points that have been rattling around my dopamine-flooded skull for the past few weeks.
It isn’t a perfect community by any stretch of the imagination; there are some very serious problems that need to be addressed, some very real failures that vitiate the witness of this place. But my, our, passion for this place and these kids is greater than those troubles, and I consider it a privilege to be both aware of and fighting against those things which threaten the growth of this community. It means I really am a part of this place, that my life is in some serious way bound up with the future of the orphanage. It fills me with a fiery sense of purpose that is usually reserved for when I’m engaged in social peacemaking, studying theology, or eating pizza, and I am in awe of it all.
For what little reflection I’ve done on the subject, the blessed occurrence of community remains, like so much of what makes the world beautiful, a mystery.
And that $10 Starbucks giftcard? It bought a couple of mochas for some of the other volunteers before we saw The Hobbit. It just seemed like the only right thing to do.