How easy it is to unite my sentimentality to the poor, but how hard it is to live in their shoes. How hard it is to discipline myself from comfort to work in solidarity with the needy persistently whether it is convenient or inconvenient.
Last week, I was transect walking through the streets of Chajul, Guatemala with a group of Aggies on a research and development project. My particular focus was learning about the realities of food insecurity in this small town in the western highlands of Guatemala. Through impromptu and planned conversations and silent meditations in a balcony facing dirt-floor houses, I kept trying to put myself into what the Chajulenses truly face with empty bowels and cascading rain falling on their adobe and wooden houses with undesired “windows”.
Truth is, I can’t put myself into their shoes, but I learned something extremely valuable from them, what I’ll call now… the perseverance of hunger.
From the people I met, I heard a lot of stories about where they get their food from, when they have some and when they don’t. I still can’t fully grasp the reality that they go for periods eating plain or boiled herbs that they collect from the neighboring mountains, or eating just salt and chili (ground up peppers mixed with water). I couldn’t find out if there were specific times of the year or length of time when this happens. In better times, for the majority, they will pretty much eat plain tortillas with chili and if things get better, which is certainly not year round, they can buy some tomatoes and onions, and for some, beans, and they will be able to buy one or two eggs for the whole family. I heard from several people (both men and women) that families will sometimes buy one egg for four or five family members.
So what is this perseverance of hunger?
A beautiful part of talking to the Chajulenses’ stories was the gift of a window into their fighter heart. Rain comes down in Chajul, and the men still go out at 5:00am to their land to work, because there is need. Children and parents will scavenge the mountains for herbs to eat and sell. The people I got to talk to do not give up. Ernesto, one of the leaders of the NGO we were working with, told me that they never get so bad to the point where there is absolutely nothing; they will not starve to death, they will fight and find something (this goes without saying all the causes that malnourishment has on them). But his tone also showed me the misery of eating just salt for days. I have called the perseverance of hunger the drive from the innermost part of each person to fight to satiate their hunger and need. To work when it is uncomfortable and cold, like the women who walk down the streets to mill the corn three times a day starting at 5:00am, regardless of the weather or their plastic sandals, which seemed to be their only pair of shoes. I talked to someone who told me they do get cold, but it is what they have.
I want to clarify that it might sound very sad, but there is so much beauty in this town, in these lives, and in all whom I encountered. There is profound richness in these peoples’ lives that I cannot fully see or explain. And there is a treasure of glory in all our suffering when it is lived with love.
As I experienced all this, I kept thinking on this valiant, or perhaps simply enduring, spirit that springs from hunger.
In the world I live in, it is very easy to complain about cold water, it is easy to stay at home or turn the heater up when it is cold, it is easy to stay a while longer in comfort before putting all my effort into responding to the needs of justice, it is easy to hope school gets cancelled just because I want a break or because it is too cold outside, it is easy to leave half our food and throw it in the trash and yet go and pay for a small treat, it is even somewhat easy to be uncomfortable for a week in Guatemala knowing you’ll get back to the comforts you lack there…
I ask myself, what am I hungry for? I will tell you… I am hungry for justice, I am hungry for Truth, I am hungry for virtue and selfless love. All in all, I am starving for God.
But then I think….it is easy for me to yield to my bodily desires in expense of striving for what I am really hungry for.
If stomachs turn in emptiness pushing people to find something to eat regardless of what is going on, am I willing to endure whatever it takes to reach these goals I have? Am I willing to strive for virtue when it is rainy outside and cold (and anybody who knows me knows I am a weakling…even a coward… when it comes to the cold)? Am I willing to get up in the cold from a warm, comfortable bed and strive to work and live and die for justice and to have solidarity with those who have no option?
So I ask myself, how hungry am I really? I realize…. I want to be starving for them and learn the perseverance of hunger.
As I walk a Lenten period of perseverance I realize that the temptation to this hunger is it can easily be calmed by the fact that my stomach is full; it is easily quieted by a comfortable life. I am not hungry like Chajulenses; their bowels turn and they can feel it, their body and families will perish without food. So in my hunger for these things which are not felt, but nonetheless in their absence cause a malnourished spirit and unjust world, will I endure?
I thus want to be starving for truth, selfless love and justice, I want to be starving for God every day and refuse to quiet it disciplining myself from comfort to work in solidarity with the hungry persistently, whether it is convenient or inconvenient.
I want that perseverance to do as Pope Francis tells us to do: “to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.”
Perseverance…. comes with patience. So I leave with this picture of the garden beds we built. I know that it will be a while for the vegetables we planted to bear fruit…but tending to them each day will bear a beautiful, life-giving one.