By: Ross Jones, SJ
For the past six years I have been accompanying groups of students for three-week immersions in the Philippines, up to three times each year. In each of those immersions, we spend just under a week living in a community outside Manila, Bagong Silang, the first GK village. We live with that community and, with the locals, help build homes for two families. We style the programme an “immersion”, not a tour, because, as far as is possible, we immerse the boys in a new culture – living simply, adapting to strange foods, risking illness, struggling with language, and (in reversal) knowing what it is like to now be in a minority group, a foreigner. A good term, “immersion”. When you are immersed, you struggle a bit, you are shaken out of your complacency, you can lose your footing and flounder, you go under once or twice. Then, you are offered a hand, you steady. You have a new perspective. You come out stronger. You change.
The sixth century Irish missionary, St Columban, once said, “A life other than your own can be your teacher.” That is a timeless truth. The immersion is about being taught. Or, better expressed, it is about formation. Formation of the intellect, sure. But more importantly, a honing of values, a moulding of the heart, a shaping of the conscience. You question what you once took for granted. You are awakened to a new dimension of reality.
Getting the Language Right
The subtitle of this talk, and the theme of our immersions, is “Learning to Serve – Serving to Learn”. This experience is always a two-way traffic. In giving to a community, we are, in turn, gifted by them. So, from the start, I believe it is imperative to speak in terms of "working with or alongside the poor" rather than "doing things for the poor". The former implies that we will learn something from those we serve. The latter suggests that we have all the answers and all the goods, and they just take from our bounty, our generosity, our leftovers. We must recognise that the poor are always subjects of their own change. They can never be objects of our work. We stand alongside the poor, open to learning from them.
I could give you endless examples of this, but one will suffice. I can guarantee that after only one day interacting with the community, the boys will come to me saying, “How come these people have so little, yet they’re so happy?” In one day the GK community can reveal to the boys what their parents, teachers and wisdom figures at home have been trying to convey to them for years. Having doesn’t make you happy. In one day, the GK community shatters the premis that all advertising is built upon – that you won’t be happy unless you look like this, or own that, or have been wherever. What a lesson! That insight alone would justify the journey.
A Regular Partnership
On each immersion, we return to the same communities – deliberately so. This is not tourism. Not a fleeting appearance – here today and gone tomorrow. Not a gesture. This is a relationship. A commitment. An ongoing sharing of lives.
Once, after a couple of visits to the GK community, one of the young local workers was talking with me one evening. He said, “Even if you didn’t build us two houses or bring any resources or gifts, you do something so valuable for this community.” He went on, “The people see the boys and adults come across the seas in their own holiday time, and at some cost, to live with them and to share their lives. They no longer feel like the anonymous poor on a map, or a tally in some demographical statistics. No. They are persons. People who have names, whose lives are worth sharing. Their self-esteem increases and their human dignity is enhanced.” It was a telling observation. And I heard exactly the same on another occasion at an orphange where we regularly work. An ongoing partnership is the starting point for such an outcome.
Our Own Changed Attitudes
Our own attitudes, too, will change as a result of this partnership. We begin with what we call engagement in works of charity. That is, an immediate response to those whom we see in need. We build a home for the homeless. Or the boys decide to sponsor a student through high school or college. Or they pay for the hospitalisation of a baby or a child.
But then the deeper consideration soon arises: Why are these people poor? It is not fate, or laziness, or backwardness, or misfortune. The experience leads the boys to examine some of the structures of society – how they are controlled and who controls them. They then ask: What can be done? What is my role or our role in trying to change these structures? At this point, we are moving on towards works of justice. The boys start challenging the causes, as well as remedying the effects.
As you might appreciate, coming from a Catholic school, our motives are theological or they derive from our particular spirituality. I won’t explore those here. But in a broader humanistic sense, we go because, in justice, the poor and the needy have a claim on our time, talents and resources simply because they are in need. That is all. And that is everything.
Our model of service in the GK immersion is the cycle of Experience-Reflection-Action. The Experience is easy. It is simply engaging in the work of service: building the house, conversing with the lonely, visiting a home, taking the sick to a medical centre, playing with the street kids, and so on. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” So it is critical during the process to underscore the importance of Reflection on this experience. Only reflection can allow meaning to surface from the experience. Otherwise our immersion with the poor becomes something like a trip to the art gallery, some spectacle or show. So every night we set time aside for each person to work on their structured Journal, recording their reflections. These are feelings, reactions, aversions, passions, joys, hurts, experiences of God or even of negative forces at work. And then we share them within the group and with an experienced leader who can help them draw something from it all. Questions like these:
Where is God to be found in their struggles?
What can they teach me about values, about what is important?
What is their spirituality that they can share with me?
And where is my particlar poverty – and what form does it take?
What, finally, is the Action? Action is the fruit of the reflection. Without it, all this is merely idle, sterile speculation. The question is, how have I changed? What am I now moved to do as a result of the reflection? The change may be an internal re-jigging – new values, greater compassion, more tolerance and understanding, expanded horizons. Or the change may be external. To get others to work with you for the good. To lobby for social change. To educate yourself more about justice issues. To work on changing some of your own prejudices and biases (or those of your friends). To be confident and able to speak up for the poor To be their advocate.
Some of the immersion experiences are searing ones for the boys – they observe, at close quarters, suffering, privations and even death. There could be the risk of the boys responding with a sense of pessimism or (much worse) insensibility. But a properly-structured immersion, such as the one afforded in a GK community of promise, is a hope-filled experience for them. Hope. “Hope” is a word that has been used many times today. I want those young men who go on immersion to take to heart what St Augustine of Hippo wrote a millennium and a half ago. I leave it with you in conclusion.
“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are. And courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”