“Who are our neighbors? How are we called to be in relationships with them?”
|Quentin’s summer classroom in Calcutta, India. Quentin Orem SCU ’11|
As students at Santa Clara University, we find ourselves continually faced with these two questions and their wider implications. As we navigate through our undergraduate careers, we are challenged to consider the larger political, economic, theological, ecological, and social realities that impact our world. Our education shapes our vocational choices and sense of calling, prompting us to move away from the safe confines of the University and work toward achieving good for and with others.
Because we are students of the 21st century, and because we were literally in different countries at the time of this writing, we kept a blog to share our thoughts back and forth. Mark Vetto wrote from Santa Clara, where he is a senior religious studies major, living on campus in the Loyola Residential Learning Community, which is committed to the exploration of faith and social justice.1 Mark also serves as the associate director of the Santa Clara Community Action Program (SCCAP), a student-run social justiceorganization, andhasservedasacampus associate for Catholic Relief Services at SCU. Quentin Orem wrote from San Salvador, El Salvador, where he is a senior philosophy major in SCU’s praxis-oriented study abroad program, La Casa de La Solidaridad.
MARK: Who are our global or local neighbors, and how are we called to be in relationship with them? What makes a total stranger, whose life can be so physically distant from mine, my neighbor?
I could not begin to approach either of these questions if I had not gone on an immersion trip to Juárez, Mexico, for a social justice project during my sophomore year of high school.
One night, I stood on the patio of the house in which my immersion group was staying. I looked out beyond the sprawling slum where we were building two small houses for indigent Mexican families. The house I was staying in was crammed into the slope of a hill, and I could clearly see the border fence less than a mile away. I stood in awe as I realized that because the slum itself had little electricity of its own, the bright lights of an interstate highway, strip malls, and fast food restaurants on the northern, U.S. side bathed the southern expanse of ramshackle buildings and unpaved streets of Juárez with moonlike luminescence. Physically, these scenes were separated by a barbed wire fence and a few miles of desert, but in relation to each other, they may as well have been alien worlds. Faced with this juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, I wondered why this extreme between human beings needs to exist.
I believe this exposure to wide disparities of living is when I first began to think of what a neighbor is, and why it matters that I care.
QUENTIN: During the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I was given the opportunity to work in a school in Calcutta through the Donovan Fellowship at SCU. This was my second trip to India within a year and I surprised myself by returning there, as I had struggled through my earlier two-week journey.
One sweltering afternoon about halfway through my summer in Calcutta, after sweating through one of my English classes (my students had so much patience with my speaking very little Bengali), I rushed to cross the street with my eight-year-old student Uttam, and decided to walk him home. After winding through a maze of back alleys, we arrived at a dirty mat on a busy and noisy sidewalk. A woman was sitting on the mat, begging for money from the stream of legs hurrying by. Uttam dropped his backpack right here, and turning to me, proudly introduced me to this woman, his mother; and this mat was his home.
Burning with awkwardness and shock, I sat down and introduced myself to Uttam’s mother in the two Hindi phrases I knew. “My name is Quentin. What’s your name?”
What had happened in my first trip to India had been a rude interruption of my context, my normal way of thinking about the world. As I had stumbled in a state of shock through the poorer parts of the country, I had felt further and further away from the faces staring back at me as I passed. I was strange to them and they were strange to me.
However, during this second trip, on this mat, something different happened. Uttam dropped his backpack down into his reality and invited me to sit with him, there in his place. Because I had really grown to love him like a little brother, he had taken the strangeness and distance of the lives of the people of Calcutta and written them on my heart. I like to think of Uttam opening me, because opening implies a broadening of what’s already there (like opening a circle of people), a journey ahead to come (like opening new doors), and the discovery of something new (like opening our eyes). Having become bound up with Uttam, the circle of my context opened to include him, and emotions arose in me that continue to move me to places like La Casa de La Solidaridad in El Salvador, where I am writing from today. I was able to really feel in a new way the sadness of a boy living on the street.
MARK: As college students, how can we be present to each other so that we can realize the value and dignity of our lives and those of our neighbors?
I live a rather sheltered life at Santa Clara University and am far removed from the events that plague our world daily. I also tend to have a short attention span; memories of the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan, the mudslides in China, as well as the stories of genocide, war, disease, malnutrition, or hate from around the world are things that I let slip from my memory from time to time. I think that this is true for many Americans, and for many university students. Our lack of attention to events and issues occurring oceans away, as well as the serious problems that affect our community here in the Bay Area and in other parts of the United States, reflects a pervasive sense of disconnectedness.
How can we be so apathetic? Are we forgetting or ignoring what defines our lives and those of others as valuable and worth living? To quote a song by Gregory Dale Schultz, the director of liturgy and music at SCU, “What are we living for, what would we die for?”
If we are honest with ourselves, I think we will realize that it is impossible to get anywhere, to do anything, without the help of other people. The paychecks we receive, the roads we drive on and the cars we drive in, the buildings we use, the clothing we wear, even the languages we speak, have all been distributed, invented, created, or passed on by other people. In fact, most of the things we learn, own, and use for our benefit are the products of someone else’s ideas and efforts (except when it comes to academic integrity, of course). The fact that I am writing this and that someone is reading it testifies that at some point, someone took the time and was able to feed, nurture, and educate me during infancy and onward. A person who does not realize this has not reflected on the complexity of privilege that is his or her life, and is missing something important about the interconnectedness of all of our lives.
QUENTIN: In the same way that it is far richer (though yes, sometimes harder) to know a person we love fully, in the complexity of their lights and shadows, it is far richer to know our world in its fullness, in its lights and shadows.
I came to SCU with a well-defined comfort zone. The Santa Clara Community Action Program (SCCAP) changed that in an irrevocable fashion. When I took volunteers to Julian Street Inn, a local homeless shelter, every Saturday morning to cook breakfast for the residents, a relatable human face was placed upon the often nebulous and misunderstood issue of homelessness.... I began to understand how important realizing the humanity and dignity of others is to building meaningful and positive relationships.
We can carry anger, sadness, frustration, and other difficult feelings as we come to know and love people who struggle with realities more difficult than our own, but it calls us to deeper and fuller love, understanding, and faith in healing. And if we are tempted to believe that the Santa Clara University bubble in which we live is already big enough, your words here push us to see how even within the comforts of our own context, so many people from different backgrounds are contributing to our lives.
MARK: As students of SCU, we hear about the “three C’s,” competence, conscience, and compassion. Put briefly, these three C’s embody key values a Jesuit education works to instill in students by the time they graduate. I’d like to add a fourth C that seems to be implicit in each of these three virtues: courage.
I came to SCU with a well-defined comfort zone. The Santa Clara Community Action Program (SCCAP) changed that in an irrevocable fashion. When I took volunteers to Julian Street Inn, a local homeless shelter, every Saturday morning to cook breakfast for the residents, a relatable human face was placed upon the often nebulous and misunderstood issue of homelessness. I began to think differently about my relationships with others. Namely, I began to understand how important realizing the humanity and dignity of others is to building meaningful and positive relationships.
I was pushed to reflect upon my own life when I went with my fellow students in SCCAP’s Meals-on-Wheels program to distribute food to people whose home was (and likely still is) St. James Park in downtown San Jose. Superficially, this was just a charitable deed, and it seemed like a nice thing to do. The act of giving homeless people sandwiches, coupled with conversations of varying length and detail, made us volunteers feel good about ourselves. More importantly, however, these experiences moved us on a deeply personal level. They prompted us to consider how important it is to stand in solidarity with the poor, to acknowledge and respect their inherent dignity, and to work to assist them out of poverty. I realized my own dependencies and vulnerabilities were mirrored in the lives and circumstances of these other people.
|Students in Quentin’s summer class in Calcutta, India; Uttam (mentioned above) is pictured on the left. Quentin Orem SCU ’11|
Similarly, United Hands, a SCCAP mentorship program that works with teenagers who are living with their families in a transitional housing complex, pushed me further to realize the importance of taking an active role in confronting negative social structures and influences, racial stereotypes, and discrepancies in education and other forms of privilege. Each week, these teenagers would share stories that revealed a world that segregates us because of the color of our skin, the work our parents do, and our education. These marginalized teenagers provoked me to not merely articulate the central question of this essay (“How can I stand in relationship, in solidarity, with my global and local neighbors?”) but to realize that it takes real courage, integrity, and humility to live into this question.
We are not college graduates standing before a perfect and pristine world—but our suffering neighbors call us to be real college students and graduates actively engaging the real world.
QUENTIN: Uttam is one boy of several million who live as he does in India. How can I be attentive to billions of neighbors in need while I have very real and important things that demand my attention in my own life? Questions of self, future, happiness, relationships, friendships, homework, 21st birthday parties—all of these are important in their own way. We don’t have the space in our lives to be attentive to every need and also nurture our own needs and hopes. Jon Sobrino, S.J., offers solace when he says that in the Scriptures, God modeled universal care for humanity through particular care, that is, through God’s care for the Israelites. In this I find comfort, because I don’t have to personally feed every hungry person to be in solidarity with those who are hungry. I know a professor who shows universal care for the downtrodden by paying special attention to undocumented immigrant students in her class. My particular care for Uttam draws out a universal care for people who live without a roof over their heads.
In a way, being attentive to the needs of the suffering multitudes limits our ability to graduate from college completely free to exercise our greatest personal potential without a sense of responsibility. The needs of our neighbors limit us because they call us to respond, they call us to focus our gifts and questions, and put them to use. By entering into another reality, our own reality is deeply affected. We are not college graduates standing before a perfect and pristine world—but our suffering neighbors call us to be real college students and graduates actively engaging the real world.
So instead of letting the reality of the world limit us, let us allow our neighbors to focus us. This does not mean that everyone must do international social work, but rather, to the best of our ability, we ought to bring with us, wherever our passion and strength take us, a sense of the real, fallen, struggling nature of our world.
I hope we can meet each day with eyes and hearts open, to see the opportunities to build these emotional connections with our neighbors, helping us focus more and more on the reality of the one world we live in and our neighbors who live in it.
MARK: The opportunities and experiences that we’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to as students at Santa Clara University instill in us a calling to act for and with our neighbors. Our hearts and minds know the importance of living for and with others. Our experiences during our college years have called us to not simply step over the poor in our doorways (Luke 16:19–31) or walk past the wounded, assaulted person lying in the ditch (Luke 10:29–37). Rather, we are called to take notice of what is happening in and to our world. We are moved to form relationships with our neighbors, whomever and wherever they may be, so that we all can empower one another and build a more just and humane world together.