I stand on the rain soaked slope. A shelter is far too gracious a nomenclature for the random collection of poles, corrugated tin, canvas and palm thatching glued to the collapsing mud bank of the mountain side. A family lives there. A few wisps of the smoke of a cooking fire trail into the sky – evidence of a family carrying on its daily routine. More of a prayer to stay on the mountain.
He’s three or four but still not quite out of the clumsy teetering of a toddler. Shirt and some battered leather shoes yawning to reveal the stubby toes that search for anything stable. No pants. His sister, seven, yanks him onto her hip and over the two foot deep ravine carved into what is understood to be a road. Torrential rains run unimpeded down the clear cut mountainside sculpting trenches that snake like veins on a body-builder across the landscape. Today his dad has stopped in to bring another piece of tin to cover the three foot gap above the boy's bed. Tonight dad will catch the bus back to San Juan del Sur to join the boy’s mom and work. The boy might not see either of them again for a number of weeks. He hangs a little tighter to his sister.
A man in torn jeans hunches over the handle of his welder as lays a bead across a newly laid piece of tin roofing. An extension cord is loosely thrown over the nearby power line. The neighbour’s TV flickers and then blinks out. No shirt. No mask. No worries…
A pair of exceptionally thin oxen plod across the highway: a cart full of sugarcane piled eight feet high in the air. If the beasts were slower perhaps their load would not as quickly be converted into the all sorts of candy that form the staple diet of childhood here. But their load reaches and is then with no small effort converted into the dulcet bricks of dark raw molassesy sugar.
Starting at the top of the hillside, I scramble to the bottom and turn to face the small community pasted up the slope. My stance below the huddled barrio belies my true position. I am the giver. I am the agent of charity. I give and in giving I stretch out my hand against gallons of adversity that threaten to wash away… …even life itself. There is no humility in giving. No grace in charity. It is arrogant pride in its finest and most bewitching trance. I stretch out my finger and the spot it points to screams out for help. Haunting need. Immediate need! Now!
And I can meet that need. My money – not even that of a carefully coordinated fundraising campaign. My money! My money meets the now needs of every place my finger points. And as I lift my finger having met that need a new one springs to life in its place. I can dream of bigger money than mine. Money that could meet a dozen fingers pointed at once onto that mountainside. I have already coordinated in my mind the soup and pie lunches and the raffle tickets and…
…a church goes up here, a clinic – a retaining wall keeps the mountain back over there. My dentist friend is pulling teeth, my construction buddy is putting up rafters, my coaching friend has got those kids ready to win their local tournament. Needs met. Joy imparted. I can do this… I can DO this!
It falls to MY evaluation that these people are worse off than I am. And in a place where destitution can be warded off with lunch money – there is an intoxicating elixir to be consumed. I drink. The moment I place myself as the giver of charity – the gift that sneaks along for the ride is the way my gift puts them in the position of getter. Willingly enough it would seem – the smiles dance when the gifts are brought out and passed around. I have told them that they are not as good as I am – whether they acknowledge it or not. It is not so far from colonialist agenda that I aspire to.
I stare in the face of my charity with contempt now – seeing it for what it really is – my own vindication of my superior position. My easy gift. It occurs to me that we can give to meet the needs of now which are not fictitious needs. There is real pain now – real struggle now – real hardship now – real need now! But we can also meet the needs of then. These are just as real but not as obvious. These needs don’t stare you in the face before you close your eyes every night. These needs are not the haunting echoes of a mudslide or child being consumed nightly with worms. These are the kinds of needs that require a different kind of giver.
The needs of tomorrow are understood by living inside a community of pain and entering the rhythm of it agony. The needs of tomorrow are observed when the impulse to extend our arrogant giving to the NOW is curbed in favour of some long term investment. How do you affect the accepted logic of leaving your children alone in a ramshackle hut to find work in another country? How do you step into the relational dynamics that exact furious pain between genders inside and outside of marriage? How do you break cycles that perpetuate poverty that only deepens (in spite of all the money we have thrown at the NOW needs)? The giver who might try to make this their charity ought to consider that the cost is not one’s personal fortune or fame. It is a life. A life. A life that stays. A life that chooses not to escape the reality of pain. A life that chooses not to appease guilty consciences and incessant nightmares with dollars. A life – no less. A life – no more!
Somehow this song seems to tag nicely with these sentiments...