I have now been in Guyana for over a month. There is so much I could say about my time here so far – about the new discoveries, about the beauty of the people and the landscape, about all that I am learning, and the consolation and joy of ministry here. What I want to write about, though, is something about why I am here.
I’m here because one of the things that emerged from the Exercises was a call to be with the poor, and to accompany people who are suffering in some way. I thought that Guyana would give me an opportunity to test that call and to explore it. From the beginning, then, I have been trying to feel out what God intends for me here – what he wants me to learn, how he wants me to grow, or what he wants me to experience.
In many ways, poverty and suffering are not uppermost in my experience here. Life is simple, even basic, but I do not get a sense that people are ground down by material poverty. People have homes, and people have enough to eat. There is basic education and healthcare. Yet the longer I spend here, the more I become aware of an undercurrent of quiet suffering, much of which goes unspoken and almost unnoticed.
Education here is very poor. In the interior, where I am, most children do not go to secondary school but remain in ‘primary tops’ – they do not pass the end-of-primary school exam, so they stay there. Of those who do go to secondary school, a very small percentage pass their examinations in Maths and English: failure rates in recent years have ranged between 60%-90%. Those children who are fortunate enough to get into secondary school have to study far from home and family, cramped into dormitories. The experience is not good for their mental health. The barriers to learning are huge, and this underachievement, frustration, and sad waste of potential has become ingrained and accepted as inevitable. The lack of education severely limits the opportunities for young people – many go to Brazil, where they are exploited as cheap labour. Others go to the mines.
A life of faith here is difficult, too. The people are wonderful and deeply faithful, but they are defenceless against other denominations who come in to villages preaching against the Catholic Church, and not infrequently offering material bribes for people to join their congregations. The result is confusion, desolation and division within communities. The lay leaders in the Church here are fantastic, but they do not have the resources or the formation to handle situations like this, and the priests and religious are too few – many villages see a priest only four times a year, and the four sisters cannot cover much ground either. The flock of Christ is vulnerable here, like sheep without a shepherd.
Many communities are facing a loss of their indigenous culture, or pressure to forsake it in the name of development. One of the reasons indigenous children do so badly in the education system is that they are educated in English, not in their mother tongues. They study a curriculum that reflects the experience of the coast, not the reality of life in the interior – they study things they have no experience of and do not need to know about, and the importance of their own experience, culture and knowledge is ignored. Here, being indigenous means being limited, undereducated, exploited, being almost defenceless in the face of rapid social change, and unable to take advantage of it. The resulting frustration finds its way out in drinking and domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, hopelessness, passivity, emigration and the weakening of community life. The people are hugely resilient, but the word that springs to mind is defenceless. This is the suffering that remains silent and does not open its mouth.
How can I accompany these people? I do not know – at the moment it is just being present to the wounds. I find myself wondering a lot about what I would do if I had the resources: so much is possible, and there are so many ways in which I would love to open up spaces in which indigenous people here can flourish in the way they should be able to. But I think my task for now is just to accompany the people on their way of the cross.
Lately I have been reading Jean Vanier a lot, and reflecting on his invitation to live with the unguarded heart of Jesus:
To understand how Jesus lived and acted,
to understand his compassion and anger,
we must understand
that there were no barriers around his heart,
as there are in us,
barriers which prevent us from being truly compassionate,
barriers which block the flow of love,
barriers which separate us from God
and from reality,
barriers which separate us from pain. (Jean Vanier, Jesus the Gift of Love)
On Friday, during the Stations of the Cross, I was thinking of this, and my own attempts to be a bit more like the condemned and misunderstood Jesus – to stand defenceless, not opening my mouth in the usual reflexes of self-defence and self-justification. Jesus does not do this – he does not guard himself in any way. And part of me, I think, felt that that was the way of serenity and peace. But it is actually the path of suffering. I think this is what God wants me to learn here – to understand more of what it means to be alongside his suffering people. He wants me to walk not just in the steps of Simon of Cyrene, who strengthens and consoles, but in the steps of Jesus, who is beaten and does not shield his face against insults and spittle.
Perhaps, in these people, Jesus is showing me more of that call to be with the poor. I made my initial response, and now he is asking me, ‘Can you drink the cup that I must drink?’ Because in this people, in their poverty and lack of education and frustration and violence, Jesus is drinking the cup. Jesus is present with the poor and suffers with the poor – their suffering is his suffering. I have always known this, but now I am beginning to understand it. Jesus suffers with his people, not as a strong man, leading and comforting, but as a weak man, beaten to the ground and not opening his mouth. This is not the silence of peaceful consolation, but the silence of innocent suffering that, unbelievably, does not speak out in self-justification or self-defence, and for whom nobody speaks.
Pray, if you do, for the people here. And pray for me, that I continue to listen for the call of Jesus and respond with generosity.
Lord, I know that there will be times when I will abandon you in your suffering people.
There will be times that I am afraid for myself and I run away.
There will be times I watch from a distance.
There will be times that I wish you would speak up, or act in self-defence.
There will be times when I deny you.
Lord, you will walk your way of suffering nonetheless.
You will be merciful about my failures, and you will look on me with compassion.
Please give me the strength to accompany you, and above all
to respect your suffering and to learn from it –
not to make you walk my way of the cross, or the stations that I would have you walk,
but to walk your own way of suffering.
Help me to accompany you.
Help me to love you in your suffering and be faithful to you in it.
Mary, you remained close to your son throughout his suffering.
You bore him then as you always had done.
Keep open in me the space that faithfully bears Jesus.
Keep me close to him, and ask the Father to place me with his Son.