A woman’s home in Peru collapsed last Tuesday night. Raging winds ripped apart the reeds and sticks that made up her walls and roof, carrying them away into the night. The woman was eight months pregnant. She ran from her ransacked house and through the cold river of mud that used to be her street. A nearby aunt’s adobe house provided her a temporary shelter.
That night, the two women huddled together for comfort, wondering what else the wind would take. Meanwhile, a few miles away on the other side of town, 16 Villanova students were preparing for sleep, worrying about the bugs that might crawl into their beds. We gently fell asleep with the soft sound of rain pattering on our windows.
Before embarking on a service trip, you are told that you are being sent to live in solidarity with the poor – to understand the plight of poverty and absorb it into your own life.
But in reality, there is no way that a group of middle-class Americans can ever understand what it is like to be that woman alone in her house of sticks. We will never know poverty as she knows it, and we will never know her fear. Even after paying lots of money and flying thousands of miles to get close to the poor, we were still inside our bubble – a bubble with a cooking staff, a concrete roof and a locked iron door.
What is the point of a service trip, then? To help the poor? When our group woke the next morning and heard of the neighborhoods that were destroyed, we naturally wanted to help. We had the hands, we had the resources and we had a desire to serve and make a difference. So we set out, feeling good about ourselves, feeling like we were going to get something done. Unfortunately for us, things work a little bit differently in the Third World.
We loaded ourselves in the van with a vague idea of where the neighborhood was but without street names or addresses to guide us, without Google Maps to show us where to turn. We were lost before we even began. Even though we had a local guide with us, we were still unable after an hour of searching to find the woman or her house.
Of course, we saw plenty of people working on fixing their own houses – people that we could have helped. People we wanted to help but couldn’t. We were only allowed to help people that the government or the church provided supplies for.
We wouldn’t want the community to start expecting handouts and help from every gringo that comes to town. Frustrated and with feet planted firmly in our mouths, we were driven back for lunch – where we crawled back inside our bubble.
The next morning, we finally determined where the woman lived, so we went out to find supplies. We stopped by the civil defense agency of the government and asked for wood and metal to rebuild the house.
They sent us packing – there were no more supplies to distribute. We decided that we would buy the supplies ourselves – surely there must be a Home Depot around here somewhere, right?
Wrong. We drove around for the rest of the morning, searching for wood and sheet metal. We looked in stores; we looked in churches; we even looked in neighborhoods for anyone that had extra wood lying around.
There was simply none to be found in the entire town. Here we had the resources, the manpower and the will to put a roof over a pregnant woman’s head, and there was simply nothing we could do to help. We were powerless.
Now, we did plenty of other work during our time in Peru. We built a playground and spread happiness and health information to a lot of people. There were plenty of lessons to be had from the experience.
But my biggest lesson was in the service that we didn’t – that we couldn’t – do. If I was frustrated after a single week trying to improve living conditions in Peru, I can only imagine how the woman without a roof must feel.
But even though I can only imagine, I can still share in her frustration, and only by sharing in the frustration of poverty can we begin to approach living in solidarity with the poor.
Jake Schoneker is a senior humanities and political science major from Landsdale, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]