Some of my favorite people come from sh*thole places. These are the places I’ve sought out in my life for various reasons. I’ve sought them out, not, primarily to help those who live there, but because they help me. They are more like me than many of the folks I encounter in the United States. Their crusts of perfection have been cracked open, they’ve been broken by circumstances from which one can never hide. They have gathered their children in the middle of the night as the rumble of a landslide draws nearer, grabbing only their hands, and running for their lives. All of their possessions and several loved ones would end up buried in that mud, and they would begin again. Their souls open and wounded, their hearts so close to the surface you can see their pulsing straight through their eyes which leak sometimes involuntarily as they make their way to the water jugs Unicef left out front of their temporary homes. In other sh*thole places I’ve held the orphans left by AIDS, I’ve met the widows crowned so by the same disease, now raising five children on their own. They’ve told me of the way they plan their crops— some to trade with others for alternative nourishment, and the rest to save for the drought to feed their children. The way they raise goats, not because they are rich enough to dream of eating their meat, but so they can sell one for each child every year to allow them to go to school. Yes, even the girls. These widows’ only hope is that AIDS doesn’t kill them before their children are self sufficient.
These women and men, these children have taught me what it is to live close to the edge, to endure and savor a life which is so apparently tenuous. They have seen me not for the clothes I wear or the color of my skin, but for the cracks in my outside that let the true light out. They are real in a more accessible way than most people will let you access in the United States. They are real because they can’t help but be real. The world has shaped them more quickly than it shapes those of us who are cushioned by air conditioning and car transportation which is better housed than are many people in the world. There are those of us that live in the creek beds and have our rough spots smoothed over a century or more, and those who are born of volcanoes and earthquakes, those who emerge from crevasses left by disease and drought.
I was fortunate enough to have some of those internal volcanoes develop at a young age, and I’ve always sought that reality in others. I needed to emerge from the shell of being “right” and “perfect” and seek what was real in the world, seek others who knew what it was to be broken and healed. It’s why, in my teens and twenties, most of my friends were a good bit older than me. They had enough life under their belts to be real. Broken and healed again, one can find their hearts through the cracks.
I travelled to the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota several times in high school, and I saw there a kind of brokenness I had not born witness to before. I experienced the wisdom of those people, a reality where coming together as one was the only way to survive, and certainly the only hope of thriving. I wanted to live in that way, to learn what they had to teach me. I wanted to learn the way of growth through belonging, of knowing someone through their spirit rather than their possessions or professions. I went there to be healed at the feet of a great matriarch with cracks so deep in her hands and feet one could not wonder about the ease of her path, and a heart so large she enveloped all in her presence.
Later, I made my second spiritual home in El Salvador in the foothills of a relentless volcano. A country whose dense beauty rivals that of Hawaii if you can see through the trash which has no infrastructure to be removed, and the vast slum that has crept up on the edge of San Salvador. If you can live past the gang violence learned in the US before the Bush administration’s shake down of our prison system, sending all of the great gang leaders back to their country’s of origin to carry out the profession they learned within our borders.
In the 24 hours since Trump declared these places sh*tholes, I’ve seen so many posts of immigrant stories. Stories of valor— one African immigrant who entered and reentered a burning building to save several people before losing his own life in the fire, business owners who are now employing other Americans with their ingenuity, and mothers who have started after school programs for children in need. I have read posts, noting that Jesus himself came from a sh*thole place, suggesting that we never know what treasure might be hiding there.
I know who is “hiding” there, and they are not hiding. They are shining their light, they are sharing it with others. They are widows who wake with their children at 5 am to begin the work of walking the 5 mile roundtrip to the well in the morning and plowing the fields and starting the fire to cook before school starts… and then take the time to cook a little soup for the ailing elderly couple on the next farm. They are the fathers who ride a bus two hours to the city every day to earn enough cash to send their children to school, hoping beyond evidence that their children can escape that land of sheer survival. They are the families who sit picking beans together and talking about their days rather than being plugged into their screens each evening. They are the ones who thank God, and mean it, every morning just because they woke up to another day— the day that will bring more hard work and physical pain than most Americans endure in a month. They are not hiding. They are abundant, and if we do not welcome their teaching and their presence among us, it is we who will miss out.
We have a lot to lose by dismissing these countries as sh*tholes. Not just politically-- we lose the lessons they have to teach us about society and connectedness, about resilience and hard work, about innovation at the edges, and about making something from nothing. I am not naive enough to believe that a complete open-border policy would work, but certainly we have missed the boat if we, as a country, cast out entire countries as worthless. If we believe there is nothing to learn from welcoming them, or even from visiting them there in the rich teaching ground they inhabit. I plan to continue to surround myself with people from sh*thole places. I still have much to learn.