Sitting cross-legged on the cool tile floor, I look around the large room at the sunburnt faces and tired eyes of the outreach group that is in the final stretch of their two week period of working with us. These high-schoolers, made up predominantly of people who look a lot like me (just not as tall) are white, middle-class, well-intentioned. They have spent their time in Desamparados, Costa Rica learning about culture, volunteering at our various community development sites, living with host families, adventuring on public transportation, and taking in the beauty of this incredible little country. But tonight it is time for them to look past the aesthetic beauty and to truly dig in, process, and stand as one, if even for a moment, with the people whom they have been serving all week. It is solidarity night.
Before I continue, let me give you some context. For those of you thinking that Costa Rica is a beautiful paradise with amazing beaches, exotic wildlife and life-changing coffee–well, you aren’t wrong. But you are looking at this small country from the broad lens of a gringo tourist, someone who sees resorts and smiling, bi-lingual tour guides. What you are failing to see is the deep poverty that simmers just below the surface, the sex trade industry that runs rampant, the stereotyping and discrimination of immigrants that are so deeply imbedded into the fabric of the culture that if you blink you miss it.
There exists here a poverty that is unlike anything I had ever witnessed in the United States. And that is where we (Students International) work. In three of the most marginalized communities in Desamparados, a city on the outskirts of San Jose, thats name literally means “the forgotten ones.” Tutoring children, facilitating micro-finance, coaching soccer teams, leading aerobics, running a woodshop, teaching English–entering into life and community with individuals and families who oftentimes don’t have the resources to meet their basic needs.
That is what these high-schoolers from the United States have been doing for the last week and a half. And while they have been doing it, they have had their paradigms slowly begin to shift. They have felt frustrated. Confused. Guilty. They have had their hearts softened by adorable four year old Mario, with the big brown eyes, who grabs them by the hand and excitedly tells them, repeatedly, every word of english that he knows (la one, la two, la tree…hello!). They have been moved to tears by the Señora Lucia, an elderly woman, who invited them into her home and served them gallo pinto until they couldn’t eat another bite, a generosity unlike anything they had ever seen. They have had their hearts broken as they begin to know and befriend Jessica, the teenage girl, younger than them, who has been traded for food since she was a child.
On solidarity night we empty all of the chairs out of the second floor room where we have our staff meetings and events. We make a pot of beans and a pot of rice, mirroring the simple and affordable meal that many of the families whom we work with will be eating that very night (if they are even able to have the resources for three meals that day). We have the group take a seat on the unforgiving tile and we begin to talk. We talk about the statistics of oppression, of poverty, of waste, and of resources in our world. We see the group collectively squirm with discomfort as they realize that in every single category they are the “haves”, the privileged minority. They recognize and verbalize the abundance that reverberates through their lives, and it stuns them, humbles them, makes them feel guilty in a way that they can’t quite understand.
We ask them, what is poverty? The answers come immediately: “someone who is really really poor,” “when you don’t have money,” “when you can’t buy the things you need.” Like clockwork they describe poverty in these terms. We then pose the question “is this the only type of poverty that exists?”
And the answer is no. While most textbook definitions will define poverty as either absolute (lacking basic means to survive) or relative (when a family’s income falls below general standards), there are so so many more types of poverty than that. There is relational poverty–people who are isolated, who lack community, who yearn for friendship or to be able to reconcile with their family. There is educational poverty–those who are not given easy access to attend school, who need to drop out at a young age to help support the family, who fell through the cracks of the faulty system. There is spiritual poverty–those who are not able to practice their beliefs, those who unable to attend church or places of worship, those who have had to hide or give up their religion to not be killed.
After the group of students has continued to name types of poverty and we have discussed what these look like manifested in the real world, we bring up another question. “If there are so many types of poverty, beyond just the financial and material, does that mean that there is also wealth beyond just the financial and material?”
The answer, after a few moments of thoughtful consideration, is an overwhelming YES. Just as you can have material wealth and suffer from various forms of poverty, you can be dirt poor, and yet rich beyond belief. And this idea is groundbreaking. It levels the playing field, it is the great equalizer. It brings dignity to the table in a whole new way and it unites us in a tapestry of strengths and weaknesses, wealth and poverty, that weaves together our very world.
This exhausted, sunburned group of teenagers had come to Costa Rica to give, to make a difference, to change the lives of the poor. And they would leave Costa Rica, two weeks later, with more than they ever could have imagined. Their lives forever changed, forever made richer, by the all-encompassing wealth that they had been given. They would leave leave in solidarity.
This exhausted, sort of Spanish-speaking gringa (me) had gone to Costa Rica to give, to make a difference, to change the lives of the poor. And I would leave Costa Rica, two and a half years later, with more than I ever could have imagined. My life forever changed, forever made richer, by the all-encompassing wealth that I had been given. I would leave in solidarity.
And so, today I challenge you: instead of going into a conversation, a situation, a volunteer opportunity, with the mindset that you are going to be the one changing lives, go in humble, with a soft heart and an open mind, ready to learn and to experience the richness that the “poor” can offer. Go in with solidarity.