Tea light candles

A sister writer, listening to yet another of my mini-essays on hoping to enable Third World women to realize their dreams, asked me, “What inspired you to make Third World women a priority in your life’s journey?” I answered, “I honestly don’t know. Stay tuned and I promise to give it some thought.”

Hmmm, let’s see. Oh, yes! And yes! There was this, and then there was that. How could I have forgotten to see the pattern?

When I was a little girl, there was an older girl in my church, 10 years older than I, whom I admired. After college she went to Lebanon to teach at the American University in Beirut. Later she became dean of women there. I always thought that some day I would go to Beirut.

Amazingly, in 1962, I win a year-long, all-expense-paid fellowship for a Spanish teachers’ institute in San Francisco. It’s not because I’m so talented, but because my Spanish needs serious improvement. Whole new worlds open up.

The God thing presents itself. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is setting the civil rights world on fire with his powerful sermons. I attend a lecture by theologian Dr Paul Tillich, who imagines God not as some parent in the sky, but as the ground of being. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy has just established a brand new way of life, the Peace Corps. My new friends and I apply.

I wait and wait for my Peace Corps assignment, finally taking a job teaching Spanish in New York. The very next day I get the news that I’ve been appointed to teach English at a university in Urubamba, Peru. Thinking I can’t break my contract, I decline the Peace Corps assignment. But the Peace Corps bug has bitten.

“BLACK CHURCHES BURNED TO THE GROUND IN MISSISSIPPI” reads the headline of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Christmas Eve 1964. Christmas carols are playing on our family’s stereo. A cozy fire crackles in the fireplace. My mother is baking her trademark pineapple sweet rolls to deliver to the neighbors on Christmas morning. I can go back in my mind to these moments as if they were yesterday. The familiar ache returns. I should be going to Mississippi. Something is calling me. But I do not go. Our family piles into the car to go to our church’s Christmas Eve service.

The God thing continues to worm its way into my psyche. After two years of teaching I head for the soul-shaking adventure of theological seminary. On a 24-hour sojourn in inner-city Cleveland, I’m dropped off with a handful of classmates on the bleak streets, with only a dollar and a toothbrush. We manage to find shelter in the City Mission, temporarily safe from a rude encounter on the streets. On another such adventure I am admitted as a patient in a mental institution, where women are moaning, screaming and banging their heads against the wall all night. I distinctly remember the inedible bowl of boiled potatoes and turnips I am served. By the end of the 24 hours I feel as if I belong there.

The Ecumenical Institute in inner city Chicago is a month-long, dreary January in 1968, of snow, slush and darkness, breakfasts of fried bologna, 6 a.m. worship, six hours of sleep, cleaning toilets and mice and rats roaming the corridors of our tenement building. “We’re gonna build it for Chicago, we’re gonna give it to the world” is our community song, as we tackle the problems of welfare rights, housing, education, food supply and recreation, the needs of our adopted neighborhood.

It’s winter of 1968, just months from my graduation from Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I see a poster in the coffee shop that shouts, “Want to go to Haiti?” “You bet!” I immediately respond. The trip has been planned to seek supporters for a new organization, International Child Care, that has recently established a hospital for children with TB and malnutrition, plus a program to eradicate TB in Haiti.

On April 4, just minutes after we hear the devastating news of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, our plane takes off from Miami for Haiti. As much us we hate to leave our country at such a sad time, we soon are encircled in the powerful embrace of Haitians mourning with us. Somehow, our desire for peace, liberation and justice melds with theirs.

If I hadn’t traveled to Haiti I might never have experienced the extreme poverty in which half the world lives. The streets of Port-au-Prince, in 100-degree heat, are filled with ragged men, women and children carrying jerry cans, baskets of fruit and vegetables, or piles of clothes on their heads. Most are barefoot, some hobbling along with a single handmade crutch. I visit in tar paper shacks put together with palm fronds, bamboo and scrap metal. In La Saline, the worst slum, rivers of raw sewage run down the muddy lanes.

I return to Haiti 22 times, guiding inner city poor people and other volunteers, young and old, black and white. Rather than take work away from Haitians by doing work projects, we collect and carry medicines and hospital supplies. We spend our two weeks in Haiti learning all we can about Haitian life, hopes and dreams. We buy beads, wood carvings and other crafts, take them back to the USA, and sell them to raise money for the hospital, the anti-TB drive, and St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children.

What is there for me to do next but apply for a job as an inner city street minister in Akron, Ohio, at a new ecumenical ministry called OPEN-M (Opportunity Parish Ecumenical Neighborhood Ministry?) Summer work camps bring inner city and suburban youth together to sleep in church basements, live on a welfare diet, and be let out on street corners in pairs, each with a dime to spend, but no toothbrush, for a one-hour mini-saturation experience of playing a game with a child, observing a street drama, offering to help someone, and spending the dime. Sixteen years of hopes and heartaches follow.

All of this leads to what now? Listening to the dreams of women in Bulumagi, Uganda, who want to start a program of micro-businesses. Surprising the women of a village in Burundi with a brand-new preschool and a porridge feeding program for their children. Sponsoring a very poor teenage girl, Kalpana, in Rishikesh, India, at Mother Miracle School. Signing up with Alight, the American refugee committee that helps refugees in nine countries to obtain a meaningful job in the camps. And so much more. And what lies just around the bend? Who knows? I hope I am ready.

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Writes poetry and essays about nature, spirituality, writing, and travel. She has a little cabin in the mountains. degreesoffreedom@frontier.com

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