Trudy is another person I have met through this series–lucky me! I think by now you know that I adore people with a bit of skin in the game, and Trudy most definitely is that. This is a first-person account of smack dab in the middle of experiencing the joys and hardships of a form of downward mobility that looks extreme to most. But what I love about Trudy is that she is honest about it all (and how the hardest parts or those where you are forced to come to terms with yourself and your brokenness. But really, more than anything, you can sense her love and joy and peace in the midst of her crazy, upside-down life.
Blurring the lines
Guest Post by Trudy
Last November, my husband and I moved into a slum in a big North Indian city. It was an objectively stupid thing to do—we spoke hardly any Hindi at the time, and even now that the Hindi is flowing we are objects of ceaseless curiosity as automatic ambassadors of that strange Other Country which our Muslim neighbors associate with wealth, George Bush, and “free sex”. There have been all the difficulties you might expect of adjusting to less space, less privacy, and a new culture. But starting life here has also been a beautiful experience of being accepted for who we are instead of what we represent (which is often more than can be said for foreigners trying to start a new life in our home country); of being sort-of adopted into new families that invite us to celebrate holidays with them, and take us to weddings and funerals and birthday parties. Those families have taught us how to cook Indian food and how to speak Hindi and how to navigate life and relationships in this new place. They’ve even given us new names (which is handy, since the local pronunciation of my English name sounded like something I’d rather not be called by!).
Actually, one of the most difficult things about living here—far worse than power outages and diarrhea—has been the way I am forced to learn about myself. It was easy back in the States to think of myself as a kind, compassionate person. I was generous. I was hospitable—so I thought. Or so maybe I am? But it certainly doesn’t feel like it now, when I’m not just faced with poverty but immersed in it. I’ve learned the limits of my compassion—those rough edges of tiredness and impatience where I just no longer have anything left to give to my fellow human beings and where I so easily recede into selfishness and survival. My neighbors offer lavish hospitality that depends on serving guests before, and instead of, yourself. My hospitality has been exposed in contrast as a logic of sharing excess with guests—it has often been “the more the merrier”, but it has rarely ever been sacrificial. Even now, the dilemma stubbornly stalks me—my neighbors’ income ebbs and flows with weather and health and the demand for day labor; my money comes from inserting a plastic card into a vending machine. To get technical, it’s an ATM, but is there a meaningful difference if the money never runs out?
And besides all that, I’ve seen enough non sequitur items distributed among sponsored children in our neighborhood whose circumstances have yet to improve, enough healthcare facilities rendered nearly inaccessible in spite of the free care offered, and enough of the messy, complex web of problems that make up poverty, to figure out that being poor is much more about a lack of relationship rather than a lack of money. I’ve seen how difficult it can be to help another person, or to change a situation when the entire system is stacked against the people at the bottom.
I’ve realized the limits of what I can offer, in spite of my education and privilege and good intentions. But I’ve also realized that, fortunately, the things that I can offer don’t require me to be as strong, as powerful, or as infinitely compassionate as I used to think I was. The most meaningful thing I have to offer is relationship. If the lives of the poor are constricted by an internalized sense of inferiority and powerlessness, then the wealthy are equally constrained by a false sense of strength, importance, and superiority. Rich and poor must meet, and work together, in order to recover our true selves. So this pursuit of transforming relationship is what keeps me here. Not because the poor need me, but because my neighbors and I need each other.
This week, I got roped into a volunteer training for a local non-profit that wants to improve the lives of women and girls in the slum where I live by training some of them to become social workers who can spread information about women’s health, education, and legal rights. The plan is to also train these girls to facilitate women’s and girls’ groups that will identify issues facing their community and help to develop plans of action for mobilizing the community to respond to those issues, often through organizing to demand their rights. So far so good.
But unfortunately, all of the theoretical talk about empowerment—listening to people, offering information and tools to them without telling them what to do—broke down at the point of practical application. The neat and tidy plan of 5 days’ in-house training, 5-days’ field training was much too fast for the pace of life in the slum, and certainly didn’t match the stride of uneducated teenage girls who, up to now, had never been allowed a role outside of their own homes. Can teenagers like that really be “empowered” in 5 days? And even if they successfully become efficient cogs in the grand development plan of this organization, is that going to be an “empowering” experience anyway—will it increase their sense of self-determination, confidence, or freedom of choice?
As much as everyone likes the idea of empowerment, it turns out that it’s actually much easier to do things for people than to work with people who don’t know what they’re doing and need to be patiently mentored and encouraged, after which time they will have minds of their own and may or may not want to carry out your pet project. Turns out that the poor have their own priorities, and at least in India, their relationships and family responsibilities are more important to them than some of the development goals set by outsiders.
Sometimes the well-meaning People Who Have Come to Help don’t react very well to these revelations—in the case of this training, the dissonance was handled by ignoring the ideas and experiences of the People Who Need to Be Helped in order to plough through the list of scheduled activities, come hell or high water (or reinforcement of top-down power structures or complete lack of ownership on the part of people whose slum is being “planned”). Which I suppose is why a lot of groups like to bandy about the catchword of “empowerment” without doing the slow, relational work of actually empowering anyone.
It’s not that the People Who Came to Help were bad people. In fact, I completely understand their frustration with schedules, deadlines, and efficiency being thwarted—because I have also been brought up in the Western obsession with time and efficiency and programs. Sometimes it still bothers me that most of my friends don’t own a clock, or that my neighbors’ financial priorities don’t make sense to me. But this last year in the slum has been a humbling journey of releasing my arbitrary agendas and my identity as one of The People Who Have Come to Help in order to get in touch with the daily rhythms of my community. I am struggling to unlearn my lifestyle of putting tasks and productivity ahead of relationships and people, so that I can be present to my neighbors as they express their own plans and concerns.
I still struggle with patiently walking alongside people instead of trying to just force my advice or plans onto them, but the longer I walk this road the more I realize that it’s the only road that really goes anywhere. Ignoring the poor in the process of trying to “help” them may produce some impressive graphs and scalable programs that look nice in the orderly headings and paragraphs of a grant proposal– but it doesn’t actually mean much outside of those flimsy, paper constructions of reality.
And besides, the more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t have the answers people need. Real change will only come out of relationships that transform us both, my neighbors and I, and out of a higher synthesis that may come from putting our ideas and experiences together to imagine new possibilities for our lives. My hope is that the lines between us will become so blurred that we all recognize our poverty and receive help, and we all recognize our capacity to teach and serve each other.
Since moving to India with her adventurous husband a year and a half ago, Trudy has spent most of her time learning Hindi and getting to know her neighbors in the slum—which happily involves a lot of Indian cooking and chai drinking. She is passionate about women’s empowerment, creative nonviolence, and discovering Jesus amongst the poor. She loves telling stories, and shares many of her experiences and reflections on faith, culture, and her journey towards the poor on her blog, http://alreadynotyet.weebly.com/blog.html.
For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.