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28 July Jul 2014 1918 28 July 2014

John Waters: "Where I found something about myself"

“To the Ends of the World and of Existence. Destiny Has Not Left Man Alone” is the topic of the 2014 Rimini Meeting , to be held on August 24th-30th, 2014. This year, AVSI tells its story in Kenya, Ecuador and Brazil through an exhibition curated by the Irish writer John Waters. His introduction to the exhibit.

by John Waters
What, really, is poverty? We believe we know. We believe it’s a simple question. We may not always accept that the solution is straightforward, but still we think we know approximately where it lies. We may differ in the details: some of us talk about redistribution of resources, others about making markets more efficient and responsive. And yet, frequently such prescriptions appear to make things worse when applied. We give of our own 'wealth', out of sundry motives, and hope that it will be enough. But it is never enough. So we give more, and still it is not sufficient.
Often, the poverty we seek to treat becomes entrenched, seemingly by virtue of its amelioration. Perhaps its most obvious indicators are not as stark as before, but soon new symptoms begin to manifest. In the place of outright deprivation, we have engendered a dependency which soon becomes, in its way, just as ominous as the conditions which preceded it. The poor remain ‘with us’ – except, of course, that are not ‘with us’, or rather, we are not with them. This really is the problem. This really is poverty.
For the 2014 Meeting of Rimini, I have been asked to contribute as curator to the creation of an exhibition on the operations of AVSI in three locations: Quito in Ecuador, Nairobi in Kenya and Sao Paolo in Brazil. The exhibition will look at the educational projects which AVSI has built in these places, rooted in Don Giussani’s vision of an educative method which places the development of the person – the genertation of a new subject – at its centre. The title of our exhibition will be: Generating beauty: New Beginnings at the Ends of the Earth.
The title echoes to the theme of this year’s Meeting: ‘At the Ends of the Earth and of Existence, Destiny does not Leave Man Alone’. But what we follow is the echo of Don Giussani’s insistent voice to places where human circumstances are the most challenging imaginable, at what Pope Francis has called ‘the outskirts of existence’.
That phrase, which Pope Francis uttered 14 months ago at the gathering of new Catholic movements in St Peter’s Square, seemed immediately to gesture far beyond geography, or sociology, or ideology, or even the idea of allegiance to a faith, or even to faith itself. It summoned us to a responsibility that resides for us beyond calls to duty or compassion or even what is conventionally called charity. It struck me forcibly as a call to me in my personhood, as a human being, a man, in my most fundamental essence – beneath everything I have learned, heard or come to believe – to call me to the question of who I am and what my destiny is.
A part of this call is the imposing question concerning what my responsibility might be to others. And then, immediately: who are these ‘others’ and what can I be for them? What does Christ demand of me, as a follower of His?
It is not simple. It is not obvious. It is certainly not enough to stick my hand in my pocket and pull out a scattering of coins. This costs me less than nothing, because it quiets my soul’s guilt far more than it eases the grief or pain of the recipient, and so leaves me also...wanting.
What then? Giussani shows us, in his educative method, which places the human person at its centre and offers not alms or aid or resources, but the possibility of a total regeneration of the human person. This is what we were called to follow in our task of preparing this exhibition: how the call of Christ, and its clarification in a new era by Don Giussani, has found new leases of life in a series of human relationships in distant, diverse places, where the needs of man appear in one sense to be at their most basic and in another emerge as no different to the needs of human beings in any place.
In Quito, for example, we visited the ‘invasions’ of Pisulí, one of the areas of the city which sprang up when people simply arrived from outside and insisted upon a place, a home for themselves and their families, putting down their tents and guarding their space with a gun.
Pisulí and its surrounding neighborhoods were created in the early 1980s, when a group of citizens from different regions all over Ecuador banded together and ‘invade’ the land, previously known as Pisuli Ranch and owned by the Ministry of Health. The invasions provoked intense armed conflict – a kind of civil war – both with the owners of the land and with the inhabitants of other nearby invasions, and several people, including children, lost their lives. In this area, today, two-thirds of the population live in poverty, and most of these in extreme poverty. Many have been cheated over and over as a result of corruption, losing their properties again and again. And yet something in the spirit of these people has enabled them to survive and remain, to continue building what is a new civilization at the heart of an old one.
Into the lives of these people, through the work of AVSI, has come the inspiration of Don Giussani, who saw the process of education not as a means of training operatives in an economy or a society but as a method for awakening the entire being. We went, then, to observe the process of faith becoming culture, which, as Giussani has told us, is what happens when the student (‘or anyone else for that matter’) meets an ‘adult’ whose very presence is a proposal for an explanatory hypothesis of life in its totality. This, Giussani elaborated in The Risk of Education, ‘becomes a journey of recognition, a path of affection, and a process of appropriating and using reality for one’s own purposes.’ Thus, the student too becomes an adult and a true protagonist in reality, capable of himself generating newness in history.
Along the way, we encountered many challenges to our certainties about what we already ‘knew’, many startling witnesses who confronted our preconceptions from the truths of their own lives.
As to what I would now say is ‘poverty’? – I cannot say, not exactly. I see more clearly that the problem has for too long been bedeviled by easy analyses and explanations. But I learned in Sao Paolo that it has something to do with a form of loneliness that I had not before focused on. Loneliness? Yes.
The word ‘exclusion’ trips off the lips of politicians and philanthrophists, but what it conjures up in our cultures is something partial and inadequate. It suggests a denial of participation in the economic life of the society, but this is only the beginning. It is what flows from this that forges the vicious force that poverty is: the loss of citizenship, the dependency, the indignities, the self-hatred, the degradation of culture, the shame, the death of the person while the body continues to live. Poverty is a blow suffered, even though the society may not be aware of delivering it. And the pain and confusion occasioned by that blow can last through a lifetime and be handed on to generation after generation.
One of the things I observed in Sao Paolo, through the work of CREN, which is supported by AVSI in its accompaniment of the poor of the favelas, is that malnutrition is not necessarily as clear-cut a condition as I had come to believe. We discovered that it has to do with the scarcity of good food, yes, or the wrong food, but much more than that is has to do with a form of amnesia. Mothers, displaced from their families in the countryside, come to live in the slums, marry, give birth – but then find they have ‘forgotten’ how to care adequately for their young in what often are desperate circumstances. Nurturing does not come ‘naturally’, but is a wisdom carried in a culture, and when cultures become ruptured by scarcity, drought and displacement, the carefully cultivated wisdom of generations become misplaced in a new place. In the city, the new generation finds itself lost because it does not know what it has lost. This is one of the senses in which ‘loneliness’ manifests as a core symptom of true, profound poverty.
In this we can glimpse the importance of the human intervention – the radical act of regeneration that is education in the deepest sense. Such an intervention cannot be paternalistic, for the very obvious reason that paternalism has already been seen to fail many times. It can only successfully occur as a friendship, a companionship, in which an equality of needs is acknowledged and made visible. We are all poor, but in different senses. We are all lonely, though not in ways that are immediately similar. The idea of companionship, then, is vital, acknowledging that both those who seek to help and those who stand to be helped are contributing to a process of mutual growth and regeneration. Destiny does not leave man alone.
If poverty has an antidote, it may well be beauty. Beauty in its deepest truest sense: the echo of, or residue of, or nostalgia for some greatness in ourselves that we have forgotten. In Naoirobi, we saw this most graphically in the stark contrast between the slums of Kibera and the freshness, lightness, of the classrooms of Little Prince and Cardinal Otunga schools, where the children experience the possibility of another life right where they live. To see these children literally growing before our eyes was moving beyond belief.
We went to these places to speak to both those who find themselves before, as students, the educational method of Don Giussani – and also to those who had come, some time before, carrying the charism, offering themselves as educators. Our guiding a question was something like: ‘What can be achieved if one human being goes to another with no other objective but to honour his dignity, and in doing so bring the destinies of them both into focus?’ Each answered in his or her own way.
And along the way, also, in Quito, Nairobi and Sao Paolo, we asked those we met to tell us what it has meant to their own lives to be invited to accompany and to be accompanied. What, really, does it mean to invite another to be himself, to help him to generate in himself a new human being? – ‘What is the method you apply to changing the lives of others?’
Many times the same answer came back: ‘I changed myself’.