I just finished reading “In the Name of Jesus” by Henri Nouwen. I love Nouwen. I feel he is a kind of soul mate. He has a way of writing that is so clear and simple, so normal, and yet so profound and challenging that it reaches my deepest part. In the conclusion of his book he recounts the experience of sharing the stage with his handicapped friend Bill at a conference for priests he was invited to speak at. He writes, “Often I had wondered how much of what I had said would be remembered. Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, but that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten.”
In these, my last few months living in Peru, I have found myself asking how much of what I do and what I have done means anything in the grand scheme of things. What will be remembered? Have people taken in the things I have taught? Have our strategies been effective or are we just fooling ourselves? Will anybody actually put into practice anything that I have encouraged them to do?
Last night I was giving a workshop on self-esteem and dysfunctional relationships for a church that had invited me to come speak. When I walked into the church building the man who had organized the event introduced me to another man who I did not recognize, but who said he had met me years ago. “Oh really?” I asked, “where?”
“At Bethel church,” he responded, “You washed our feet.” He chuckled a little and commented on how terrible my Spanish was back then.
I have only washed people’s feet once in Lima, back in 2007 on the Global Urban Trek. At the end of the Trek we decided we wanted to honor our hosts and the people from the churches we had worked with by washing their feet. At the time we didn’t think much about how our actions would be received in the Peruvian cultural context. We were used to foot washing as a way of saying we wanted to honor and serve the people whose feet we washed. While our hosts may have felt honored, they also felt uncomfortable; we washed their feet with cold water in winter (we didn’t have access to hot water)! Peruvians are notorious for believing that every little exposure to cold things (including drinking a cold soda when its not hot out) can make you sick. Imagine how they felt when we stuck their feet in cold water on that chilly day! We were culturally clueless.
As I think about this funny foot scene and Henri Nouwen’s comments, I realize that most of the time the best-remembered things are those that touch people in a way that is different and fresh (maybe too fresh, haha), things that don’t fit into the normal mold people are used to. Last night during the workshop we talked about human dignity, the value of human life. I asked the participants to list the prices of different things we purchase each day, and then I asked them the price of a hug. “It doesn’t have a price” they responded. Suddenly I heard myself saying something I hadn’t planned, “But I need to know the value of a hug,” I said, “will someone please come up here and give me a hug so I can know the value of it.” They smiled, then one of the ladies in the group shyly got out of her seat and came up and hugged me. Her name was Norma.
I don’t know what things people will remember from what I have shared during my time here in Peru. Maybe Norma will remember our hug. Maybe the youth I have worked with will remember the silly games we played or the countless times I asked them to express their ideas and arguments in art or drama. I hope they remember these things. I hope so because I know I will, and it is these moments of spontaneity, creativity, experiential learning and breaking the formalities of traditional teaching styles that have been most life-giving for me here in Peru. These were the times that I felt the Holy Spirit working through me and creating new life.
Peru has helped my grow in my ability to relate to others from that place of freedom and sincerity, not just trying to accomplish a goal but really believing that the people I am interacting with have something to teach me, and my role as a facilitator is to help bring that out. Nouwen speaks of this process as the movement from “Relevance to prayer, from popularity to ministry, and from leadership to being led.” This practice of servant-leadership is a hallmark of what God has invited me to grow in during my time in Peru. Practicing servant-leadership helps me be less concerned about my accomplishments and enables me to be more interested in just doing what I am realistically able to, and letting that be enough, knowing that my small efforts are part of a much greater story that God is working in the world. It helps me to be less anxious about what people think of me and more concerned about being true to myself and ministering from that place of authenticity. It allows me to be less concerned about increasing my sphere of influence and enables me to stay engaged with the people who are most marginalized by modern society, letting the illiterate and the poor be my teachers. My prayer is that I would continue to walk this path in the Spirit of Christ.