By Jonathan Mullins
One of the beautifully terrifying parts of living alone abroad for six months is getting to know myself much more intimately than I could have imagined. In a cross-cultural, cross-lingual, cross-generational, cross-youname-it environment, I have more to process than I have ever had, and I am further than I have ever been from the communities who know me and speak my language. The truth is, there’s been a lot of soul-searching, a lot of opening up my heart and mind to see what’s inside. I’m constantly pondering why I react to my circumstances the way that I do and why I am the way that I am.
More often than not, I’m faced with my own overwhelming brokenness. Who am I that I should be included in the kingdom of God?
When I consider my personal brokenness, it’s easy to focus the majority of my energy toward individual sanctification. Obviously, personal growth is abundantly worthwhile. But what if I also treated my brokenness as an invitation to consider the brokenness of the people, communities and world around me? My brokenness is an invitation to notice and lament the brokenness of Villa María, the small Argentinian city southeast of Córdoba that I am working in. This in turn prompts me to notice the brokenness of the people and places I love — my family, the churches I call home, Wheaton College.
When I lift my eyes from my own heart, I’m faced with the realities of suffering around me in Argentina. I see creation mourning the trash strewn across its fields. I see economic disparity in neighborhoods that cannot afford asphalt for their streets. I see shadows of machismo and domestic violence in children who have learned to play together by hitting and kicking one another.
One particularly clear story of brokenness is that of a family from the neighborhood I work in: a young boy and his little sister are in the process of being taken from their mother to be placed into temporary families for three to six months, due to risk of abuse from their maternal uncles who live with them. The uncles have some mental disabilities and are often drunk in the house. The younger girl has already been placed with a foster family, but understands very little of why she had to undergo the trauma of leaving her home. The boy, if he is not placed in foster care within the next week or so, will be sent to an institution in Córdoba, the capital of the province, completely isolated from all family, friends and familiarity.
The mother is quite caring. She is a more-than-capable parent for her children. She also feels compassion toward her brothers, so she is unable to force them to leave her home knowing that they have nowhere to go. The uncles are not raw forces of evil and danger; they sin in the context of their own oppression and hardship, which extends outwards from family to neighborhood to city to nation.
Regardless of temporary placement, the boy is already developmentally behind other children his age and part of a special school system. What possibility does he have to move beyond the seasonal agriculture work, carton-collecting and drunkenness of his uncles before him? How should this situation be addressed?
Response in Community
One member of Comunidad y Cambio (CyC), the development organization I am working with is accompanying the children’s mother through the entire process of placing the children. She is advocating for the best for them in the face of bureaucratic gears that can intervene forcefully without patient consideration for all parties involved. This advocacy is not her job — she already works full-time at a local university. Rather, here advocacy emanates from her concern for Argentinian children.
CyC’s vision does not restrict community work to full-time development professionals. Doing development work outside of a formal work week is exactly why my host organization is unique: all but one of its members are volunteers. It is a community before it is a workplace — in fact, CyC doesn’t even have an office. We like to meet around kitchen tables with plenty of food. It’s a community of like-minded people who are working, raising their families and going to church — they’re not doing anything magical. What they are doing is voluntarily coming together in their extra moments to learn and think together about the mission of God. But they don’t just think, they put forward their time and energy to bring a little bit more of the kingdom to earth.
The CyC creates programs and courses in the context of this kind of community. I’m grateful for the chance to write about three components of CyC’s work that I’ve been able to participate in.
Most days of the week, I go to Pinceladas, a community center in the San Nicolás neighborhood across town from where I live. When I’m there it mainly functions as an after-school program; I give kids a snack and a fun activity to keep them busy and laughing. Activities range from music workshops to acting to checking out books from the small library to getting help with schoolwork. On a couple of occasions we have celebrated kids’ birthdays with “torta” (cake), along with candles and singing. On Saturday mornings, the center hosts a ceramics workshop for women in the community. This is a wonderful space to do something fun and to hear about what’s going on in the neighborhood from an older generation.
Even when I’m not able to be around, there are other activities that happen at Pinceladas including a weekly lunch on Sundays provided for families. One CyC member often emphasizes that Pinceladas belongs to the residents of the neighborhood rather than to the people who provide the programmed activities. There are bicycle-repair and photography workshops held in the center, as well as a marmalade collective managed by some of the women from the neighborhood.
Campaña de Buentrato
I also help with the “Buentrato” (good-treatment) campaign that CyC coruns with another organization. We organize workshops in different schools across the area and in some local children’s choirs and churches. Through different activities like acting, singing and movie-watching, kids from third grade through high school are given a space to think for themselves about how to treat others well. It’s a space to pause and notice that we are all quite familiar with receiving and giving “maltrato” (bad treatment) to others and to ask questions about how we might want to live differently. These are the sort of questions worth asking everywhere, be it in an Argentinian high school classroom or a post-chapel lunch in Saga.
Small group discussion is an important part of the teaching model. Topics include sexual harassment, bullying, verbal abuse in the home, parents who care more about work than their kids and other daily realities for many children. The script was written entirely by adolescents, in keeping with the idea that young people know for themselves what’s right and wrong and expect others to act accordingly. Recognizing the capabilities and contributions that children and teenagers bring to the table is absolutely essential to CyC’s work.
I was on Argentinian TV last week to talk about Buentrato. Reaching out to as many people as possible is part of the campaign. At the beginning of October, there is an outreach event in which children and teenagers go out into their communities and ask adults to promise to practice Buentrato. It’s truly powerful to have such young people reminding others — myself included — how they ought to act.
Another program CyC organizes is an online course called “Facilitadores” (Facilitators), which teaches young adults about how to do community development work. Rather than being experts who know how to save or perfectly develop others, we are facilitators who learn alongside others and affirm the agency and abilities and knowledge of every person. The course culminated in a weekend retreat in early August. Each participant lays out a full plan for a community development project as the culmination of their work.
One powerful moment was an evening entitled “Views of Reality” — a series of performances including gut-wrenching statistics and photos about the realities of poverty, racism and other injustices that exist in the world. We silently walked through the experience and reflected together at the end. I ask myself: What does reality look like in my own heart? What does reality look like at Wheaton?
Life in Brokenness
I’d like to return to the theme of brokenness that I touched on at the beginning of the article. I am broken, the communities here are broken and the world is broken. It is truly daunting for me to begin considering the fallout of sin and injustice on a global scale. One community and one organization alone can’t hope to solve the vast complexities of suffering around it. As graduation and the inevitability of “real life” draw near, I know that I cannot hope to turn the world — or even my life — completely right-side-up, whole and sanctified in a moment.
But I can commit to the long-haul, like CyC has done. An awareness of my own brokenness can help me turn my eyes outward to the brokenness around me. Ultimately, that means daily pursuing the same fullness of life for the world that I struggle to achieve for myself, moment to moment.
Senior Jonathan Mullins is a current Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) intern and philosophy major living and working with an organization called Comunidad y Cambio (Community and Change) in Villa María, Argentina.