Jesuit High School: from Portland to Ipetí, Panama

“What have I gotten myself into!?”

That was my initial thought on my first night in the village of Ipetí in the Embera region of Panama.  After prepping the students, researching the area, getting the proper shots, packing so carefully, and readying my body for the physical work ahead, why would this be my thinking?  Well, as the cicada sang outside the windows of the concrete “church kitchen” as background harmony for the frogs, roosters (who crow at 2am with no sunrise in the immediate future), and dogs, the rain started to fall on the metal roofing, creating a cacophony of sound, I was at a loss.  Luckily, laying on my mostly inflated air mattress under a pink mosquito net, I knew I would float if the rain came in through the “window” (open space with rebar in organized areas).  Night one. 

But then a thought came to me: We are all of us experiencing this.  All 22 of us (five males and 15 females, mostly rising juniors, plus two chaperones) are feeling a similar uncertainty.  I had prepared myself to lifting 100 pound bags of cement and shoveling countless loads of sand-gravel mix. I was prepared to hydrate, to apply sunscreen regularly, to spray bug repellent as needed, and to bathe when the opportunity arose.  I had prepared my mouth and mind to eat different foods, to clean my plate as a good, appreciative guest.  I had practiced enough Spanish to tell most anyone who asked that I don’t speak Spanish.  I had crafted what we would do for each evening reflection so the kids would reach a deeper understanding and appreciation for the community we were in and the value of the work with the community we were undertaking.  I had Cliff bars to sustain me and a pill to resolve any bodily function that was out of whack with the norm.  I had thought I was ready for this great adventure.  I was going to be a competent and prepared chaperone and make sure the students grew through the opportunity. But that night, I realized I was not prepared in the least.  I was not prepared to be present.

Laying there before the first day of labor, I had a personal/spiritual/inspirational breakthrough.  I realized I did not need to be ready for every possible event that would come.  I did not need to have all the answers.  In actuality, I had zero control over the coming days.  So I took a deep breath and offered my fears, resistance, and concerns to God.  If I tried to control everything, I would miss so much.  If I shunned any who tried to speak with me, I would miss a chance to know the beauty of the person before me.  If I was trying to guide every minute for each students so exactly, I would stunt the experience that was actually happening.  And if I didn’t relax and appreciate where I was, I would miss out on getting to know for myself the amazing community I was about to meet with the rising sun.

What an experience it was, too!  In three days, we completed the basketball court.  The Jesuit volunteers and the community members of Ipetí worked in sweltering and humid conditions to load a mixer (which I took to calling “Sandy” because she did most of the real work) over 340 times, each time with 250 pounds of cement, five handfuls of fiber, a bucket and a half of water, and enough shovelfuls of sand-gravel mix until “Hefe Segundo” said “Listo.” Then we took the fourteen or so wheel barrel loads of mix over to the court area where the main Hefe (who we taught some English commands to and started calling “Boss”) told us to put it to be smoothed into a basketball court.  (Boy!  That was such an American thing to say—a celebration of success noted by a deadline full of statistics.  Some thinking is challenging to change.) It did not matter who had a shovel, or who ran a wheelbarrow, or who carried the cement bags over from the storage shed.  And when the water spigot ran dry, a mixture of Jesuit students and Ipetí teenagers formed a fire-line to bring water up a steep hill to the mixer.  When one person tired of his or her task, another person willingly stepped in to take over.  No one complained (that I heard, at least).  And no one really had to boss anyone else around, save the two hefes who were more bossing around the cement than the people.  

One of the most considerate and loving actions I saw was when a few Jesuit students grabbed the blue water jugs we had for “safe” water and went from person to person regardless of ethnicity and offered a drink.  We had been taught before we came to only drink the “safe” water and to drink lots of it.  That water was valuable and essential for us, so we initially thought.  So the fact that the students realized that all the workers needed hydration and did not care that they were giving up their own store of water was heartening.  And it was a true instance of service.  

We had not come as the great saviors.  We had not come to solve the community’s problems. These are the easy stances to take, the very first world views to reflect.  But instead, the students took up the mantel of servant.  As they played with the kids, or attempted to play soccer with the men, or offered to help shovel alongside one of the community members without complaint, they started to get it.  When they shared their food, coloring books, and broken Spanish with the kids, when they tried to learn some of the indigenous language and then use it, or when they watched patiently and passionately how Abuela made ojaldas, they started to get it.

On the final day, after watching the town’s soccer team win a hard fought game (with one of our own students playing midfielder for the team), as we boarded the bus to head to Panama City, there was a true and real sadness accompanying us in the seats.  Standing off to the side of the bus were two of the kids who had bonded very personally with all the Jesuit kids.  The boy had his arm slung lovingly around the girl’s neck as they waved to the Jesuit students.  

“Take a look outside the bus.  Look out at those two kids.  They will never forget you or this week.  What you see out there in their faces is actually the face of God. . . and He is smiling at you.  But realize this!  Those two kids are looking in on your faces, and they are seeing the same thing.  They see in you the face of God looking back at them.  Sure we are sad to leave them.  They have become important to us in just a few days.  So we are sad, but this is a good sadness.  This sadness means we have experienced something divine and pure.  That sadness is born from love. You need to remember this feeling.  You need to take, seek, and possibly even create that type of love in your lives, especially as we return to the United States.  Appreciate this feeling.  You guys did good this week.”

I could not have prepared those words.  Up until the last sentence, I don’t think they were even my words.  Something otherly compelled me to offer a reflection on the situation as I saw it.  As an English teacher, I knew very specifically the purpose of the wording of the last sentence.  They had done “good.”  And they had experience “good” being done unto them as well.  They had worked hard, had been polite and considerate, had accepted the chaperones’ suggestions and guidance, and had done very “well” overall.  But they needed to see the good they had partaken in and to realize that the world needs that “good” to radiate out.  It needs to radiate out from the tiny village of Ipeti.  It needs to be carried into each person’s life so they could greet others with such goodness.

Chirping insects, croaking frogs, cackling roosters, barking dogs, and a rainstorm on a metal roof broke me open and annihilated all my preparations and barriers.  Thank God for the first night!  And thank God for the opportunity the village of Ipeti gave to a group of rising juniors from Portland, Oregon.  Was it a good trip?  As our Christian Service Director likes to say, we will have to see.  If the goodness turns into more goodness and the experience effects the students’ future actions for the better, they it will have been a good trip.  So, I will take a deep breath and offer my fears, resistance, and concerns to God.

Konrad Reinhardt, English Teacher, Jesuit High School