Listening Yourself Out of a Loss for Words

Diego Rivera-style artwork  with payasos in the mini square behind the vendors. Oh, yes– I wanted to buy everything off this tiangi

In El Centro, this is a pretty normal scene. Scads and scads of Guadalajara’s 6 million people are coursing throughout this historical downtown area, either set to take in the scene as a tourist, or set up to make a living selling anything possible, from fresh-cut fruit to shoelaces, even the convenience of finding a parking space on the street at night.

There are also some who beg. For example, one man approached our car on the way there asking for enough pesos to buy one taco; he had a young boy with him. It’s hard for me to see people like this and not want to give something. People who live here have explained to me, as have others who know what it’s like to live with very poor people, struggling to survive, that it doesn’t do people much good to just give things to them. In Genesis, we see how God made us to work, and even though the world is cursed because of sin, work is still a good thing, while not working, whether by hindering circumstances or by choice, does not seem to lead to much good.

While I’m still struggling with understanding what exactly God thinks about poverty and how to respond, something that will take more prayer, more looking into scripture, and more questions, what I do know is I have an enormous respect for people who find a way to work and make an honest living no matter their circumstances, like these payasos, and these Diego Rivera art replica vendors.

At first, I feel very sorry for the things these people have to do to survive. Living on my own in a relatively VERY comfortable and privileged position has shown me just a glimpse of the struggle. As many of you know, things change when  you have bills, and you’re the only one there to pay them.

Now imagine feeling that same pressure without a padded chair to sit in, or a phone to call your clients. Instead, perhaps you have a cart to push, or a bike to pull your cleaning supplies, or just your two feet to pass out flyer advertisements to drivers as you weave through lanes of cars to drivers at stop lights. It’s dirty, hot, easily ignored work. Imagine it’s not “pay a bill or don’t pay a bill,” it’s “eat or don’t eat.” Imagine doing this kind of work just 10 minutes or so from places like Galerías, an enormous, metropolitan mall, or the Mexican Nike Headquarters. If I, in my cushy climate-controlled cubicle can feel stressed, jipped and overworked, how could these street-laboring people feel in their bodies, minds and souls?

To be honest, I’m not sure. From what I’ve seen, I imagine it is different for everyone. Some I am sure are very unhappy, and like the man asking for money for one taco, feel hopeless and desperate. I don’t say this to judge, only to say that when you’re hungry, tired and hurting, it is human to feel this way. Think Hagar, exiled in the wilderness, leaving her son a ways off and turning so she doesn’t have to watch him die.

But I’ve also seen something remarkable and redemptive, and almost puzzling. I’ve seen poor people happy.

The other day as I was walking, and a man on a bike with cleaning supplies passed me. A very small boy with a chubby face was sitting either behind amongst the supplies, or in the man’s lap area; I really couldn’t figure out how the boy was sitting there, not falling off.

And as they passed, the boy smiled up at me and called out in his sweet, little boy voice, “¡HOOOLAAA!” Usually I see children on the street working calmly at their jobs (selling souvenirs, washing windshields, etc.), just staring quietly, or having tantrums. But somehow, from somewhere, this little guy was brimming with joy. Same thing with a little girl playing with her younger sibling next to her mother, as they sat on the ground, leaned up against a historic Centro building. She was covered in dust, and her mother looked exhausted, but this girl couldn’t keep from smiling and giggling.

I was again surprised one day last week when Mariana and I were walking from the church to a print shop to make copies for the Campo de Verano– this church’s first Vacation Bible School. When passing any kind of vendor, including those on foot who approach you, the customary response is to not look twice and keep walking; if you look too long at anything, it seems to me that you’re implying that you want it.

Suddenly, as we were walking beneath an overpass where homeless people and vendors often camp out, Mariana stopped to talk to an older woman, smiling and carrying a little cardboard palatte of “de la Rosa” candies and other treats. After a bit of listening I realized she was greeting the woman and just chatting, a totally different situation than usual. While they talked, as I’ve become accustomed to doing, I politely listened in and did my best to distinguish words, even if they’re words I don’t yet know, and track the general topics of conversation.

And now, I’d like to take a sec to get a bit abstract…

Coming to Mexico again has been helping me with exactly what I’d hoped it would:  getting in some great conversation practice. It’s one thing to memorize grammar forms and vocabulary. There’s an art that I’m still learning in listening and asking. I’m beginning to realize that this same listening art is really needed constantly.

Of course, it’s most markedly needed when learning a new language. Consider this actual paraphrased internal dialogue of mine from yesterday:

“I want to know if I can set this stack of candy and papers on my lap. Uhh… how do I say ‘lap’? How do I explain that I’d like to know how to say ‘lap’? Have I heard anyone say ‘lap’ before?…”

But even when speaking your first language with other people from your own country, we’re all so very different, and coming from very different backgrounds, that in these situations, it can be even easier to misunderstand each other, because we may all think that every other person is thinking and meaning the same things.

It’s almost as if we should always think and speak as if we’re learning a new language, and find first, and in conversation knowing how and when to ask for clarification.

I ended up having to do this for the conversation between Mariana and the woman selling de la Rosas. While during the conversation, I wasn’t exactly sure what they were talking about, I gathered she was from the church (I think because Mariana told me directly :P) and so I looked for ways I could ask as politely as possible about the woman. The other essential difference between learning a language in class and speaking it with people is that the worksheets and recorded listening exercises aren’t human beings, made in God’s image, with souls or feelings; the people you speak with and about are people who live and feel.

It turns out the woman is originally from Oaxaca, a beautiful state to the South where many people farm. There have been droughts the last couple years, and the land’s dried up to the point where this sweet woman had to move her family away from their home to the city, to sell things so they could eat. When I asked how long it’d been since it rained in Oaxaca, Mariana said she thought it may have started raining this year. But even if it rains this year, can you go back to your homeland and grow enough crops in time to feed yourself if you’re barely selling enough stuff to survive in the city?

What impressed on me even more is this woman’s faith in Jesus– that she would take time and resources from her life to seek out a church where she could be with other Jesus followers, reading the Bible, thanking God for His forgiveness for sins and His gracious gifts of life, love and family. It is so easy for me, who has plenty and more than what I need, to shrug off my relationship with Jesus if I don’t feel like I’m getting what I want out of life. This woman is pounding the pavement, and in her Savior’s strength, just living where she’s planted to His glory.

There are so many people like this here, and all around the world. They humble and encourage me, and call me to follow their example as they reflect Jesus, who in fact could’ve had it all, but decided that having Heaven for Himself wasn’t worth it compared to giving and serving me, as well as the whole world. He ended up giving all He had in this endeavor. He ended up dying for wrongs He never did:  my wrongs, all our wrongs, all our sin– that which makes this world a dark and painful, dysfunctional place.

This is a new language for us all to learn– a language of grace and redemption. I’m so glad that God has let me listen in on His heart. I pray, as I approach the halfway point of this second Mexican journey, that my speechless confusion would turn into words as I continue to listen to what God is saying through this people, this place and His Word, which speaks to every heart in Creation.

Captivated by Grace,  Jaclyn

“In the beginning was the Word…

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  (John 1:1, 4-5)

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