About a week ago I was discussing possible plans for next year with one of the other American teachers here who has become a good friend. She said she'd love to stay, but she also feels called to live in a place of extreme poverty - and she's not sure this is it. The catalyst for this thought came when she was discussing the various Christmas break activities with her third grade class. "One of the girls told us all she got a new iPad for Christmas! And I thought: 'Yeah, I just don't know about that...'"
She has a point. While the standard of living and the resources here are certainly far below what you'd find in the States, there are still the more affluent families in the area who are able to pass along material possessions to their children. Technology is valued and available and many of our kids will grow up to inherit the family business and continue to be fairly well-off. In terms of being physically destitute, the situation in this part of the world is not as dire as it is in some other places.
But then we started discussing a different kind of poverty. What I see here is not so much of a material poverty (though certainly it exists well beyond that of other places in the world), but more of a psychological poverty. For instance, our children are severely in want of good father figures. Most of their fathers are gone for large portions of the day at work and are not part of the upbringing of their kids (beyond beating their children for poor behavior and dishonoring the family name). Furthermore, the kids are also lacking in terms of seeing good relationships between husbands and wives (and males and females, for that matter). The society undervalues women and applauds displays of male chauvinism, so our kids are in want of good role models to exemplify healthy male-female interaction.
And then of course there is the poverty of spirit that comes from growing up with an identity of oppression. Our students are proud to be who they are, yet they feel frustration and sometimes even hatred toward those on the other side of this wall keeping them inside. It is amazing to me that the same teenager can say "I love God" in one sentence, and "I hate the Isra..lis" in another. And then when I ask them in class if they have any perceived enemies, most struggle to find an answer to the question. The disconnect is fascinating and alarming, but understandable when lack of opportunities due to a faceless force is all you've ever known. And yet there is an obvious chunk of goodness missing from this equation.
Last semester, due to the suggestion of a dear friend who is an English teacher in the States, I had my 9th grade Lit class read a short story about gang violence. The story's protagonist is lying on the ground bleeding from a mortal wound, and as his last act, he shrugs off the jacket bearing the name of his gang and hitherto-fore only identity. I had the kids write down on note cards what kinds of labels they would like to shed, if given the chance. After collecting them, I anonymously read them to the class. Here is a sample:
"Important people in my life think that I don't care about them because of the way I treat them."
"I am not all about saying jokes and laughing. I can take things seriously."
"I'm not just a smart person. I'm more than that."
"Being the teacher's daughter."
"I would not like to suck at sports."
"I wish people didn't know me as that my dad owns a big shop."
"I wish some of my friends didn't call me by my last name."
"You are who you are, but in this society the only way you get recognized is if people know your father and mother, and what they think of them."
When I got to the end of the note cards, there was a heavy silence, and then one of the girls breathed: "That...was interesting."
Ever since the conversation with my friend here, Jesus' words "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" have been rolling around in my mind. And then lo and behold, our speaker a few nights ago at Al Beit ("The House"...aka youth group) spoke on these very words in the Beatitudes. My prayer is that God's kingdom would indeed come to this place and these people...and that they would be a key part in bringing about His redemption on the earth.