I’m one of them.
You know, them, those Americans that flooded our orphanage with boundless enthusiasm and big-bright-smiles that scarred our retinas, who fueled our knowing eye-rolls and starred in our barely exaggerated horror stories for which we only felt the most comfortable kind of shame. Them.
Those people I arrogantly tried so hard not to be.
Because, my god, remember when they made that whole room full of Guatemalans sing “God Bless the USA” twice in one hour? And how they snapped pictures of the kids so frenetically that the clicking shutters could have easily been the beat of whatever peppy Chris Tomlin anthem they were probably going to use for their slideshows? And, holy crap, that one time when…
…well, nevermind, that’s not the point. See what I’m doing? Always trying to distance myself, convince myself I couldn’t possibly be like that. That I couldn’t possibly merit such damning italics.
But here I am, sitting in my overpriced IKEA chair, writing about a place/people/life that is slowly shrouding in fog. I didn’t realize how dull my memory of working in Guatemala had become until a warm twilight rain brought it all back into startlingly sharp focus. Does rain hold all of your memories, too?
It barely rains here in Los Angeles, so I’m forgetting things.
I’m one of them because I left.
I had to, of course. I knew I couldn’t stay forever; I was enrolled in grad school, was starting to feel restless and cramped, was confident God was calling me back to the States. And yet…
Do you ever wonder if maybe you made a huge mistake? How are we supposed to know? Does it even matter?
I’m sorry, those are stupid questions. It’s just that a few months ago I watched a documentary about this disaffected American guy who, in every sense of the phrase, found himself in an AIDS orphanage in India. He’s still there; he couldn’t leave the place in which he learned how to truly give and receive love, couldn’t ignore the broken systems he would reinforce by going home, couldn’t be just another fading photograph haphazardly glued into the orphanage’s book of “visitors” – those who came and went and forgot.
Thirty minutes outside of Guatemala City, on a dusty closet shelf, there is a book with my picture in it.
I’m being pathetic, I know. Life is complex, I am finite, we all need to have patience, untempered passion will just consume me and weaken my ministry where I am now. Yes, of course, I believe all of that. Maudlin nostalgia is useless. Leaving wasn’t a sin.
But even if I didn’t sin I still think I need to be forgiven.
I need to be forgiven for the inescapable self-centeredness of coming and going with all the impermanence of one of Guatemala’s innumerable summer storms.
I need to be forgiven for asking the kids and staff to live with me, to be my family, to pretend four months could last forever.
I need to be forgiven for being just another opportunity for the kids to believe that growing attached to someone isn’t worth the trouble.
And I need to forgive myself for leaving the place that made me feel fully alive.
A year ago I wrote that the only way I could adequately say “thank you” was to become the kind of man whose life does justice to the hospitality and grace I was shown. Over the past few months it has also become the only way I can adequately say “I’m sorry.”
I am slowly learning that gratitude and grief bloom with the same flush of color, the way rising and setting suns are equally astonishing, each drawing me out of myself in aching wonder.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense. Maybe it shouldn’t.
Either way, I hope you are well and that you have grown in warmth and passion, daily encountering the hidden graces of this absurd thing we call life. And I hope, for both our sakes, that somehow in the midst of this process of learning to mourn our limitations we will dare to believe that we are more forgiven than we could ever imagine.