Strikes and Gutters, Ups and Downs

Over the next two years, I will be writing occasional columns for The Fond du Lac Reporter, my hometown newspaper. The following is the third such piece, which can also be found by clicking this link:|head

The first two can be found on the previous post. My thanks to Mike Mentzer and Gary Clausius of The Reporter for their help on this project.

A few weeks ago I was treated to one of those work weeks we all know and love—the kind that begins on a Wednesday.

Peru’s social services were closed Monday and Tuesday to celebrate Day of the Worker. When I arrived at Fe y Alegria, the high school where I teach, Wednesday morning, it became clear the week could become another type we all know and love—the kind that ends on a Wednesday.

Some of my fellow teachers had been unable to commute to work from their homes in Cusco—a city about 30 miles from Andahuaylillas—because of a strike initiated by other Peruvian educators.

After a scrambled day with a limited staff, we had a teachers’ meeting. Though the language barrier left some details unclear, I gathered that the striking teachers were frustrated about educators in other parts of the country having better salaries and benefits than they did.

As the meeting moved through discussions of whether we should join the strike, I found myself thinking about the precariousness of my own position.

Like my coworkers, I was a teacher. If the administration closed school, I would be out of work for however long the impasse lasted. Nonetheless, I was also a volunteer living on a monthly stipend. Unlike my colleagues, whatever agreement the teachers and government came to would not affect my livelihood. Furthermore, because JVC precludes me from participating in political action in my host country, I would have to stay off the picket line if Fe y Alegria’s teachers were to strike.

There was a relief that came in realizing I was not only under no pressure to take a stand; I was prohibited from it. In the spirit of St. Ignatius’s teachings, I could be indifferent and let the situation resolve itself.

For safety reasons, Fe y Alegria`s administration closed school on Thursday and Friday, hoping the conflict would blow over and allow us to resume classes on Monday (it did).

In the following days, I continued thinking about my unique circumstance regarding the strike. The more I reflected, the more I considered that the kind of indifference I had adopted was not what St. Ignatius meant. His theology talks about a life lived without longings for success or personal gain. We should, he argued, only desire that which makes us better people or, in his words, leads us to God. Beyond that, we must be indifferent as to what happens to us.

In the context of the strike, my indifference had been more selfish. Because I did not have much stake in the outcome and did not want to overstep my role as a volunteer, I relished in the freedom not to take a stance.

Just because I could not publicly state an opinion, however, did not mean I should not thoughtfully develop one. While JVC requires my abstinence from political advocacy, it also commands me to “strive for friendships and solidarity” with Peruvians. In part, this means engaging in my coworkers’ struggles and seeking to compassionately understand their hopes and views, regardless of how little or much they bear on me.

This is ultimately a lesson I hope to carry back to the U.S. When I think about the myriad of social and political beliefs I can not only hold but also voice at the polls, I realize few of them will actually impact me. I represent but a few groups in society. Besides me, there are countless others vying to have their voices heard and rights protected. If the spirit of camaraderie I am called to with Peruvians teaches me anything, I hope it is to think beyond what is best for me and remember that the positions I take and decisions I make will affect others.


About brianharperu

A recent Marquette University graduate who inexplicably finds himself living and working as a Jesuit Volunteer in Peru, Brian enjoys writing, learning new musical instruments, imagining himself to be a better athlete than he is, eating pancakes and voting as part of his civic duty.
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