Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.-Isaiah 6:5-8
An older Italian woman came to visit the work in the streets for the first time. She was volunteering with a Catholic organization that used to work alongside with us in the streets. I can clearly remember her first reaction even though it was fifteen years ago. She was visibly overwhelmed by what she saw; little children as young as eight years old had their mouths and noses in plastic bags filled with shoe glue. They were so drugged out that it was impossible to have a coherent conversation with them. The clothes they wore were filthy and tattered. Some slept on the sidewalks and used smelly and stained blankets to keep themselves warm. Some acted and behaved like wild children and tried to pickpocket any anyone who was passing by. They were in the middle of a busy square where thousands of adults walked pass them daily. Most of them avoided any eye contact with the children. They considered the children a nuisance. She was visibly disturbed by what she saw and it didn’t take long before she broke down and cried. Our friend had to stop working with the children to console her. We understood how she felt. We have been there as well. Then she asked us how we dealt with the situation on a daily basis. It wasn’t the first time we have been asked this question and most probably, it won’t be the last. Maybe it is the question in the minds of many sensitive people. “How could we work in such an environment every single day?” I could not give a straight answer back then. It is a difficult question and the answer demands careful consideration. This is my attempt after fifteen years.
We don’t see the same things as this woman or any first-time visitor sees. When we go to the streets, the same children with their plastic bottle of glue or paint thinner come to greet us. They wear the same dirty clothes that should have been thrown away yesterday. They still sleep in tunnels under the highway which are riddled with bugs and disease. All these things are still present, but these are not the things that we see when we meet the children on a daily basis. This does not mean that we are accustomed to all the disturbing things that she witnessed. They will always be disturbing to us as well. We don’t want to be accustomed to any of these things. However, they don’t make us feel paralyzed anymore. They don’t make us feel helpless and useless. We don’t see a hopeless situation. Something has changed within us that makes us see something altogether different from your average visitor. This change comes from our transition from being a spectator to becoming a participant.
We live in the world where we are constantly encouraged to be spectators. We are constantly exposed to images of pain and suffering. We turn our TV on and we see people getting murdered and tortured in distant lands. We see images of children dying unnecessarily. We see images of wars and mayhem. They conjure up all kinds of emotions in us and then they don’t inform us on how to live our lives or make a difference. They just make us feel insecure and helpless. After being inundated with all these images and the emotional aftermath that comes with them, we tend to resign to the fact of being a mere spectator. We might even think that this is the best we can ever do. We might feel that just witnessing something visually is sufficient in itself. This is perhaps why some people think that after they watch a documentary about a tragic situation in some distant country, they think that they are enlightened and have done something significant when in reality, they have just been a spectator. Over the years, we have seen many people who come and see the children and teens living in desperate situations and then just go home and return to life as usual. Being a spectator has become a way of life of many. I don’t believe that any of us want to be a spectator for the rest of our lives. We want to make a difference. We want to be something other than a mere spectator. Thanks be to God, there is another way. The gospel shows a better way to live.
The gospel frees us from the bondage of being mere a spectator. It opens the door for us to be a participant. Being a participant opens our eyes to see a different reality working in us. Now, I am not saying that a participant is someone who acts. A spectator can act and still remain an outsider. Many people have gone to work in relief work in many parts of the world and yet they still remain outsiders. Being a participant is not about doing something. It is choosing not to be an outsider. This leads us to the next question; is it possible for us to become a participant in an situation and environment that is so foreign our own personal reality? Can a person who has grown in a middle-class environment become a participant among homeless people in the third world country? Well, in order to do this, we need to see a reality that exists beyond the superficial; the eternal reality that unites all humanity.
The text above tells about the calling of the prophet Isaiah. The verses that precede it are perhaps some of the most frequently cited verses. Orthodox, Anglican, and Catholic Churches, perhaps even some Lutheran churches, use it their Liturgy every Sunday.
Isaiah saw and heard the angels proclaiming;
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
It was this holiness that overwhelmed Isaiah. He witnessed an amazing spectacle. He saw God in His glory. Like any spectator, the scene left him paralyzed. He became aware of his own finitude and insignificance. He acknowledges this by confessing that he is a sinful man. He qualified his statement by stating that he belonged to a culture and society that was sinful. It was a strange thing to say because the vision did not mention any sinful acts or a particular societal act or omission. It just simply revealed God’s glory. Perhaps, this alone was enough. It was enough for Isaiah to realize that his vision of God was a God restricted by his own cultural and societal prejudices. The vision he saw revealed the true nature of God who was much bigger than his limited idea of divinity or divine action. We are also like him. Whether we like it or not, it is hard for us to imagine God being able to do something beyond our cultural and social background. When we are confronted with abject poverty or a terrible situation, we are so impressed with situation that we fail to see the God who is bigger than any situation or circumstances. It is easy for anyone to come to this conclusion because we construct our world view based what is immediately present before our eyes. However, there is a God who exists beyond our immediate visual reality. When Isaiah became aware of this reality, he confessed his own limited understanding of God. Before this, he felt helpless and lost. He felt small and insignificant. Perhaps feeling helpless and insignificant are not bad in themselves. They can be opportunities for us to make the transition from being a spectator to being a participant.
Isaiah’s admission of his own weakness and limitation opened the door for healing. This healing opened his eyes to the true reality. This made him ready to go and speak for God. Isaiah’s circumstances did not change but only his perception of reality. He was a spectator but now he became a participant in the Work of the Eternal and Glorious God.
I used to only see the disturbing and tragic situation in the streets. I used to be a little afraid when I first started working with the children and teens in the streets. Now, I see Ruan, Gabriel, Gustavo and Mayara. I see children whom our Father loves. I see hope when I get to know these children more each day. I am happy when I see them sitting on the benches because I can be with them. I cannot explain this transition from being a spectator to participant in details. However, I can say that it begin with discovering that God is my Father and from then the reality around me begin to change. Only God can bring about this transition in us. Going to serve the poorest of the poor is not going to make us a participant automatically. Only a true encounter with God can open our eyes to see the reality than is superior to the images presented to us by this world.