“Good afternoon, I hope you all are well today. My goal is not to discomfort or inconvenience anyone; I just want to share my art…”
“…I am a mother of three children, and I find myself in a state of pregnancy due to a rape. Unfortunately, I am also a carrier of HIV…
“…here in the city with absolutely nothing and no one, and we have been sleeping in a room that we rent daily for twenty thousand pesos. I am selling these candies to so that we can have a roof over our heads tonight…”
“…and as you can see my leg was broken…hospital bills…fifteen months since the accident without being able to work…”
“…This is my work. This is how I make a living. Just like any of you, I do whatever it takes to provide for my two beautiful…”
“…each candy filled with a rich liquid center in four delicious flavors: strawberry, blackberry, passion fruit and pineapple, which I am offering in a promotion of 3 for 1000 pesos, or a unit price of 500…”
They usually speak with remarkable formality and eloquence despite their apparent lack of education, professional experience, or at least monetary resources. Sometimes they rap about the deceptions of the politicians or the need to take care of Mother Earth or how Jesus made them whole. Sometimes they sing old love ballads with a little faux-vintage speaker and a USB drive to play gritty karaoke tracks. Sometimes they play rollicking vallenato songs on the guitar while doing an impressive balancing act in the jostle of the articulated busses.
These are the people who ride the integrated transit system in Bogotá, not to get from one place to another, but to make a living. When the Transmilenio was first inaugurated in 2000, law enforcement kept these people mostly “under control,” but there are so many of them that the officers must have given up. Now the city government combats their activity by running campaigns that depict responsible, model citizen refusing to support the business of such intrusive, dangerous people on the bus.
But this year as part of my Lenten practice, I decided to make these peddlers of wares and stories important to me. I tried to stop being indifferent to them, and to listen to them, look at them, respond to them.
Between the Catholics eating fish and the Evangelicals stuck on the idea that if there are no special seasons then Jesus is more present all the time, I fumbled to find a Lenten practice that made sense here in Colombia. Following the insights of a professor of mine from seminary, I did not want to treat Lent as a self-improvement kick-starter that helps me do things I should’ve been doing all along, That’s just short of the Evangelicals with their dreary insistence that ordinary time is sacred time. I wanted to doing something unsustainable, something that I shouldn’t keep doing all the time, because this reminds me that every good thing is a gift from God.
So I decided to give away money. I admit that I got the idea from Pope Francis’ call to “fast from indifference,” publicized in popular media—and that does sound like a self-improvement project.
But in my experience, indifference is an important survival mechanism in Bogotá. Without it, you would always be running late as you try to put coins in all the beggars’ cups on the street and receive all the fliers that people are paid by quantity to hand out. You would give away more money than you can afford to respond to the pleas of all of the singers, rappers, merchants, preachers, comedians, accident victims, unemployed fathers and mothers, and internally displaced persons that make their rounds on the busses. You could even put yourself—or at least your possessions—in danger by pulling out your wallet in these circumstances.
So I tried to do these unsustainable things. I had a rule to always give money to these people on the bus, whether as charity or to buy their products, and I had to always share food with people wherever I went. But more than following a rule, which is easy, I know that to “fast from indifference” means cultivating a deeper awareness: to be able to perceive the other who constantly comes towards me in this sea of people, with needs, with demands, with stories. You have to learn to listen to what you would normally tune out, to look more carefully even when you don’t want to see, to such a point that you cannot justify not responding.
I strained my ears to hear their stories and tried to be ready with coins when they passed my place on the bus. I bought hard candies, mints, an orange elephant keychain, and crossword puzzle booklets from them. I remember some of their faces: the older furrow-browed couple from the coast, the blue-eyed man with crutches, the pregnant woman with hollow cheeks. Even then, there were times I failed to respond; they passed too fast, I said to myself, or I needed my spare change to buy something-or-other for dinner. There were other times when I didn’t really take them in: who are these people, and how are they beautiful?
My little gestures of generosity were, in truth, paltry. I could and should do most of them on a regular basis, and if there was anything unsustainable about them it was just because I happened to be unusually short on funds this Lent.
But I did learn something about receiving the good I do as grace. I learned how hard it is to respond to the needy one who barges into my efficiently downcast path, hoping that I will be thrown off kilter enough to notice their face and their voice. I let myself be thrown off more often than usual. Maybe I always should, so maybe I did just start another self-improvement project. But more important than “working on it” is recognizing that I cannot truly perceive those around me without abundant measures of grace. This was clear to me in my faltering attempts at “unsustainable generosity.” And Easter came up singing with the hope that there is One who is more generous, more attentive, and more enlivened by the beauty of each bus vendor than I could ever be. The same Spirit that was in Jesus enlivens me now to lift my head and hear them coming even as I reflect with self-satisfaction on the good I’ve done.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. If I could have just a moment of your attention…”