The following is the text of Greg Carpinello’s speech on the ultimate hope and purpose of service immersion trips, delivered to the Xavier students set to embark on their spring break trips on Friday, February 26th:
In 2004, I went to Ukraine with 12 Xavier students. It took us about 20 hours (and likely cost thousands of dollars) just to get over there. None of us knew the language, so we spent our time struggling through learning the names of the kids at the orphanage where we stayed and worked for the week. We hung wall-paper, painted and cleaned up a room that the kids could use as a hang-out area. When I think back on that trip, I know we served, but our ultimate purpose wasn’t simply service.
In 2005, I went to Colorado and our group traveled to a place called Harvest Farm, where men who were recovering from a drug addiction had a chance to live and work for a few months in a rural place away from their lives in nearby downtown Denver. Though we learned a lot about addiction, our purpose wasn’t simply to learn, to be educated.
In 2011, I stayed in Cincinnati and our group volunteered in a local classroom each morning and afternoon. We reflected every evening, talking about the students with whom we were building relationships and asking good questions about our country’s educational system and influence of poverty on the students’ ability to succeed in the classroom. Though we built some good relationships that week and though we spent time in some good reflections about justice – our purpose wasn’t simply to build relationships and to talk about justice.
And here we are today, on the precipice of your trips with all the nerves, and excitement, and anticipation – So today I ask all of us: What is the purpose of these Alternative Break trips next week?
To help us think about this ultimate purpose, I want to tell you my story of being in El Salvador.
Before travelling to El Salvador in 2009 and 2010, I knew the history of the country. I knew about a guy named Oscar Romero who was killed because he preached peace and love in a time of great injustice. I knew about the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and daughter who were killed because they stood up for the rights of poor people in the country. I knew about the four church-women who were similarly killed for their beliefs and actions. I knew about the decades-long civil war there. I knew the United States had a hand in El Salvador’s history, even some of the atrocities. Intellectually, I knew that US foreign policy and US trade policies have had major ripple effects on the people of Latin America.
And then I actually went. I stood where these martyrs were killed. I saw firsthand the effects of the war and the injustices the people of El Salvador faced. I met with people who had survived, but barely. I traveled to the mountains of El Salvador on the border of Honduras. I played soccer with the children of a tiny mountain community called Ocotillo. I stayed in one of the humble concrete homes of a family there, nestled on a steep mountainside with an outhouse, and roosters, and no cars and a long walk to the nearest town. I became friends with a guy exactly my age – named David – I listened to him translate stories for me and my group about the lives of those people in Ocotillo. He explained the difficult choices they had to make – whether to stay and risk being unable to survive in the poverty of the Salvadoran mountains – or whether to risk the dangerous journey north to the States, with a hope and a dream that maybe there could be a job and a life and a chance to breathe free on the other side.
One morning after a terrible night of sleep in a hammock, I awoke in the pitch-black, pre-dawn morning to a rooster crowing loudly somewhere near my family’s home. When David finally rose and we ran into each other at the water spigot outside the kitchen – he smiled when I mentioned the rooster and said in broken English – “Yes – even the roosters in El Salvador have to work hard to make a living.” We laughed hysterically together – a brief moment of joy and lightness amidst our wrestling with the world’s inequalities. With a new, firsthand perspective that gave me faces and names to put to all the intellectual knowledge of El Salvador’s history, injustice, and poverty – we returned to the city of San Salvador. On one of our last days of the trip – we met with a Jesuit named Dean Brackley. Dean had moved to El Salvador immediately after the six Jesuit priests were murdered for working for justice in 1989 (he felt like that was his only possible response to the grief that he felt losing these men he called brothers). Our group chatted with Dean about what we had seen, how we had been moved. After listening attentively to us, Dean began to speak and his words never left me: He said that our Jesuit educations, our trip to El Salvador, our reflections, discussions, all of our experiences of getting to know the people of El Salvador – ALL OF IT made us social capital. Social capital.
In other words, ALL OF IT MEANT that our whole lives from that point forward had to be oriented toward making the world a better place. ALL OF IT meant that we owed our lives and careers toward being in solidarity for and with other people no matter where we went. What little we accomplish on these service and immersion type trips (though it may be significant for certain people in a certain time and place) pales in comparison to what we might achieve in our entire lifetimes, if we allow these trips to help us align our interests and talents with the world’s great need.
And so it is for you. Whether this is your first trip or your fourth, whether you are going far or staying close. I believe your experience of the next 8 days has an invitation for you.
Earlier I started to tell you about my previous AB experiences and I told you that each one had elements that were important but that weren’t the total purpose. You will do service – but if that’s all you do – you may have been better off writing a check and sending it to your host organization because it probably would have made a bigger immediate impact. You will build relationships with the people in your group – but if that’s all you do – you would have had the same experience if you had just gone to Cancun with your friends. You will engage in reflection and discussion about your experiences and about the justice issue at hand – but if that’s all you do – even that would be incomplete if you leave this experience in whatever city that you call your destination for the next week.
But if you do all those things – the service, the relationship building, the reflections, the discussion, the stepping outside your comfort zone – If you do all of those things AND if you vow to live your life every day after this trip as if you owed your life to making the world a better place AND you vow to seek solidarity with other people, the poor, the marginalized, the outcast – each and every place you go after your trip has ended… then you will live into the ultimate purpose of these trips. And the ultimate purpose is – that by virtue of the fact that you have access to a Jesuit education, that because you will see what you will see on your trip next week – your lives are destined to be lived not just for you, but instead for the possibility of a better world.
Here’s my encouragement for you:
1) Pay attention.
2) Listen to the stories of the people you meet. Honor them. You can’t be in solidarity with people if you don’t know their names and you don’t know their stories.
3) Ask questions. Resist trying to find answers this very week. Just stay with the questions.
4) Let your heart be moved. You can’t change the world with just your book smarts.
5) Laugh. Have fun.
6) Talk. Listen. Listen more than you talk.
7) And accept the invitation for your life to be transformed forever.
Peace to you along the journey.
Greg Carpinello (seen here with David in Ocotillo in 2009) serves as the Director of the Center for Faith and Justice for Xavier University. The Alternative Breaks program at Xavier sends 250 students each year across the globe and challenges each of them to grow in solidarity and understand their roles as global citizens.