The Poor, True Jars of Clay: A Reflection from January 2009

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

January 2009, Cochabamba, Bolivia - We are jars of clay. We are imperfect, maybe chipped or cracked or worn. We are, after all, clay jars - not glass ones, not silver ones, not gold ones. We are far from being put in any art gallery. Yet, despite our ordinary appearance, all of us have an extraordinary power within us. It does not come from us, but from something bigger.

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies." - 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

A typical house in Itocta
Clay. The material that makes most the houses here in Itocta, the village where I live. The poor here are jars made out of the same material as their houses. And in a way, they exemplify more the second half of the verse than anyone I know. They are afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed. Their life is hard. There is no eating out. There is no spending money on frivolous things. Bolivianos (the currency) are pinched to the very end - people are careful where they shop, whether they take a taxi or bus, what they can afford to eat. Their life is not like what we experience in the United States, although some living in Appalachia or Baltimore City might understand it more than we think. Bolivia has been through more than 80 governments (no, that's not a typo; the number's right) since their independence in 1814 and nothing has changed - Bolivia remains poor.  They suffer but yet I hear no one complaining. I see no one crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. They go on.

And do they, the Bolivian poor, represent the death of Jesus? And/or His life?

Our town church was dedicated
to this bloody depiction of Jesus
The Christs here in Bolivia are different than what we see in the United States. Walk into any church in Bolivia and you will find a crucifix that may actually scare you. Blood pours down from Christ's nails and from His crown of thorns. This Christ looks in so much agony from the pain. It's not a pretty sight. It is rare to find such a "scary" Jesus in the United States. While it can be argued that it could be because of the cultural ancestry, I have a socio-economic theory. My theory is that the Bolivian people identify more with a suffering Christ, who suffered as they do, who understands them when they come before him and worry about money or cry over the meaningless death of a child or relative. With this devotion, subconsciously they seem to say that, in their own bodies, they share in Jesus' death. In His suffering and pain. Hopefully in His faith. Hopefully in the hope.

The poor in Bolivia share in Jesus' death with His suffering, but also, as Christians, (hopefully) spread His life. It is not only following Jesus' commandments, but also love. And hope. And joy. I firmly believe that joy is one of the most important aspects of sharing in Jesus' life. I have never seen so much dancing as I have in my year here. I believe Bolivians are born with this special gene that not only gives them the desire to dance, but also dance well. There are dozens of types of traditional music and one is so fast that it basically consists of jumping up and down. Bolivian music is so lively and it can make anyone smile. Psalm 30:11 says "You have turned my mourning into dancing"...and despite all their suffering, Bolivians always find a reason to dance.

When I think of an example of a jar of clay here in the orphanage, I think of Catalina (her name has been changed for the sake of this blog post). Catalina is in eighth grade and has no living relatives. When I first came in August 2007, she was impossible to deal with - she disrespected everyone, she didn't listen, she was overall a  troublemaker. There was only one person she trusted - Father Franco, our parish priest. She and Father Franco, an Italian Salesian priest, had a special connection -  Father Franco's sister was Catalina's sponsor (as in someone who sends money every month for her, like those commercials you see on TV). He was like a father to her. Catalina affectionately called him her "uncle" and considered him her only living relative. One December morning, the news reached us that Father Franco had a stroke and just a few hours later, we got a call saying he had died. Catalina was devastated. She cried non-stop during the funeral. She refused to talk to anyone. When, a few Sundays later, Father Pepe (who became the new parish priest) wanted to bless all the girls and employees in the orphanage during Mass, she ran out of the church crying. She grew even more angry. Sister Roxana, who at that time was working in the orphanage, said "Look, Catalina, you're going to change because of this experience. You're going to be the good person you've always been on the inside. Father Franco will help you from heaven." Catalina ignored her, saying "no, I'm a bad person. I can't change". Well, little by little, she did change. This same girl who used to disrespect me is now my friend. This same girl who used to make me so angry now cooks chicken soup for me when I'm sick. Catalina is a jar of clay - she may be cracked or chipped. She has been through so much sadness in her life, especially now that her "only living relative"  is gone. Like the verse says, she has been afflicted and perplexed...but she survived. Though it be through suffering, she has unlocked that great treasure, that great power, she always had inside. She is an example of how God truly makes all things new. She is an example how the saints, whether they be canonized or not, help us from heaven. Catalina has already shared in Jesus' death through her suffering and now she is sharing in His life...

"And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." - Romans 5:3-5

But I can not blanket all Bolivians (poor or not) to be true jars of clay that have unlocked their special power, that share in Jesus' death and life. Why? Because I live and work in an orphanage where girls have been raped, abused or abandoned by their fellow countrymen, sometimes their own parents. One girl witnessed her mother shoot her father in the head, killing him. Two others, sisters, begged on the streets as their father wasted away their money on chicha, local moonshine. Another girl lived a typical fairy tale childhood - only that hers resulted in her stepmother cutting off her finger. We are jars of clay, but some decide not to recognize God in themselves or, even worse, be "Christian" and recognize Jesus as the Son of God but decide to ignore the part where He tells us to follow His commandments and live as He lived.

We are all jars of clay in our own sense, poor or rich, man or woman, American or Bolivian. We are a piece of art, even as ordinary as we may seem, because we carry in each one of us an incredible treasure, though it may be hidden. We carry in each one of us the life and death of Jesus - it's just a matter of unlocking it and making it visible to others. Time for us to take out the treasure we have and show it to the world...

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