I sit silently looking at the Christmas decorations around the living room of my oldest host brother’s house. Though I have a vague idea, I’m still looking for clues as to what exactly we’re doing here this evening. When I asked my mom where we were going she used a word I didn’t understand and in the moment, as in many moments, I decided to just go with it and let myself be surprised by where I end up.
Neighbors, extended family members, and people I must recognize from church make their way through the tight spaces in the increasingly crowded room.
“Hola. Buenas noches. ¿Cómo está?” I repeat, a little awkwardly exchanging kisses on the cheek. There is a certain grace to this lovely action I don’t feel I’ve really acquired yet. When I sit back down, I continue to ponder one decoration in particular. It looks pretty much like a doghouse made of cardboard and pieces of 2×4 with the addition of some white paper stars taped to the roof. Inside sits a baby Jesus doll in a manger.
Now, with everyone more or less assembled in the living room, I try to inconspicuously study each person. The older women chat animatedly but in hushed tones as if the subject is very grave. A couple of their husbands, who look about as dazed as I do, exchange nods with one another. Three girls, a few years younger than me, sit on the couch across from me, each with a cell phone in hand. Giggles follow whispers as they eagerly show one another their phones. But, given that adolescents are so keenly aware of one another’s presence I can only steal short glances at them before they feel my eyes on them and look up at me defensively.
My oldest brother, Marco, asks everyone to please be seated and begins to speak. He smoothly thanks everyone for coming to this evening’s Novena. That was the word my mom used but I still don’t really know what it is. He talks briefly about the strength of this community during this time of year.
When I got home and Googled Novena for more clarification I found that Novenas are nine days of devotional prayer before Christmas and discussion of the religious meaning of this holiday.
Following Marco’s speech his wife, Cecilia, read a passage from the bible and then prompted the group to talk about the ways in which they have tried to serve God during this year. The group fell silent for a short moment before the oldest woman in the room speaks about how she goes to the asylum to spend time with the patients there. Another talks about how she always tries to visit the sick. She visits the sick to keep them company and pray for them.
Eventually my host-mom, Mama Lules (as we call her), begins to talk matter-of-factly about how she prepares extra food for “los guambras” (an Ecuadorian term for kids, often carries the implication that they are indigenous) in the colegio where she works as the librarian.
Ecuadorians have the reputation of being very generous even when they don’t have much to give. Mama Lules, however, takes her generosity to another level. I remember the stories she’s told me about the people she’s taken in before me, volunteers or individuals with nowhere else to go and how she also frequently goes to visit sick friends or relatives.
However, as they continue talking I think about how if this were happening in the United States I might perceive it all very differently. I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen people talk overtly about the good deeds they’ve done and I imagine I might view it as self-important or immodest. But listening to these people, whose kindness and patience I’ve been the beneficiary of, I understand that bragging is not what’s going on here.
I search myself for an explanation. Why was it my initial inclination to judge this tradition negatively? What’s the difference between my understanding of charity and altruism and theirs?
After thinking for a while the answer, or at least part of the answer, is clear. It can be seen everywhere here in Ecuador. It’s the rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror in the taxis. It’s the mini-altars on the side of the highway. It’s the enormous statue of San Pedro holding the golden key to the gates of heaven, which can be seen from any point in Alausí. And it’s the baby Jesus doll sitting in the cardboard house.
The difference is that religion is so much more present and central in their lives and culture than it has ever been in mine and therefore their acts of kindness and charity are driven toward the objective of being a good Christian. In my culture the most rigid of the ideas about altruism is that ideally there is no agenda whatsoever attached to an act of selflessness and to talk flagrantly about how you’ve helped others detracts from the selflessness by building up your reputation, thus benefiting you. On the other hand, here in the nearly one-hundred-percent Catholic society of Alausí, acts of giving, whether it be time, materials, or compassion, are regarded as doing God’s will and to exchange stories and feelings about those experiences is an important part of the support system I’ve seen here in the past 3 months.
Moving on, Cecilia reads another passage from the Bible and then, removing el niño Jesús from the house, explains that next we will pass him around and when he is passed you say “su compromiso y el prometo de Dios para este proximo año”, your commitment and promise to God for this next year. As the doll went around each person made his or her compromiso and prometo. The younger kids in the room are very brief and quiet. The men seem anxious as they take their turns. Most of the women were swept by emotion when el niño Jesús landed in their hands and looked down at him as they promised to God that they would do their best to care for the sick, the poor, their families and try to better themselves in different ways.
By the time it was Mama Lules’s turn I realized that in the seconds left before it would be my turn I would not only have to think of something to say but say it in Spanish in front of all these people. It was too late to plan ahead, el niño Jesús was being gently passed off to me. I took a second, and looking at the doll as the others had done (though I’m mainly doing it to avoid eye contact with everyone), I begin to speak.
“My promise and commitment is to keep my mind and heart open to others and to be receptive to the lessons I can learn from them.”
Passing the doll to the next person I question whether all of the words I just said actually exist in the Spanish language but mostly I’m grateful that no one giggled.
Then, actually thinking about what I said, I know that while there are many things I struggle to do here, learning and allowing what I learn change me and the way I look at the world are things I really can and must always do.