Religion, Reconciliation and Room to Read

When I told my Brasilian host mother that in two weeks I am going to live in a Salvadorian low-income neighborhood, she threw her shaky hands above her head and belted out “O Meu Deus.”  After she sat silently and nodded through Tony—my program coordinator—detailing the safe haven of community leaders and positive social programming he had found within the sprawl of urban poverty, she sent me out to find a copy of “Cidade de Deus” (“City of God”) with English subtitles. When I finished my movie—full of drugs, slum murders and beautifully shot material to amaze and terrify outsiders like me—she didn’t ask what I thought. She simply looked me up and down with pursed lips and said that I should come to her daughter’s Baptism on Sunday. I had to see “true” Brasilian Catholocism before I was exposed to its African influenced counterpart in my homestay. It seems religion has edged its way in as a new theme in my life, and my Global Citizen Year commitment to an open heart and mind means that this weekend I’ll be spending my first Sunday ever in church.

Organized religion has never appealed to me personally, but its capability for affecting positive change is easy enough to see. Churches organize soup kitchens, nuns run orphanages, and the GCY fellows in Senegal blog about Islamic laws necessitating a faithful Muslim’s taking time to acknowledge and aid the poor. Religion, as a part of both individual and national identity, can be a unifying force or a fiercely divisive one.  Brasil is around 80% Catholic, religion is hugely important here, and one would think the members of this group would stand together and help one another like the Senegalese Muslims. But then again, the state of Bahia has an overwhelming majority of Black residents yet so far has not had one Black political representative—it is so hard to predict what forms people’s identities and what actions they will take based on those shared identities.

Whether a group identity is a positive or negative force for a country comes down to people’s ability to relate to one another; people are unable to stand inactive as those they identify with suffer. If a man can truly put himself in the shoes of another, and feel just how tough and tight those shoes are, he will fight to alleviate the pain of his fellow man. It is this phenomenon that makes calls for aid topped with a photo of a maimed and muddy child (sad, yes, but not relatable to the wealthy 1st world resident considering sending his money through the mail) surprisingly less effective than the campaign running a photo of a clean, pretty girl who looks a lot like “your daughter” but simply comes from a tougher place. But our world’s growing inequalities make it painfully obvious that our shared condition of humanity is just not enough of a commonality to move the general public to arms against the poverty of their fellow man. More particular group identities could be extremely useful when trying to stir up the necessary identification with and personal reaction to people’s need—and thus bring about action against that need.

Room To Read’s John Wood told the GCY fellows that his involvement in aid was centered around bringing in donations. He is able to effectively convince the rich to give some of what they have to the poor. In a country like Brasil, where I have seen both wealth and poverty that separately astound me within blocks of each other, a slight redistribution of wealth seems to be in order. What interests me is inspiring those donations and that redistribution of wealth. In a world where my host mother is a wealthy, well-educated retired professor, yet brings her hands to her head as devil horns when I ask about African influenced religion, and throws them in the air calling for God when I mention a lower class neighborhood she has never visited, are group identities just a source of conflict that should be discouraged?

Coming from a Quaker school I’ve always been told that everyone must love each other, but in a world where we have no choice but to admit the presence of these conflicting groups, why not abandon that Utopian notion of universal acceptance? Why not use those insular groups to make those in need more relatable, and encourage helping fellow cultural community members? Is it morally wrong to categorize or stereotype people by saying “please help your fellow white Catholic,” or is it just a realistic acceptance of ancient rifts between groups and the reality of humans fearing what’s different? I sit here full of new questions and ideas on necessary evils, and I’m sure when these months have passed I’ll sit with so many more.

P.S. To curious friends and family members who have asked, I promise picture and video updates are coming soon.