Have you ever had the experience of being touched very deeply by something that left you, in its wake, strangely inarticulate?
The experience is profound – it moves you, frightens you, teaches you, changes you and you know it is doing you good – but you are left stunned, wondering how to respond.
I feel that way now, sitting in this, the hugest, dirtiest, most congested and poorest city I have ever been in: Cairo, Egypt.
I remember my naïve enthusiasm in coming here. The quick, smug, letters to friends: “I want to go and rub shoulders with the poor, see the Third World, taste its dirt, its overcrowdedness, its inhumanness.
“I want to see poverty, first-hand, let it jar me into making a deeper response. A response to what? I don’t know. I just know that I need to see that kind of poverty for myself!”
I am seeing it now and the experience is more than I want it to be: 12 million persons, all living in an area capable of giving even minimally adequate space, water, sanitation and human living conditions to only one-quarter of that number!
It is a megalopolis of dirt, noise, lack of privacy, overcrowdedness, smell and poverty. For a Westerner, like myself, it is overpowering.
Superficially, it is overpowering because I am unable to find for myself the sanitary food, the clean air and water, the space, and the privacy and quietness I am used to.
More seriously, it is overpowering because, while it is ripping open inside of me very serious questions about the validity of my own lifestyle and my normal concerns (and Western affluence in general), it is leaving me powerless to respond in any truly useful way.
Perhaps what I am feeling is what is so generally felt in the face of the disturbing fact of social injustice and poverty. It is real. We know that we should be doing more, sharing more. But what?
Everything seems so huge, so hopeless, so beyond us! We are locked into a huge system, more powerful than ourselves. So are the poor. Our efforts to help seem puny and impotent.
Moveover, we have our own limitations and problems, deep, painful poverties of our own which seemingly already demand more energy than we have. There is in our lives, already, more than enough malnourishment and dirt with which to contend.
It is an overpowering helplessness that I feel here. I look at the magnitude of the problems and I am depressed. I look at my own abilities (and inabilities) to respond… and I am further depressed.
What can I do? I can come and look. I can, as I have already done, stay in a poorer section of Cairo. I can walk through Cairo’s worst slum, the “Red Alley,” Darb el Ahmar, (where few tourists venture).
I can ride the city buses, look at faces, talk to some people. I can spend some time talking and working with Sister Emmanuelle, among Cairo’s very poorest, sitting on a dirt floor teaching Arab kids (crawling with fleas) kindergarten.
I can help hold a young girl of five as the doctor disinfects her wounded foot and be moved with pity and compassion. But… in the end, I am playing a game and I know it. Even my looking has a safe antiseptic distance to it. Yet, I am not sure what, barring prayer, I can do.
I do not have the charism of a Mother Teresa, a Sister Emmanuelle (see Time, Dec. 27, 1982), nor a Sister Kathleen (who works with Sister Emmanuelle in Cairo). I can’t drink the water, eat the food, speak the language, nor, in fact, even offer proper empathy and support to those who have the charisms for the front lines.
In the end, I am helplessly distanced.
What can I do? I am a priest and teacher. Turn my theology classroom into a social justice seminar? Preach on social justice more often? Perhaps. But is that an answer?
And what of the very real problems within our own society? Are our pains less real? Less urgent? Does social injustice in the Third World bring about more pain and death than psychological, emotional, and spiritual injustice in the First World? What types of dirt and malnourishment dehumanize more?
I have seen the worst slums of Cairo, but I have also seen the seamiest sides of San Francisco, New York, London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. Which is worse and which would I choose to live in? I am not sure!
Right now I am only sure of being deeply unsure. Veni, vidi, non-vici! The riddles grows thicker, the glass darkens, the exile is further from home!
I am here with two friends. Occasionally, when the noise, dirt, and lack of space seem a bit overpowering, one of us asks the others: “What are we doing here?”
I suspect the answer will be slow in coming. The transfiguration of Christ always stuns those who witness it. However, like the earliest followers of Christ sensed when their normal perception of Christ was transformed, “It is good that we are here!”