On a recent trip out of Bogota with CEPALC to a small town called Aguazul (about 7-8 hours driving time out of the city), which sits on the vast planes of Colombia, immediately after you get out of the mountains, a lot of our time was spent in conversation with various individuals who are campesinos, people who work the land (farmers, if you will), many of whom were displaced from their original land because of the war and have resettled in Aguazul. A conversation with one in particular was striking and I’ve been wrestling with it since that day.
He asked me who I was and what I was doing here (because, obviously, being the fair-complexioned, blue-eyed gringa that I am, I stuck out like a sore thumb). I attempted to explain myself. I’m a young adult missionary who is serving with CEPALC as part of a program through The United Methodist Church. But what are you doing, he asked me? Well, I guess that other than helping CEPALC in whatever ways I can, I’m working on really trying to build relationship and solidarity between Colombia and the people and churches I know back in the US. But how is that measurable, he asked? Well, this, like many other social work sorts of fields, isn’t exactly measurable. But he didn’t seem to see eye-to-eye with me, insisting that there must be some sort of measurable outcome of my work. The conversation was frustrating and challenging for me (and inevitably one of many like conversations to come).
In a later conversations with coworkers about the incident, one pointed out that this man’s questions represented a very campesino frame of reference. As individuals who work the land and are able to see directly the fruits (literal fruits in some cases) of their labor, but this more conceptual work as I’m doing with CEPALC, working to change people’s understandings of their own power, working to change concepts that exist in dominant society or in the world…these sorts of work just don’t fit into that frame of reference. Unless if my work is yielding direct fruit, building wells, finding funding, etc., is it really doing anything effective?
This is something that I struggle with beneath the surface every day. Is my work, communicating stories to people outside of Colombia, working at the grassroots level to build relationships and maybe (just maybe) bring about changes of heart and understanding through means of community empowerment. But what does that yield? It’s difficult to reconcile, especially if I’m working with individuals and groups that don’t see eye-to-eye with me on the fruits of that labor, but it’s something I have to grapple and struggle with. And maybe (just maybe) I’ll find even deeper fulfillment in the work to be done because I’ve struggled with the questions and not simply taken everything at face value.
Is my work going to change the world? Probably not. Is my work going to change anything? I would hope so. But for now, the best I can do is listen; maybe if I listen carefully enough, I’ll find points of intersection; ways that my more macro-level work can translate to real on-the-ground yields.