American Martyrs and St. Patrick Catholic Church
Saturday, September 18, 2021

Jason Obergfell’s Reflection

October 2020
Hola Amig@s,
I last wrote to you in June, in the midst of a pandemic. I write to you now in October, and the pandemic persists. If you encounter someone who doubts the seriousness of the situation, the statistics speak for themselves. In the United States, nearly 1,000 people a day die from the effects of Covid-19. In Bolivia the total numbers are much lower due to a much smaller population, yet the effects much the same. Nearly everyone has been impacted by Covid-19 in some way, with the most tragic of those ways being that someone you know has died after contracting the virus. I know multiple people who have died from Covid-19, both in the United States and in Bolivia. If you do not know someone who has died from Covid-19, you should count your blessings. The pandemic has highlighted how our actions can have a significant impact on other people. It has called us to a greater self awareness, as well as to a greater commitment to working for the common good. With elections quickly approaching (in both Bolivia and the United States), I have chosen to explore this topic in a faith-based and contemplative way in this newsletter. I invite you to set aside a few minutes to reflect with me. Life (in Bolivia) in the Time of Coronavirus In Bolivia, stricter quarantine measures combined with very little direct financial assistance (or even unemployment benefits) have led to significant economic strain on families during the Covid-19 pandemic. The house right behind me was previously only occupied by a Bolivian couple in their early 60s. It is now also home to their son, his wife, and their two young children due to a lack of work to provide adequate income. Their extended family has also experienced at least one death due to Covid-19. For every 1 million people in Bolivia, 696 have died due to Covid. In the midst of this reality, I consider myself to be extremely lucky. I have remained healthy, and I’ve been able to continue working on mission projects in a variety of ways despite the strict measures taken to minimize the spread of the virus in Bolivia. For more than a month we were only were allowed to leave our homes for 4 hours a week to buy food, with your day of the week being determined based on the last digit of your ID card. Police roadblocks were established for checking ID cards to enforce the quarantine. Nevertheless, there were many things that I was able to do virtually during these strict quarantine periods, including facilitating workshops that addressed the stress and trauma that people are experiencing due to the pandemic and the measures taken to combat it. I am sure all of us have experienced a roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs during the pandemic. My mission reality has been no different. For example, the 175 wells with hand pumps that were funded for 2020 were completed by the Bolivian not-for-profit Suma Jayma, my collaborating partner for water projects. Shortly after completion, however, the Director of Suma Jayma was diagnosed with Coronavirus. Although there are many people who are lucky enough to be asymptomatic, Braulio has definitely experienced symptoms. In his recent message to me, Braulio said, “My whole body hurts. My bones. My head. My stomach. The worst is that I can’t sleep at night. I have been receiving injections every day to try to keep it from entering my lungs.” Braulio is only in his early 50s, and he has 3 children in college and one still in elementary school. I am thankful that this year’s water project not only helped 175 impoverished Bolivian families have access to clean water, but also provided some economic stability for Braulio and his family. A medical difficulty can quickly become an economic disaster. Seeing with Clarity One of the ironic things about tough times is that they help us become more aware of what is really important in our lives. We see with greater clarity what we take for granted, like our health and safety, and what we really care about, like our family and friends. In my own life, the pandemic has been a time in which I faced difficult choices and found myself blessed by the clarity that came from having to choose whether to stay in Bolivia or return to the United States as the Coronavirus spread around the world. As I contemplated my return, I found myself most influenced by the people that I love. My parents and other family members were naturally in the front of my mind, but I realized that there was another person who was also at the top of my list – my Bolivian girlfriend, Heidy. It became clear to me that I wanted to stay in Bolivia, in spite of everything else, because I became aware of how important Heidy was to me. I was blessed with clarity. We have accompanied each other throughout the pandemic, and the adversity has only brought us closer together. That is why I am happy to announce that on September 21st (the “Día de Amor” in Bolivia) I asked her to marry me and she said, “YES.” Stay tuned . . . Another Type of Clarity – Seeing What Blinds Us I recently saw the results of a survey that provided me with another moment of clarity. There were over 20,000 American adults who participated, and it specifically included diversity across all types of demographic divisions (political, racial, age, etc.). The survey results indicated that between 80% and 90% of the population believe that the news is biased (depending on the political party of the person responding). That wasn’t the revealing part. The part that added clarity was that 69% of the people are concerned that other people’s news is biased, while only 29% are concerned that their own news is biased. Over twice as many people were concerned about someone else’s news source more than being concerned about their own. These results brought to mind a Gospel message found in both Matthew and Luke: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” - Matthew 7:3 and Luke 7:41 If I have learned anything from 15 years of overseas mission, it is that people’s realities are VERY different. Nevertheless, we are quick to judge someone else’s actions based on our own reality. It is far tougher to render that harsh judgment when you walk a mile in the other’s shoes. In Bolivia, I have heard people with indoor plumbing and sewer service complain about the protests of impoverished people wanting water and basic sanitation projects in their neglected communities. The protests disrupt the peacefulness of their fully-satisfied world, while the people protesting have lived for generations without clean water. I feel fairly confident in saying that the people complaining about the protest would be screaming from the hilltops after living even one week in the reality of the people protesting. Rather than demonizing others and seeing them only as their lesser selves, we can seek to recognize our own blindness and strive to embrace the better angels of our nature. One way to do so is by committing ourselves to focus on our own lack of clear vision. It only takes a few seconds to say, “O Master grant that I may not so much seek . . . to be understood as to understand.” (taken from the prayer commonly known as the Prayer of St. Francis) If we are willing to commit ourselves to focusing on our own lack of clear vision, we can also encourage others to do the same. We can either lift each other up or drag each other down. Rather than incite the fight (by “taking the bait”), we can choose to defuse. When we encounter aggression from others seeking divisive debate, maybe we can remind ourselves of Matthew 7:3. This does not mean ignoring the actual experience someone else is trying to communicate. It means putting in the work of trying to understand the injustices and fears others are experiencing. It also does not mean ignoring our own realities. It means reflecting on our challenges and blessings. Seeing with Clarity includes a Matter of Perspective As Heidy and I have talked about the upcoming elections in both Bolivia (October 18th) and the United States (November 3rd), we have talked about the characteristics of each process. In Bolivia, the elections are always held on a Sunday and no businesses are open. The only business of the day is voting. From Heidy’s perspective, it is hard to believe that voting in the United States is on a normal workday. Rather than implementing barriers to voting, in Bolivia a person is fined if s/he doesn’t vote. The person can choose to submit a null vote or a blank vote, but participation is not just encouraged; it is expected. In Bolivia, political advertising is prohibited on Election Day. From my perspective, it is far more pleasant to not have a partisan political gauntlet at my polling location! Recently while getting my hair cut, a middle class Bolivian woman remarked, “They [indigenous Bolivians] aren’t submissive like they used to be.” It was very clear from her comment that the way it used to be was the way it should be. I believe that her statement inadvertently revealed an important subconscious mentality that is far more prevalent than we would like to believe. It implies that some people should just accept an unjust current reality born of a clearly unjust history. It also implies that “my way” is the only way, regardless of the impact on others. Whether in Bolivia or the United States, we are called as Christians to “perceive the beam in our eye” and “seek to understand.” That is what allows compassion to flow within us. When compassion exists, we don’t argue about justice. We strive for it. But it all must start somewhere. I would suggest it must start within us.
Praying your reflections on elections are blessed with clarity and compassion,
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