On Receiving the Works of Mercy in the Southernmost Capitals of the Americas

I smiled with excitement as the plane landed on the runway and taxied toward the gate. It was March break (which as a teacher I anticipate just as eagerly as my students do), and I was looking forward to ten days in two cities I love: Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I was to present at my first academic conference in three years, and Montevideo, Uruguay, where I to participate in the presentation of a dear friend’s poetry book, which I’d edited and translated into English. After living and working in Uruguay for nine months in 2006 and returning for an extensive visit in 2013, I was excited to reconnect with old friends in a place that still feels like home

After getting through the Argentine passport control and picking up my bag, I used my bank card to purchase a bus ticket from the airport into the city Buenos Aires. The conference was scheduled to take place downtown at the Marriott Plaza Hotel, located along the famous Florida Street, a pedestrian walkway lined with shops. My bus ticket included a taxi that took me right to the hotel’s door, where I marveled at its elegance and luxury. I began talking with the other conference participants, most of them Spanish professors at various North American universities. That night we enjoyed a welcome banquet which featured live tango dance and music. It was truly a lovely beginning to what promised to be a great conference.

There was only one problem. Being the kind of person who leaves nearly every task to the last minute or later, I hadn’t actually finished my conference paper. Determined to work on it in my hotel room, I pulled out my adapter and attempted to plug my computer into the wall…with no luck. As it turned out, I had brought the wrong kind of adapter. When I stepped into a nearby electronics store in the hope of buying a new one, I encountered an obstacle: they only accepted cash.

 

With the lackadaisical attitude of a frequent leisure traveler, I had neglected to bring any cash – Argentine, Uruguayan, or US – on this trip, assuming that I’d be able to get money from a machine when necessary. I immediately made my way to the corner bank. However, as soon as I inserted my card into the machine and tried to withdraw money, a message appeared on the screen informing me that the operation was invalid and that my card was being retained. My heart sank. The machine had eaten my card.

I took a step back and pondered what to do. Although I had another card from a different bank, I was not willing having the machine eat that card too. With a queasy feeling in my stomach, I did the only thing I could think of: I explained the situation to one of my fellow conference participants and asked her to lend me the thirty pesos I needed for the adapter.

While this might not seem like much of a problem, this situation caused me a fair amount of discomfort. I generally do not find myself having to ask a stranger for money. Even though I knew I’d be able to pay her back eventually, the exchange felt embarrassing. I internally chided myself for not having planned better, for not having come on the trip better prepared.

The situation grew more interesting over the next days. While the conference registration fee included the first night’s banquet and a daily breakfast, no other meals were provided. I soon discovered that all the restaurants and grocery stores in the area accepted cash only. As my stomach rumbled, I chuckled at the absurdity of the situation. Here I was, a relatively wealthy North American, staying at a luxury hotel, unable to buy food. It was simultaneously comical and sobering, as my thoughts turned to the thousands of porteños who on a daily basis do not have access to food.

Buenos Aires is known as the ¨Paris of the Americas,¨ Its beautiful city center abounds with European charm, from the gorgeous architecture to the street vendors selling flowers on every corner to the abundance of theatres, museums, elegant stores and libraries. However, like most cities in the Global South, it is surrounded by a ring of villas miserias – slums where the poor crowd together, building ramshackle dwellings that often fail to protect them from the elements, struggling to gain access to food and clean water, and dealing with urban violence. Over 700,000 inhabitants of Buenos Aires live in these conditions, a number that is increasing. Although the city has been taking steps to urbanize these neighborhoods and give people access to city services, in recent years the number and size of the villas miserias has grown.

Thinking of these people and struggling to even begin to imagine their daily reality, my ¨first world problem¨ of a machine-swallowed bank card suddenly seemed less concerning. I felt lucky to be able to travel – a luxury that should be available to everyone who wants it. I felt fortunate knowing that feeling of hunger would only last a few days (and indeed, it lasted much less time than that, as I soon was able to find a restaurant that let me pay with my card).

After the conference ended, I left Buenos Aires for Montevideo, the southernmost capital of the Americas. Once again, without access to cash, I found myself reliant on the goodwill of others – only this time they were old friends rather than strangers. One of them, a teacher whom I’d worked with in 2006, housed me in her home, cooked me delicious food, and lent me money for the bus. After my friend’s book launch, when we went out to celebrate at a restaurant turned out to accept cash only, another friend lent me the money to cover my meal. When the weather unexpectedly turned rainy and my clothing proved inadequate, yet another friend lent me her raincoat.

Uruguay is the most egalitarian country in South America, and most of my friends there could be described as middle class. However, Uruguayans are still affected by the global imbalance of wealth that divides North and South. A teacher in Uruguay earns much less than one in the US; while some of my friends are able to travel abroad, many others do not have that opportunity. On the whole, I am probably financially better off than most of them. And yet, during my visit to their country, they were the ones who generously gave of themselves for my benefit.

As Catholics we are constantly called to do works of mercy. This is especially true during Lent, a penitential season when we are invited to give special consideration to the needs of others through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This call is not easy for most of us. However, my experience in South America reminded me that it can be just as challenging to receive the works of mercy as to give them.

As a US American, I was raised in a culture that values self-reliance and autonomy much more than most. While we have a social welfare system, it is less extensive than that of other industrialized countries. We differ from the norm in expecting our citizens to pay for their own health care and most of their own retirement. In general, our culture expects young people to leave the family home on reaching adulthood, and we are often hesitant to care for our elders as they come to need us in old age. We see independence as a virtue and often look with suspicion or disdain on those perceived as not being able to care for themselves.

However, at various points in our lives, most of us realize that we are not as independent as we’d like to think. For some this realization may not come until old age, a reality that my parents are struggling to cope with. For others it may come sooner – the onset of an unexpected illness, the loss of a job, the breakdown of a long-term relationship or the death of a loved one make us realize that we cannot make it through life without the support of others.

In my experience, giving does not always entail moral virtue. It is possible to give while maintaining a certain distance from those we seek to help, maintaining a sense of superiority over them, refusing to acknowledge them as our equals. It is possible to give from a place of smugness, arrogance, or the expectation that our gift will be reciprocated – an attitude that undermines true generosity.

When compelled to rely on others’ gifts to us, however, we are forced to recognize our own weakness, our contingency, and our need. We realize that ultimately, we are not self-reliant, but deeply embedded in a complex network of relationships with other people. We may experience a certain amount of shame or feeling of indebtedness, but there is also the chance to know deep, genuine gratitude. The experience of a temporary lack of access to money reminded me of my kinship with others, an interdependence that makes me feel more motivated to give – not only to those people who helped me, but to others in my own community, and still others whom I may never meet. Ultimately, giving involves receiving – whether we acknowledge it or not. Likewise, receiving inevitably involves giving.

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  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    Thanks for this great essay. Did you ever get your bankcard back, or find out why it was seized in the first place?

    On a more serious note, your essay reminds me of Michel Mollat’s argument in his social history of the poor in the Middle Ages. He makes the case that through the 12th century the the poor “existed” in Catholic theology only as objects: they were there to allow the rich to give alms. Mollat believes that it was St. Francis and the subsequent Franciscan tradition (yeah team!) that introduced the radical notion that the poor are also subjects, with both agency and particular value in and of themselves. It follows from this that alms-giving must entail relationship between giver and recipient.