I know it’s been quite some time since I’ve written, but things have settled into a pretty natural rhythm that I just assume is not that interesting. It’s your basic workday life, with weekends used for recharging my batteries. Kind of reminds me of how I perceived my life in the Peace Corps: the first year is all new and exciting, and the second year becomes routine. Seems that I’ve fallen into the same mindset.
So what has the last six months been like? Well, travel to some cool places like Iceland, Amsterdam, Krakow, and Vienna. Some wonderful visitors from the US, including my sister. Another Rome Marathon in the books. And on June 4th, I celebrated my two-year anniversary of living in Italy with a hiking trip in the Dolomites.
Okay, okay. Maybe that’s not so routine.
But we all take weekend trips, right? And so many of my friends participate in cool events involving music or sports, and have visitors. I just so happen to do all of those things in another country, and I won’t lie: it’s been fantastic.
Unfortunately, I really don’t like my job.
I work for an amazing organization with a mission to end global hunger, serving 80 million people a year through both direct feeding programs as well as development work to improve food security. We are in some of the hardest-to-reach places and still manage to get food to people who need it the most, like South Sudan, Syria, and even North Korea. It’s incredible and important work. But the place is mired in so much politics, bureaucracy and micromanagement that my skills aren’t being maximized and results are often sub par. My colleagues are wonderful and dedicated, which makes for a great work environment, but I’m struggling with one hell of an inefficient machine and it has really been getting me down.
Then Pope Francis visited today.
I have no idea how this was arranged, but last month we were informed that Papa Francesco would be visiting our office to address the Executive Board and then the staff. We have Executive Board meetings every quarter, in which 36 member states meet to weigh in and make decisions on high-level organizational issues. Executive Board meetings are a pretty big deal, with lots of planning and coordination. Add a papal visit on top of that and you have the potential for a logistical nightmare.
In preparation, I arrived at work at 7am this morning to the sight of security guards out front and cars being turned away from our parking area. The entire area was cordoned off, and staff were told to be inside by 8:30 or they would be turned away (the Pope was to arrive around 9am). Inside, the place was full of activity: guards patrolling the halls, cleaning staff sweeping outside, sound checks and cameras being set up. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, with temperatures in the low 70s, so I snapped some photos of the calm before the storm.
We were informed that if we wanted to be there for the Pope’s address to the staff, we were to be outside no later than 10:30. My colleagues and I went down at about 9am to find a spot and were shocked to find that we were the first ones there. We immediately staked out a spot right in front of the stage and waited.
I wasn’t about to miss this.
You see, Pope Francis was a big part of my journey to Rome.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013. I arrived in Rome for the first time, by train from Perugia. Pope Benedict had resigned the previous month and my one-month vacation to Italy happened to coincide with the voting for the next Pope. It was the second day of voting and as I folded some newly laundered clothes, the television set in my hotel room showed white smoke pouring out of the Sistine Chapel, signifying that a Pope had been selected.
While hundreds of thousands poured down to St. Peter’s Basilica to stand in the pouring rain, I opted for watching the announcement in the hotel lobby with the staff. They expressed their hopes that Cardinal Timothy Dolan from the US would be the next Pope. I told them that it was likely to be the rather dour-looking cardinal from Milan.
“No! We don’t want an Italian. An American will change things for the better,” they stated.
Then the name and photo of the new Pope flashed onto the television screen:
Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
A silence filled the lobby.
Who is this?
For the next four days, my visit throughout Rome was full of excitement over this new Pope, who took the name Francis, who openly greeted people, who preferred not to follow a lot of the traditional lavish customs. I couldn’t understand Italian at the time, but it was apparent that this new arrival to Rome was making quite an impression, not only speaking, but also acting as a humble servant of God. I ran my first Rome Marathon that Sunday, March 17th, the Pope’s first Angelus. Therefore, the marathon route was changed to bypass the Vatican, but that was a small price to pay for such excitement.
When I think of my arrival in Rome, I think of Pope Francis. He arrived that day too, in his own way. Now this humble servant was coming to my organization, a place where I feel like I’m not serving the people of the world as much as I am able.
Ah, the irony. And I’m not even religious.
My colleagues and I stood outside and watched the Pope arrive via the big screen set up next to the stage. As more staff began to arrive, he addressed the Executive Board in Spanish. Here’s an excerpt:
“An information overload is gradually leading to the “naturalization” of extreme poverty. In other words, little by little we are growing immune to other people’s tragedies, seeing them as something “natural”.
We are bombarded by so many images that we see pain, but do not touch it; we hear weeping, but do not comfort it; we see thirst but do not satisfy it. All those human lives turn into one more news story.
While the headlines may change, the pain, the hunger and the thirst remain; they do not go away. This tendency – or temptation – demands something more of us. It also makes us realize the fundamental role that institutions like your own play on the global scene. Today we cannot be satisfied simply with being aware of the problems faced by many of our brothers and sisters. It is not enough to offer broad reflections or engage in endless discussion, constantly repeating things everyone knows. We need to ‘de-naturalize’ extreme poverty, to stop seeing it as a statistic rather than a reality. Why? Because poverty has a face! It has the face of a child; it has the face of a family; it has the face of people, young and old. It has the face of widespread unemployment and lack of opportunity. It has the face of forced migrations, and of empty or destroyed homes. We cannot “naturalize” the fact that so many people are starving. We cannot simply say that their situation is the result of blind fate and that nothing can be done about it. Once poverty no longer has a face, we can yield to the temptation of discussing “hunger”, “food” and “violence” as concepts, without reference to the real people knocking on our doors today. Without faces and stories, human lives become statistics and we run the risk of “bureaucratizing” the sufferings of others. Bureaucracies shuffle papers; compassion deals with people.”
When I read the transcript later that day, I was really struck by that last sentence. He articulated my frustrations perfectly. Yet rather than wallow in inefficiency as I have so masterfully allowed myself to do, he urged the Executive Board not to let politics, bureaucracy or power struggles weigh them down, but rather to increase their commitment to zero hunger, so that our organization could eradicate hunger.
As he made his way outside to the stage, he stopped to kiss the head of each child being held by his/her parent, a staff member who had their child enrolled at our on-site child care center. As he stepped onto the stage, we erupted in shouts and applause.
He had a prepared speech, but he didn’t use it. Instead, he addressed us in Italian, saying that he understood that not all staff understood Spanish. In a nutshell, here was his message.
He thanked us for our work, which is unseen by so many. He told us that when we did our work, to remember our colleagues who lost their lives helping others. And he asked us to pray for him, so that he can do something about eliminating hunger, too. He was humble, funny, and sincere.
As he exited the stage, he graciously extended his hand to all of those who reached out, including my own. It was hard not to be moved by such beauty. His hands soft. His eyes full of kindness.
The rest of my day was full of long meetings, many of which were rather ineffective. I left the office after an 11-hour day and a massively long to-do list that wasn’t going to get addressed any time soon. I still question the efficiency of this organization, and I question if it’s the right place for me. But I will never question its importance and its commitment to others. As Pope Francis said this morning:
“A people plays out its future by its ability to respond to the hunger and thirst of its brothers and sisters. In that ability to come to the aid of the hungry and thirsty, we can measure the pulse of our humanity.”
I don’t know what the future holds. But no matter what, io prometto di aiutare.