Laura and I stare at each other, speechless.
We’re at the funeral of Laura’s partner – a horrible funeral, a tragic funeral – and we hold each other’s gaze. A friend has just asked, “How do you two know each other?”
Venezuela. The middle of the country. The middle of the night. Laura and I were back to back on a thin mattress listening to a pack of dogs barking in the distance. Downstairs in the bar, there was yelling. Bottles clinking, glass breaking. Motorcycles growled in and out.
The village was marked by poverty unlike anything I’d seen but we were staying at Los Vikenos Hotel – or, possibly, brothel. It was actually a little hard to say. Some signs at the front desk were really, very, unclear. We had this dubious and relative luxury because we were seminary students, sent to this place by our church to build relationships with the Union of Evangelical Pentecostals of Venezuela.
The wide-open mouth of the A.C. vent roared into the room. We knew that air conditioning was ridiculous luxury – but it was awful; we were freezing, and we had nothing but shorts and T-shirts. I wondered if, having known Laura only a week, it was too soon to huddle closer to her for warmth.
I had just finished my first year at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. And it had been astonishing. Raised in the church, I found out so much that cracked open my childhood faith: that faith bears interrogation; that the Bible can be a tool for liberation, not oppression; that following a God who came to live among the poor and outcast, means heading more deeply into this, actual, here-and-now world.
…I found out other stuff too: I found out that I could belong and move among brilliant people. I found out I could break up with my boyfriend, drop twenty pounds, turn heads on the street. I could take up with a libertine short story writer who when he turned his sights on me, made me feel sparkly and urbane. This was a new chapter, a new me.
So when I was invited to participate in this trip to Venezuela for seminary students, paid for and organized by my denomination, I rode the wave: following a peasant God, I was gonna take the new me to Venezuela, and discover what I could see and learn there.
I first laid eyes on Laura in the parking lot of an airport hotel in Miami, on our way to Venezuela. The smell of hot tar rising around us, she ambled toward me, smiling as she came.
Knowing I had a roommate among the gathering strangers, I thought, “I hope that’s her.” I didn’t need to know a thing about her to recognize her; she is my people. And she was my roommate.
She got close enough to say, “Gad. Is it gonna be this hot the whole time? This is gonna be terrible!”
While she laughed, I began to pray a new prayer: “Thank you for sending me this woman.”
In that first day, in between stories about the children’s theatre she’d directed, and the women’s bookstore she’d owned, she spoke often of her housemate from home. She quoted her all the time, laughing as she described this hilarious, brilliant “friend.” I know that in a lotta ways, the church sucks: I knew she didn’t know if she was in hostile territory. I tried to figure out a non-patronizing way to let her know, “I get it: you have a wife. I’m on board.”
Laura and I and ten other seminarians followed Jesus all over Eastern and Central Venezuela in the back of a 15-person passenger van. We bounced nauseously over rutted dirt roads and a new mountain highway known for nighttime piracy. We passed streetlights made of open containers of gasoline burning on top of barrels. We lunched at a truck stop with horse on the menu. Wherever we went, we lobbed questions at Carlos, our leader, a seminary professor from the U.S.
“Do Protestant churches here mostly support Hugo Chavez?” and
“How prevalent is dengue fever?” and
“What’s a land grab?” and
“Who are these men with machetes gathered outside our gate?”
To all our questions, Carlos responded, “You don’t understand Latin America.”
We got a copy of the expenses for the trip, and passed it hand to hand. $1000 a day for the van? belonging to the brother of the self-proclaimed bishop who was our Venezuelan host? “Carlos, why is the van so expensive?”
We were naïve, but we knew this seemed off. We stopped asking Carlos questions, and started asking each other:
Why was our money taken to give to the wealthy van owner and his clergy brother? Money we’d collected to tip our cook Luis, an emaciated man trying to visit his dying father in a distant state?
Why didn’t Carlos stay with us at night? What was the nature of Carlos’s relationships here? We felt safe with him but…
“Gad. You guys, I don’t know,” Laura said. “He’s sort of like The Godfather, right?”
What were we supposed to be doing here? Why couldn’t we get our questions answered?
During the first week of the trip, we were driven to a women’s health clinic, a mayor’s office, a radio station, an artists’ collective; everywhere our photos was taken and we were introduced as “the U.S. delegation.” But we were unable to make sense of what we saw or experienced and Carlos was zero help. We sat for hours-long lectures. We went to an indigenous Wayuu community to watch costumed children dance the dance they danced for all their visiting church “friends.” We all got the shits. We all drank bottle after miniature bottle of Polar Ice beer like it was water – which it basically was. We all lost our ability to accept hospitality – too sick to eat skinny chickens slaughtered on our behalf; too overwhelmed to notice that the thin towels were so new they still had their price tags; too disoriented to realize the shirtless man sleeping on a flat of cardboard was wearing a hat reading “security,” hired to protect us.
Late in the trip, at a concert at a shiny new school in the middle of desert nowhere, we were serenaded by ear-splitting Christian rock music while military helicopters thumped overhead. There was no way to know how long it would last, or if it was an event planned especially for us. Finally, unable to hold back, I started crying behind my oversized sunglasses until I had to excuse myself to the bathroom.
Laura found me there, squatting down like a toddler having a fit – I was hungry, exhausted, confused, embarrassed.
“I thought you might be here,” she said.
This moment, crouched in the bathroom crying – this is why I never tell this story. It is so hard to get at what was so awful. If you look at the pictures, I look like I’m having fun! We swam in a pool while we were there and, really, we were safe the whole time. And what’s so bad about Christian rock played too loud in the middle of nowhere? Ok – it’s bad, but not crying-in-the-bathroom bad!
I went to bear witness to the lives of others but I was unable to. My reconstructed faith was absolutely not enough to see me through rats in the bathroom, or corrupt leadership, or too many ham sandwiches, or rich white seminarians judging impoverished Venezuelans for breast-feeding in church. I had thought the trip would be chaotic, that we’d see injustice, but it was the imbalance of power in our little microcosm that undid me.
I tried to keep track of who I’d become in Divinity School, that new me. But if this trip was a test of what I’d thought I’d learned that first year – I failed. God’s gaze on me was not enough to anchor me.
The truth was: I lost myself on that trip. The new me, the old me, gone. Quickly, and easily, like a parent at a fair, I let go of my own hand for just a moment, and I vanished. Almost. Laura came after me.
3 a.m. that night, back at Los Vikenos Hotel and/or Brothel, Laura and I were back to back, freezing in the night. Listening to the dogs bark and the noise from the bar. Scared a brawl might break out downstairs and make its way past our ad hoc security guard. Needlessly, I asked:
“Are you awake?”
“I’m so cold.”
We got up and layered: T-shirts. Extra socks. We threw a yellow rain jacket over the bed for insulation. To that, we added a couple of the thin bath towels.
From across the room, Laura looked at me, and saw me in the bed, homely, undignified. And she stood dejected in the half-light, feet wedged into socks and sandals, her whole self drooping under a poncho. We took each other in: our un-loveliness, our failure, our ugly American-ness. We saw it all.
“This is really bad,” she said. “I wanna go home.”
A year and a half later, I’m at the funeral, waiting for Laura to arrive.
I catch my reflection in a window. I think, “I look like a pastor,” a Bible under my arm. I feel like a pastor.
I turn and see Laura appear at the end of a hallway, flanked by a group of women. As I move toward her, our eyes lock and there’s that question, “How do you two know each other?” As we hold each other’s gaze, it’s all there: stories of ten days – it was just 10 days! – but we don’t know what to say. We don’t know where to start.
About the artist...
Rev. Rebecca Anderson comes to storytelling via stand-up comedy, playwrighting, and preaching. She's a founding pastor at Gilead Chicago, a new church in Rogers Park built around storytelling (GileadChicago.org), as well as at Bethany UCC in Ravenswood. She's been on Snap Judgment (radio), The Broad Experience (podcast), and a Risk! live event. In Chicago, Rebecca has worked with companies and events like 2nd Story, The Moth, This Much is True, and Do Not Submit. As founder of Earshot Stories (EarshotStories.com), Rebecca leads workshops, retreats, and helps create events with congregations and non-profits. She loves to host potlucks for people who don't know each yet, gardening, and running outside year-round (but she won't bike into a headwind).
Want to see more of Rebecca’s work?
Check out her piece, Lazarus, Come Forth, from Issue XII: Truth or Dare!