Hello, and greetings! Summer has begun here in Boston in full swing after a prolonged coolish Spring, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share the latest updates to the Barriers To Bridges mission with you.
Clarifying Some Basics
To help to clarify some of the basics of the mission, I've posted a few new home-made videos that hopefully illustrate some of the basic dynamics of the mission in a visual way. They represent the visual that I have in my head that is behind everything that I'm doing, so you're getting a view inside my cabeza. :)
They are posted on the Mission and Giving pages, and I'm including them here as well. Click on each phrase to link to the respective video on Youtube.
Transitions is the perfect word for this update, as there is indeed a transition going on! I have to say that it is not quite clear to me - as no transitions are until they are completed - but every transition does begin with an ending.
And God seems to be providing a full share of endings to me and B2B!
I am not sure that I would say this is a bad thing or a failure. I would stick to the word "transition" for now, and see where it points to when a new direction emerges. But all transitions start with endings, followed by the grey zone, followed by new beginnings. So, I will share with you a number of the endings that have occurred, not only since I have returned to Boston, but in the last 6 months or so in general.
In my return to Boston, there was a meeting at Boston College for supporters of Latin American immigrants. I attended as Barriers To Bridges, though I had just arrived the night before from Ecuador, in the blizzard. Representatives and owners from small businesses and organizations and parishes were allowed to speak. But it was a climate of fear, and strangely, I was not allowed to speak at all. My turn was skipped, and organizers avoided me and refused to answer any of my questions or listen to me. Even friends I knew there attempted to pave the way for me, and I was still ignored. What made it incredibly frustrating was that I was probably the most valuable person present for the purpose of the meeting. There were many Latino immigrants present who voiced their concerns, but everybody already knows how everyone feels. A number of leaders of Latino organizations or church leaders spoke. Then, a few anglo people got the mic and promised to do some awareness in their local parish. But I was certainly the only person present (a) born and raised in Boston, (b) who had lived in Latin America and ministered in mission there to the poorest people, and (c) was formerly someone who had no support whatsoever for Latin American immigrants, but had had a change of heart. I thought, those make me the most valuable person to any Latin American immigrant. I mean, imagine: I am a real, living, breathing, walking model for every local person who is opposed or indifferent to Latin American immigration. The very real effect that I am going to have is to bring about a change of heart in locals toward immigrants and give them a real flesh-and-n understanding of life in Latin America. What more could you ask for?! It reminded me again that, whether "liberal" or "conservative", the contention between the two sides sadly makes them both blind to the gifts in front of them.
The work that I do isn't stand-alone work: I always minister or work in some form of collaboration. Within the last year, several important friends, collaborators, and supporters have left Ecuador, including the remainder of the St. James Society, a member of the Missionary Franciscans of St. Joseph (Sr. Josefina McGarvey), a good friend in Mindo (Susan Hillman de Alban), all the lay missionaries with Family Missions Company, Peace Corp friend Richard Castello, and all the teachers at the school in Chontal. These departures have each left holes, and new relationships that take time to develop need to be fostered. However, there is a challenge in that there is not much of a missionary presence from the States anymore. In fact, I don't come into contact with anyone anymore from the States in mission. It is a challenge ...
The End of My Hispanic Ministry at St. Anthony Shrine
Back home in Boston, I arrived to St. Anthony Shrine and the hispanic community in the first weeks after getting back. With a new hired director of the hispanic ministry, I found a less welcoming environment, and wasn't invited into any ministries. I was invited to give a short 10-minute talk about what I had done in mission, but I felt that that was more to keep me from doing a full-blown presentation that anything else.
I suggested leading a retreat for Lent on relating the immigration experience with the Paschal experience of the Israelites leaving Egypt. The director decided to support it, but after the planning got underway, I received no support and constant contention from the director, even including personal insults. This negativity drained the spirit out of the preparation, and, seeing that the retreat now lacked its most important element, I backed out. I realized that in fact I had not had a position in ministry in the community for quite some time, and the current environment wasn't a positive one. As I mentioned before, what I do requires a cooperative environment where I am received, so I understood it to be a time to move away from the community. It was another ending...
WPI Campus Ministry on Hold
A friend from my seminary days is now the campus minister at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester. I did my engineering graduate work at WPI, finishing 22 years ago. Fr. Hugo is from Colombia, and he has re-initiated the hispanic ministry at WPI. He had me by for a visit to one meeting, and there was talk of more invitations, but I've not been back since March...
My Personal Situation
In initiating Barriers To Bridges, I took a calculated risk of investing my own time and resources into the effort, in the hopes that either one of three things happened: (a) either the effort developed into a self-supporting entity that I could give my full time to; (b) an entity that was a side-effort along with my own need to provide for myself; or (c) would evolve, dissolve, or be enveloped into a larger effort in the church, which I myself would join. I had committed to a time of exploration and development with an eye to timing, as there is an organic timing to these efforts, and I have limited resources to invest. Well, the timing and my personal resources are coming to an end! So, decisions need to be made soon about the direction of the effort. Important aspects of the effort are bit-by-bit showing to be ending, especially recently, and there has been flux, which brings me to ...
Presentation to Supporters in Boston
I've not put together a presentation yet to folks in Boston in large part because of the great flux that the effort has been in since I returned. That has also delayed the:
Institution as A Non-Profit
When small efforts and entities involving money evolve, they pass through phases of growth like a person in a womb. At some point they become a sole-proprietorship, the most basic business entity where you have a business bank account and a business in your own name. It's also called "doing-business-as". Then, they can move to next steps in the business entity chain. But if they are charitable efforts, the next step is to become a non-profit entity and have 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Reaching that level requires substantial organizational development and is very costly, because of the government law and structure requirements that protect the tax exemption. So, there is often a big gap between being an embryonic business entity and being born as a full-fledged non-profit.
Enter "fiscal sponsorship". There are companies that form specifically to bridge that gap, called "fiscal sponsors". They themselves are full-fledged non-profits solely formed to be an umbrella for the embryonic charitable efforts to incubate. The "doing-business-as" pays a percentage of its income to its incubator, and in return receives the full non-profit status umbrella from the fiscal sponsor. A charitable effort would contact a fiscal sponsor, apply for sponsorship, and if accepted, would then be able to "put up a shingle" in the fiscal sponsorship's umbrella and carry out business from that.
Well, when I returned in February from Ecuador, I had contact with Mission Earth in Massachusetts. It was positive. However, because the effort is in flux, I paused on taking steps until I had more clarity...
Community in Lawrence, Mass and Alao, Ecuador
In January, I visited the indigenous community of Alao in Ecuador (you can see the summary I put together here.) The visit was bringing and handing out gifts to the schoolchildren and the seniors in the twin villages of San Antonio and Llactapamba. The gifts had been funded by the Ecuadorian community in Lawrence, MA, in which there is a large number of folks from Alao. I was the ambassador, and the goal was to initiate and strengthen the community-to-community relationship.
I returned in February excited to return to Lawrence where the funding had come from and share the experience, as I had arranged the presentation also in Spanish. To my surprise and disappointment, my attempts to visit and share the experience were continually deferred and postponed by the leaders of the community, and I was never invited to come, even for the most basic meal or a chat. Almost 5 months have passed, and I have never received an invitation to come, though I have brought it to their attention several times. The community in Ecuador received me well - but now in Massachusetts, the door was closed. Once again, everything I do begins with being received, so it really is dependent on the will of the person or community where I sense I'm being called. So, I have ended the ministry relationship with the Ecuadorian community in Lawrence.
School Exchange Project: West Bridgewater, MA and Chontal, Ecuador
In early January, a friend contacted me about the exchange projects in her town, West Bridgewater, in Massachusetts. The schools, particularly the high school, had exchange projects with schools in China and Costa Rica. She was wondering if a school in Ecuador would be interested in an exchange, as her son attends the school, and his grade didn't have an exchange. She also mentioned that she could seek a grant through her organization to help with what I'm doing and facilitate the project - probably about $2K.
I thought it was worth investigating, so after several efforts was able to speak to the local principal in Chontal at the beginning of February, just before leaving for Boston. She was positive, and part of the thought process was that I would have to be present to guide things from their end. I was in agreement with that.
I met online with the language teacher in West Bridgewater, who is also the district director of foreign language education. We had a very positive meeting, and seemed to be on the same page as far as the type of project, the philosophy of it, and our willingness to do it. We covered some very basic logistics, and I was able to then have an online meeting with the principal in Ecuador and have a similar conversation.
That gave me enough confidence to investigate my own availability. It would affect my living situation, work situation, finances, and visa situation, as I would need to plan to be in Ecuador from September to February. That means gauging what I would need to do as far as short-term and long-term work, subletting my apartment, arranging meetings to obtain a visa, and whether I could make my personal financial situation work. I did some investigating and initial steps in those areas, and when I finally felt I had enough confidence to take the risk, I reached out again to the schools.
At that point, there had been a change in the principal in Ecuador. So, before anything else, I had an online video call with him about the project, and he was fully positive. So, the next step was to set up an online video meeting with both sides involved, to make introductions and plan next steps together.
We first setup a meeting with me, the principal in Chontal, and the language director in MA. Realizing she need her own language support, the director here preferred to reschedule to a time when the primary language teacher (the one who would be directly working in the project) would be available. We all agreed to reschedule a week later when she could be present.
The next week came and the principal in Chontal texted me 20 minutes before the meeting saying that he had an emergency meeting: he needed to be a part of bringing books to the neighboring school. We all agreed to reschedule to the following week.
That was the last I heard from the principal there. The meeting came and went, and he didn't show up and has not responded to any of my communications.
On this end, we talked about what would be needed for them to regain confidence in the school in Chontal. Since the principal still has not responded at all, it's clear that that relationship has ended. However, the folks in West Bridgewater are appreciative of the way I have handled the whole process and are willing to work with a different school - of course pending signs of trustworthiness.
On the end of Chontal, since I never received response from the principal, I wrote a letter to the leader of the schools' families (like the PTA), recounting the history of time, effort, and sacrifices made to advance the project, and the manner in which it ended. I tried to clarify the fact that the lack of professionalism and fundamental respect by the principal cost the community not only the project and all of its potential benefits, but damaged trust in the school for any future projects with me. She has responded to me, and I've asked to pass along the letter I wrote to other families. I'm waiting to see what type of response the community makes.
But even more, this reflects other problems with trustworthiness that I've experienced with the community. Before meeting with the first principal in February, she and another teacher met with me to share some bad news: the video projector that I had brought for the school (the only one they have) had been stolen. They suspected it was another teacher in the recent turnover that the faculty experienced. However, the problem I had was not so much the robbery, but how they responded. They had not told anyone. Neither the police nor anyone in the families knew about it, because they were afraid of the accusations and reactions of the families. Instead of valuing the gift, the giver, the kids and the families, and taking all reasonable measures to recover this stolen tool for education, they let their fear of what others might say about them decide their path. And instead of re-assessing how they store their valuables and presenting a new solution, they simply hid the truth. What it said to me was that their own self-interest took precedence over the common good, that they did not value good things, and that were not trustworthy to receive gifts.
This event is what caused me a lot of internal struggle in deciding whether to try to collaborate with the school in the exchange project. I didn't have any other relationships as well developed with other schools, and the possible benefits of the project seemed worth taking the risk, especially if I were the one managing it on the Ecuadorian side. When a new principal was named, I actually had hope as well that he might be more trustworthy. But that was not the case!
Additionally, I had collaborated with Sr. Meir and her youth group from Quito to start a youth group in Chontal in 2016. When I was leaving back then, I worked hard to find another adult who could simply accompany the kids. There were a few older kids involved and there was some structure and momentum - we only needed a committed adult to be present and oversee with adult supervision. I couldn't find a commitment from anyone, though one of the local young women agreed to do it. We had a long conversation, not with me putting pressure, but simply to get clarity of a yes or no, as I was leaving and a new opportunity had also arisen: a youth group in a parish in Massachusetts was interested in forming an exchange with a youth group here. I explained the possibilities.
However, some time after returning, it was clear that neither she nor any other adult would be accompanying the group. It was rudderless and disbanding. After having multiple conversations with the youth minister here in Massachusetts, I had to apologize and retract from going forward, as the group in Chontal didn't have the stability to form a relationship.
I'm sharing all the details here so people that support and have supported this mission can know. It hopefully shows a bit of the type of delicate trust-building work that happens "behind the scenes" of what I do, as well as the risk that these activities do not pan out. For me, there is always disappointment that a project does not work out, as I always feel there are lost opportunities for all involved. But the greatest disappointment is when trust is lost. It has consciously taken me years to slowly build trust in Ecuador, it is the basis of what I do, and a long process. But though it takes a long time to build trust, it can be broken very quickly. It makes me reflect on the gift of relationships, of putting relationships first, and constantly valuing the trust that forms their foundation.
I have started up a local Facebook group for the two girls doing penpaling: Carolina in Chontal, and Charlotte in Massachusetts. The group is private to their parents' accounts and mine. Carolina's mother recently opened a Facebook account, making all this possible. But we are still working on connecting as she is a beginner in computers and technology. Well see what pans out ...
Reevaluation of The Mission
As I mentioned, trust-building is the foundation of the mission, and as I've been "testing" things out, I'm discovering where there is or isn't "solid ground" for building supports for relationship bridge-building.
When I was an engineer, I worked in a small company in the MIT spin-off family that sought to develop new technologies from scratch. We initiated projects for technologies that hadn't been done before. I was a collaborator in about 35 of these projects, and learned a great deal about initiating brand new things and the how that process unfolds, the risk and benefits and the relation to the bigger picture.
The way that you build something that hasn't been done before starts with an idea and some basic rationale that makes it worth investigating further. There has to be an anticipated benefit to taking the risk and investing resources, but there also has to be a step-by-step process to mitigate the risk. What I mean is that, you would advance the project along step by step, free to end it if it did not pan out. For example, in typical small business technology projects, you might receive $100K to show "proof-of-concept". This includes some good reasoning and initial experimentation, and making a small-scale demonstration of the basics of the technology that addresses areas of potential risk. The goal would be to determine whether the concept is indeed worth investing another million dollars to advance to a real prototype. And there can be conflicts of interests in the decision-making as well. You can imagine the reasons people could want to continue when it's not realistic, or to stop when the project shows promise to move forward. And so, through good-faith efforts to make step-by-step progress with periodic reviews, sometimes the project continues, and sometimes not. That is all part of trying something new.
This is the type of process that I am following for this mission in Ecuador. I'm hoping in these days to do more reviewing, and to also prepare to receive input from people who have felt a part of the mission in some way.
Please feel welcome to send comments and messages. Have a great summer, and I hope to be in contact soon.