I was sitting on a plane. That part is for sure. I am trying hard to remember the exact words that I was reading during the flight from Sydney to Singapore exactly two years ago. They elude me and I predict they will continue to do so for the rest of the night, so I will cease to attempt to remember that preface to a chapter in my Spanish copy of the “The Book of Five Rings” by Miyamoto Musashi, which is comfortably sitting inside a cardboard box in a basement in Monterrey, Mexico. But the reason I was painstakingly trying (and failing) to remember the exact phrasing is that it somehow comes back to me when thinking about what I experienced two weeks ago. I do not think these two events have a logical connection, but I can tell that in a deep level of my subconsciousness these two events, set apart by two years time and half a world of distance, are intimately close.
Not a cloud in the sky during the middle months of the year means Michiganders will be faux-photosynthesizing. Summertime brings Grand Rapidians together in sharing the lawn, which is the visual representation of the strong community sense that exists all year-long in this dichotomic and intriguing city.
Saturday, June the 7th, was no exception. I sure wished I had brought shorts instead of jeans, and flip flops instead of my favorite navy blue Converse, so that I could feel the grass brush against my feet. Perhaps I could even use my toes to grab the green blades as if they were the fingers of my hands in a futile exercise in de-evolution. But as I was talking to a Latin American mother about Kids’ Food Basket and how we lead a community solution to alleviate childhood hunger in West Michigan, I did not notice her 5 year old daughter was listening to me while she was decorating a supper bag for a hungry child. She then stood with the bag in her hands.
This image will remain in my mind for as long as I can foresee. I can say with all certainty that this is my favorite memory of the Fellowship so far. “We have the right to eat”, she meant to state in Spanish, but misspelling it to say “We are afraid to eat”. Either of those are one and the same to me.
What astounds me the most is who she means by “we”. My reading tells me that she means all children. We would be hard pressed to find adults refer to “us” or “we” without meaning an exclusive sub-group differentiated from other groups of people. Adults tend to find comfort in quickly identifying “us” and “them”. Children don’t seem interested in “them” because they see no such separation.
But beyond this inclusive declaration of a universal right posited by the girl standing in front of me, as an adult I am very afraid of this assertion. She is smiling and she is saying children must eat. That is all. But as an adult, I must respond to the question: What have I done to respect this right? She did not explicitly ask this question, but she did explicitly declare this right. And by declaring it, I am obligated to respond, because as an adult I am accountable. I may not be responsible of causing it, but I am indeed responsible of answering that question. What have I done to respect the right of children to eat?
This question scares me to death. I felt like a young boy who did not do his homework and the teacher asks him for it. What am I going to say? What will my answer be to this smiling judge? Will I come up with an excuse? Will I blame my homework not being done on somebody else? Adults are the ones supposed to be on the other side of this situation with children. But that day, in that moment, she had reminded me how important it is for children to speak and for adults to listen. Teachers arrive in our lives in the most interesting forms.
The words from the book on the plane to Singapore came to me after this experience. Roughly they said: “I noticed the strangest of snowflakes, but it was a butterfly!”