“Solidarity is a mutual relationship characterized by love, respect, willingness to learn, at least some of the same living conditions, sustained contact over time and a personal commitment to the well-being and liberation of both parties.”
That is how I defined solidarity on my application for VVC. While that definition remains valid, it is one thing to define solidarity and something else to attempt to live it. It is the kind of thing that loses all meaning in abstraction, but we know it when we see it. The closest experience I had with solidarity before VVC was the semester I spent with seven other Xavier students in the working-class Barrio La Luz in Managua, Nicaragua. We each lived with a Nicaraguan family, and mine happened to be one of the humblest.
This was my first experience with the poor. Over the 12 weeks I spent in Nicaragua, I formed relationships with the people I met, especially my host family. I ate meals with my host grand-mother and host-aunt. I brought my host-mother chocolate on Women’s Day and a necklace I from my trip to the Atlantic Coast. I played cards and joked with my host-brother and his wife. I teased my younger host-sister. I watched TV with them all in the evenings. Three months is short, but enough time to form a relationship. Solidarity cannot happen without that connection.
In spite of the challenges and our very different backgrounds, we managed to find a way to live together in peace. I still cherish the relationships I made there and I stay in touch with my host family and other friends in Nicaragua. When it was time to return to the United States, I didn’t want to leave. I would say the same happened with all of my companions from Xavier: we all fell in love with Nicaragua and its people.
Since I have returned, I continue to carry my experience in Nicaragua with me as I continue to study Latin America and its peoples. I realized that even though I had some grasp of poverty in Nicaragua in 2017, I did not know much at all about the lives of poor people, particularly Latinos and immigrants. in the United States. That was one of the reasons I applied to be a bilingual advocate at SVDP as the organization adjusts to an increased demand for services in Spanish. I have everything to learn.
One of the blessings of my experience as a VVC has been the opportunity to have closer contact with the growing Hispanic/Latino community in the Cincinnati area. Through my work in the pharmacy and social services, and especially through my collaboration with the San Carlos conference, I have begun to form connections with that community. At SVDP, I see mostly Guatemalans, Honduras and some Mexicans. I consider myself privileged to be able to accompany these people –as well as all our neighbors—in their struggles and trials.
I was thankful to be able to share that experience with some of the other VVCs -Betka, Herman and Alleya – as we raised funds for San Carlos conference selling tamales after mass. Gioconda Belli, a famous Nicaraguan poet, once wrote that “solidarity is the tenderness of peoples.” If two Americans, a Ugandan and a Slovak can join themselves to two Guatemalans, three Mexicans and two Peruvians to support a marginalized community, that is a positive sign of solidarity.
I think the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s model – conferences and home visits – is uniquely suited to creating solidarity with the poor. It discourages paternalism and requires Vincentians to listen to our neighbors and pursue systemic change as much as possible. Although it is technically above and beyond the scope of my duties, recently I have helped out in two home visits to Spanish-speaking neighbors by conferences that do not have bilingual capabilities. On one occasion I went in person and on another I interpreted through FaceTime. It was humbling and gratifying to be able to facilitate an encounter between people from different cultures and backgrounds. On both occasions we were able to provide assistance, though the reality is that sometimes it is impossible. In that case we can only offer hope and support.
In the end, we are all neighbors. Solidarity requires that connection, that humility, that spirit of true generosity, that positive and continual commitment. All people -regardless of their faith – have a positive moral responsibility to commit themselves to the liberation and well-being of all.