Peanut Butter & Jam Sandwiches
For the last five years we sent teams to El Salvador. Short term teams, 8 days, with the specific purpose of building homes for those who have been displaced by earthquakes and hurricanes. Each morning, as the sun climbs above the mountain peaks, our team heads to the worksite, excitement and anticipation always accompany us along the way. We dig, we build, we laugh, we work, knowing that our efforts, on behalf of others are a key component for reigniting hope in their lives. All this despite the looming presence of peanut butter and jam sandwiches.
At midday, when the sun is hottest we stop for lunch. We huddle under whatever pocket of shade we can find, and before long the air is filled with the scent of Purell. In any other instance it might be overwhelming, but having been enveloped by the putrid aromas of open latrines animal feces and rotting garbage, somehow the splash of hand sanitizer seems like being adorned with a fragrance prior to attending a banquet. The occasion, we’re preparing to eat peanut butter and jam sandwiches.
Peanut butter is not normally my menu item of choice, but here, it seems beneficial. Despite the fact that the bundle of sandwiches have been sitting in the heat for a few hours; likely they have had some piece of equipment temporarily rested upon them and now they bare deformed imprints. But we eat, searching for gratitude (because we know we should be thankful) and chase each bite with a refreshing drink of Coke.
It became apparent, however, despite the relative meagerness of our luncheon, that we were consuming more than the locals who gather a short distance from us, waiting for the work to resume. These were people of the community that we came to help, some of them potential new homeowners. Here we are, eating our sandwiches, day after day, sweating through our dri-fit clothing, shaking the dust off our “mission trip” clothes. There they are, wearing the same clothes as the day before, and the day before that. It’s ok though, they were washed in the river, right after they washed the dishes and right before they bathed. After returning from the river, they are placed on the roof, held down by stones, to dry overnight, ready to go the next day. The realization of the distance and the disparity, became a stench we could not simply cover up, it was coming from within.
“Ethnographers now recognise the significance of walking as a practice of everyday life and walking with others as a research method…walking offers a potentially rich medium for sensory ethnographic representation.” (Loc. 3621-3624) Sarah Pink’s book, Doing Sensory Ethnography, provides an excellent though loosely bound reminder of the importance of taking time: time to listen, time to smell, time to hear, time to touch, enabling our vision to be widened and our thoughts to be more reflective than certain. Pink uses various metaphors to describe the cooperative experience between the ethnographer and those they research as being integral to leading to new discovery. Significant and challenging to the linear processes that have been my preference, mostly due to the fact that it’s multi-faceted approach “does not privilege any one type of data or research method. Rather, it is open to multiple ways of knowing and to the exploration of and reflection on new routes to knowledge.” (Loc 186-188)
The challenge for me, then, is to take time, in the process to first note my own observations, then to be unafraid to question their subjective meaning, with the purpose of investigating and placing those responses together with the meanings of those whom we research. At this point, there are three benefits to incorporating the approaches in this book. The first, discovering deeper truths about the participants than would be possible through simple research or even a short visit. Secondly, exposing and refining my own previously unchallenged bias. Lastly, discovering a common understanding through the shared, formal and informal, experience of research. The last point is likely the most significant to me as the Lord provides more opportunities to engage with different people, groups of people and organizations. However, apart from the first two, the third will never effectively be realized.
What has become of the peanut butter sandwich luncheons? Well, five years later, for the most part we still eat them. However now, we eat them together with those in the local community. Often we will also provide them with some supplies and as a community they will bring what they can give. They will make a meal for those who build the homes, inviting some of us to help prepare the meal, as we invite them to help build the homes.
Then, when the sun climbs highest, in the middle of a village somewhere in the El Salvadorian hillside, a table will appear, mismatched chairs will be brought out, people will gather and a multi-lingual prayer of thanks is raised. The awkward silence, from five years ago, is replaced by a growing din of conversations and the laughter of children playing around us. Relationships have been established, trust is deepening. Indeed, there is a banquet taking place at this table, a place where the enemies of poverty and despair are being vanquished by sufficiency and hope and a clear common understanding that this is no ordinary meal, instead together we are all guests at the Table of the King, where peanut butter and jam sandwiches are still on the menu and the sweet aroma of communion is filling the air.
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