A Travellerspoint blog

#14: The Other

Us vs. them



the remaining one of two or more

It was just a dip in the earth encircling a couple dozen buildings, seemingly benign. In the spring air in 2012, the little hill leading into the forest seemed like a perfect location for rolling down the hill, or perhaps for sledding should one envision a few inches of gleaming white snow. The sky overhead was blue, dotted with puffy clouds, and the sun shone warm, but not too hot, on my sweater.

Yet in the mid 1940s, this gully represented the chasm separating life from death. This ditch, which surrounded the entirety of the concentration camp known today as Struthof, served as the weapon of choice by which Nazi soldiers would kill the imprisoned persons serving time, unjustly, at the camp. Prisoners attempting to escape the camp, which was surrounded by three high walls of barbed wire, would be shot on-site. To expedite their work, some Nazi guards would shove or kick prisoners, who were often weakened by poor nutrition and excruciating work, into the ravine. Once this line was crossed, prisoners were assumed to be escapees, and would face the line of fire.

Initially, the thought of photographing the site of such terrible acts repulsed me. Several times I turned to take a picture, but each time returned my camera to my side. How could I capture something so awful?

But then I saw the numerous groups of school tours walking about the camp. I thought about how countries such as Germany have mandated that students be educated about the Holocaust in order to prevent further travesties from happening. I thought about my middle schoolers, who read a book called “The Shadow Club,” which tells the story about the terror that ensues when students target other teenagers who make them feel inferior and eventually nearly take the life (accidentally) of another student who they view as subhuman.

I thought about why we educate our students about valuing those we view as inferior or as outliers. We teach them to respect people with different cultural backgrounds, with different ability levels, and with different talents and interests. We educate them in order to prevent tragedies such as the Holocaust from occurring again.

Does this work? Can education alone prevent the abuse of human rights? I visited the Holocaust museum in DC a couple of years ago, and I discovered that no, we do not learn from history. The human heart is not changed by facts and knowledge alone. An entire exhibit in the museum focused on genocides that occurred after the Holocaust across the eastern world.

No, education does not change things. Nor does the law. The Civil Rights movement encouraged legislative changes, but the deeper, more important changes occurred with time and increasing familiarity with the ideas that all men were created equal. While we can change actions through education and the law, the human heart is changed by meeting other people, sharing stories, and learning to see everyone as valuable human beings.

To return to the photo, what the Nazi soldiers did was “otherizing” the prisoners. They were looking at red-blooded human beings, and, due to indoctrination and ignoring the similarities they shared with these people, they saw the political prisoners and Jewish inmates as less than human. They removed any traces of humanity from their speech about the prisoners, labeling them in demeaning terms. Similar to how some people today throw around labels such as “retard,” “hobo,” or “colored” to insultingly refer to people who have intellectual disabilities, are homeless, or have darker pigmentation, these Nazi guards referred to the inmates in dehumanizing terms. Instead of seeing them as equals, they ignored their shared humanity and instead referred to these image bearers of the Father as dirt.

We teach the Holocaust to children, hoping that they won’t repeat the horrors of past generations. We teach them “character education,” hoping that by teaching them to share and take turns we can prevent World War Three. I sat through an entire middle school assembly about cyber-bullying, followed up with a statement that stopped me in my tracks: “We know that you all have good hearts. We’re good people, not evil. We can do what is right.” Just last fall, one of my first graders observed, quite more realistically, that “we all have evil inside of us.” Bingo. That’s it. We’re all depraved creatures, fallen from our intended design. We have darkness inside of us, as my little guy observed. To teach students to “just be good and love people” is a wonderful, albeit mistaken, ideology.

We’re naturally resistant toward “the other.” It’s natural; they are the other for a reason. By name alone, “other” implies difference. It implies separation. But what if we could learn to “otherize” less. Or to stop otherizing completely. Is it possible? Unlikely. Seeing the differences in other groups and individuals is not necessarily bad. Doing so allows us to engage with people unlike ourselves and to create distinct cultures. Yet when we ostracize certain groups of people or single out individuals to target, even jokingly, we damage lives and harden our hearts.

So how do we respond? For me, simply engaging with “the other” has helped me to confront prejudices, resist stereotypes, and view people through God’s eyes. Interacting with people whose lives are different than mine – people who use wheelchairs, people who speak Spanish, people who live on the streets – helps me to remove the natural fear that I encounter when I engaging with people who are different than me. By exposure, what was once different – the other – become familiar and less frightening.

We can do the same with children. Perhaps instead of – or in addition to – toting school kids around concentration camps and Holocaust museums, or reading them books about bullying, we can expose children to people who are different. We create prejudices on rumors, lies, misinformation, and fear. If our students could engage with people of various ability levels, or talk with students from different nations and backgrounds, or befriend people living in a shelter, their understandings of different groups of people will be based on their interactions with individuals.

Posted by klewis91 14:09 Comments (0)

#6: Embrace

Receiving the other despite obstacles...


1. to take or clasp in the arms; press to the bosom; hug.
2. to take or receive gladly or eagerly; accept willingly: to embrace an idea.
3. to avail oneself of: to embrace an opportunity.
4. to adopt (a profession, a religion, etc.): to embrace Buddhism.
5. to take in with the eye or the mind.

We talk about accepting other people. We talk about loving them. We talk about taking in “the other.” We talk.

Coming to the realization that we need to accept the other is a great first step of cosmopolitanism. Spreading the idea that we need to bring them in is awesome. But to actually take them in and accept them takes a considerable amount of work. Effort is required for someone to be embraced and accepted.

Last Friday we visited a mountain-top convent. It was large and serene, and the blue skies overhead enhanced its natural beauty. On the way back to the bus I saw this sign and snapped a quick photograph. I sensed with this image the essence of “embrace.”

To embrace someone is to eagerly accept someone. It is to welcome them in. Often times, however, to make someone feel welcome, one must intentionally get into the head of the guest, consider their needs, and respond accordingly.

Working with people with special needs is one of these areas. To work with these individuals, one must consider what life with the individual’s particular needs would be like. It does not mean that we should do everything for someone in need, but that we should respond appropriately. To do everything for someone else teaches them learned helplessness and essentially dehumanizes them. At the same time, to do nothing for someone with an obvious need who truly desires assistance is to be equally inhumane. This is where conversation comes in. This is also where we as individuals and as a society must step forward and speak up for the defenseless. We must give a voice to those who have none.

Embracing another is not always easy or comfortable. In the instance of accommodating people who use wheelchairs or walkers, for example, accessible ramps and walkways must be built to ensure that these individuals – “the other,” if you will – can be included, or embraced, by society.

Indeed, to embrace can mean to sacrifice. It may require time, money, and resources. It may mean driving downtown to teach English to recent immigrants on the weekend. It may imply creating programs which will employ young people who otherwise will be found on the streets during the summer. It may mean making and delivering meals to shut-ins. It may mean remodeling a building to make it wheelchair accessible.

Embracing the other is not always easy. It is not always comfortable. But to have a society which values not only humanity, but also individuals, and to have a world which reflects the kingdom of God, we must live with eyes wide open to the needs of others, willing to embrace them and to implement changes as needed.

Posted by klewis91 02:42 Archived in France Comments (0)

#10: Hospitality

Going the extra mile for outsiders...



noun, plural hos•pi•tal•i•ties.
1. the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers.
2. the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.

I am convinced that hospitality is two pieces of thick white bread, filled with tuna and wrapped in plastic. It was simple yet profound, undeserved or expected yet appreciated.

Hospitality is the act of receiving strangers and treating them generously. In a world that frequently shoves outliers to the side, acknowledging and humanizing the “other” is a rare phenomenon. The easier, more comfortable action is to ignore those who are different, or, should fear escalate emotions and turn them into dark hatred, eliminate that which causes one to feel threatened.

The Nazis forced Jews into death camps, the South imposed Jim Crow laws onto people of color, and middle schoolers exploit those they deem inferior, nerdy, or just plain weird.

It is rare for someone to take the outcast, the outlier, by the hand and draw them close. It is unusual when someone deemed “different” is acknowledged as human.

Last weekend my class (fifteen of us total) took two rentals over the Swiss Alps to a small facility known as L’Abri. Francis Schaeffer, an American missionary who moved with his wife to Switzerland, founded L’Abri in 1955 as a response to the spread of modern thought. As a theologian and apologetic, Schaeffer desired to create a place in which individuals could come and both experience Christian community as well as explore their faith. L’Abri still operates on the same principles and constantly welcomes visiting seekers.

We were eagerly welcomed into the L’Abri community and set up in fine accommodations. Seven of us females were situated in the Schaeffers’ original chalet (house). As we had driven the four hours to the mountains at night, what a view the scenery created after the sun peaked over the Alps the next morning! What followed were two wonderful days of attending a lecture about epistemology, eating amazing meals, fellowshipping and playing cards and volleyball with individuals from Canada, New Zealand, France, and other locations, napping, and most of all, studying! There is something refreshing about studying out of an intrinsic desire to learn. On Saturday, a cold, drizzly day which covered the mountains in layers of heavy fog, I clocked in about eight hours of reading. With tea in hand and a pile of books on the floor, I sat…and sat…and read. Oh! How lovely.

The way we were welcomed most intrigued me, however. I love books, and I love people, but I had rarely seen the hospitality shown to us by the wonderful staff at L’Abri. This was a bunch that had intentionally moved to Switzerland to minister to people by running what was essentially a boarding house for searching people. Searching people in need of emotional healing, intellectual answers, spiritual rest, or a mix of the above. They welcomed us in, these American students from the middle of cornfields, to join the community and engage in conversation.

When we gathered to leave on Sunday morning we were handed two bags to take with us for our journey back to France – lunches for the road. When we unpacked our lunches after stopping around noon, we discovered massive tuna sandwiches, carrot sticks, fruit, and tinfoil-wrapped chocolate. I was surprised that we had been given something so thoughtful, that they had anticipated our physical needs that went beyond our stay at L’Abri. They had gone beyond what was expected; they had gone the extra mile. Not only were they welcoming and accommodating, but they were hospitable, being generous with their time, service, and supplies to ensure that we were taken care of.

Regardless of our being guests, we were outsiders, Americans on Swiss soil. We were in a diverse community, but still, we were newcomers, immigrants to a distinct location and culture. Yet we were accepted and cared for.

I wonder: Am I hospitable? Do I receive the stranger? Do I not only acknowledge the last, the lowest, the littlest, and the lonely, or do I also go beyond the level of simply humanizing them with recognition? Do I treat them generously? Do I, like the father of the prodigal son, run to the downtrodden and cover them with love and grace? How do I respond to those who make me uncomfortable, who I don’t like, who frighten me?

A tuna sandwich isn’t much, but it says so much. It humanizes the stranger.

Posted by klewis91 14:45 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Mountains, Cows, and Swiss Chocolate

Adventures out of France


Bonjour! So much has happened in the last few days that I will have to give a brief synopsis and fill everyone on the details later! On Thursday my class visited a mountain-top convent and then stopped at Natzweiler-Struthof -- the only concentration camp built on French soil. (This area of France has been in both French and German hands since the beginning of time, flip-flopping back-and-forth for ages.) It was sobering and deserves a separate post, which will come in time.

On Friday, my friend and I were to visit a mutual friend in Germany, but as much as we wanted to visit, the details weren't coming together. At the last minute, we were instead able to join the rest of our class, which went off to visit L'Abri in Switzerland. L'Abri is a wonderful community in which one works and studies. The facility was established by the Shaeffers, American missionaries with a burden to help individuals think through their faith in the age of modernity. On Saturday alone I spent eight hours studying out of pure intrinsic motivation. It was wonderful. There's nothing like a pile of books, tea, rain, mountains, and time. We also met several individuals from all over the world.

We left on Sunday and drove back to France, stopping several times to visit a castle, a Swiss village encased with waterfalls and scattered with cows (see photo), and a glacier.

That's the surface area of what's been going on in my life lately. More to come! :)

Posted by klewis91 23:35 Comments (0)

Sites in Strasbourg

Painting the Streets


I've always wanted to create my own graffiti, and, well, today was the first chance I've gotten so far. (Now, I'm not advocating for the destruction of public property, but there's something about marking territory as a means of publicly declaring a message...) Today there was a large European Union (EU) convention sort of thing in the large city square, and in the middle was this large canvas on which passersby could write down statements about Europe. Since we've been discussing cosmopolitanism, I figured my word of choice was appropriate.

Today we visited the cathedral at 12:30, when the apostles came out of the astronomical clock and paraded around the large, 16th-century structure. We caught a fast bite to eat for lunch and then visited a history museum which was full of ancient artifacts. These old rocks with faces, bits of metal, and shaped materials showed what a connected region Strasbourg was even in the days of ancient Rome. After the museum visit, we had class back at the hotel before fetching some baguette, sauce, and cheese to make pizza, French-style.

Finally, a few fun facts about France (Woot for alliteration!):

-French doctors still perform house calls.
-Strasbourg's symbol is the stork.
-In La Petite France (Little France), tanners once threw the animal carcasses into the street, down which the animal remains traveled until they were dumped into the river. Lovely, eh? I'm thankful for water filters...

Tomorrow we'll visit a convent (perhaps I'll become a nun?) and then head out to Switzerland for a long weekend at L'Abri. If I don't update until Monday, I'll be among the Alps! :)

Posted by klewis91 13:34 Archived in France Comments (0)

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