The Humanitarian

July 17th, 2009

Attending a Center Meeting in Antique Province, Philippines

Totally by surprise I found out two weeks ago that a friend of mine from Los Angeles moved to Manila. He’s moved to Manila to start an outsourcing company and seeing as how fate brought us to the same city, we met up last week for dinner. A few years ago he founded a nonprofit aimed at providing malaria nets to kids in Africa and our conversations easily turned to activism and how to encourage people to get involved with causes.

Seeing as how I’m currently homeless and without a permanent job and unsure exactly where my income will be coming from when I return to the U.S. in the fall, I have gotten quite used to people introducing me in a variety of ways. I’m somewhat hard to categorize – I know, I know – and honestly, I have a hard time with it too. The simple “Where do you live?” and “Where do you work?” are either going to illicit from me an answer that is brief (what most people want right? The simple answer?) or depending on the person and the circumstance, I’ll give more detail, delve into a bit more the who’s and what’s, tell one or more of the canned stories and jokes I have in my back-pocket for such situations.

This time, however, I heard something I’ve never heard before. When introducing me to his roommate, he said, “Meet Sloane, she’s a humanitarian working on a great project here in the Philippines in microfinance.”

Humanitarian? I was taken aback. Embarrassed even. No, I thought, the term humanitarian is for someone who does great things. Great big things. I’m just one person who turned lemons into lemonade and stumbled upon this amazing opportunity to serve a nonprofit I believe in here in the Philippines. Yes, I have a long history of giving back so maybe I could be considered an activist, or nonprofiteer, do gooder – something with less weight to it, but humanitarian?

At dinner, he reminded me that he was very active in his local Rotary Club. “You should really get involved,” he said “It’s the oldest service club in the country.”

Teresa on Talim Island

I have always wanted to be involved in a service club, I’ll join in the fall when I settle into a hometown, I told myself the next day when I went online to casually check out the Rotary Club’s website. I was floored. It was like knocking on a door and when it opens you’re staring at all your friends who look up like “why are you late to the party?” I scrolled and clicked and tabbed and browsed. Yes, this is absolutely me, I whispered breathlessly to myself.

That very evening I was headed to Baguio City, a must-see town in Northern Luzon, about 6 hours by bus from Manila. I checked into a nice resort that was running an off-season promo called Ridgewood Resort. I’m standing at the check-in desk waiting for my room and look down on the coffee table and what do I see but a stack of The Rotarian, the official magazine of the Rotary Club.

So here I am, currently obsessed with the Rotary Club from my dinner conversation the night before and from devouring the website during the day and the magazine is sitting in front of me. I pick up the one on top with a picture of Archbishop Desmund Tutu on the cover (April 2009) and flip through to read his article.

There are no such things as coincidences.

On the second page of his article, I came upon Archbishop Tutu’s answer to a question about how people in development can sustain themselves in the face of so much world greed and global shortages of resources:

Tutu: Very few people want handouts. They want a hand up. We are seeing more and more people who are saying, “We are not bringing charity. We are in a partnership. We are family. We are trying to work with you, so that you can be part of the solution to pull yourselves out of poverty.” We speak about humanitarian work – actually that’s a nice word, humanitarian. You are looking to help people recover their humanity, their dignity, the worth that is intrinsic to every human being. You are really working with God, who is saying, I gave you a world that’s not perfect, and quite deliberately, because I wanted you to be partners with me in perfecting it.

The entire article is worth quoting and reproducing. I photocopied it at the hotel and have read it about 10 times in the last week. But in that moment, all I could think was “All of this is happening for a reason.”

Followed by “I can’t believe no one is here to see this.”

I left my bags in my room and set out to explore Baguio City. **The thing about traveling alone is I’m often left to my own very deep and heavy thoughts, which are often accompanied by gigantic aha moments where fireworks burst in the sky and I’m shaking my head at the tremendous insights that feel like they are blowing me apart limb from limb. **

Here is what I came up with. I’m changing. My very being is changing every day and it’s scaring me a little. I’m about three-quarters of the way through a year of significant change and it’s starting to show in ways that are irreversible. I always thought of my dedication to service as an option, the way people choose to practice law or become a doctor or a teacher. They had a certain predilection for it and found they were good at it and so there you go. I am starting to have this overwhelming feeling that the direction my life is headed in is not so much of my choosing anymore. **It’s a calling and I can no more shut it off as you can switch day from night. **

The visions I’m having are quite large, and I’ve no one to talk me down from my ledge or confirm my deepest beliefs. Which is all the more overwhelming because I do have the choice to be more connected, to pay for an international plan on my cell phone, to request skype calls from my friends, but for some reason I made a decision coming to this country not to do that. I love being connected, I do, but maybe, I’m thinking, the reason I’m here and unable to connect and share for days on end is because I’m supposed to figure it out on my own. I’m on this mental ledge screaming out for advice or direction or a sign – anything – that I’m onto something and have no one to help me but myself.

My mind is sharper than it’s ever been and clearer. “This is getting serious,” I think. Still, I’m really scared. And unsure of putting this out there to the Universe because what if it doesn’t come true? What if I’m wrong.

But “what if” I think to myself, what if you’re right and sharing this first vision with the world is the first step in making it true? So I’m acting on a leap of faith and sharing it with the world.

If a humanitarian can simply be someone who helps recover peoples’ humanity, their dignity, their worth, that certainly sounds like a noble life goal. I can work towards that.

I’m only 29, I think to myself walking down a rainy street in Baguio City headed to visit a women’s coop where they weave on traditional looms and sell the goods to earn money for their village followed by a visit to a convent that makes their own jam and jelly with proceeds to girls’ education. I can’t help myself even on my weekends and in my spare time to go off and find the ways in which people are helping each other.

I’m realizing it’s not about perfection; I still mess up and make mistakes. It’s about dedicating your life to a goal and staying true to that goal. If I make a decision to dedicate my life now to something greater than me that maybe I can’t quite define but that I feel inside of my bones as sure I stand here, if I can do that one thing, then the long road ahead of me will have purpose and meaning no matter what happens. Being true to those ideals will continue to guide me on my path and direct me which way to go when the lightening and thunder roll in and the fog covers the road and I feel as though I’ve lost my way.

It seems I’ve found my due North and part of me is running South as fast as I can but the other part, the stronger spirit that lives inside of me is standing perfectly still, weathering this revelation like you would pull over to wait out a hail storm. The sun is on its way and I have the strangest feeling that it’s all going to work out exactly like it’s supposed to.

A slow nervous smile crawls into my mouth and turns the corners up. I don’t know exactly where to start so I guess the best place to start is here: A humanitarian – in training – and I’m only just getting started.

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