“That Is What I See Here”: A Vandhu Paaru Journal

//“That Is What I See Here”: A Vandhu Paaru Journal

“That Is What I See Here”: A Vandhu Paaru Journal

From June 19 to July 15, 2016, District of San Francisco New Orleans Lasallian Partner Ismael Ruiz participated in the annual Vandhu Paaru immersion experience.  Coordinated by the District’s Office of Education, Vandhu Paaru provides Lasallian educators with the opportunity to work alongside fellow Lasallians in ministries in India and Sri Lanka.

Ruiz, a Religion teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco, CA, spent three weeks at Delasalle House, a Lasallian orphanage/high school/vocational training center in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu State, South India. Teaching Religion as well as English, Ruiz also had the opportunity to travel to other parts of South India as part of his immersion.

Throughout his stay in India, Ruiz kept a daily journal of his Lasallian adventure.  Its entries speak colorfully and intimately of the awakening and the richness that Vandhu Paaru.  What follows are excerpts from Ruiz’s writings.

Week 1

Ruiz and Br Brinesh

Ismael Ruiz (L) and Br. Brinesh at a Hindu temple.

One of the Brothers picked me up at the airport and drove me to where I would be staying in Tuticorin.  It was a 2-hour drive.  I looked at the landscape and was immediately taken aback by the living conditions. Everywhere I looked I saw something similar to what you would see in a National Geographic picture of people living in destitution…

I am staying at the Lasallian school. They are modest accommodations and the Brothers have been very welcoming. I have everything I need.  I unpacked as soon as I arrived, and had a gecko jump on top of me as I opened a cupboard.  At night, there were two crickets on the floor and a bat outside of my door. Not to mention mosquitoes, crows, chipmunks, and other stray animals.  People here coexist well with nature.  I am glad to be experiencing this…

I love the food.  People here eat with their hands.  This will take some getting used to. I tried scooping some food with my hand and was nowhere near as gracious as they were – I spilled stuff all over me – so I need to practice. My goal is to gracefully eat with my hands for an entire day before leaving…

This community is very welcoming. People ask who I am and where I am from. Their eyes open wide when I say “America.”  I tried to say “USA” or “Puerto Rico”, but got confused stares. “America” it is…

Men wear collared shirts, dress pants and sandals to teach. Women wear saris to teach and they have fresh flowers in their hair. They look so beautiful – very colorful…

The kids are AMAZING.  I think their smiles are one of my top things I have ever seen in my life. They are engraved in my heart forever.  It is truly a joy to be in here because of their warm and energetic personalities. As soon as they saw the “stranger” (me) walking around, they flocked over and started asking me my name and reaching out to pat and see if I am real…

Ruiz and students SHC folders

  Ruiz’s students with school supplies from SHC.

A significant portion of students live on campus. Some are orphans. They wake up at 5 a.m. each day to do laundry, shower, etc.  When I inquired about the boarding program’s living arrangements, I was told by the brother that the kids “sleep in a dormitory hallway.” I thought the brother had meant to say “dormitory hall” – I was wrong. The kids do sleep in a hallway that is open to the air. Some sleep right outside of my room.  They are given a blanket and they fold some clothes to create a pillow.  I asked why they didn’t use classrooms.  It happens that the classrooms have too much furniture to move back and forth. Plus, there is more breeze outside. Tears flowed down my face as I recalled the comfort of my bed at home. Why do I get a bed and they don’t?…

Classes are packed (40+ kids), hot, and with ZERO resources. There are 3 pieces of chalk and a black board.  The classrooms have no power outlets.  I am teaching English and Religion.  Very basic skills.  Nouns, pronouns, etc. Religion classes are talking about the Trinity.  My first day was rough – I was thrown into the classroom with little prior knowledge and the kids were too excited so discipline was an issue. On day two, I came in much more prepared. First thing I did was to write three rules on the board: #1 Raise Your Hand; #2 Sit Down; #3 Keep Quiet. Then I’d raise whatever number of fingers in the air to remind them of a particular rule.  It worked! I’ll keep doing that…

I asked the kids to take a selfie with me. It was a mistake. They went BALLISTIC!!!! They were jumping over desks and pushing each other over just to be in the picture. They don’t know basic English, but they know “selfie.”  #priorities…

When I envision St. John Baptist De La Salle starting his first schools, this is what I envisioned. Different language and skin color, but same spirit.  It is clear that the Brothers are not here to produce the next all-star academic or to have their school’s name/brand known all over India.  They are here to touch kids’ hearts, let them know that they are seen and cared for, and give them a chance at happiness. It is Gospel.  Community life is simple. There is not a lot of structure because the Brothers are overworked. They have prayer at 7:30 p.m. (which is silently sitting in a chapel) followed by dinner together at 8:10 p.m. I appreciate the silence of prayer. It seems to be a time where they stop, listen to God, and then go back to do God’s will…

Ruiz and students selfie

     Ruiz and his students enjoy taking a selfie!

My reflections as of week one:

  1. God is here – very present and very visible in the smiles of these children.
  2. Humanity is here – when you strip away the “extra,” you recognize the essence of who we are: beings with hopes, faith, and the capacity to love. We seek our happiness and that of our fellow neighbors. That is what it means to be human. That is what I see here.
  3. Community is here – a community with a purpose. United in one faith and in one common humanity, this group of Brothers, teachers, staff, and students exist to remind the world of the simple message of the Gospel: love one another as I have loved you. 

Week 2

The students started teaching me Tamil, the local language.  I know how to ask someone’s name and share mine; how to say yes, no, come, go, hello, goodbye, and thank you; and how to say “Live Jesus in our hearts forever”: “Iraiván Nam Idhayangalil iruppáraha (God in our hearts be) Entrendum iruppáraha (forever be)”…

I have played football (AKA soccer) with them several times. It is a TOTAL MESS.  There are two goal posts on opposite ends of the courtyard, but you will see five different footballs being kicked around at once.  This means there are five games being played simultaneously by ten teams of kids.  To them, it is easy.  Just pay attention to your ball and kick it in the right direction and you’ll be fine…

I got to learn some of the kids’ stories – some too extreme to post here.  They involve violence, substance abuse, crime, and illness, often due to the injustice done to the families of the students and not due to poor life choices. These people didn’t have choices.   As a result of these situations, kids often miss a lot of school, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and adverse living conditions.  The Brothers’ offer of asylum can help break the cycle, but of course, there are too many kids in need and there is only so much that people here can do…

The 9th grade religion class is enjoyable to teach. They do know better English and grasp some complex themes. I was told to do a mini unit on whatever I wanted, so the Marianist in me came out: I am doing a unit on Mary.  The 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English classes are adorable. They are getting better at subject-verb agreement.  We also learned some songs: “Heal the World” (Michael Jackson), “I Love You” (Barney the purple dinosaur), “Lean on Me” (Bill Withers), and “One Love” (Bob Marley)…

Ruiz and 8th graders

                    Ruiz and his 8th graders.

The smallest class I have is 20 students.  This is 6th grade and is the group with the best English skills.  The largest class I have is 63 students. This class packed in many 9th grade Catholic students and it is taught in a long classroom with big tables. Students are also tracked for religion – the Catholic students take catechism. The Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and other students take “Values Education.”…

One of the young Brothers has been taking me around southern India to different locations.  I have visited several Hindu temples.  I am confused about the relationship between the three major religions in the area: Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity (specifically Catholicism).  I spoke to a Brother and ask about this relationship and he said everyone coexists peacefully. He said there are no issues – any issue is usually stirred by a politician as a means for political gain…

I went to visit the Church dedicated to St. Francis Xavier.  It was beautiful – apparently he Christianized much of the coast of India!  I found Catholicism to be very “Hindu” – statues and shrines everywhere in the villages along the coast. Women and men prostrated before the shrines in prayer – chanting mantras to the saints. I saw statues of multiple saints and angels that look like Hindu gods. they were honored with flowers and incense…

I visited a temple for Lord Muruga, son of Shiva.  I paid 50 rupees and got blessed by an elephant. He touched my forehead with his trunk.  I also visited other temples – one for Shiva, and another for Swami Vivekananda (Hindu philosopher).  I am fascinated by the rituals.  They are colorful and lively.  I am amazed by the religious diversity within Hinduism itself – every area of India and every temple has a specific devotion.  It is not a strict set of unified beliefs and rituals.  Many rivers to one ocean…

I have not interacted much with the Islamic tradition here. We did drive through a place with a lot of mosques – a predominantly Muslim village.  People wear traditional garb: men with hats and women with their veils.  Some wear the hijab, which covers their entire face and body…

Ruiz students SG gift

       Students with their gift for the            Superior General, Br. Robert Schieler.

Brother Robert Schieler, the Superior General, visited this week.  This was AMAZING.  I witnessed a community come together in preparation as they welcome the boss of all Lasallians. It was amazing to see the boys working.  Pretty much every single classroom had a responsibility. All classrooms were decorated, and there were exhibits, music, dancing, and other parts of an extensive 3-hour program meant to give the Superior General a glimpse of what their school is all about.  I was amazed by the many awards and achievements the kids earn nationally.  It is a big source of pride.  I was put on proofreading duty: I was in charge of revising the script for the program as well as the Brothers’ speeches.  The event was grand.  There were some parts that were rough around the edges but overall, I was impressed.  If this Superior General comes to the USA, we have our work cut out for us!…

Biggest takeaways of the week:

  1. I think the biggest question that kept popping in my head as I learned more about this place is: In light of their current living conditions, where do the children’s smiles come from? How do they muster the ability to smile?
  2. I know the answer to the question: the love they experience in this community is their biggest source of happiness.
  3. It is initially hard for me to imagine happiness without all of the extra comforts I enjoy… That is until I see happiness in the most unlikely of places: the destitute children that live here.
  4. These people are happy because they ground their happiness in two ‘things’: God and each other.
  5. I am grateful for their reminder: I think we have a lot to learn from them.

Week 3

School was eventful this last week.  There was an invitational football tournament.  I got to see the kids cheering for their school – their team is AWESOME!  The team got second place, losing only to the state team (as in the Tamil Nadu state), which also gets invited to compete at school invitational tournaments.

I had some more bonding time with the Brothers.  I was glad to spend time one-on-one with some of them.  Learning their stories is inspiring.  Many of the Brothers are alumni from Lasallian schools in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Ruiz elephant blessing

   Ruiz receives an “elephant blessing.”

I visited a HUGE Hindu temple.  It was a temple for Shiva – It was AMAZING.   I got blessed by an elephant again. At least this one’s nose did not smell as bad.  I did get to shop.  I bought one Indian shirt and a dress robe.  I am not sure when I would wear it, but it is a beautiful robe.  I also got some Hindu gods’ statues for my world religions class this upcoming year!

As the week was ending, the students asked me where I was going next and escorted me throughout campus. They held my hand a lot – it felt like I was holding the purest lifeforms in the world.  As I said goodbye, there were some tears. We sang “May the Road Rise to Meet You.”  Some students hugged me and others gave me gifts.  I got a ring, a bracelet, and three pens.  I gave the classes I was in some SHC swag, which meant that the entire campus followed me around asking for stuff. I learned a new Tamil word, “mudijitu”, which means, “I have no more!”…

For my biggest takeaways this week, I’ll summarize using three quotes I was reflecting on.

  1. “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God”.  When you remove all of the “extras” in life and get to the core of what it means to be human, you will discover God is present there.  In this community, it is very easy to sense God’s presence in the smiles of the destitute children.  I think this is truly what it means to be a Lasallian: To help children smile, feel loved, and experience long-lasting happiness.
  2. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are here because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.”  My colleague, Nick, shared this with me during a Vincentian Symposium. It was something that stayed with me throughout the journey.  When you remove all of the “extras” in life and get to the core of what it means to be human, you will notice that we all participate in the same broken humanity.  We all have struggles, dreams, hopes, obstacles, and joys in life. We all strive for happiness. We are all connected. And we all need Liberation. Everyone is bound somehow.  As I reflect on this quote, I realize that I am still bound by the material comforts that are such a part of my life.  That said, I do feel a renewed commitment to be more mindful, grateful, and conscientious about these aspects of my life. I have experienced life without these bindings. I have even noticed that happiness is possible without the extra…
  3. “The rich man is not the man that has the most, but the man that needs the least”.  My high school religion teacher said this to me when I was a junior.  When you remove all of the “extras” in life and get to the core of what it means to be human, you get to appreciate what it means to be spiritually rich.  The truth is that, though I am financially stable, I have a deep spiritual poverty because I put these comforts before God and before people.  This is not a reference to being “poor in spirit” as seen in the Beatitudes – more like “lacking spiritual depth.”  I am spiritually poor because my life often revolves around my material comforts.  This community in India has a spiritual richness because it is grounded in God and in others.  I need to find a new ground in my life.

Upon his return from India, Ruiz penned this closing reflection on his Vandhu Paaru experience:

Ruiz SHC swag

       Ruiz’s students show off their SHC shirts.

“Today, India wakes up to the same reality. I got to come back to the US.  Tonight the children in India will sleep again on the floor. I will sleep in a comfy bed.

Tomorrow, the teachers and brothers will sweep away the dust that blew in through their windows during the night. I enjoy a clean classroom and a clean apartment.

This week, the school community will be rationing their water usage due to the scorching drought. The children will shower while they do their laundry at the same time again. I will use a washer/dryer machine and take showers with hot water.

This month, more trash will be on the streets than ever before – it is always growing. Factories will dump more chemicals into the sea, their chimneys will continue to pollute the air that is so essential to life. I will walk around the clean streets of San Francisco. (Trust me, they are very clean.) I will visit Puerto Rico and go into the beach. I will also breathe fresh air that does not smell like sewage or pollution.

This year, teachers will continue to struggle to make ends meet. They will earn $130 per month and have to manage their rent, food, and other expenses. I will probably spend more than that on one weekend with my friends.

For the rest of their lives, many of these children will wonder what is to become of them. I get to have dreams and goals and the means to achieve them.  Why is this so? Why do I get to live such a life and they don’t? Who decided that the world should work like this?

Now I re-enter my world. What is different? I know what it feels like to not be in it. I have seen it with my eyes and briefly felt a tiny fraction of what they feel.  I am not sure where to go from here, but I know that now it is time to re-think some things…”

Ismael Ruiz
Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, San Francisco, CA

See a video of Ismael’s students in Tuticorin.

By | 2018-06-18T04:28:00+00:00 August 30th, 2016|News|Comments Off on “That Is What I See Here”: A Vandhu Paaru Journal

About the Author: