Lessons from a Shirt Store
I have spent many years teaching English as a Second Language in foreign countries. In my travels, I was witness to poverty rare to the US and felt a higher power calling me to do whatever I can to support the marginalized in this world. This is how I have found myself as a lay missioner-in-training with FMS.
I am in deep admiration of the communities we consider poor for their unbelievable strength in spirit and determination. The main problem is not lack of intelligence, skill, or desire, but simple lack of opportunity.
I have met some very wonderful people in my time and I have a short story about one to give you some idea as to why I have chosen to work with marginalized people:
I was traveling in Cambodia when I came across a young lady, probably in her early twenties, working at temple selling clothes. Of course, she guessed immediately I was an American and began trying to sell me clothes. And after some back and forth, I came to the quick determination that I was dealing with a business savant.
I changed topics and began to speak with her about her shop and how she became the sole purveyor of clothes at this particular location. She said her mother ran the shop for years, but her father died of cancer several years ago. After he died, she had to start working at the shop so her mother could stay home and take care of her other siblings. She taught herself English, along with French and German so she could deal with tourists in their native tongue.
I sat with her for a couple of hours while she made her sales. A few times younger girls, selling cards and pictures, would come and ask her advice on how to better sell to people. She would tell them to be as cute as possible, but being persistent is more important.
I was curious about her thoughts on Americans and tourists in general. She said that people from other countries really don’t notice us and see us as a nuisance rather than people. She said, “If you have the money to come here, then you probably have the money to buy something from me. For us it is different, even if I have money I still can’t go to the US, it would be impossible to get a visa, because even though we have enough money for here, we are still poor compared to Americans.”
We chatted about politics, our childhoods, and life in general. She ended with saying, “I am one of the lucky ones in my country, I have much more than most thanks to my family.”
As I traveled through Cambodia, I saw endless amount of women being shipped in and out of sweatshops on busses crammed as full as possible. I could only imagine the conditions inside the factories where they most certainly were underpaid and overworked. I had never seen where my clothes actually came from, but I was astonished. How many times in our American lives do we ever think about simple things like where or how our shoes are made?
I felt the call to make a real difference in my life and no longer take my life and my material items for granted. I went back to school and finished my degree in international studies and focused on community development. I know I am one of the lucky ones in this world and want to be a person that gives back to people and communities around me.
The spirit of St. Francis and his dedication to the poor really has made an impact on my willingness to serve in these communities. His dedication to the word of Jesus and constant works with the downtrodden has given me inspiration and assurances that I am on the correct path for me.
Featured image by Flickr user wai kin wong