It’s probably not often you get to work a job where your perceptions, suppositions, and worldviews are put to the test everyday. One of the things that continues to amaze me throughout my year as an Augustinian Volunteer is how I see the definition of generosity redefined on a daily basis. I came to the Bronx ready to give wherever possible, but have been so humbled to find that the people I serve run circles around me in this category.
I work at St. Rita’s Center for Immigration Services on Andrews Avenue in the Bronx. I teach ESL to two classes of adult students, as young as 18 and as old as 80, and hailing from all over the world—Mexico, Ecuador, Cambodia, Haiti, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Albania, Montenegro, Vietnam, Eritrea, Puerto Rico, Senegal, Niger, and more. Despite the language barrier, the students come in everyday with enough energy to power my day. Most of these men and women come from very modest means. Many work long, strange hours to make ends meet for their families. And though these are the people I dedicate myself to by helping them learn English, they are the ones who have taught me true generosity.
There’s an older Dominican guy in my class named Maximo (awesome name, right?) who’s the most pleasant person you can imagine. Occasionally he has me over for dinner at his house on 183rd street. I bring Natalie along because Maximo speaks this real thick Dominican Spanish that can be really tough to understand. When we get to his apartment, where he lives by himself, Maximo absolutely lights up. He shares everything with us—his food, his TV, pictures of his family, his friends that he invites over, and, most importantly, his faith. Though Maximo is a goofball most of the time, he and his family are also devoted Catholics. And while it is nice of them to thank us for doing “el trabajo de Dios”, it is infinitely more special that they invite us to pray, read Bible passages with them, and share the thing that is most important in their lives.
Every one of my students that I’ve gotten to know is as giving as Maximo. On the last day of class before Christmas, Alli (who teaches on Thursdays when I work at the United Nations) and I had parties for each of the classes. There was food from all different places, dancing, and good times. But when the students gave us our Christmas presents, I was blown away. They had collected from amongst themselves and given us gifts that I’ll never forget. I’m the volunteer; I should be the one serving, not the recipient of such incredible generosity. The idea still gives me chills, and I wish I could express my gratitude with more than hugs and choppy, blanquito Spanish.
Recently, the family of one of our Haitian students, Marie Michelle, was absolutely devastated by the earthquake in Port-au-Prince. The students of St. Rita’s took up a collection for her family and gathered close to $400. You’d think that would be enough, right? Just today, one of my students wanted me to help her fill out a check to the American Red Cross on behalf of, they insisted, “St. Rita’s Center, Brian’s Class”. The amount was for $250. As I’ve helped my ESL students improve their understanding of English, so have they helped me understand the meaning of generosity. Generosity is not to give what you can; it is to give what you cannot. The greatest generosity I’ve yet witnessed has come from those who live simply and don’t have much to give.
One final idea… in the afternoon, we tutor kids as part of an after school program. One of Alli’s first graders is a girl named Yessenia, who is ridiculouslycute, and whose mother is in my ESL class. One day Yessenia had to write a little composition. Alli read her the assignment question, which was “What do you wish for?” Yessenia’s answer was “I wish for a lot of friends…and Alli and Brian.”
Maybe that’s what my year to this point has suggested—all we really need is a little generosity, and a friend like Yessenia.
Bronx, NY 2009-2010