In the middle of my career as a lawyer–a career i enjoyed very much–I decided to “give up everything” to do human rights work in violence-ridden Peru, a country being ripped to shreds by two terrorist groups and by “counter-terrorism” violence from the security and police forces. Whatever led me to do this?
Recently I came across copies of my newsletter of that time to friends and family: ¿Quien Sabe? (Who Knows?)–John Wagner’s Newsletter From Peru, the first issue of which addressed that question. I remember writing that newsletter, pre-internet, on a beat up manual typewriter and sending it to a friend in Sacramento who kindly made copies and mailed them for me. The following summarizes my thoughts at the time.
I knew i couldn’t act as an official “lawyer” in Peru but I hoped to act as an informal advocate and to assist persons and families who’d suffered human rights violations. To use a religious cliché, just as St. Paul had an epiphany in which he was knocked off his horse, I took a study tour of Peru that caused me to question every aspect of my life. I came into direct contact with the poverty of the Third World and I also came into contact with people doing very meaningful things to help those people.
I felt the most important thing was not on any “results” I might obtain but that I wanted to strip myself of the trap of possessions, running for success, materialism, workaholism, and then rewarding myself for those things by, yes, more possessions–the endless cycle of self-ism as Buddhists might say.
I interviewed with several well-known human rights agencies but, in a surprise to my nicely-developed ego, they weren’t interested in successful lawyers in mid-career seeking to change their lives. They were suspicious of people they hadn’t trained and most human rights jobs went to prior interns at those agencies.
I had been a Catholic, although not active, and sought out Catholic organizations having overseas placements. It took a while but I finally found a progressive Catholic order that promised me a human rights job in Peru. I was worried that I might not be Catholic enough for the order but to my surprise, it was focused not pushing any given doctrine but focused on accompanying poor and oppressed persons in the third world. I wrote in my newsletter:
I view a religion as a community in which members not only have the right but the responsibility to express their views and engage in dialogue with each other. But I realize that: (a) there are still many problems within the Church, including hierarchy, sexism, paternalism, etc., and (b) no religion has a corner on “the” truth, all religions are not merely dealing with “inner” beliefs but are political and institutional forces replete with bureaucracies, turf-battles, organizational dynamics, etc.
Little did I know how prophetic those words would be. I also wrote:
The biggest question, of course, is why go overseas when there are so many problems right here in the US? If I want to work with the poor, why not work for a Legal Services program here where I already know the language and can utilize my skills? There’s no easy answer as that is what i would have sought had this program not worked out. There are many terrific people doing wonderful work in such programs. But to some extent what I want is the “stripping away” effect and the transformational effect of coming to grips with a new language and culture. In some ways it’s actually easier to seek a transformation by changing cultures at the same time. Corny as it sounds, I guess it boils down to my feeling on the Peru study tour that, “Why are you not here?”
Looking back on it, i really nailed the issues. In some ways, I got exactly what I was seeking in my placement in Peru and in other ways, my efforts completely failed.
John Wagner’s memoir is, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House), coming out in the fall, 2015.