Someone told me that the altiplano used to hold the sea. Now this barren plain holds only the sky and a slum that skitters up from the jagged geode of La Paz, Bolivia. Someone else told me that the slum, El Alto, is a famed case study in urban poverty and sprawl. Now that I have lived in El Alto, even for a short while, the distinction seems a sad trophy for a shantytown.
I can Google-map the tin roof of the house where I once lived in El Alto’s Zona de la Alianza, near the paper factory and the airport tarmac, where charred cargo planes greeted us when we touched down in the 2-mile-high slum seven years ago.
The Mennonite kid was still in college. The rest of us had graduated at least a couple of years previous. We were ripe for quarter-life crises and aiming to do something constructive with our angst.
I can’t remember all the reasons I wanted to go. As a kid, “We Are the World,” the Ethiopian famine and Audrey Hepburn’s Sunday morning African aid infomercials had almost as much influence on my missions hopes as did my Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers. But at 21, when the Southern Baptist Journeyman Missions application asked: “Have you consumed alcohol in the past calendar year?” I answered honestly, remembering the half a beer I had nursed in a sports bar. I was found wanting -- and left broken-hearted.
On the kind of whim that follows youthful grief, I shook the dust off my feet and moved to Washington, D.C. I got a job as a journalist, made an accidental home, and fell in with a charismatic young pastor who converted hundreds of us to a Protestantized version of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Sept. 11th came and went, and time felt short. At our pastor’s urging, my friends lined up to volunteer with Word Made Flesh, a young, incarnational beggar’s society with mission bases around the world. I agonized over my own application, wondering if I would be rejected again.
But in a short time, I found myself on the plane bound for El Alto, the final miles of our flight path soaring over the gray yard of the paper factory and the glinting tin roof of the house where I would live. From the tiny airplane window, I barely glimpsed the Ceja, a makeshift market poised on El Alto’s brow.
As members of the Servant Team, we spent our evenings on Calle Siete, the main drag of the Ceja’s red light district. We brought hot chocolate to aging single moms and dolled-up runaways huddled along the mud-brick walls and shallow, open sewers; we knocked on the doors of their brothel stalls and chatted about their kids and their work. Sometimes we made plans to meet the next day for coffee or a meal. Our tasks were simple, and we were absurd: our North Face jackets and down gloves, compared to their skimpy dresses and plastic windbreakers; our stuttering Spanish, greeted by their kind questions.
“Roxanna, you don’t have to put on the red light!” I sang the song by the Police in broken Spanish every time I saw a woman named Roxanna standing under the same Calle Siete streetlight, wearing the same red-and-black high school letterman’s jacket. Emblazoned with a huge, black “M,” the jacket was like a non sequitur, a joke on her and us about the fabled glories of the American teenager.
“Que quieres? What do you want?” She laughed. Her face was round and sweet, pitted with the fading scars of adolescent acne.
“It’s a song, it’s about you,” I said.
“I’ve never heard that song,” she said.
I knew then -- as I know now, with a greater, more painful sense of humility -- how deeply the hospitality went both ways.
Many of the women simply wanted friends, so much so that they would stop and talk or wave to us when they saw us in the market, even if they were on the arm of a john. Their tenderness made it all the more painful to learn that El Alto was the slum where Bolivian prostitutes came to end their days, moving from cities of warmer climes and better money to this muddy row of brothels, which often smelled more like an avenue of barns.
Yet I felt at home. I was one of four daughters reared in an overwhelmingly female world; in some unexpected ways, I understood and had deep compassion for Calle Siete’s feminine dystopia: its pettiness and its loneliness, its fear of and hope for an understanding of the strange world of men.
One night, sitting with a weeping mother in a brothel where all of the women disguised themselves in the bowler hats and pollera skirts of the rural poor, I felt again the first-flush of childhood call, the beating heart and warmed body rising with what Frederick Buechner famously called that place where “your deep gladness and the world's deep need meet.” I cared for her; I wanted to stay with her. I wanted to be called to stay in El Alto.
Of all of us on that first Servant Team, it was the Mennonite kid -- 6 feet tall, blonde and bearded -- who came back to make a life of serving on Calle Siete. I ended up far from home: in India, Thailand, Nepal and then Washington, D.C., again, finding that my journalism skills transferred neatly into a career in human rights and international development.
I still live in Washington, pushing paper in a cube on behalf of the handful of human trafficking victims who are lucky enough to enter the U.S. welfare system. My office is clean, orderly and climate-controlled; I don’t visit brothels and I don’t sit down on beds that smell of men who have come and gone.
Sometimes this call is a relief, and sometimes it seems so second best -- or, worse, dishonest, a false reading of God’s hand. Maybe, as some friends suggest, this life’s dignity is found in its own strange challenges, especially in the way it requires me to live faithfully in a place where it is easy to feed my gifts to my appetites.
But I can’t forget the body, especially as I knew it in El Alto: cold, chapped, used, abused, spiked with the pain of real hunger or the chosen solidarity of fasting. I think of it when I glance at a photograph of the El Alto skyline, propped up next to my computer. Often when I see that brick-and-tin horizon, I pray for the women I knew and my friends who still work there. I feel again the welling, beating heart of my childhood call -- which, at its root, is a joy that God would speak to me, love me and create me to love and be loved.