In the book of Exodus, there is a wonderful story: Moses was tending to the sheep, when he saw fire flaming out of a bush. The bush, though on fire, was not consumed. Moses wanted to approach the bush in order to see why it was not burned, but a voice – God – said: Come no nearer. Remove the shoes from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. This is a deeply meaningful phrase for me: Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.
I would like to share with you a very important experience I had in the summer of 2008. Alongside eight young adults from my parish, we all joined the World Youth Day in Sydney. We went to Sydney as a part of the Jesuit program called MAGIS (Latin: more). Before the WYD and the gathering with the Pope, there was a special program. The core of this program was called an experiment. The experiment was centered on the idea of having a spiritual experience in an extraordinary environment and in an international group.
Our group went to Indonesia, where we lived for 6 days on the “garbage mountains” of Jakarta. This is difficult to describe in words, so I would like to share several photos as well.
It is a huge area, all the garbage is brought there in a heap; when you enter, the smell is awful; on the garbage mountains are villages; our village consisted in about 30 barracks
Photo of our village; we lived in the ‘large’ building on the left.
The work of the men here is incredible. They work on the mountains with a cage on their backs. Everyday, about 800 cars bring garage to this area. Bulldozers collect the garbage and unload it some feet above.
The next bulldozer does the same and moves the garbage closer to the top of the mountain. The men are gathered around the bulldozers, collecting the garbage that falls down. It is very dangerous work and if they are not attentive, they get buried under the garbage.
There are all kinds of garbage (glass, needles and syringes, organic waste, etc.). The men sift through the piles, collecting the garbage that can be recycled (plastic, paper, aluminum, and so on).
Back in the village, the women separate the recyclable garbage (black plastic). Then it is sold. It is a very desolate situation.
What made the situation a little bit better for us were the children. You could play with them for hours and hours. The games we played were simple games, but the children really enjoyed them. The parents, in the background, also enjoyed watching us. However, they never played with their children
This is a Taiwanese girl who could draw very well. She sketched almost every child in the village.
From our group, everyone was touched by the calamity of the situation, but especially moved by these wonderful kids.
What I found especially bleak was that there was no inspiration. The question, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ is senseless. So, too, the question, ‘What did you do yesterday?’ or ‘What will you do next week or next year?’. Here, life means being born in garbage, living in garbage, working in garbage, and dying in garbage.
Our week here in Jakarta was not any kind of “poverty tourism.” It was not just traveling here and there, observing, being shocked, and then going to the next restaurant to have a good dinner. It was not about a casual observer’s curiosity without getting involved.
As each day passed, we realized the importance of our spiritual framework: Morning Prayer with a special spiritual focus, Eucharist, time for personal reflection, and group sharing. I especially found the sharing to be so important, so moving, and so profound!
The central question was indeed the sentence from Exodus: Remove the shoes from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. Yet, it seems almost paradoxical to talk about holy ground in this context. Removing your shoes… what could this possibly mean in this particular situation?
Here is what it meant to me:
A willingness to be exposed to an inhuman situation;
Overcoming the disgust at the hygienic situation;
Renouncing a certain role behavior and symbols of status, because they have become useless;
Being aware of the calamity of the situation, and within this situation being aware of one’s own poverty and neediness;
Having the thirst for justice, and at the same time the discovery of one’s own guilt;
Discovering one’s own capability for loving, and the need for being loved;
Keeping awake the desire for God at a – seemingly – godforsaken place.
I am convinced that every one of us took off his shoes; each, in his and her own personal way. I, as everyone else, did indeed experience holy ground.
Of course, there was a lot of asymmetry in our encounter: on the one hand, people living in the garbage, and on the other hand, people coming from rich countries, who left after some days. Nevertheless, real encounter supposes taking off one’s shoes; encountering other people, and encountering God.
In the context of Pastoral Counseling, I think the attitude of taking off one’s shoes is also important:
For the client: looking for the holy ground in the present situation;
For the counselor: being aware that he / she has permanently removed his shoes through the experience of the client’s shared story.
Holy Ground: The world can illuminate God. Usually we believe that God is where it is nice and beautiful. That is nonsense. Moses encounters God not on the neatly trimmed lawn of Lincoln Park, but on the stony ground in the desert. God reveals himself only in the present, namely in the present as it is, and not as it should be.