November 16, 2007

In which I reveal myself to be a cold, heartless missionary

This is a picture of Petros, a 22-year old unemployed resident of Itipini who helps us out around the clinic on most days. Petros can be invaluable to have around – he is fluently bilingual, knows how our record-keeping system works, and can dispense TB drugs and cough syrups with ease. When I am stumped trying to find someone’s medical records, I ask for his help. When we are overwhelmed by patients, he capably deals with the minor concerns and recognizes bigger issues for what they are. When I am trying to communicate with a patient and can’t, Petros interprets. Here’s a guy who hasn’t had much of a chance for anything in his life, freely and voluntarily offering his time to help out his community.

Despite this, and I’ll look uncharitable saying this, I have to admit I don’t care for him all that much. And I can’t really put my finger on the reasons for my dislike. I have trouble making small talk with him (and that’s saying something for me – I can almost make small talk in Xhosa now). Whenever we drive anywhere together, he always wants to listen to the South African hip-hop station at full volume, which I can only tolerate for so long. He sometimes asks me for money and I don’t know how to respond. He’s kind of sullen and detached at times. He hasn’t been able to find a job in the time I’ve been here, nor, does it seem to me, is he looking very hard. Basically, I’d like Petros a lot more if he were a lot more like-able. (Thank you, Mr. Obvious-Man.)

Sometimes I think it would be a lot easier if Petros just didn’t show up. I delude myself into thinking I can do anything he can do (definitively not true) and I can do it better (also not true). If he didn’t come to work, we wouldn’t have this awkward situation of the two of us sitting side-by-side with nothing to say to each other. So – and I hate to admit this – I have even on some days given him the cold shoulder and tried to show him that I’d prefer he not show up. And, occasionally, it works.

There’s at least two lessons here. My workplace in Itipini, even though it is in a shantytown in South Africa, is not all that different from workplaces anywhere else. People are people and sometimes you like people and sometimes you don’t like them. And that’s true regardless of whether it is mission work in a clinic in South Africa or any other kind of work. Learning to get along with your co-workers is a challenge that does not go away.

The second lies in Petros’ name. It is a constant and inescapable reminder of a favourite Bible verse of mine, Matthew 16:13-20 in which the Apostle Peter says Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus replies, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus is making a bit of a pun as Peter’s Greek name is Petros, which is the Greek word for rock. I’ve always interpreted this passage as indicating Jesus’ preference for the outcast and lowly of society, like the fishermen and tax collectors that Peter and his fellow Apostles were. And if Jesus had a preference for those kind of people surely I should as well, right?

Every time I want to give Petros the cold shoulder, I have to think of his name and when I do I think of how he is a rock and perhaps exactly the kind of rock Jesus prefers. That sort of stops me in my tracks.