It was 50 years ago. Hours after our high school graduation, a friend and I took off to spend the summer working in the missions in Peru.
In Lima, the migration from the countryside had begun, and beyond the walled gardens and high-rises, there were ramshackle “invasions.”
In shelters made of plastic sacks and scavenged wood, a new underclass lived without water, without electricity and without much hope.
The mountains saved me from despair. Crawling through the sky in a rickety old plane, we landed on an airfield at 12,500 feet. It took my breath away — not just because oxygen is sparse at that altitude, but I felt that I had been transported to another world.
It was winter there and everything from mountain fields to adobe houses was a shade of brown. The only real colors on the canvas were the Quechua women in their brightly dyed vests and hats.
That evening, the sky was stippled with a million stars, the only light in a pre-electric night. They were so close, I could have plucked them from the heavens, but I wondered how God would feel about me tampering with this creation.
Our job was to build a road passable during the rainy season. With old dump trucks we maintained with prayer and baling wire, we hauled load after hand-shoveled load from gravel pits in the side of the mountain.
We lived in a compound with priests, sisters and lay volunteers. It was a diverse group with a wide spectrum of opinion on politics, religion and other ills of the world.
We worked long hours, shared an outhouse, showered once a week from a heated barrel, and somehow managed to be friends. It was for me a summer of firsts. It was the first time I witnessed a baby born; the first time I saw someone die.
It was the first time I saw women routinely treated as property, and young children as cheap labor.
It was the first time I met people living hand-to-mouth, and young ones whose distended bellies betrayed a killing frost.
Something happened that summer. Maybe not the road to Damascus, but life-changing for me.
Looking now at who I am, the work I cherish and the people I admire, I see the fruit of seeds planted long ago in Peru. If there is a conversion experience, that was mine. A little slower than Paul, it has taken me 50 years to realize it.