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Written by Maryknoll Lay Missioner Kim Fischer
How do you summarize an entire 20 week course in one final activity? By messing around with toothpaste!
Lay Missioner Catherine Heinhold and I just finished up our Fundamentals of Restorative Justice course at the youth center Clube da Turma Cavanis in São Paulo, Brazil. During the months we spent with the youth aged eleven to fifteen, we covered themes of related to expressing anger in more effective ways, understanding the perspectives of others, forgiveness, and alternative ways of responding to conflict.
In closing, I gave each child a small tube of toothpaste, asking each to completely squeeze out the toothpaste onto the wax paper protecting their desks. Cautiously, they began by diligently writing their names, then, growing bolder, piling more and more toothpaste onto the paper until it was completely saturated and their hands were minty fresh.
Then, pausing for a moment, I asked them to put the toothpaste back into the tubes.
Everyone froze and stared at me. Their expressions of incredulity were hysterical. I insisted, “I’m serious! Put the toothpaste back!”
Still in disbelief, they hunkered down and attempted to fix the mess they made.
Valiantly, they strived, but to no avail. Clearly, that toothpaste was just not going back into the tube, and in the meanwhile, it had created a larger mess than what initially came out.
We used this as a metaphor for life. The things we say and do cannot simply be taken back. We cannot undo the hurt we cause. So, we must be conscientious of our words and actions before we speak or act, so that we don’t create a larger mess for ourselves and those we meet.
And, in this way we ended our course. All of the activities, all of the stories, art projects, and conversations centered on the question, “How can we, ourselves, contribute to a better world? ” There are no simple answers, but by putting others first, by being conscious of our words and actions, we have a start.

Erik Cambier
Erik Cambier served as Maryknoll lay missioner for 25 years, in Tanzania, the United States, Venezuela and El Salvador.