There is something very special about the modern mission work of today that has moved away from the more traditional models of our predecessors. More and more often one will see mission work presented as a journey that focuses less on making sure every native person one meets is left with a Bible, and more on becoming fully immersed in a different culture and learning to build relationships that reflect the love of Christ and are based on empathy and understanding. I have been thinking about this model a lot recently as I have been replaying a mission trip I took to Belize this summer.
All Saints’ Episcopal Church has been going to Belize for years now, first as part of a medical mission and more recently to support the growth of Holy Cross Anglican School. The trips I have been on are a lot of work but always a lot of fun as well. However, the one part that has always left me squeamish is the first day our team takes to settle in, see the sites, and take our tour through the small community neighboring the school called San Mateo. In San Mateo the houses are mostly plywood and repurposed tin. They are built on stilts, hovering feet above a swamp of refuse and ocean water that has its own unique scent. It is easy to glance at San Mateo and see that it is extremely impoverished. On every trip, when our group would walk past on that first day, inevitably at least one well meaning comment would be made observing how fortunate we are to have the resources we do, and how thankful we should be to have avoided such harsh circumstances for our own lives.
Certainly I agree that we are incredibly lucky to have the different resources at our disposal that we have come to rely on in our small Fort Worth community, but upon hearing these comments, I would always wonder if we were really getting the point of this visit through someone else’s town. By seeing only the buildings that looked different than ours, and the lives that moved on different schedules that we couldn’t seem to make heads or tails of, what were we overlooking?
This year, before our walk through San Mateo, a new volunteer coordinator sat us down and talked to us about privilege, and the way it can color our vision so that suddenly differences become detriments. It was a conversation that couldn’t have been more welcome. She cautioned us that it is easy sometimes to look at San Mateo and see only the things that people do not have while looking right through the vibrant community unfolding before us. Our walk this year focused on looking past the houses and into the lives that flourished within. Instead of focusing on the roads made of 2x4s (which have since been replaced gravel roads, courtesy of The University Mississippi) we were able to see the people getting up to go about their daily routines; the family dogs settling into the shade to wait out the heat of the day, the siblings tagging along behind older kids who were off to school, laughing and antagonizing each other. Were their lives different? Absolutely! And certainly there is a larger conversation to be had concerning the systemic oppression that creates poverty in many countries and makes it harder for communities to thrive. But when we walked through San Mateo this year, I reminded myself that a life lived in the village of San Mateo is certainly different from mine in a million ways, but to immediately label it as an existence that is inherently worse than mine discounts the millions of ways of that joy is manifested in these little houses and on these little roads every single day, with or without missionaries working away in their backyard.
So often when we find ourselves in new places, we struggle to hang on to the familiar. It is only human, after all to seek out the comfort of something we know in a place of uncertainty, but I am learning every day that there is so much more to be gained when you surrender yourself to immersion in the strange and unknown and sometimes even the uncomfortable. Our travels reflect this when we wander off the beaten path of old tourist haunts to enjoy the local flavor of the place we’re visiting. Our lives reflect this when we allow ourselves to open up and really listen to a perspective that is different than ours. Our mission work reflects this when we focus on fully experiencing the community we are seeking to serve before offering up a list of solutions to the “problems” that we perceive. Often, the simple act of listening teaches us that the problems we identify are completely different than the challenges a community would have us help to address. Sometimes the things we see as problems are not problems at all, but simply the nature of life in any given place.
I think this is the most important thing I have taken away from my travels this summer. Differences are not always detriments. Sometimes they are simply differences; no more, no less. Some adventures take us places with warmer temperatures and smaller houses, but the story is often similar to our own. People lament and celebrate and the epic and inconsequential all seem to occur simultaneously. The complexity of the human existence doesn’t change with climate or comforts. If there is one thing that we can take with us on our travels, whether it is mission work or a vacation, it is the importance of surrendering to a new place with new people and allowing ourselves to acknowledge the tension between different worldviews and possibly even allow ourselves to be changed for the better as a result.