“They are so poor, but so happy.” I was talking with someone about a mission trip to Honduras and those are the words chosen to sum up the trip. “They are so poor, but so happy.” I merely smiled and nodded in response. What could I say? For this person, that phrase represented what they learned. It was the great truth that they came away with. But what if it is not the truth, or at least not the whole truth?
Over the past ten years or so, I have spent part of every year in Honduras. I taught for a number of years in bilingual schools. I volunteered at a local Christian school, and I led small groups of Canadian Christian school teachers who came to visit and help out some schools. These experiences enabled me to get to know people, to hear their stories, to become a part, in a way, of the community. I learned how to speak Spanish, how to eat tortilla with every meal, how to greet people on the street, and how to rest in a hammock (that one is not too difficult). I attended wakes and weddings, fifteenth-birthday parties and graduations. I was privileged to be invited into this community—the community of the Juan Calvino Christian Reformed Church, in Barrio Los Mangos, in the city of Choluteca, Honduras.
And so mission trips make me feel a bit uncomfortable, and also conflicted. What are we doing, what am I doing, when we enter into someone’s community armed with resources and good will, hoping to make a difference? As mission trips become ever more ubiquitous in North American evangelical circles, perhaps it is worth our while to step back and consider what we are doing. Are we really making the difference that we hoped for? Maybe we need to reconsider how and why we do mission trips, especially if upon returning we reduce our experience down to the mantra, “They are so poor, but so happy.”
Three words in that sentence make me uncomfortable. The first is the word “they.” It is a hard word to avoid once we come back from visiting another culture. We want to share about some of the people that we have met. The problem is that the word “they” can be ambiguous. Who do we mean? Who are “they”? Do we mean the small group of teenagers we met during an afternoon program or the entire population of the country we visited? In addition, the word “they” is all-encompassing. It includes everyone, and is often understood as referring to everyone in the city, if not the whole country we visited. This misunderstanding makes our sentence a gross misrepresentation of the situation. Chances are that not everyone in the country is poor, and chances are greater still that not everyone is happy. Using the word “they” begs the question: How do we know they are “so poor, but so happy”? Is this information based solely on our observations of the big smile and hearty laughter coming from the child wearing a torn shirt and flip-flops?
The second word that causes me to pause is “so.” “So” implies extreme, beyond what is normal or expected. It is not just that the people we visited were poor, they were so poor. They weren’t merely happy, they were so happy. Again, we need to ask ourselves: How do we know this? Are our judgments built around what we observed, what we were told, what we heard from others? We need to be careful about labeling others, especially extreme labels, especially based on a ten-day trip.
And lastly the word “but.” “But” is a conjunction word that suggests a connection, albeit a surprised connection, between the two clauses. Why do we choose to include poverty and happiness in the same sentence? And why do so in such a way that assumes the two are incompatible? And even more, why allow those two descriptors to be the handles we use to share about our experiences? In doing so, we have reduced an entire population to a simplistic (and might I add dangerous) understanding.
During my first visit to Honduras, I was invited out for ice cream with a teacher from the school. Her name is Yami, and she has incredible curly hair and a deep voice. The ice cream shop was close to where we lived, so we could walk there. A couple of kids, maybe eight or nine years old, were hanging out at the shop. They followed us to our table and said, “Dami una limpera.” (“Give me money.”) They said it a lot. Yami only ate half her ice cream and upon leaving, gave the cone to the little girl, along with some money. I felt shame. Entering into another culture is messy and complex. It does not neatly fit into our little boxes of poverty and happiness. David Smith, in his book Learning from the Stranger, uses Christ’s story of the Good Samaritan as a way of approaching cross-cultural experiences. He says, “The story does end with an invitation, an invitation to humble himself and enter the topsy-turvy world of compassion given and received in recognition of mutual vulnerability, and a life of loving God so wholeheartedly that cherished boundaries are redrawn” (76).
So what, then, shall we do? How do we conduct a mission trip that treats all parties with dignity and makes a lasting difference? Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t know if it is even possible. But perhaps I may give you a few things to consider as you plan your next mission trip.
First, be aware of creating value in your own life based on the (perhaps perceived) misfortune of others. Maybe you have heard, or even told, the stories of how poor the people were, of how little they have, of how much people have suffered. I know I have told the stories. I’ve told people about Don Bernabet, who works making hammocks at his house. It takes all day to make one, and in return, he earns two dollars. He is raising his family in a very small house. Included in his family is his grandchild, born to his daughter after she was raped. Why do I tell this story? It is not my story to tell. For some reason, I believe that I am a more valuable person because I happen to have met someone whose life has been so tragic. I have told Don Bernabet’s story in vain. Through my storytelling, I have sought to create value in my life, but instead I have taken value from another’s.
This leads to my second consideration. A mission trip should leave us feeling conflicted. We should not return home with happy, warm-fuzzy feelings about the great work that we did, and how our presence there made a huge difference in the lives of the people. We ought to be questioning and wondering at the sense of it all. We ought not to be able to encapsulate our experience in one or two sentences. We ought to feel shame and guilt, and at the same time awe and wonderment.
Because, and this is my final consideration, we have been given the opportunity to enter into someone else’s life. For us, the visitor, it is an experience, an adventure, a journey. For the people we visited, this is their home, their world, their life. It is not something to enter into, or to tread upon, lightly. For, although we may think that we are difference makers and that without us this village or community would be lost, in truth it is not about us. It is about God.
I dug out my journal that I kept during that first of many trips to Honduras. On August 18, 1998, the day before my last day, I wrote, “I like to think that I am the center of the universe. And if life goes on without me, then that must be a false premise. But then I guess that puts it back to the fact that life isn’t really about me, after all. It’s all about God. And life will continue here without me. And people, though they say they will cry and miss me, will dry their eyes and eventually forget me, as I them. I guess the grace in all this is if in some small way God is felt here, if God’s voice is heard.”
But now, fourteen years after that first trip, the true grace is that I have not forgotten, and neither have “they.” So go on your mission trip. Go, remembering that you will probably not make the big difference that you are hoping for. Go and follow David Smith’s “two very simple suggestions: ask questions and pay attention” (118). Go, being ever aware that it is not about you, that it is about God and the kingdom. Go, and when you return and want to share about your trip maybe you can say, “I met a girl named Maria. She lived with her family at the house on the corner. We stopped by there one evening and as we were chatting one of their goats came and sat on my lap.”
Suggested Reading and Works Cited
- Corbett, Steve, and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009.
- Smith, David. Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.