This week’s topic in the non-competitive “Blogger Idol” showcase is “Travel.” Anyone who knows me has gotten an earful about my travel experiences over the past couple of years. Some of the following will be old hat to my regular readers — after all, my first blog, which morphed into this one, was originally intended as a place to tell some of my mission trip stories. But I’ll at least try to approach this from a new angle.
I will probably ramble. Feel free to skip ahead.
Prior to 2003, the sum total of my international travel had been a couple of hours in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a tourist trap just across the border from Laredo, Texas. But in the past two years I’ve taken missions trips to Nicaragua and Kenya, and I’m now trying to raise funds for a return trip to Kenya in August 2005.
It was in 1993 when I first became involved in domestic missions, through Mountain T.O.P., which places volunteers into the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. I learned a lot from Mountain T.O.P. about flexibility, and about how God can use you when you get out of your comfort zone. But even so, I told myself and others that I would never be any good at foreign missions. I never thought I’d be able to spend a week in a dirt-floor shack or eat strange foods cooked over a fire. After all, I’m the type of guy who prefers concrete swimming pools to lakes or ponds.
But in August 2002, one of my Mountain T.O.P. friends, Gail Drake, invited me on a Nicaragua trip through LEAMIS International Ministries, the interdenominational missions group Gail founded with the Rev. Debra Snellen. I agreed — and I’ve never looked back.
Because our topic here is “travel,” I’ll set aside for purposes of this post the theological reasons for, and implications of, foreign mission trips. I will instead talk about what foreign travel has meant to me.
LEAMIS strongly believes in placing its short-term volunteers in private homes. In Kenya, our host pastor, the Rev. Paul Mbithi, said that made us different from other short-term teams he’d dealt with before founding New Life Restoration Centre. Those teams stayed in hotels. They came to the church or other work site during the day, and then they went back to a western-style environment at night.
LEAMIS believes that staying with families yields an entirely different attitude and a different type of experience. In Kenya, staying in homes didn’t involve much sacrifice. Pastor Paul had placed us at his own townhouse and at the homes of two of his other members from outside the Kibera slums. Even when some of our team members asked about spending a night in the slums, Pastor Paul would not allow it. He said it would be a security concern not only for the team members but for the family with which we stayed — the neighbors might assume that the western visitors had left gifts or money and might try to rob our hosts after we had departed.
So we were crowded, but in conditions that approached western-style comfort, somewhere between Nairobi and the slums.
Even so, there were reminders that we were in the developing world. Our clothes were washed by hand, just as they had been in rural Nicaragua a year and a half earlier. Our hot showers, at least for those of us downstairs, came courtesy of a scary-looking electric “widowmaker” shower head. And the gray water as the shower warmed up was saved.
In Nicaragua, even when we were holding our debrief at a nice, western-style hotel, we were told not to flush the toilet paper. The septic system could not handle toilet paper, so it was placed in a little waste basket next to the toilet. (Talk about a hard habit to break!)
That’s a lesson I keep trying to teach myself. Resources are precious. Here in the states — especially this week, the ground zero of American commercialism — resources like water and electricity and sewer service seem unlimited. I hope that my foreign trips are helping to teach me otherwise, although I’ve got a lot of unlearning to do, and I may not get there in this lifetime.
Of course, Pastor Paul’s townhouse seemed like the Ritz-Carlton when compared with Teresa Sanchez’ home in El Triunfo, Nicaragua, where I had spent a week a year and a half earlier. Frank Schroer and I lived in one end of a rickety dirt-floor shed while Teresa and her family crowded into the other end. We had no hot showers or indoor plumbing in El Triunfo. “Showering” meant standing on a couple of boards over a mud puddle in a little enclosure on the back of the house. (It wasn’t a complete enclosure; if someone had been standing in one particular corner of the back lot, the bather would have been in full view.) You dipped out some chilly rainwater and poured it over yourself, lathered, and then rinsed again. Of course, all this rinsing caused mud to spatter onto your shins, and so you had to rinse them separately when you were through.
And let’s not talk about the outhouse. I’m still trying to forget the outhouse.
In Nicaragua, there was a definite language barrier. No one at the church, not even Pastor Luis Gutierrez, spoke English, so most of our conversations had to go through translators — our resident missionary, Amanda Van Deman, or one of our team members, Michelle Schussler. But in the evening, when Frank and I were at home with the Sanchez family, there was no translator. We got by on pidgin Spanish, teaching the Sanchez family how to play Uno and Jenga and trying to be as polite and observant as possible.
In Kenya, a former British colony, almost everyone we dealt with on a regular basis (and all of our hosts) spoke the King’s English. Our worship services were translated into Swahili, so there must have been some people in the congregation with limited English. But at no point did I ever have trouble communicating in English — except for two days when I was working with a group of teenagers from a school for the hearing-impaired!
When I talk about my mission trip experiences, I often run into what seems like a contradiction, and I’m often afraid that I fail to do it justice. The contradiction is that people living in dire poverty — whether rural Nicaragua or the crowded Kibera slums — show an amazing positive attitude. It’s easy to take a condescending attitude towards this (“They don’t know any better”) or use it as an excuse not to help (“They’re happy the way they are.”) But that’s wrong. The people in both places have television; they can see what the rest of the world is like. And their poverty has heart-breaking consequences for health, education, hunger and security. They are not happy because they “don’t know any better.” They are happy in spite of their situation, not because of it. And we still bear our full responsibility to help improve their situation when we can.
But the contentment I saw in El Triunfo and Kibera is a humbling thing for an American to take. We are — I am — perpetually discontented.
That’s part of what travel does to you. You think you’re going to learn about other places and people, but you end up learning things about yourself. I learned that, with God’s help, I was capable of getting out of my comfort zone. But I also learned about how very far I have left to go to become a citizen of God’s world.