The stories I’ve always heard about mission trips paint everything in a pitiable light, perhaps to urge the one being told the story to do something. But here’s the thing: that isn’t helping. In my Gender and the Global Environment class, we read "Half the Sky," and it showed how feeling sorry for (and superior to) those living in these “third world countries,” “developing nations,” whatever you want to call them, is actually more of a problem than you might think.
Just because we know that the poverty exists, we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that we are the answer to their prayers. How condescending must we be to even think that? We cannot solve their poverty with our limited worldviews—because, at the end of the day, no matter how well traveled you are, you can’t know everything about every culture.
Three years ago, I went on a mission trip to Honduras with other members of my church. We were there to build an orphanage, teach VBS, and generally be of service. We were called to be kind, to be caring people caring for people (the mission statement of my church). So we departed for Catacamas with open hearts and open minds.
What I remember from Honduras isn’t feeling sorry for the people there. I don’t remember images of crushing poverty, of a nightmarish place unfit for humanity. I can’t remember Honduras that way, because that’s not what it was. Sure, there weren’t a lot of the privileges that I’m used to as an American, but that doesn’t make it a place unfit for human civilization. It was just another place where people were trying to find a way to build happy lives for themselves, just like anywhere else. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say I had fun.
The memories that have stuck with me most vibrantly are the happy ones—children at the school singing and dancing for us, a little boy at the orphanage playing with a balloon, the beautiful albeit emaciated orange cat that prowled our construction site whom we affectionately called “gato.” Teaching the children how to play “red light, green light” in our broken Spanish. Going to the school and seeing the baby watermelons in the garden that the children were so proud of. Little girls making little notes for me that filled my heart to the brim with joy.
Hiking up what seemed like thousands of (uneven) steps on the trail to the Cross—so many steps that, by the end of the climb down, my calves were shaking (but the view was worth it). Going for a swim in the pool next to the orphanage we were building, watching all of the guys belly flop in so hard that their torsos turned bright red. Singing together inside of a cavern so our voices echoed beautifully. Eating rambutan, making new friends, and standing in the river so that we would go back one day.
One of the biggest things that I learned is that poverty sucks, but people can still be happy, regardless of their circumstances, as long as they have a little compassion in their lives. Sure, money can buy you things, and things can make you happy (to a certain extent). But people are what ultimately make you happiest. Connecting; being part of a community—that’s what’s really important.