This picture actually taken by one of the kids of Cebu, Honduras
Honduras. Six days. Where do I begin?
A mission trip is such a deep, intimate, life-changing, overwhelming, uplifting, holy, draining, beautiful, amazing experience. Every day is an overwhelming onslaught of deeply sensuous encounters. These smells, tastes, sounds, sights, emotions, tactile sensations are sometimes collected as individual fragments, and some combine into a larger piece. I feel as if I have a bundle of these memories and moments collected from Honduras. The bundle is not necessarily a burden. But each piece must be removed and inspected before it can be found a more permanent place in my heart and mind.
I process things best externally. That is… Some people must turn things around and around in their own minds to process it. For me to be able to put something – a memory, an experience, a decision – to rest, I need to share it. Oftentimes it is torture to me if I do not have someone I trust close by with whom I can hash out this thing. To verbally and thoughtfully toss it back and forth, until I begin to understand and come to peace with all its facets, or enough of its facets. But sometimes… sometimes I cannot begin this metaphorical game of toss because I do not yet have the means within me to communicate it. So it marinates, mostly unconsciously, for a while. I often repeat one small phrase over and over in my mind. And then, in a rush, I can paint the picture for someone else. And then I can begin to grasp it. At the very least, I can move forward.
Tonight is one of those times. I have held onto the top item from my bundle for four weeks now. It has always been just beneath the surface of my thoughts, always ready for me to stare at it when there is a break in my thinking. It is 12:30. I have a funeral to go to in the morning. But as I was taking out my contacts, the words came rushing in. I could not let it go so I have turned my computer back on.
I have seen poverty before. Deep, desperate poverty. Hopelessness. Need so intense it seems wrong to be described with the same word I use when I say I need groceries or I need an oil change. I have wept and my heart has been broken. This was my eighth mission trip. But each new expression of that gut-wrenching, breath-stealing poverty is something you can never be prepared for. No matter how many ways you have seen it. My heart was sucker-punched one more time Saturday afternoon, our last day in the village.
Every day, our three small groups broke to gather together for lunch. Because of sanitation concerns, we could not eat food cooked in the village; we had it catered in from a trusted source. Each mid-day we would group chairs in a circle in one of the schoolrooms, holding our styrofoam containers of lunch on our knees, sharing that morning’s happenings and hoping to find some respite from the heat in the limp breeze of two weak fans. We ate just as a team both as a chance to regroup our emotions and strength, and also I think from the guilt of eating a comparative feast in front of the kids. Not that it mattered; we always had an audience at the window and open door (the school is open with just metal grating at the windows and doors).
That day, I saw it right as I stepped through the schoolroom door. The large, blue, metal trashcan piled high with our discarded styrofoam lunch boxes. The flies crowding around, finally able to settle on the food which we kept waving them away from during the meal.
The children grouped around the trashcan, opening our boxes and eating our leftovers. Hungrily feasting on our trash.
“One man’s trash, another man’s treasure,” suddenly seems an ugly, crass adage when you have seen it in its literal, harsh, naked truth. I felt sick. It is just not part of my world nor yours; it is a foreign experience, impossible to ever wholly understand from our culture of privilege. For us, at its best, garbage is food for the dogs. In fact, just the day before – animal lovers that most of us are – we had collected some of our leftover lunch to spread out for the skeletal, mangy dogs which roam the village. It never even glimmered as a thought in our minds that what we consider food fit for dogs would be a picnic for the children we were growing to love so dearly.
I knew to stand and watch those children eat my garbage would finish me for the day. I’d like to say I swooped in, gathered the leftovers into a miraculous meal a lá Stone Soup and cooked up dinner to feed the entire village. But I didn’t. I turned away. And I am not ashamed. No one can save an entire village, or even one child, from hunger in the work of one short-term mission trip. No… my work was to be present to these children, to give all my energy to loving them with the love of Christ. I knew in a split second that if I was to respond to God’s call for this trip, I had to step away or I would be too sapped grieving for these children who do not know enough to grieve for themselves the indignity of hunting through garbage for lunch.
And yet… this first piece from my bundle. What do I do with it? I firmly believe that every person, every experience, every encounter in life doesn’t just happen to us, but is entrusted to us. We aren’t sent these things to hone our character or teach us a lesson about ourselves, although often they do. But we are stewards of these experiences and the question for each is, “how now shall I live?” How does this impact and change me, yes, for myself, but far more so for the world? What would God have me do with this? How do I take this… this part of the bundle and use it for the Kingdom?
I have no answers for this little vignette I was given. But I know in sharing this, I have taken the first step towards finding out God’s purpose in His gift.