What is a reverse mission experience? As a group — 13 students, half of them Presbyterian — we struggled with our identity. We were frustrated at times with our difficulty in answering a common and seemingly uncomplicated question: “Why are you going to Nicaragua?”
The common perception of mission trips is that we go with the purpose of completing a physical goal — doctors treat patients, teams build houses, etc. These trips are valid, but it is important to remember that there are other ways of ministering to the Body of Christ abroad.
Our purpose was to go to Nicaragua to learn firsthand about the country, its history, its people and its struggle. Nicaragua has a complicated history of dictatorship and revolution, U.S. imperialism, economic exploitation, church-state struggles and the growth of Protestant evangelicals. We prepared for this trip the entire semester preceding it, reading Scripture, politics, economics, sociology and testimonials. These meetings, which we have continued since our return, were designed to prepare us for a trip that was to test our limits, expand our comfort zones and expose us to the realities that our brothers and sisters in Christ endure.
While in Nicaragua, our group shared very intense, emotional experiences and processed them together in such a way that we were constantly evaluating ourselves, our faiths and the meaning of what we saw. And we witnessed some terrible injustices — families eking out an existence in a huge Managua dump; street kids whose only source of fulfillment came from getting high sniffing glue; women struggling against a social and economic structure that made their lives difficult at every turn.
As members of the most consumer-oriented society in the world, we Americans often thoughtlessly use resources and throw away what we don’t want. We rarely see the consequence of our lifestyle. But in the dump at Managua, this reality slapped us in the face. We realized that so much of what we consume comes, directly or indirectly, from poor countries. One of our team members said that she couldn’t help but feel, as we walked around in the filth and observed people living there, that it was our trash.
The trip also illuminated some universalities that exist among brothers and sisters in Christ. In the campo (countryside), we stayed in homes of the residents. Another participant and I stayed with a family of 14 — the children ranged in age from 1 to 19. And the family lived in a small, simple, concrete structure built after Hurricane Mitch swept away their old house. They had no electricity and no running water. Yet this family took us in. They were not paid for our two-night stay — the trip’s organizers feared that payment would cause division within the community. Instead, we brought more than enough food to be prepared along with the family’s regular meal.
I saw the love the parents had for their children; it was obvious they wanted the best for them. All who could went to school. And family activities were truly a group effort. All of the kids helped out around the house — bringing water from the river, washing clothes, cooking, looking after younger brothers and sisters. They included us in their daily routine and were open and willing to share everything.
One of the more hopeful episodes of the trip occurred the final day. We visited a place where street kids, who had kicked their glue-sniffing habits, came to make a commitment to change their lives. It was called Los Quiches, named after a young martyr of the Sandinista revolution. They taught us traditional Nicaraguan dances and we shared a great time with them.
They were just like the other kids we had seen in the city, struggling day to day, sniffing glue, stealing, turning to gangs or prostitution. It was such a joyous place that it really brought the trip all together for us. Although we had to remember that there are 40 million street kids in Latin America, and many fall through the cracks, it was uplifting to find an organization that was making a real difference in the lives of some of the children.
While on the trip I became very ill — the sickest I have been in my life. They think it was some kind of bacterial infection. The doctor gave me a broad-spectrum antibiotic and I got better. The whole experience brought up a troubling question: If I were Nicaraguan, would I have received the care that I did? Would I have been able to afford the medicine the doctor prescribed? Probably not.
The average cost of living for a family of six (not including unforeseen medical expenses) in Nicaragua is $175 per month. Teachers make $60 per month and doctors $140. The country is woefully under resourced; unemployment is 60 to 70 percent; and government corruption is endemic.
Toward the end of the trip, a priest named Fernando Cardenal came and reflected with us one afternoon. A former Sandinista government minister, he seemed very real to us. Weathered and wise, he looked like a man who had seen a lot in his 70 years. He inspired us not to forget, not to detach ourselves and to remember our experiences.
One image he presented I will never forget. He said utopia is like the horizon. You walk 10 yards, the horizon is 10 yards further away. You walk 100 yards, the horizon is 100 yards away. So what purpose does utopia serve? To walk.
He, more than any other person on the trip, inspired me to continue my walk. By emphasizing that it was the process that mattered, not the result, he truly embodied the idea of being process-oriented; meet people where they are, not where you want them to be. If there is one skill I hope I can gain in life, it would be Father Cardenal’s ability to accept people as they are and to inspire them to be greater.
Posted Nov. 22, 2001
Margaret Carolla graduated from Davidson College (N.C.) in May and is serving with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps at Miriam’s Kitchen, a breakfast program for the homeless in Washington, D.C., hosted by Western church.