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Our Liberation -- what the poor have to offer us


About twenty four hours from now, I’ll be landing, along with nine other St. James’ parishioners, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. We’ll load up for a three- or four-hour drive to far western Honduras near the Guatemalan border, where we’ll spend a week working alongside Honduran villagers digging trench lines and laying PVC pipes which will eventually carry clean, drinkable water directly to their village. Next week, another group of nine St. James’ parishioners will undertake the same project, for a total of 18 St. James’ folk.

As many of you know, I love this project. Partly because I love adventure, and this mission trip always has an element of adventure and surprise to it. (And even danger: Last year, I managed to lean my backpack up against a bush that contained a hornet’s nest, and unleashed a fury of hornets, some of which got up under my shirt, and in the ensuing frenzy of pain, I almost fell off the edge of the cliff we were working alongside. Luckily, I caught my balance, and no one back home had to dig up my funeral wishes file!)

Another reason I love this project is that it feels good to “do good,” and there’s a sense of accomplishment. One of the downsides of ministry (and parenting, for that matter) is that there are few “measurables” to know if you’re doing any good, or having any impact.

Businesses have quarterly profit/loss statements, sports teams have won/loss records, students have grades. In ministry and parenting, however, impact is harder to measure, because those enterprises are about less tangible, longer-term, often invisible accomplishments like faith and character formation.

So it’s nice to have a project where you can stand back at the end of the day and say, “Look! That wasn’t there at the start of the day, and I helped make it happen.”

But the real reason I love this project is something more. After all, I could get adventure and find projects to work on right here in the United States.

The real reason I love this project is not what I put into it, but what I get out of it.

This trip is not about “noblesse oblige” -- we “fortunate” people serving those “unfortunate” people.

As anyone who has ever served the poor will tell you, you get back a lot more than you give. We do not “help the poor” as if we had something and they do not; giver and recipients.

No, we work together with the economically poor because they have as much to give to us, if not more, than we have to give to them.

In other words, our liberation is bound up in theirs.

As I said in my prayer last Sunday when we commissioned those going on this mission trip, we live in a country -- certainly in a part of this country -- that has one of the highest standards of living, and one of the lowest qualities of life, in the whole world.

The villagers of far-western Honduras -- with one or two outfits of ragged clothes, dirt floors, no indoor plumbing, no electricity (let alone computers or other electronics), slim chances of their children completing what we’d call middle school (let alone high school) and an average life span of 45 -- have one of the lowest standards of living in the world.

And yet their quality of life is better than ours.

They smile. Genuine, natural, easy smiles, most of the time.

They may be busy, but they never seem to be in a hurry.

They have faith, in its truest sense, which means they know their need of God.

They carry their burden of economic poverty, but they do not carry our burden of Believing We Are In Control.

They worship the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the false god of Achieving Comfort and Independence. (And guess which God loves us back, and fills us with joy?)

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade places with these villagers. Not a chance. After a week, I unapologetically look forward to returning to a nice house, paved roads, and college-track kids.

But here’s the gift they give me, and the main reason I love this mission trip: at least for a while, I return a changed person. . . not taking a single sip of water, or trip to the doctor, or extra day of life, for granted. I live life a little slower, a little more mindfully, a lot more appreciatively.

It is in giving that we receive.

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