I have had the privilege of going on several short term mission trips; a couple times to the Dominican Republic and a couple times to an orphanage south of Ensenada, Mexico. In each case, we encountered poverty in various degrees. Sometimes there were small landowners who had a simple house, a beat up truck and a TV. Food wasn’t an issue except for the amount of protein available.
Then there were the kids in the orphanage. They were fed well (if simply), educated, and clothed (second hand). They also had chores. Ironically, of a hundred plus kids in the orphanage, only a few were true orphans. Most had parents close by that couldn’t feed them, so they would leave them at the orphanage. Oddly, the parents viewed the orphanage as long term childcare. They were not giving up their children; only temporarily turning them over to someone else’s care.
The parents of these kids lived in one room field workers quarters - concrete, about ten feet square. No lights or plumbing. There were ten or more of these rooms connected together like a Motel 6. There was one water faucet for the encampment and an outdoor latrine. Often a family of six or more shared one room. Most were from the Oaxaca state of southern Mexico. They were the migrant workers that picked the Mexican crops that were exported to the United States. Most were illiterate and only spoke Oaxacan, an Aztec dialect. They were stranded in this area years ago when the local farmers didn’t pay them. There was a trucking strike and the crops rotted before they could get to market. Since then, they have worked season to season, unable to leave because they owed the farmers more than they made. It was a modern version of the song “Sixteen Tons.” “I owe my soul to the company store.” It was a heart wrenching sight. The kids played and didn’t know anything different. The parents seemed to have lost hope.
On my second trip to the orphanage, I brought my daughter, Pam, who was ten or twelve at the time. After a lot of fun at Disneyland, Knot’s Berry Farm and Six Flags, we drove south into Mexico. Not far from the orphanage, Pam pointed out cardboard shacks alongside the road. Some had corrugated roofs, but most were just carboard boxes thrown together, often without roofs. They were all very small. “What is that?” she asked. I told her that people lived there. The look on her face betrayed her shock. She was very quiet for a while. I remember her saying that in Denmark (her home) they didn’t have homeless or poor people. The State gave them money and a place to live. This was a sad and eye-opening experience. I began to understand how Jesus must have felt when he saw the crowds “because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36)
During our stay, we continued to be surrounded by poverty, garbage, sewage, unsafe water, and virtual homelessness. We were overwhelmed by the scope of the work needed to make a difference and improve their lot. Isaiah 58:10 says, “Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble.” How on earth can I do that? There is so much to do. And what can I possibly do to make a significant difference? Sadly, after a few days, we started getting used to the poverty, the homelessness, the garbage, and sewage. It was all around us. I suppose I became hardened to it. After all, it is just me. What can I do?
On each occasion returning to the United States from Mexico or the Dominican Republic, I experienced culture shock. I remember crossing the border from Mexico into San Diego. We stopped at Burger King for lunch. We were surrounded by “rich”, spoiled Americans. Everyone had lots of money, a nice car, a nice home, lots of food, clean surroundings and clean water. Everyone seemed overweight, entitled, impatient, unappreciative, arrogant, and demanding. They treated the workers with disdain and almost contempt. Observing this, I felt angry. How could they not appreciate how good they have it? How can they be so mean to those who are trying to serve them? After all I’ve seen in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, I vowed never to be like “them.” Jesus said, “when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” (Matt. 25:40)
Sadly, only a few days after arriving back in the United States, I found myself putting on weight, feeling entitled, impatient, unappreciative, arrogant and demanding.