Archive for May 2013

Doing good

May 27, 2013


I’ve read several articles this past week on “missions” and “development work”. Each one has made me think about how I define what I’m doing in Nicaragua and how others might define my work. (Development worker…Missionary…English teacher…Tourist)

Kate, from the Motley Mama blog, comes to the conclusion that the people that benefit most from short term missions trips are the participants themselves. And many come away with the attitude: “Thank God I don’t live there”.

I think sometimes the greatest accomplishment of these 3 years of living in Nicaragua is just that: LIVING here. On recent trips back to the U.S., we haven’t felt completely at home and yearn to come back to Nicaragua. We have made deep friendships, have learned how to survive 6 months with no rain, and have seen the ways in which our North American heritage makes people expect handouts.

David Evans, an Eastern Mennonite Seminary professor writes that “missions have become vessels of self-righteousness, racial superiority, Western expansion, environmental terror, and global capitalism.” North Americans tend to think of poverty as purely materialistic, and when you define it that way, what better place to come build schools or houses! “We have a tendency to define poverty and wealth by capitalist standards that value material wealth over relational wealth.”

It is difficult seeing extreme economic poverty on a daily basis – people asking for money at stoplights, a man who makes his living as a door to door garlic salesman, or the mother who comes to our house asking for money to buy milk for her baby. But the solution is not to throw money at the problem. The solution comes only after I have realized the areas of poverty in my own life and from there strive for mutual understanding and empowerment.

In this New York Times article, Nora Shenkel describes her experience as a development worker in post-earthquake Haiti. “I understood why people asked me for money, a job, for things. Most Haitians only ever meet Westerners in our capacity as self-appointed helpers. We are never just here because we want to be in Haiti; we claim we are here to better Haitians’ lives. But they have seen us come and go for decades, and they are poorer than ever before.”

Shenkel goes on to say: “Like most development workers in Haiti, I did not live with Haitians. I kept a car window, a gate, a wall between them and me most of the time. I didn’t sit with Haitians in the dark when the power left once again. I didn’t hurry with them after overcrowded tap-taps — the run-down, beautifully painted cars that are the Haitian version of public transport. I didn’t walk home with them for hours over mountain tops, in the pouring rain or under the burning sun.”

In some ways I identify with the authors experience – I live in a middle class neighborhood with a wall around my house, I have an organization that pays for my food and healthcare, and it is too easy to let the “helper” attitude take over sometimes.

BUT, I ride the buses, I turn on my cell phone flashlight and sit in the dark with people when the power goes out, and I walk for many city blocks in the hot midday sun and in the pouring rain. These experiences have brought me closer to my Nicaraguan friends, but also show me that I will never truly understand their realities. The best I can do is remain grateful for the opportunities I have been given and to never stop being frustrated and motivated to action when others are held back. 

All that said, I am extremely grateful for MCC’s philosphy of partnering WITH local people. I have come to understand with deeper meaning that God was at work before me, God is at work with me, and God will be at work after I leave. I realize that I have learned far more than I have taught.