I recently traveled (back) to Nicaragua for the second time in less than a year to arrange details for CityFam’s upcoming International Relief Trip this December. During both of my visits, for the first time I began to view the various problems there differently than I had on the previous Relief Trips I have gone on.
I don’t know if it’s from my experience volunteering overseas; or with CityFam in general; but I’m starting to think that perhaps we have been doing our relief work all wrong. The typical International Relief Trip works like this: a team of Westerners decide to go to a very poor place; they fundraise for months; they travel halfway across the world; and then they work their asses off for a week or so. During their time there, they build a house or two, play with kids, visit people in prison, and then they fly home exhausted; their work is done there; right? But is it?
VIDEO CREDIT: KRISTIE BLAKE & KAMARIA AVERY
The Westerners go home; but not much changes for the people living there.
I mean, yes, a family or two gets a better home to live in and the people we spend time with are comforted for that moment, day or week; and they may get some temporary escape from their situation; but for the most part, we spend a whole lot of energy doing for them; but again, not too much changes for the people living there. It’s like this huge problem--we come in from the outside and just sort of drip on it and then we go away. And then we come back a year later to drip on it a little more. But is all of this enough to make any serious, lasting change?
Up until recently, I’ve justified this pattern because I see the people that I go on these trips with benefit the most. People legitimately come back different-- myself included. So really, who is helping who? And does it have to be either or? I mean, can’t the people doing the serving continue to benefit while simultaneously benefiting the people that live there for the long term; not just for that week or that moment? If we are going to spend all of this time and energy gearing up for these trips each year, what is the best way to serve these people in a lasting, more effective way?
I think what struck me the most on these last two trips wasn’t the level of poverty; although it was worse than anything I have ever seen; it was the level of apathy. I saw people with no hope, that spent their entire day picking plastic from a dump, cleaning it, and than tearing it into little strips to be recycled….yes, PLASTIC! This is life for a good percentage of the population of Cristo Rey, a barrio in Nicaragua--and for the next generation and then the generation after that!
I thought to myself, has it ever occurred to these people that they might have been created to do more with their lives than just this? Is this the biggest vision that they can imagine for themselves because of their surroundings? I don’t mean to sound insensitive; but these are the thoughts that ran through my head.
But here's the question, are we really any different than them? There was a time in my life not that many years ago, that the biggest vision I had for my life was to own a corner bar in Canton. That’s how I thought my life would end up. Most of my decisions were made around this belief because that was the vision that I had for my life. It wasn't until I got into a community with some other dreamers that I began to believe that my purpose was far greater than that.
I had passions laying dormant, many of them silly ideas I thought at the time, that started to come to life. And these passions were what fueled me through making most of the positive changes that I made the last several years. The reason I was willing to quit drinking, wake up earlier, push myself over and over to find a way, was because I knew that my newfound dreams would never come to fruition otherwise.
So last year I began asking myself, what is the best way that we can really help these people?
In my opinion, I believe that the best way to help them is the best way to help any human-- to get them into genuine community. By that, I mean a group of people that will inspire them to begin to discover their purpose and then to provide the support needed when they go after it--because trust me they will need it!
I speak from experience when I tell you that chasing your dreams is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do; but it’s also one of the hardest, most emotionally exhausting things you will ever do. And you will never make it without a close-knit group of friends and family to encourage and support you along the way. You just can’t do it alone; you’ll quit long before you ever make it.
There’s an old African Proverb that says, “If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” These people have a far way to go and if they are going to get there they are going to need to go together. So rather than the rich Americans showing up to give them a fish; we need to teach them to fish for themselves.
We can do this by getting them into smaller groups where they can start to take care of each other, encourage each other, and support each other--a genuine community. And how are we going to create this community? The same way we are doing it here with CityFam, through service to others.
People need to give back sacrificially, it's hard-wired in us--that’s where real changes happens. Not . only that but service produces strong connections when we lock arms with one another selflessly, and through that deep bond real community is formed.
And community gives us the courage to pursue our purpose.
The funny things is, I myself had wanted to volunteer for years before I ever really started doing it with any consistency. I was only given that chance when I began attending a local church that’s pretty involved in the community; and that’s when my life began to change pretty dramatically. I realized that no one is giving these people a chance to serve. We just come in from the outside and say let us do it for you. This robs a person of the experience and the feeling that they get as part of the solution and the connection they would make if they were part of the process. The great MLK said it best “Everyone can be great because anybody can serve.” He didn’t say that only people that are well off can serve he said EVERYONE.
So for our next relief trip, we will still fundraise for months; travel halfway across the world; and then work our asses off for a week building houses, playing with kids, visiting people in prison, then fly home exhausted; but this time, we will invite the people living there to serve with us so that we can build relationships with them and help them build better relationships with each other.
I’m going to leave you with two questions:
First--what is your vision for your life? Are you dreaming big enough for all that you have been created for or are you that person picking through plastic because that is all you’ve ever imagined for yourself?
Second--are you ready to join us for a week-long, life-changing trip that will make memories to last you a lifetime? Because if you are, this could be the turning point that helps build connections so that you see the greater purpose that you are here for.