On the last Saturday of August, I had the opportunity to visit with a group of young people in the Parish of March in Kanata, Ontario, along with their mentors. The group had just returned from Nicaragua where they had partnered with Almonte, Ontario-based SchoolBox in helping build a school.
It was the first time the group had assembled since returning home, and it was an opportunity to begin to unpack the experience and to continue to frame it within the context of our Christian faith and our participation in God’s mission here on earth.
What’s more, our time together provided the opportunity to ask deeper questions about how the experience might change their lives now that they’d returned home.
How will their parish community support them as they apply what they learned? How will this group challenge their parish to find new ways to serve closer to home?
Re-entry is often the hardest part of the short-term mission trip experience. One of the most difficult aspects of our reverse culture shock is wrestling with the questions that arise about our own affluence.
On a global scale, our affluence is an anomaly. These trips often open our eyes to this reality for the first time. They cause us to wonder what we can learn from the blessed poor to whom belongs the Kingdom of Heaven. How will we respond to God’s call?
Sam Wells, Dean of Duke University’s Chapel once asked L’Arche founder Jean Vanier to describe the greatest challenge of his ministry:
The hardest part is when young people come and stay with us for a summer…And they say ‘This has been the most amazing experience of my life – I’ve learnt to see the world so differently and value things so truly and ponder things so deeply…’ They say it’s been transformative. And then they leave. And I think, ‘If it’s all been so fantastic and transformative, why are you leaving?’
Short-term missions have built-in end dates. Whether it’s a week, a month, or a year, we know that we will inevitably return to the comforts of home. We will serve for a time, yet we have the luxury of returning to the safety we enjoy. We do good work, we contribute to a worthy project. Yet how often do we take these experiences and apply all we’ve learned when we return home?
That Saturday morning at St. John’s March, we started down the road of asking how each of the participants would live differently in light of their experiences. We started to ask how the parish might be transformed by the experiences shared by this group of witnesses.
These are not questions limited to those who embark on short-term missions. They’re questions we all must ask. In the face of Jesus’ reckless downward mobility, and God’s preferential option for the poor, how might we be called to respond?
Will those of us who have encountered Jesus in the faces of people made poor find a way to live transformed lives? Will we seek transformation not only for ourselves, but also for the unjust structures of our society?
How will we, as God’s people in this place, stand in solidarity with those who have contributed to our transformation?
Continuing to reflect with Dean Wells, Jean Vanier concluded:
I said to this great man, maybe the greatest man I’ve ever met, ‘Ah, but don’t you see, if life is fundamentally the accumulation of experiences, you have to leave, otherwise you’d have to rethink your whole life.” “Oh,” he said. “So people leave, because they’re frightened of who they’re becoming if they stay.
If we stayed, who might we become?