I first encountered the Third World at the age of five. Or six. Probably five.
Dad was attending the US Army Sergeants Major Academy at the time. We lived on Aero Vista Blvd, Ft. Bliss (El Paso), TX and went to Biggs Chapel for church.
Around Easter one year, Biggs chapel organized a mission trip to some of the poorest sections of Jaurez, Mexico, and my parents, my sister, and I participated. Given that Mexico is a grand total of 0-20 miles away from anywhere in El Paso, international mission trips here weren’t the logistical Goliath that they are for some churches (that’s changed a bit in recent years).
As I was only five (or six, but I’m pretty sure I was five), the trip registered less as a sequence of events and more as a series of questions and impressions that I was only able to understand years later. So, here is an account of my first mission trip, as remembered by my five-year-old self:
Someone had said the houses would be made of cardboard, which sounded like a strange and impractical proposition to me as cardboard wouldn’t be much use in the rain. It made a little more sense once I saw that most of the 3-4 foot tall boxes that stood in for houses had scraps of metal for a roof and a variety of walls ranging from just cardboard to wooden pallets insulated with cardboard, with a few metal walls thrown in. The second thing that struck me was how many little metal-topped boxes there were in the “cardboard city”. The first was the kids playing on their house roofs and how I wished I could play on the roof of my house.
Our first stop (and the part of the trip I best remember) was at the end of a neighborhood street, where we passed out canned goods to the adults and candy and snacks to the kids. I was with mom, passing out the goody bags. Four mental pictures I remember specifically.
-At one point I looked up at the line of kids in front of us, most of them probably around the same age as I was, and couldn’t see any of them smiling. I would have been smiling if someone handed me a bag of treats, so that seemed odd to me.
-The second mental picture is of looking down the packed dirt “street” and seeing kids running toward their homes, presumably to tell their families about the people handing out food, and running up the street toward us.
-The third picture is of a woman walking on the electrical wires lying haphazardly on the ground. Until this point, I was under the impression, probably from cartoons, that touching any kind of electrical or telephone wire meant electrocution and death. Which is probably just as well, because had I known about insulated wiring, I would have been more tempted to climb telephone poles.
-The fourth mental picture is of looking over to the other side of the street and seeing other people from our group handing out bags of canned food to the neighborhood adults. Ever the pragmatist, I asked mom or dad, “Do they have can openers? How are they going to get the food out?” (#firstworldproblems. Oh wait, hashtags didn’t exist in 1995)
After passing out food, we visited a nearby church. I remember thinking it was cool that we knew the same songs as the song leader, even though we were singing in different languagues.
And that was my first mission trip. Though my five-year-old self didn’t quite know what to do with the experience, my older-than-five self has been able to take meaning and insight from it. I now know that extreme poverty can bring despair. Despair can keep you from smiling when someone gives you free candy. You might run toward the strangers handing out food because you haven’t eaten for more than a day. If you touch a telephone wire, you probably won’t be electrocuted (but it’s still not a good idea to play around wires). If you’re hungry enough, not having a can opener won’t stop you from eating a can of green beans. Lastly, there is extreme poverty outside of the First World. But the poor in riches can also be poor in spirit; and there the love and grace of God abounds mightily.