Dear Younger Me: First Mission Trip

This is a letter to my almost 15-year-old self on that very first exhilarating mission trip to Honduras in February 2004. Note: mission trip (STM) refers to evangelical Christian humanitarian work typically in another country. My teenage self would probably roll her eyes at this letter, but… Little Idealist, these are lessons you will eventually learn.

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In a medical clinic during one of my first trips. El Jardín, Copán, HN.

Dear Younger Me,

Finally! You’ve been waiting and praying about the chance to go on a mission trip and it’s finally here. So much expectation and anticipation (and let’s face it… drama, because well, you’re 14.) It really will prove to be more life-changing than you can even understand in this phase of life. I know you have done so much preparation and feel like everything in life has been leading up to this big, glorious moment. It will actually prove to be just one of many gloriously small moments that will ultimately string together in a beautiful way that only God can orchestrate. Just wait.

Journal this experience. I know you do this anyway because you’ve always been the weirdo kid who documents EVERY. THING. Good for you. One day, you’ll be 27 and a more experienced, slightly wiser version of yourself and you’ll be going through your old things and come across your old mission trip journal and you will sit in your room and cry over the pages because of how faithful God has been. And you’ll laugh at how cute and naive you once were.

LEARN. That is your first responsibility as a team member on a mission trip: to learn. Learn the language. Learn the culture. If you are serious about opening your mind and heart up to this new part of the world and want to effectively serve in some capacity with these people then there is only one option that makes sense… LEARN TO COMMUNICATE WITH THEM. You can’t build a ministry in another country through hand gestures and handouts while thinking like an American (read: United States-ean). Relationships are key and the foundation is communication and understanding. Do the hard work: learn the language.

Being a learner means you realize that you actually don’t know best. Do you know who does know best? The natives, and usually, the missionaries. The ones who live there day-in and day-out. They know what is appropriate and what is not. They know which situations are dangerous and which are not. As a team member, an outsider (no matter your age), it is not your place to question their leadership or decisions. Like, if they tell you to stop laughing obnoxiously loud in a public restaurant because you are being disrespectful of the country’s social norms don’t roll your eyes because “ugh, what a party pooper.” (Other than already attracting probably more unwanted attention than necessary, you are reinforcing a negative stereotype of North Americans – being disrespectfully loud and dominating of public spaces). You are also part of a team of people who is representing a local ministry or organization. LIVE BY THEIR RULES. It might seem super stuffy or strict compared to your church back home but… you are not at home. Respect the hosts’ rules.

Once you get to truly know the people and the culture you’ll find that they aren’t that different from you. You’ll get past the point of identifying all the differences and will start to celebrate and relish in the similarities of your common humanity. You’ll see dignity in each person and will be less likely to make blanket statements about their culture or race. As time goes on and you start having more conversations with the natives you’ll realize you stop talking so much about the natives. You’ll probably start out quoting faulty statistics about the country to friends back home or making wild generalizations about the local people as a whole… (Yeah, you’re gonna think you’re an expert on the entire Honduran population within your first trip or two. You’re kind of annoying.) Then you will get to know their hearts and will feel silly for making all those ethnocentric assumptions. (Thankfully, your Honduran friends are gracious people. Most will forgive you.) 😉

You’ll undoubtedly come home from this first trip with excitement and tears and pictures, sharing stories of what you saw and felt. Who wouldn’t? You might encourage a couple other friends or family members to join you on following trips. Some will listen intently, some will get bored from your stories pretty quickly because they didn’t experience it with you. They’re not going to understand. They don’t get why you cry because you have such a nice house and so many don’t, and why suddenly you are borderline taking a vow of poverty. You just went though a real emotional journey over the last seven days and those who didn’t experience it can’t exactly relate.

Speaking of poverty… YOU ARE NOT A POVERTY TOURIST. You did not pay $1,200 to travel all the way to Central America so you could “experience poverty.” (Which you never actually did. Seeing poverty is not experiencing poverty.) The thousands of people who live in rural Honduras and are trying to survive off a dollar a day are not staged for your entertainment or learning exploit. This is their real life. I know you’re excited about all the pictures you get to show to everyone back home but count the cost of that photo you just snapped with your iPhone* in that family’s private space while gawking at their extreme lack. Be sensitive and consider each person’s dignity before doing anything.

*I went through 3 entire disposable cameras on my first trip 12 years ago

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Apparently all I did on my first trip was hold other people’s babies.

Now, let’s talk about your clothes for a second. This isn’t a pertinent issue necessarily but it reflects your attitude toward those you are serving. If you show up uncharacteristically dressed like a bum in cut-off capris and cut-off ratty t-shirts, the message you are conveying is: you aren’t worth my best… or at least, you aren’t worth my average. I’m telling you now, there is no need to raid the thrift store for the nastiest items before your trip because “you don’t want to ruin your good clothes.” This is a fine excuse if you are helping with hard labor or a messy job like painting but consider your activity… washing hair for lice? Giving worm medicine at the entrance of the pop-up clinic? Dress appropriately and show respect in that.

Ok, I know you most likely will not receive this well right now because you are high on enthusiasm and naive idealism but you will come to learn this with time and it needs to be said… you are not the hero. Like, it is not about you at all. Take your piece of humble pie and swallow it well because no one likes an arrogant team member. You are one of many team members and unity is key. First of all, you are doing the humbling job of serving other human beings, so esteem them higher than yourself. Secondly, you are working with other volunteers as a unit and any individualism on the job has to go. Thirdly, you nor your team are the first nor the only ones to do this kind of work. It is valuable and needed! But it is not exclusive to your group. You don’t have a monopoly on “free medical clinics in Honduras”and you certainly didn’t invent the idea. Celebrate the fact that you are joining so many others in the effort to share Christ’s love in a tangible way!

It all feels glamorous right now but it won’t always be. You will experience more fear and pain than you even imagined but you will find more love than you even imagined also.

Let this experience move you to inward and outward change. You will slowly start to see the world completely differently. You’ll probably have a slightly different perspective on success, faith, politics, and current events than others. Let it move you to make a difference at home as you dream about going abroad again. You didn’t have this awakening inside your soul just to apathetically return to abundance and self-indulgence. Your eyes will be open to hurting people all around you. DO SOMETHING. Don’t sit casually waiting on your annual mission trip to come around again. You have a bigger purpose and there is too much at stake for you to put on your missionary hat for only one week out of the year.

So, in conclusion, little 14-year-old going on 15, your years ahead have so much in store. Don’t worry about learning all these lessons at once. It will happen in its time. Just you wait,

27-year-old You

(who still anticipates more lessons in the future)

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Then in college I wrote this poem in an attempt to express the love affair I have with the country & people to which I don’t belong.

A Call to Love

Broken streets and broken souls call
I am compelled to answer, answer them all
Your small hands have taught me more than textbooks could contain
Your selfless joy is like my heart’s refrain
I’d choose you over a city of gold – all of you, every inch
I’d choose you first and I’d choose you again
I am a jealous lover, it’s my heart you win
You’re more than a memory, more than a friend
More than beauty and dirt and land
More than a good story to tell, more than I can stand
I am who I am because of you
It’s taken years to express, but for years it’s been true
My commitment to you runs deeper than a flutter in my chest
You have all of me, my worst and my best
I love you longer than seven days
Beyond borders and languages, my love stays
I love you stronger than a smile or a tear
Because I choose to love in the face of pain and fear
I’ve felt welcomed, accepted, rejected and betrayed
I was close to giving in and letting apprehension have its way
But I am led to you by a greater Hand
And my trivial emotions are irrelevant to His plan
I haven’t forgotten you, I never could
You are my first love, and my love is for good

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Oh yeah, 27-year-old me still likes holding other people’s babies. 🙂 Nueva Alianza, Copán, HN.

 

#detailsdeHonduras part 3

This is part of an ongoing photojournalism project. See part 1 and part 2.

(Kristen Bruce Photography and Multimedia)

Village: Nueva Alianza visit in photos

*PREFACE* This was the blog entry that I was working on when my computer was stolen Sunday afternoon. The saved draft was open along with my photo editing software and the couple hundred pictures that I took during our visit to the village of Nueva Alianza. One of the purposes of this trip was to document living conditions and to have a picture of each family with their last names in order to correspond with the data we had on each child. This was part of Natan’s internship. The photos saved in this blog are the only ones we have from the trip.

A couple days before my trip down here I got an unexpected large donation from a close family member that surprised me to tears. I was overwhelmed and so thankful to God. I wasn’t worried about paying for our rental truck to get up to the mountains or the even bigger issue of how I would continue to pay on my school loans for these couple of months that I’m not in the states. I had a purpose, a mission, and God was my provider. Then because of a small issue out of our control with the rental truck we almost had to pay an outrageous fee on top of the rental price. I was upset and didn’t understand. We returned to the rental place to sort out the issue the next day and it was taken care of. They didn’t mention the issue and we weren’t charged. Just in time! God is good.

Then Sunday happened. My backpack along with my prescription glasses and laptop and a few other things was stolen out of Natan’s car. And I’m almost positive that it happened in the church parking lot… while I was hearing a sermon that would prepare me to deal with the very situation: Paul said in Philippians that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstance, whether in lack or abundance.

I certainly won’t pretend that me minus my laptop equals lack or poverty but I have to admit that it felt like a heavy blow. I use it for most of my jobs and especially for photo/video editing which helps fund my mission trips. Also, I feel really uneasy about all my personal info that was on it. Recent books I have been reading are about ministering in hard places and missionaries who remain in dangerous areas and are friends with those around them even after they have been robbed by the very same ones. When I got back to my room Sunday evening I remembered the book I was reading and decided I would read a little before bed. Then I realized it was in my backpack…

Its pages are most likely being used as toilet paper in someone’s outhouse right now.

Needless to say I am asking God to help me with my attitude. He is still good, He’s my provider and I promise my pity party will be short-lived. I really have been preparing myself for something like this. I am amazed that after 10+ years of traveling/living in Latin America (especially Honduras) that this is the first incident I’ve personally faced. It really is minor compared with other things that happen here. God, help Honduras.

And, now let me introduce Nueva Alianza…

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Last year our missions team spent a day in Nueva Alianza (Copán, Honduras) pouring a cement floor for the pastor’s family. This was for the part of the house that was used as a kitchen, which was where they previously had to walk on dirt/mud.

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Natán, his brother Walter, and I were able to go back for a short visit last week. Here is a view almost a year later of the completed floor with the kitchen walls back up. The pastor’s widowed daughter and grandson stand in the doorway.

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The purpose for this particular visit was for Natán to conduct some interviews and gather research for his social ministry internship he is completing this month for seminary. This village had been chosen by the Christian Social Ministry to receive sponsorship so based on that connection and the friendships already started, we planned our visit. We just happened to get a last minute unexpected donation of children’s literature and workbooks that we were able to deliver to the school.

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Let me give you a glimpse into a day in the life of the students there. The school is only first through sixth grade and they are all grouped into one “class.” They are split into two groups depending on the subject being taught. After sixth grade (if they make it that far) is when they are expected to work and support the family. Typical work includes farming and construction.

One of their classrooms is a cinderblock room and the other is made of wood and metal scraps.

IMG_8354A government sponsored program provides the kids with a snack of beans, rice and tortillas during the school day. When the ladies walked up with the pots and pans of food all the children starting singing in unison a song about “snack time.”

We made a couple home visits and saw several inoperable toilets and some stove ventilation pipes that needed to be fixed. But we also saw some new water filters in the homes and a vegetable garden that the Christian Social Ministry helped start. We are hoping to come alongside them to partner with this beautiful community as well. My heart was especially touched for the children. I hope that one day they will each realize that they are precious and loved and can achieve any dream they put their mind to.

Frijoles and Piñatas and sweet, cinnamon Horchata – That’s what I’m made of

So, I know all little girls are supposed to be made of sugar and spice and everything nice… and maybe I was at one time… but I’m really more of a frijoles and piñatas and sweet, cinnamon horchata kinda girl. You get me? 24706_1382595317586_5855294_n

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I never got a Quinceañera party so when I turned 21 I had a Veintiunañera. 😉

I feel at home in Hispanic culture. It’s obvious. I am all about the gaudy decor, cheesy romance and dramatic emotion of the Spanish-speaking cultures of the world. It’s like I was born to be a part of it. (I am also all about that bass… but that’s another post for another time…) The Americana individualist and lover of witty, sarcastic humor in me can occasionally find itself at odds with the Latino lifestyle. But for the most part I am all in.

Afternoon naps in the hammock.

Fresh green mangoes with salt and pepper.

Getting dressed up in my platform shoes for a night out. Or an afternoon at the park. You know.

So I started thinking back to when it all began. It had to start somewhere. I have no Hispanic ancestors. I didn’t even grow up with Hispanic friends. (I had a pretty boring, monocultural childhood)

I had a professor who asked me one time, “You’re part Hispanic, right?” And there have been countless others who say things like, “Oh, let me guess where you’re from! Venezuela?”

So the earliest I can remember taking interest in Latino culture as a child was due to the following two influences:

1. Josefina Montoya, American Girl doll. I read these fictional chapter books and became intrigued by the lives of early Mexican Americans. 610YSYTYY9L 2. Feature Films for Families, Friendship’s Field movie from 1995 (I still cry when I watch it) 600full-friendship's-field-poster This movie is about a daughter of a farmer in the U.S. during the 1960’s befriending a Mexican boy who came to work the fields with his family. 

Then all of this inspired me to write (I was really into creative writing as a kid. This is what happens when you don’t have cable TV as a child) my own work of fiction called “Josie” when I was in fourth grade. I didn’t understand anything about immigration at that time but I wrote an innocent little tale of a girl who came from Mexico with her family to work. (And of course it was a love story because what 4th grader doesn’t know how to perfectly write a plot about a couple romantically meeting and overcoming their cultural differences? …what??)

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the actual, original manuscript, y’all, complete with illustrations on each page and some younger sibling’s pen scribbles

It ends with the two main characters marrying and living in a pretty little house they built in Mexico – on a hill by a waterfall. The usual.

Then I started to see the world beyond our neighbors over the border when I went on my first trip to Honduras at the age of 14. The rest is history!

As humorous and maybe strange as it was to always have had such a fascination with a distinct culture… I truly have felt the hand of God over my life as I look back on each of these defining moments. Things that stuck with me and shaped me to be who I am today – I would have never known where they would lead me!

Life in the USA (inglés y español!)

Hispanic Heritage month started September 15th here in the U.S. with the Independence Days of five Central American countries (including Honduras) and then Mexico. I thought I would share a few stories and thoughts on Latino culture and immigrants over the next four weeks here in my blog. And I will try to keep each post bilingual!


I just recently got this little book to use in my adult ESL classes called “Life in the USA: An Immigrant’s Guide to Americans” and I am cracking up. It’s like someone took all the things I have said to Natán (my boyfriend) and my other Latino friends and put it in a book. It is written in the form of letters from foreign students to their teachers expressing concerns over confusing social situations.

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My favorite was the lady who was confused as to why her American co-worker who spoke a little Spanish was offended when she said “Hey, gordita” to her. Yes, in Hispanic culture it is very common to affectionately call someone by any physical characteristic (be it positive or negative) they might have. Friends and family members often call each other “blackie” or “fatty.” Sweet. I know. *eye roll*

In the response, the teacher had to explain that Americans are typically more sensitive about certain things like weight and that saying “hey fatty” is NOT an appropriate greeting in the USA. Haha!

Natán has a few choice pet names for me all of which sound ridiculous when translated to English. But he knows what would happen if he ever used “gordita” on me!

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Thank God for Skype dates while he is in seminary thousands of miles away!

Acabo de recibir este librito para usar en mis clases de inglés acá en estados unidos se llama “La Vida en USA: Un Guía a los Americanos para el Inmigrante” y me está dando risa. Parece qué alguien tomó todas las cosas que he dicho yo a Natán (mi novio) y a mis compañeros latinos y las puso en un libro. Está escrito en la forma de cartas de estudiantes extranjeros a sus profesores expresando preocupaciones sobre situaciones sociales confusas.

Mi favorita fue una carta escrita por una mujer preguntando porque se había ofendido a una compañera de trabajo después de decirle, “hola, gordita.” Las personas bilingües y bi-culturales como yo (corazón latino en un cuerpo gringo me dicen) entendemos que es un apodo cariñoso pero a traducirlo a inglés suena horrible! Nunca debe de decirlo a una persona que no entiende la cultura hispana, jaja.

El profesor tuvo que responder y explicar que los americanos son mas sensibles con ciertos temas como lo de peso. Así que “hola, gordita” NO es un saludo apropiado para nosotros. 😛

Natán tiene algunos apodos chistosos para mi y suenan ridículos traducidos a inglés pero él sabe bien lo que pasaría si me dijera “gordita!”

November update

It has been a while, dear old blog! I thought I would give a personal update on my life…

First of all, this is the first U.S. Fall that I have been able to experience in two years! I have literally been left breathless by the sight of some of these gorgeous trees with their colorful leaves and have thought several times that I was going to cause a wreck while driving and trying to look out the window. I wouldn’t trade anything for a late October / early November in the good ol’ USA. 🙂

I have been officially moved back to the states for almost 4 months now. I love the comforts of my U.S. lifestyle and I hate that I love it all at once. Sometimes I get so comfortable I feel miserable. I think only those who have traveled out of the country are really able to understand that kind of misery caused by too much comfortThings are so easy here. And becoming accustomed to the convenience and comfort again causes me to take for granted what I just spent a year learning to appreciate so deeply.

I had a tough couple of weeks adjusting back to the U.S. after I returned this past July. I can’t really pinpoint why but a comment that a friend recently made in reference to coming back after a trip abroad hit home with me. He mentioned that after a trip to Mexico when he came back to the states, it felt like everyone around him was just talking and worrying about the most stupid and trivial things. Whether that is just psychological or not, I understand the feeling! (not to say that Central Americans can’t be shallow too… whew.)

I am so thankful that God has proven Himself my Provider over and over. I am thankful for some incredible opportunities doing things that I love and earning enough money from that to pay off my school loans. <– my main goal! I am thankful for my sacrificial family, especially my grandparents for offering me a place to stay and allowing me to dedicate all of my income to paying off my debt so I can get back to the mission field ASAP. I am thankful for my understanding and faithful and patient boyfriend so many miles away. (and I’m SUPER thankful for Skype!) I am so at peace with the way things are and I trust God’s plan for the future. Distance, nor time, nor money could intimidate me. God’s got this under control.

Currently I am working part time at an elementary school teaching adult English classes to parents as part of the school’s Family Literacy Program. I love it! I am also doing on-call independent Spanish interpreting work and am waiting to begin another more consistent interpreting job. These past few months I have been able to spend more time with my family than I have in the last few years and I know that is so important especially since I am planning to move out of the country more permanently. I am doing photography and video projects on the side and am taking every opportunity to visit churches and events to speak about missions in Honduras and our organization’s current projects that are in need of funding.

I have a lot on my plate but I deeply believe in a divine plan and I just put my faith in the fact that the Lord has mapped this all out. Even about me and all the silly details about my life – He cares.

I recently mailed out my first missions newsletter with a more detailed update. I will occasionally do that. If you didn’t get on the mailing list and are interested please send me your mailing address! It includes more details that I don’t publish online.