The fourth annual Mesa Catholic/Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad/Foundation for Cultural Exchange Alternative Spring Break trip to El Salvador is officially underway. Five students and two trip leaders are embarking on the journey with messages of solidarity, support, and friendship on this alternative brand of service trip.
Service through humility
The ASB trip is not your traditional service trip or mission trip. Rather, we practice “service through humility” and our mission is to build relationships, not schools or roads. We will spend time laughing together, asking questions, exchanging aspects of our cultures, teaching English and learning Spanish, sharing meals, and living together. Though we bring suitcases with school supplies and books for what will eventually be a community library, we do not come specifically to give or to fix anything. We come to learn and love.
This kind of trip would be completely ungratifying for the first-world traveler who wants Instagram photos fixing roads with “the natives” and to be able to come home and tell their friends about all the good they did for “the poor people” because we simply don’t do that. We believe that coming here without a service project shifts the focus from what we bring to what we stand to receive. It is a change in global power dynamics, placing the developing community in the position of givers and the missionaries as recipients. Looking at development and assistance this way requires a paradigm shift, but it works. And it benefits both groups in profound ways.
Our travelers are taught to unlearn –albeit temporarily — one of our strongest cultural values: independence. The opposite of independence is, obviously, dependence, and that manifests itself in many ways on this trip. One is the total lack of control they have over things like the itinerary, mobility, and food selections. Another is the complete unfamiliarity of day-to-day things like the language, bathing, and cultural norms, which they are dependent on somebody’s explanation or assistance to navigate. But the most important is in the shift from giver to receiver and allowing themselves to be served by others.
Learning to receive humbly
At first it may sound ridiculous, and even selfish, to say we are coming down here to be served. And I get it. But bear with me on this. If someone were to give you a gift, hand selected just for you and beautifully wrapped, you would never respond by handing it back unopened, or opening it and then hurriedly handing them an equal gift in return. But that is what you are doing when someone attempts to do something kind for you and you either refuse their help or you immediately hop up to help them. If that act of service is the only gift that person can afford to offer you, you should accept it graciously, because when you allow yourself to be served and you return the favor with genuine gratitude and humility, you are graciously accepting their hand-selected and beautifully-wrapped gift.
There are many examples of when we do this. Someone offers to carry your heavy bag and you wave them away saying, “I’m fine, I’ve got it.” Someone prepares you a meal and you jump up to clear the dishes and wave dismissively when they urge you to please sit and relax. Someone compliments you and you dismiss it, or worse, respond by putting yourself down. Sound familiar? Instead, learning to respond with a sincere “thank you” said from the heart allows the gift-giving to be completed. And though it may feel completely uncomfortable at first, it doesn’t make you selfish, or lazy, or self-centered. It makes you humble.
What does this have to do with service trips? It’s about changing the power dynamics of international aid and the traditional way of thinking about how to help the developing world. And it has everything to do with who is doing the giving.
The power dynamics of service
Service is a critical piece of power dynamics. The relationship between giver and receiver, between server and the served, is traditionally a relationship of inferiority-superiority. When this plays out between two similarly-perceived power positions, like close friends or coworkers of the same rank, the power doesn’t shift much. But when it takes place between two unequally situated members of society, for example, from rich to poor, it can affect the dignity of the inferior participant by leaving him/her in debt to the superior. Likewise, when a person lacks the financial or material resources to give tangible gifts, they often find themselves in the inferior recipient position, especially in the case of people living in poverty who receive some kind of financial or other assistance. So when a group of Americans shows up to give things and to fix things, they will always be in a position of superiority. That kind of paternalism has dominated the most well-meaning aid efforts in the developing world for centuries and creates dependency and impotency in the communities it seeks to help because the communities grow accustomed to having things done for them. They are not encouraged to identify or solve their own problems or given the tools to find solutions. (Furthermore, the work that is done usually has temporary effects, which we will have to get into in another blog post.) But when that same group of Americans arrives with an earnest interest in getting to know the members of the community as people – people with skills, hopes, ideas, and their own lives – and to find our shared experiences as humans, amazing things happen. Those people feel valued, capable, and empowered to identify and solve the problems they face.
Don’t get me wrong; the lesson isn’t to just go down take, but to find the right way to give back. After the humbling experience of developing friendships and understanding with the members of the El Espino community, ASB participants return home and begin the traditional service part of the service trip: raising money to support the community in its efforts to solve its own problems. The money funds projects the community identifies, plans, and executes, thus providing employment for community members, engendering a sense of ownership of the projects, and empowering them to seek solutions to those problems. Those benefits could never be achieved in a week-long mission/service trip if we were simply coming to give and fix things.
We don’t get to take Instagram photos in front of the final product and we won’t have any stories about how much better people’s lives are because we did something, but we do get to leave with the knowledge that our solidarity mattered to this community because it shows them they are not alone in their efforts to build a better community. And we leave with invaluable lessons about resiliency, love, family, and faith.