Catholic college president Nancy Blattner took a group of students to a “forgotten part of Belize” to work and live a while with the poor in building a church. The group ended up building relationships and going back to New Jersey with “a promise to keep.”
What I will always cherish is what profoundly touched each of us on this trip [to Belize]– not the building [of a church] but the relationships we built with the villagers and the glimpses they allowed us into their souls.”
— Nancy Blattner on her mission trip to Belize with college students
Seeing as I’m a stained-glassed Wesleyan from a long line of Methodist flesh and blood–but one with serious Catholic sensibilities–I’ve been an avid reader for years of the National Catholic Reporter. NCR is widely regarded as one of the best publications in the entire field of Christian journalism and not just the Catholic genre.
So the story you’ll find posted below from NCR about a college president’s mission trip to Belize naturally caught my attention.
Author Nancy Blattner, who is president of the Catholic Caldwell College in New Jersey, vividly describes the “third world” Belize that is always referred to at this blog as “the other side of Paradise.”
That other side is not the beautiful and romantic Belize of beachfront homes built by well-to-do American expats on the coastlines and cayes and the Eden-like streams and water caves.
It’s the third-world Belize of homes with earthen floors, mattresses made of corn shucks and ever-burning fire pits for the chicken soup and tortilla making.
For sure, that poverty side is a beautiful Belize as well, but beautiful in a holy different way. Jesus himself–never forget–found the deepest beauty in all the gut-wrenching poverty he walked in, with all the desperately needy people he walked alongside.
What jumped at me from this short-term Catholic missioner’s article was her saying that the memorable thing about the trip was the building of relationships.
Indeed, that’s what any church’s mission work with the poor is always about–building relationships. Whether it’s building homes or churches on a global mission trip, or serving soup at the soup kitchen nearest you every week, church mission and outreach is about building relationships with people.
It’s about rubbing elbows with others that you might otherwise ignore, or even look down on with judgment.
Once you come to know the poor up-close and personal–once you hear their stories and realize that their humanity was created in the same image of God as your own and that all of us are, at bottom, more alike than different–the wider your heart grows in compassion and understanding.
Doing mission and outreach with the poor, up-close and personal, for the first time, always requires that you step out of that proverbial “comfort zone” that most of us terribly blessed, well-to-do American Christians live in.
But doing a mission trip or committing to Christian outreach with the poor and marginalized closer to home inevitably changes the lives of people who never really stepped out of a comfort zone and into a poverty zone before.
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Building relationships requires listening to those people you serve, not going in and telling them what they need to do or not do, and certainly not telling them that they need to change their ways. You don’t go to somebody else’s house or turf and tell them they need to rearrange the furniture in a way that you think is better.
It’s not about telling them what they need or delivering things to them what you think they must need, as church mission teams for too long tended to do. It’s about building a rapport with them so that you can ask them what they need that you may be able to provide, without coming across as condescending or arrogant or even somehow superior.
We all have this thing called pride and don’t like to feel shamed or somehow inferior.
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A church’s mission and outreach is always about sharing power, not having power over the other nor acting as if you are below the other to build them up.
It’s about the sharing the love thing of Christ with others who may very well bless you way more than you will bless them by serving them.
Here’s the aforementioned feature story from the National Catholic Reporter that was headlined “There is a promise to keep in Belize::
By Nancy Blattner
Henry David Thoreau asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” That priceless perspective, a view of “the other’s world,” happened to me last spring when I led a group of Caldwell College students to Belize on a service project.
Our mission was to assist three local carpenters in the building of a church in the village of Corazon Creek, a site 32 miles from our lodgings in Punta Gorda, a town of 6,000 in an area nicknamed “the Forgotten District” of Belize. The first morning, we saw that the concrete foundation of the church had been poured and some of the pillars set. Our task was to pour the remaining pillars, frame the structure and construct the roof — 11 handmade triangular support beams — before fastening the zinc sheeting to the trusses. Pentecost would be celebrated in this church at the end of the week, and we didn’t want to disappoint the eight Catholic families of the village or those who would come from much farther away, by walking or by bus.
We were successful, finishing by midafternoon on Friday. What I will always cherish is what profoundly touched each of us on this trip — not the building but the relationships we built with the villagers and the glimpses they allowed us into their souls.
On our first workday, we were invited to have lunch with Christina and Roberto, who lived adjacent to the building site. Their family hut had an earthen floor and a fire pit at one end, over which the village women were boiling rice and chicken and making tortillas. No discernible furniture was in sight. Villagers squatted on the floor to eat while the Caldwell group found sacks of rice and dried ears of corn on which to sit. The meal consisted of stacks of tortillas and a meager portion of rice with a small quantity of chicken that contained either bones, fat or both.
This meal was an accomplishment in a house where there was no electricity or running water. The occupants slept in hammocks that they strung up on the rafters during the day. All of the clothing for the family members hung on pegs on one side of the building. The house was covered with a roof made from thatched palm fronds. Despite living amid what we would call abject poverty, the villagers graciously provided us shelter from the oppressive heat and shared their food with us. Throughout the week, they continued to share their lives.
The college students loved entertaining the village children whenever they weren’t busy on the construction site. Elizabeth, who repeatedly fell to the ground when “shot” by Marcus’ invisible gun, said she’d do anything to hear the children’s laughter. As soon as she got up from one such attack, the boys would yell, “Again, again!” and when she obliged, their laughter filled our hearts. Lindsay spent hours coloring and drawing with Margie and her little sister, using books and crayons we’d bought at the local gas station after our first day in the village. Adela and Selenia spent time holding babies Giovanni and Dylen, and took up a collection from the group to purchase a soccer ball for the community, as well as toy cars, dolls and whistles to give to each of the families in the village who had children. When we finished our work for the week, Margie asked us, “When are you coming back?” while Stephen pleaded with us to return soon.
Christina asked me during a break whether my husband and I had come from far away to help them build the village church. I answered simply, “Yes.” She asked me where we lived. I debated before replying because I was uncertain whether she would have heard of New Jersey, so instead I said, “Near New York City.” She replied, “Is that in Punta Gorda?” I realized that she had never heard of the United States, and I wondered what we might share in common, since I had been fortunate enough to travel internationally, to receive a good education, to live with the conveniences found in a First World country. Yet through our conversations, I realized we share many similarities: We both value gratitude and family. We are both married and the mother of three children. We are both faithful Catholics and we both had responded to God’s call in our lives — in her case by opening her home to a group of visitors and in mine by taking a group of students on a service trip.
During the week we were in Belize, we helped the villagers of Corazon Creek build a Catholic church. They provided us with a broader perspective of life and helped the Caldwell College team more deeply learn the meaning of sacrifice and blessing. I find myself praying daily for the villagers of Corazon Creek, as well as my students who traveled to Belize. I look forward to the coming academic year when we will return to Punta Gorda. There are more lessons to be learned, more relationships to build, more connections to be found — and a promise to be kept to the children who asked us to come back.
[Nancy Blattner is president of Caldwell College in Caldwell, N.J.]
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