When I Was Five: Learning from Children In Belize

I recently returned from a mission trip to Belize, where my church in Dallas has partnered with an Anglican church in San Ignacio for 10 years. We do work at churches and schools around the Cayo district, providing Christian education, installing libraries, assembling jungle gyms and picnic tables, painting, repairing, and more.

The trip lasted a mere 6 days. Not even 2% of my year. So, sometimes, I wonder: What difference does such a mission trip make for those who go?

There are many ways to answer that. First and foremost, a mission trip isn’t primarily about those who go anyway; it’s about those who are there year-round. For them, the libraries, jungle gyms, picnic tables, wall, and relationships that we built will all make an enduring difference. And that is sufficient.

As for me? A mission trip makes a difference by providing perspective. It’s a reset button when I’ve been living too much in ingratitude, self-centeredness, and blindness to the diverse realities faced by others.

Here’s a glimpse into the kind of perspective I’m talking about:    12742379_10205329942917686_2249618443621077009_n

When I was five years old, I knew who my parents were. In Belize, a classroom craft informed me that this clearly is not always the case.

When I was five, those parents read to me nearly every night. In Belize, schools were likely to have a small handful of books and homes a smaller handful.

At school, I had a seemingly unlimited supply of paper, pencils, and crayons. In Belize, schoolchildren and teachers guarded their limited supplies as if they weren’t crayons but crowns. When finished using our supplies, the children reached out to return them and we said “they’re for you.” “For free?” the children said. “Yes.” Over and over this happened. The gratitude. The utter lack of entitlement.

After school, I typically went home to a snack and an episode of Arthur. In Belize, one five-year-old boy, when asked what he did after school, responded that he helped his dad wash cars. Two girls helped their mom sell pastries, carrying big trays of little coconut tarts all around the village. And the stories went on.

If asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would say, “I want to be a writer” (except for a brief, misguided interest in anesthesiology following my adenoidectomy). I would say that I was going to go to college and have a career. In Belize, when asked the same question, boys weren’t sure and girls got suddenly shy. The public education system ended at 7th grade, after which only those who could afford it would go on to high school, junior college, and university — with decreasing retention rates every step of the way. Girls who couldn’t afford continued education faced a high likelihood of selling their bodies as prostitutes.

12729019_10205329945197743_3692003598504298258_nI was a child happy to sing songs, color pictures, play duck-duck-goose, skip rope, and eat a peanut butter sandwich from a brown paper sack. So were my young friends in Belize.

And, yet, these stories are not just about Belize. Because these stories are in my own backyard (literally — I currently live right by an apartment complex that functions as transitional housing for homeless families).

Rather, I think these stories are about perspective. A perspective that I pray you and I can maintain more than 2% of the year. A perspective of attempting to acknowledge one’s privilege, be aware of how others live, how different we can be and moreover how similar we can be, and how grateful we always should be.

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