Before I moved to Panama in 1982, I thought I knew what poverty was. I didn’t. As recounted in Death in Panama and in other blogs on this Web site, the sights, sounds, and smells of Panama’s poverty were heartbreaking. But I was only an observer from afar. I understood very little about poverty until much later.
By 1997, I had left active duty in the Army and moved my family to an Atlanta suburb. We went to a church where the parking lot was full of late-model cars, and the pews were full of freshly scrubbed and well-dressed worshippers. One Sunday, the pastor made an announcement about a “mission” trip to Honduras. As I was to learn later, the “mission” was one of assistance, not spreading the Gospel: the people we helped in Honduras were already well aware of God’s word. In fact, they knew it better than most of us who went on that mission trip.
That summer, a team of about fifteen men and women went to a small town near La Ceiba, Honduras, where we helped to rebuild a church that had been almost demolished by a storm. Every day, we labored in the searing sun, building pews and putting a new roof on the structure. We had to wear gloves when we worked on the roof, because the metal got too hot to touch. We worked side-by-side the members of the church, most of whom were taking time away from jobs, thereby reducing their already meager incomes. There was a language barrier, of course, but we worked through that with lots of smiles and what looked like a continuous game of Charades.
That trip to Honduras was followed by four mission trips to Peru. On the last two, I took my youngest daughter, who was fourteen years old during her first trip and fifteen on her last. We visited an orphanage in Lima and travelled by bus over a two-lane, winding road up the Andes Mountains—over 15,000 feet—and down the other side to a little town called San Ramon. Just as I had in Honduras, my daughter and I worked and worshipped with people who were struggling to survive.
One morning, a tiny, elderly lady appeared at the worksite with a pitcher of orange juice that was almost half her size—her gift to her friends from North America. She walked around and gave each of us a cupful. We later learned that she lived in a shack with a dirt floor. She had arisen before dawn and gone into the jungle to pick the oranges she used to make her gift. The fresh juice was unbelievably good—a far cry from the pale substitute we normally get from a frozen can. We concluded that it was more wonderful than any we’d ever had, because of the love that must have gone into it.
I learned some valuable lessons during those trips to Honduras and Peru. I learned that I’m extremely lucky to have been born where I was. I now understand—in ways that are unforgettable—that the opportunities all of us take for granted are unknown to most of the world. In addition, poverty is no longer an abstract concept for me. It has a human face—many human faces. My Bible bears inscriptions from Cinthya Bazán and Victor Ramirez and many other friends I will probably never see again. But they touched my heart in ways that are difficult to describe. They are people who—just like me—are trying to make their way in the world, although their paths are much tougher than mine.
Life has shown me that sometimes people are poor because they’ve made bad choices or simply had bad luck. Many other times—in places like Panama and Honduras and Peru—nothing they can do will change their circumstance. If they are born into poverty, there is little chance they will escape it. Nevertheless, they are human beings who love and laugh and hurt and cry. And, they hope that somehow tomorrow will be a better day.